[This one's a little rough, needs more polishing, I think.]
It was one of those moments when the Tetris pieces fell into place. Honestly, I didn't realize it until just recently, when I was looking at my beliefs and trying to figure out when they started.
I had been a member of the College Republicans for the first couple of years. It was a natural fit, for various and asundering reasons, and I needed that group at the time.
I looked at the Democratic side, to the Progressives and the liberals, and I saw that their beliefs were totally contradictory to mine. To them, men are evil, and only government can regulate sanity and legality (Locke, not Hume). To the Democrats, there is no reason to assume that people can live responsibly according to what is right in the universe, because Greed and other vices will always corrupt. So the government steps in and provides the boundaries for them. This was clearly not what I wanted to believe at all.
At the time I was in college, it seemed that the Republicans could think ideally, that optimism and faith in human nature makes it unnecessary to regulate much beyond the essentials of government (defense, safety, some finances...etc..) . If the individual is good, and society bad, (Hume) then the individual, knowing what is right and wrong, should be able to live out his or her life without interference from society.
Assuredly, the conservative ideals that govern the Republican party are much more pro-individual than those of the Democrats. So therefore, shouldn't Thoreau, whose book Walden preached more on simple living, on individual freedoms, on speaking your mind no matter what (and Thoreau spent a night in jail for not paying his taxes in protest of the Mexican-American war) be a conservative philosopher? Isn't Romanticism a conservative movement?
But let me go back a few years. There are Eureka moments, as I said, when you leap out of the bath water and go running down the street, elated, that some revelatory thought had turned a light bulb on. Much like Jessica Fletcher did at 52 past the hour, or House does most episodes that saves a life.
I remember back in my college days, sitting in the classrooms, listening to professors and soaking up knowledge like a sponge. I felt sometimes like...like that river of knowledge was high above me. I could only hope to reach up and find a nugget to grasp onto, hold it next to me, and not let it go. Unfortunately, time and memory has a terrible effect on this, and most of what I learned in Art History has slipped away from me. Doesn't help in Jeopardy!, I'm afraid.
There was a core of professors that I would sit anamored with the knowledge that they contained, and the skill in which they could weave the words and music and pictures into something amazing. To me, there is no trio of teachers in this world better or more suited to take those willing minds and throw them up into the air, if only to catch those few nuggets and bring them back into ourselves. I'm talking about Geogia College & State Univ.'s liberal arts programs. Dr. Viau, English, Dr. Yarborough, Art, and Dr. Pepetone, Music.
Now, back to the questions above. I had started to think of the individual as a being who, knowing right from wrong, and desiring good, could live out a virtuous life without the need of a government to back it up. At the end of "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau talks about an ideal society, where the best government is one who governs least (and then goes on to talk about governments who govern not at all). Isn't one of the core planks of the Republican party a government that governs as little as possible? Therefore, Thoreau's beliefs would be essentially conservative.
So I went to Dr. Pepetone and asked him this question. Isn't Romanticism essentially a conservative movement? He suggested that we go to Brewers (which is not there anymore, alas) and talk about it over coffee (I think I had tea.) I honestly don't remember what we talked about there. It's now a blur. But I remember thinking that, I'm right, and there's something important about this thought, but I didn't understand it at the time.
One of the parallels Dr. Pepetone made in his lectures was that the Romantic movement of the 1860's was almost identical to the "Hippie" movement of the 1960's. Both were a time of exploration, an expansion of music, art, both abstract and extreme, usage of drugs, sex, open and uninhibited. And it's obvious that both time periods are very much alike. It's easy to see why both periods were both liberal in thought. So obviously, there's a disconnect here. And it makes sense.
The philosopher Hegel believed that all ideas begin with coming together of two polar opposites: the Thesis and the Antithesis. Merging together, there comes a new thought: the Synthesis. The idea that Romanticism is a Conservative one is correct, but not if you think of it in terms of the current two-party system, Republicans and Democrats. Because the individual must be able to govern himself, without the moral code placed upon him by Republican control*, and he must be able to exist without all of the other Government regulations brought on by the Democrats. Thus the true Romantic is a Libertarian, the Synthesis of the two parties that have fought in this country for so long.
*(Republicans are very willing to let individuals speak their minds, own guns, practice religion, etc... But, when it comes to matters of ethics, in matters society believes are wrong, Republicans step in and use the power of the government to regulate and control. Why couldn't the government just stay out of people's private lives? Let us travel down the paths we believe are morally right, according to our own beliefs.)
That coffee "lunch" with Dr. Pepetone was the first time I realized that the Republicans didn't necessarily have everything right, and now, seeing how they have acted recently, throwing free enterprise out the window, I certainly see the benefits of having a Libertarian government over the other two. The problem is, however, that such idealism is almost impossible to continue, especially with the uneducated, the unstable, and with people who don't necessarily see right from wrong. This is where the government must step in. We will never have a pure Libertarian government, because no matter how ideal it is, that government, as Thoreau pointed out, is far beyond our current understanding.
But that is our goal. It's what keeps me coming back to faith in human beings, even after the Ponsi schemes, the deception, the greed. Because if we don't believe in the goodness of humans, there's nothing to work for. There's no sense in bettering our lives. We should not let the politicians or the preachers sail our ships for us. We should sail ourselves, ever striving, and never yielding.