The Hippie-Conservative Synthesis

I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

-John 17:14

It’s been remarked that the decline of ancient Greece was marked not by the oft-cited Peloponnesian War, but rather by the estrangement of Athens and Sparta that made it inevitable. In the same sense, I think by the time hippies and conservatives diverged, we’d already lost something important.

Conservatives, by right, should be conserving values outside of quotidian society – holy texts from thousands of years ago, civil institutions that have adapted over the centuries, family traditions that started generations ago. These guideposts should equip them to stand partly outside of society. They’re not looking to be narrowly “well-adjusted.” Early conservatism rightly criticized capitalists and bourgeois values, not – like the left – because they represented hierarchy, but because they served a jealous god that ate away at other sources of value and culture.

But conservatism today is to a large extent a defense of bourgeois values, a movement that upholds motherhood and apple pie not as unmovable terminal values, but simply as a reaction against deviancy and a recognition that conscientiousness is needed to get a society to run smoothly. And a conservatism that merely upholds middle-class, get-ahead measures of success is one that, like the witticism says, is merely in the business of making sure the mistakes of liberals are not corrected.

Hippies, on the other hand, are the conservatives’ mirror image. They perceive the importance of values outside the mainstream of society, but do not have any guidance tethering their explorations. They’re so open-minded that they become scatter-brained, grasping onto any fragment of half-understood Eastern mysticism, psychedelic drugs, or sexual deviancy.

But, crucially, they don’t root themselves deeply even in these non-mainstream traditions. Nor do they possess a strongly held set of values by which they can weigh them as they explore. What you end up seeing instead is a drift from one area of exploration to another and a successive watering down of exotic ideas to make them more palatable. These explorations ultimately go nowhere, or to boring places, without the intensity or dedication to scale them into anything interesting. A virtuoso chess player is a virtuoso because of the way he works within the constraints of the game; someone who takes new-found freedom to move pieces at random is no more compelling to watch than a three-year-old.

The divergence and opposition of the conservative insight from the hippie one – that traditions matter and should be preserved with diligence, and that more exists in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in the society pages – is a loss to both sides. What is needed is a synthesis that combines an appreciation of tradition, order, and transcendent values, with a recognition that obtaining those things requires a willingness to step partly outside of conventional society in any century.