“He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.” – G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1909
Contemporary young people on the right may be described in many ways: Transgressive. Ostracized. Principled. Unpopular. Free-thinking. Reactionary. Traditional. However accurate—and perhaps damning — one thinks these are, there is one label that greatly worries me: Joyless.
At first glance, this charge seems ridiculous. How, one might ask, could the People of Pepe, the Movement or Milo, the Cult of Kek, lack joy? The right consistently flaunts shibboleths both in person and online, pulling no punches when mocking the sacred cows of our age. Right-leaning young people are awash with ironic memes that call out the contemporary plagues on Western society with humor. If nothing else, you have to admit that today’s young right has fun.
But mockery and irony are far cries from true, abiding joy. Joy is an essential aspect of human flourishing, and a posture of mockery and irony is diametrically opposed to the experience of joy.
In his masterwork, the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that joy proceeds from love. This is a sensible position, for man takes the most joy in that which is most beloved. There are two causes of love. The first is the presence of a thing that is loved, e.g. being with one’s family. The other cause of joy is because a thing loved realizes its proper good, say when a friend weds a beautiful and virtuous bride. For Aquinas, the deepest form of joy, spiritual joy, is caused by charity, or the love of God, and thus can be experienced despite negative surroundings. This means that the truest joy is profound and abiding, not needing a perfect world, but instead resting on properly ordered love of those things that really are deserving of love.
This sort of joy is in dangerously short supply. Many on the right, especially those who identify as “Alt-Right,” spend massive amounts of time rejoicing in the pain of those with whom they disagree. The fact that videos about “libtard meltdowns” and “Butt-Hurt Crying Hillary Voters Compilation” have far more views than videos about Shakespeare, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Dante’s Commedia, should tell us something. Young conservatives and reactionaries, much as they flail their hands at the death of Western civilization and the loss of wisdom, do very little in the way of actually preserving the beauty and truth underlying this great tradition. If joy is truly a result of love, man must be very careful to develop the right affections in his breast. Right now many on the right seem hellbent on cultivating affection for dank memes rather than for truth, goodness, and beauty.
When not mocking, many give way to the temptation of defeatism, resentment, and self-congratulation. One of the clearest examples of this habit is the use of the “red pill” metaphor. While it has some communicative merit in expressing how fundamental many of the disagreements between progressives and traditionalists are, it is a troubling metaphor. It encourages a gnostic view of truth and happiness, in which only those who have seen through the fog of progressive brainwashing can recognize any meaningful truths. While I certainly agree that contemporary progressivism is a suicidal ideology, many virtuous, dedicated, and intelligent people ascribe to some part of it while still recognizing aspects of reality. Insofar as these people are living in the truth, they are able to properly rejoice in it. Meanwhile, many who rightly critique the emptiness of the progressive project fall into habits of resentment and unhappiness that actually moves them farther away not just from joy and charity, but truth itself.
It is understandable that so many young conservatives and reactionaries are resentful. In many cases, they have been raised in a world that in fundamentally at odds with reality and human flourishing. They have been taught from childhood that happiness is to be found in debauchery, selfishness, and relativism. Coming from broken homes, attending broken schools, and being fed by a broken media, they have come to traditionalism not through natural, lived practices, but instead through disillusionment with progressivism. They have been tormented by the living hell that progressivism, feminism, multiculturalism, cultural Marxism, and all other forms of modernism have created in their perverse image and likeness. Progressivism is a destructive force that breaks apart all that is human, causing all true love, caring, and friendship to turn inward until only the completely autonomous and meaningless self in power relations with other selves remains. The sophistry of progressivism must be unequivocally rejected on all fronts. However, the right cannot stop there. The journey from pain and unhappiness to flourishing does not end in negation. Instead, this journey finds its fulfillment in affirmation of and rejoicing in the truth.
The question that naturally follows is simple: How? How can we be honest about the rot devouring the West and still affirm the world’s beauty and goodness? How can we understand the prospects for the political victory of truth while still believing in the power of wisdom? How, in short, do we live in this world and still have joy?
I humbly propose that we look to the example of the past. While it is true that no historical figure has ever faced precisely the challenges that we do, many have lived in times of great upheaval and loss. Socrates flourished in an Athens that put him to death for philosophizing. St. Augustine wrote to defend against hedonism and paganism as Rome burned. St. Thomas More gladly served his murderer King Henry VIII, a megalomaniac who crippled the practice of the true religion across England to this day.
There are many examples of figures rejoicing despite the odds, but I would like to hold up one as particularly helpful for today: Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Born in 1874, Chesterton saw in the modernism of his day the monster in has since become. As a Catholic convert and a critic of atheism, Islam, first-wave feminism, and many other intellectual movements, Chesterton is an easy friend to Jacobite readers. He understands that “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions,” and that “Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.”
The reason G.K. Chesterton is so important to the right today is that his writings express a deep joy about life. This joy is not superficial, but is simply the natural result of his love for reality. And he did not simply display this joy, he worked to spread it to others. His critique of self-referential, modernist conceptions of joy still packs the punch today that it did when first published:
Do not enjoy yourself. Enjoy dances and theaters and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if you can enjoy nothing better; enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to the other alternative; but never learn to enjoy yourself.
This injunction by Chesterton may seem on first glance to be at odds with Aquinas’ understanding of joy, but on further inspection it becomes clear that Chesterton is in dialogue with the Angelic Doctor. Chesterton is not singing the praises of bigamy and burglary, but is instead presenting a ladder of lovability. For Aquinas, all that exists is good, although some things are extremely disordered. While the perfect man would love only what is best, we are all imperfect and in need of guidance and growth. Thus, Chesterton is calling on the reader to find the highest love he has and to encourage its growth.
Applied practically, this means that to bring people to traditional ways of thought and life, the right should not focus on breaking down the beliefs of moderates and progressives. Instead, we must show our countrymen that there is a better way. This is not a political action, at least not in the modern sense of the word. Instead, it is made up of human actions. We should learn from Alasdair MacIntyre that traditions are passed on only through lived practices. These practices can be intricate like religious rites, or they can be as simple as praying before meals. Indeed, when looking through their simplicity, it becomes apparent that meals constitute a fundamental part of any social revival.
If asked to describe a collective meal, a consistent progressive would only be able to describe it as physical nourishment and the playing out of power relations, with the head of the table as the oppressor. However, no progressive is this consistent, thank God. Flesh-and-bone progressives recognize, albeit inchoately, that a meal with friends and family is a celebration, a party, a feast! And a feast is a time for rejoicing in the company of man’s loved ones and his traditions. Indeed, the very nature of the feast precludes the resentment that progressivism is built entirely upon.
This may seem abstruse, but in fact it is one of the most practical realizations a young traditionalist can make. Simply change your habits to help bring friends and family into rituals and ways of life that affirm reality. Host a formal dinner! Go to an art museum! Have a picnic in which you read classic poetry aloud! This is how we can create a sustainable traditionalism in the West.
What I am advocating here is not aestheticism, but communally gathering around all that is true, good, and beautiful. Politics is ordered toward promotion of the common good, thus in order to engage in politics we all must first have a love for the good. We cannot base the rejuvenation of our dying civilization upon a shared animosity, for as Chesterton reminds us, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
If you really wish to “red pill the normies,” you must show them how to love – for joy is found only in the love of Truth that shall set us free.
Felix James Miller is a graduate student studying philosophy at the Catholic University of America.