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The Limits of Oikophilia by Paul Maritz

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The Limits of Oikophilia

"Nehemiah Inspects Jerusalem's Walls" (1865), an engraving by Gustave Doré (1832-1883). Nehemiah was cup-bearer at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes when the Jews lived in exile. He learned that the group that had returned to Jerusalem with the priest Ezra suffered from hardship and that the city walls had been destroyed. Nehemiah was then granted permission by the king to travel to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the city. Doré here shows him on horseback, inspecting the smoldering walls.

In recent years, much has been published, not least in this magazine, about the nature of conservatism. While these projects obviously have great merit (to the conservative mind, at least), any definition of a worldview must attempt not only to define its nature, but also its primary aim. In this essay, I consider the value of oikophilia, and assess whether it can be viewed as not only an acceptable, but more so a sufficient, aim of the modern conservative project. 

Oikophobia and Oikophilia

In 1993, the English conservative author Sir Roger Scruton published a now famous paper, Oikophobia, in The Journal of Education. His definition of the term varies between “a hatred of home” and “the repudiation of the home.” A person suffering from this phobia “sees that which is his ‘own,’ his inheritance, as alien; he has fallen out of communication with it and feels tainted by its claim on him.” Few can argue that Scruton’s diagnosis and definition provide a valuable paradigm for understanding key tenets of modern ‘woke’ culture. Those who demonise their forefathers, who refuse to see any good in the lives of people who committed acts that have only recently come to be frowned upon, those who attempt to wipe out the foundations of their own culture, are suffering, in a word, from oikophobia. 

The solution that Scruton proposes, appropriately enough, is oikophilia, which might initially be translated as “love of the own” or “love of the home,” but in fact embodies a broader approach to life and ownership. While this concept of oikophilia is not limited to one of Scruton’s works, it is perhaps most thoroughly unpacked in his 2011 book How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism. Here, the initial definition of oikophilia as “love and feeling for home” is expanded upon with typical Scrutonian clarity, especially in the seventh chapter, ‘Heimat and Habitat. Here Sir Roger develops mere “love of home” by adding “a motive that comprehends all our deepest attachments, and which spills out in the moral, aesthetic and spiritual emotions that transfigure our world, creating in the midst of our emergencies a shelter that future generations also may enjoy.” This enlarged understanding of oikophilia exhibits both the breadth of wide reading and the depth of years spent in contemplation, and the lens it offers the young conservative thinker serves to sharpen the instrumental clarity of future thought. For all this, however, it leaves at least one important question unanswered, namely that of sufficiency. Is oikophilia enough of a solution for the oikophobia which it faces in battle?  

The Greek phobia is almost always translated as “fear,” from Phobos, the Greek god of fear.  It does seem, however, as if phobia has come to designate more than fear in the English language, with an additional dose of aversion and hatred implied by the presence of ‘phobia’ in pejoratives like xenophobia. This distinction is of great importance to the current conservative project, for if oikophobia simply denotes a fear or even a repudiation of the own, then oikophilia, being its exact opposite, is almost certainly sufficient. But if oikophobia denotes sheer hatred and aversion, then oikophilia will almost certainly not be a sufficient remedy. If true, this is a tough reality that should surely impact the way in which we conservatives think about and fight for our love of earth and home.

Nehemiah at the ruins of Jerusalem

When seeking guidance and direction, the Western conservative has historically turned to the Bible, and so it must be once more. Where the theme is protection and reconstruction of the home and its protective boundaries, the Christian or Jew will inevitably look to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the rebuilders. Indeed, as soon as Nehemiah hears that the wall of Jerusalem has been broken down and its gates “burned with fire,” he weeps and mourns, for his home has been destroyed. When confronted by King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah confesses to the source of his sorrow: “Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?” The Persian king then sends Nehemiah home with letters of permission and grants of building material, to go and rebuild the city of his forefathers, and the reviving project begins. When asked by officials from opposing tribes to describe what he is doing, we read in most English translations that Nehemiah answers with the affirmation that he is building. But the Greek translation of the original text, which predates the English one by roughly two millennia, employs different conjugations of the verb οικοδομεώ, which when transcribed becomes oikodomeou—something of a tongue twister, but surely worth the effort.

The oiko at the beginning of this word has the same origin as it has in both oikophobia and oikophilia, perhaps indicating that formal construction was inextricably tied to the creation and husbandry of home. The more important consideration, however, is whether oikodomeou might offer a more appropriate remedy to the menacing threat of oikophobia. Had the acts committed against the walls of Jerusalem only been “fear” or “repudiation,” simply loving and caring for it might well have been enough. Edmund Burke’s approach of “conserve and correct” could have come to the rescue. In the case of Jerusalem, the damage was obviously much more severe. While the foundations were still discoverable beneath the rubble, the walls were all but obliterated. Conserve and correct were by no means up to the monumental task; no less than a radical reconstruction was needed. What are conservatives to do, then, when they find themselves amidst ruins, cut off from the cultural foundations that make conservation, or their love of home, feasible?

Considering the evidence

There are those in conservative circles who might not feel all that comfortable with such frequent use of the word “construct.” After all, conservatives have historically suffered the wrath of constructionist worldviews, which aim to re-order the world from first principles in the manner of French Jacobins or Russian Bolsheviks. In the case of Nehemiah, then, it is important to recognize that he is not attempting to bring an unrealistic utopia violently into being. On the contrary, he wishes merely to rebuild his home on the model of its existing foundations, despite their having been made weak by time and fate. Nehemiah is not blind to the fact that nothing but these foundations remain, such that he will ultimately have to build new walls and a new city.

As we look upon our own societies with an ever-decreasing patience at the loss of religious values, best exemplified by the widespread breakdown of the traditional family, we must collectively re-assess our city walls. Are the cracks merely contained to the surface, or does our city lie in ruins? If some superficial adaptations are sufficient, wholesale reconstruction would disproportionate. But if large parts of the city cannot be saved in this way, there is no use shuffling rubble. So, which is it? 

The answer to this question will inevitably vary from one national setting and cultural background to another. It might well be the sentiments of many in the English countryside or in the Dutch or American Bible-belts that society en masse should simply read a few classic books, have a rethink about some key issues, and realise that history and our heritage are important and deserve our reverence. But it might also be the case that there are people in Amsterdam or Brussels, walking through a capitalised Sodom, or in California and New England, where schools do their utmost to distort the very idea of what used to be called a family, or in Finland where merely tweeting a picture of the Bible can very nearly end your career, who feel that spending our days immersed in Tolkien is not enough.

Oikodomeou as occasional antecedent to oikophilia

It might well be, then, that the idea of oikophilia is, in certain cases, not enough to save the city, for the city is no longer there. In these cases, it is necessary to start by clearing the rubble, to search deeply and earnestly for the strong foundations that once maintained the glorious walls, and to rebuild—humbly, yes, but with unwavering confidence in the fact that reconstruction is necessary. Only once the city has been restored, once there has been oikodomeou, will oikophilia again be enough.

Paul Maritz is a South African researcher and political commentator, currently studying in Europe.