In a famous scene from the movie Conan the Barbarian, Conan is sitting with some warlords. They hear news of a victory in battle and abruptly begin a mildly philosophical conversation. One of the men says that the victory is good, but he asks the group, what is best? Several of the men offer answers. “The open steppe,” says one, and another chimes in with “a fleet horse.” Falcons and the feeling of wind are also offered as answers. Conan gives the final and apparently authoritative answer without hesitation and with an air of certainty: “to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” His answer is greeted with immediate cheers.
For those of us who are not barbarians or warlords or Central Asian outdoorsmen, it is unlikely that we will agree with any of these answers. However, all thoughtful people will have given thought to the question. Conservatism is concerned with the proper ordering of society. Rightly understood, this means that conservatives seek to create conditions in which individuals are most able to pursue and achieve their idea of the best life. In order for conservatives to define their idea of the best organization of society, it would be helpful to have an idea to have an idea of how to answer the barbarians’ question of what that best life is. If Conan is correct, for example, conservatives should strive to build a society in which warlords are most likely to succeed at crushing their enemies. If there is some other thing that is the best in life, it could imply a different strategy for how to order society.
Though the barbarian phrased his question as “what is best?” I think his question was really identical to several other questions that we hear and ask regularly. To ask “what is best?” is roughly synonymous with asking “what is the purpose of life?” If we knew what was best in life, then presumably pursuing that best thing would be a large part of life’s purpose, if not the whole purpose. Another roughly synonymous question is “what is the secret of life?”
So I echo the barbarian warlord from the movie and ask: what is best?
One of my favorite answers to the question of what is best comes from one of my heroes, G.K. Chesterton. He said that “the one perfectly divine thing, the one glimpse of God's paradise given on earth, is to fight a losing battle - and not lose it.” It is a fine sentiment that I’m sure has inspired innumerable underdogs over the years, but it does not necessarily have an obvious connection to quotidian life choices or policy prescriptions. He does not mention which losing battle one should fight, for example.
Plato also had a little to say about the best that life had to offer. Near the beginning of the Symposium, he says “to speak or to hear others speak of philosophy always gives me the greatest pleasure, to say nothing of the profit.” Philosophy was the best for him. Further on in the symposium, he also hints that love could be the greatest joy of life, at least for some. He mentions lovers who care so little for anything other than their counterpart’s company that “they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart.”
Many others have had plenty to say about what is best in life. Aristotle explored the idea of Eudaimonia, and what is best for the health of the soul. On some level, all philosophical inquiry is concerned with finding and practicing what is best in life. Even those of us who are not very philosophically inclined will have our own opinions of what is best.
Conan, Chesterton, Plato, and others have all given quite different answers to what is best in life. Without rushing to judgment on who is right and who is wrong, we can turn back to lowbrow films to find a synthesis of these different answers. In the popular movie City Slickers, an old cowboy is describing to a confused vacationer what he thinks the secret of life is. To communicate it, he simply lifts up his index finger, saying: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean s***.” His confused interlocutor asks him what precisely that one thing might be. The cowboy enigmatically responds “that’s what you’ve got to figure out.” The old cowboy thought that the best thing in life, or its secret, would be different for everyone – so Conan, Chesterton, and Plato can all be correct together, each defining what is best in and for his own life.
This notion of what is best could imply that a libertarian ordering of society is ideal. If the secret to each person’s life is different, and they must learn and apply it on their own, then the ideal society will give each individual the widest possible latitude to do as he wishes, so that he can decide if each particular thing is the best, and then do it unmolested.
On the other hand, it is not hard to argue for a large, authoritarian and redistributive state based on the old cowboy’s idea of what is best. In a libertarian state, most people will have to work for their bread, but if that work is not their “one thing,” it will just be a waste of time that distracts them from a true life’s purpose. A state that provided a basic income to each individual, and as much as possible allowed personal freedoms to discover and practice what is best in each individual life would be ideal according to this argument.
