Alexis de Toqueville once said that an American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and abandon it just as the trees are bearing fruit; and he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest. Some things never change. Today, Americans move on average once every five years and the home is now nothing more than a temporary stopping place rather than a permanent habitation.
I consider myself one of the lucky in that I began my life in a home with three generations, only moving to start school. My parents grew up in an area home to their ancestors before the Revolutionary War. And while I spent a large portion of my life moving because of my husband’s work, I can honestly say that Thomas Wolfe was wrong – you can go home again. And when I pass, as all must, I will lay at rest next to the last five generations of my family. I will find what Justin Hannegan of the Imaginative Conservative calls “permanence.”
Permanence is not merely a matter of taste, something to be embraced by the sedentary and eschewed by the restless, but a deep societal value, the guardian of family, tradition, practical wisdom, environment and culture. I must argue, therefore, that the American disregard for permanence is not merely a national idiosyncrasy – it is a defect in our national character.
The first benefit of permanence is preservation of family. Today our understanding of the family has been winnowed down to a household composed of two parents and children. But this a mutilated understanding; family also includes ancestors, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces and posterity. Staying permanently in one place allows a wide range of family members to preserve a common life of work, worship and leisure. It also preserves, through continuity of place and the memories that inhabit a place, the link between ancestors and posterity. In short, permanence helps prevent us from devolving into our current situation where family members are scattered at great distances, often only vaguely knowing each other or their shared common history.
Family bonds are indispensable because, unlike friendships, they are not chosen. They are given by nature. These natural bonds are what Edmund Burke called “the germ of public affections.” They teach affection and loyalty for others regardless of whether we stand to benefit and they teach obligation to others regardless of our consent. Both lessons are foundational for any strong society and neither is easily taught by extra-familial relationships. When the lived experience of family is diminished, society itself falters. In the words of Russell Kirk, “societies in which the family has been enfeebled have been disorderly and servile societies, lacking love, lacking security.”
Another benefit of permanence is tradition. Tradition is a conduit of wisdom, allowing us to inform our decisions with more knowledge than any individual could fit into his own head, and more experience than any lifetime could afford. Tradition makes the least educated among us knowledgeable, and the least experienced among us prudent.
Permanence helps foster the historical sense. The past remains present in the person of your parents and grandparents. It can be found in the house where you grew up, and the houses where your parents grew up. It is etched into the tombstones of your relatives. It hangs in the paintings of the church where your grandfather was baptized. The past remains all around you in the town where you were born. This presence of the past allows you to raise your children in an atmosphere of what Kirk calls, “diffused gratitude, of sympathy for the hopes and achievements of your ancestors.” Kirk warns that in a world which every generation moves away from its hometown, its ancestors, and even its family members, we risk become mere “flies of a summer, unable to link with dead generations of those yet unborn, lacking memories or high hope.” Severed from home, family and our history, we risk joinng the ranks of those who “live only for themselves, ignoring the debt they owe to the past and the responsibility they owe to the future.”
Another benefit closely related to tradition is conservation. In order to protect land and architectural inheritance, one must be fore than the owner. They must be trustees, which according to philosopher Roger Scruton, is “the one who recognizes that his home, and all that it means, are inherited things to be safeguarded and passed on.”
A final benefit of permanence is the enrichment of culture. According to Eliot, “ideally, each village, and of course more visibly the larger towns, should have each its particular character.” Eliot favors differences in local character, not because diversity is an absolute value, but because it is of “vital importance for a society to have friction between its parts” and differences bring friction. The cities of a nation should all compete and oppose each other in small ways in order to invigorate the nation as a whole. A nation too united is a menace to itself and to other nations. If we are to preserve the remnants of true diversity and cultural friction that Eliot extols, we must preserve local identity so that they can pass on the traditions and character that make the town distinct.
“We are a continuum. Just as we reach back to our ancestors for our fundamental values, so we, as guardians of that legacy, must reach ahead to our children and their children. And we do so with a sense of sacredness in that reaching.” Paul Tsongas