The idea of a large, redistributive, libertine state has always been attractive to the modern Left. Perhaps most famously in recent times, Ms. Nancy Pelosi argued for Obamacare in America on these grounds, saying: “we see [Obamacare] as an entrepreneurial bill, a bill that says to someone ‘if you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations, because you will have healthcare. You won’t have to be ‘job-locked’.” More famously but less recently, Karl Marx expressed the same idea, saying that his ideology “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
There are many possible refutations to the arguments of Pelosi and Marx. Strictly from the point of view of finding what is best in life, the radical redistributive state takes away one important opportunity from each individual even in the very best-case scenario. The opportunity that it removes is the opportunity to derive satisfaction and a fulfillment of purpose in providing for the material needs of one’s self and one’s family. To put food on the table, and to provide necessities for the people one loves, may sound frustratingly simple and even bothersome. But for many around the world and throughout history, especially in the lower and middle classes and especially among men, these are principal sources of personal pride and satisfaction.
That is in the best-case scenario. More likely, a radically redistributive state will not be as libertine as its proponents imagine. Large and grasping states have a tendency to grow not just their welfare systems, but also their regulatory apparatuses and their proscriptions in the realm of personal choices. This is not just a theoretical concern, but is immediately apparent in the growing states of the West today. In America and Western Europe, as states have become responsible for more and more in the economic sphere, it has become easier for proponents of authoritarianism to argue for state growth in every other possible area.
In the worst-case scenario, a state that has the power to give everything also has the power to take everything away. We have seen the darkest possible consequences of Marxist radicalism in the Soviet Union, China, and other states. It need not even be pointed out that a resident of a gulag or re-education or labor camp is scarcely able to discover and practice what he believes is best in life.
Both the libertarian and the radically redistributive visions of society face a serious problem with the old cowboy’s idea of what is best in life. If the secret of life is different for every person, and he must discover it on his own, there is a very real possibility that he will not discover it. More likely, it will take him decades to discover what is best, and only at the end of his life will he realize what he should have spent his life doing. Kierkegaard lamented this possibility, saying that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
The conservative vision of life and society provides some resolution to this problem. We cannot spend all of life deciding what is best, then at the end of life travel back in time to tell our young selves what we have discovered. We can, however, do the next best thing, which is to rely on what our ancestors and forebears learned about what is best in the course of their own lives, and use that as a starting point as we discover and practice our own individual notion of what is best.
Our Western culture provides us with many institutions and traditions that give us an excellent start to living the good life and perfecting it to our best. The honored tradition of maintaining and cherishing a nuclear and extended family put many on a good path toward a fulfilling life. Our religious traditions provide help in seeking what is best. The voluntary organizations of civil society provide another boon. Many, at the end of life, admit that one of those things or some combination of them is what they regard as the best life has to offer: a loving family, peace with God, and positive, fruitful association with neighbor and community.
Conservatives today, though they do not typically call themselves liberals, believe in restraint on state power and therefore wide latitude for individual liberty. They also believe in upholding traditions, customs, and the tried-and-true. Restraint of the state reflects a belief that state actors cannot know what is best in each of our lives, and so should not have the power to direct our lives according to their mistaken beliefs about what is best for us. The upholding of tradition reflects a belief that even the individual is uncertain about what is best, especially early in life, and so should accept direction from the age-old wisdom encoded in our traditions. In this way, conservatism is consistent with humility about the mysteries of life: the humility of the state to know that it does not know what is best for the individual, and humility of the individual to know that even he does not know perfectly what is best for himself.
In my own life, I have not yet found the “one thing” that the old cowboy said was the best in life. My personal suspicion is that there is not just one best thing, but rather many things, or at least one different thing for the different seasons of life or even the different times of the day. I think that people have a natural reductionist instinct: they want to make everything simple and easily expressible. The reductionist instinct is admirable in its way, and it is one of the principal drivers of scientific progress, among other things. However, I think that reductionism is wrong in the case of finding the purpose of life. Life is filled with many things, including friends, family, God, career, frivolity, pleasure, duty, and much more. To say that we must choose only one of these things as our focus or what is best at the expense of all others would seem to deny the complexity and richness of life. It seems to me that the best in life can never be captured by just one thing. Telling all of the ingredients of a truly full life would probably take a lifetime itself.
But I will push myself to have the humility to know that I do not know with certainty what is best in life, or even whether what is best consists of one or many things. The purpose of this little essay has not been to definitively state what is best in life or how to find it, but merely to stimulate serious thought about discovering and practicing whatever is best, and to suggest a conservative ordering of society as a reasonable way to facilitate that discovery and practice. Finally, if any readers have discovered what is best in life, and life’s purpose, I hope that you are hard at work in helping others find it as well – do feel free to tell me any hints you care to share about it.