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What Is Conservatism? * The Dissolution of Liberalism * Ten Exemplary Conservatives * Why I Am a Conservative
No other figure surpasses Russell Kirk in his exposition of fundamental conservative ideas in the twentieth century. In defining and evaluating the intellectual history of English and American conservatism during the past two hundred years, Kirk discloses a scholarly grasp and critical understanding that he communicates with vigor and insight. Conservatism is not some reductivist political or economic system but, as he shows, a discriminating faith, temper, impulse, to be carefully distinguished not only from doctrinaire ideology but also from modern liberal and radical reformers who advance their collectivist social engineering and agenda of change. It speaks to the total human condition, to both community and soul, without a fanatical and strident tone and always with a distinct and sympathetic awareness of human and social limitations.
Kirk's appraisal of conservatism is anchored in reverence, in humility, in moderation, and is shaped by both the religious sense and the moral sense. As such, Kirk's conception of conservatism revolves around higher paradigms of character and culture. It exposes sociopolitical extremisms that build empires of might that rule by force and writ. As Kirk writes: "onservatism is the negation of ideology ... a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata."
Perhaps another way of pinpointing Kirk's conservatism is to see it as a conservatism of reflection, one that is essentially meditative in nature and aspiration, and also one that transforms into a discipline of mind and thought in the contemplation of religious, ethical, and moral truths that promote the dignity and the sacredness of human existence. The sources of conservative order, he insists, are not found in theoretical writings, but rather in custom, convention, continuity.
In writing about conservatism-its canons, principles, assumptions-Kirk readily admits to incremental differences and changes reflecting the emphases occurring over time. But for him "the diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology." To be conservative ultimately means, for Kirk, to be a conservator, that is, a preserver, a guardian, a custodian, a keeper-one who keeps the world safe.
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What Is Conservatism?
This essay is excerpted from Russell Kirk's introduction to The Portable Conservative Reader (1982), an anthology of English and American conservative thought. Here he focuses on conservative attitudes in a modern context, beginning with the age of Edmund Burke in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Kirk sets down general principles that reinforce the "canons of conservative thought" found in The Conservative Mind (1953), which established Kirk as a seminal thinker in the conservative movement in the United States. Conservatism, he asserts, is not an ideology with pretensions to universality and infallibility. It is a way "of looking at the civic social order," and centers around basic beliefs in a transcendent order, in social continuity, in "things established by immemorial usage," in the virtue of prudence, in human variety, and in human imperfectibility. For anyone who wants to know what conservatism is, this essay is indispensable as a descriptive overview.
1. Succinct Description
"What is conservatism?" Abraham Lincoln inquired rhetorically, as he campaigned for the presidency of the United States. "Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?" By that test, the candidate told his audience, Abraham Lincoln was a conservative.
Other definitions have been offered. In Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary one encounters this: "Conservative, n.A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." ...
As a coherent body of political thought, what we call conservatism is a modern development. It is approximately as old as the different body of opinions called liberalism, and some decades older than the ideologies called socialism, communism, and anarchism. The roots of conservative thought, for all that, extend deep into the history of ideas and of social institutions.
In various medieval cities, particularly in Italy, the title of "conservator" was given to guardians of the laws. English justices of the peace originally were styled custodes pacis-conservators of the peace. Chaucer, in "The House of Fame," uses the word "conservatif" in its sense of protection and preservation. Jeremy Taylor, in the seventeenth century, wrote that "the Holy Spirit is the great conservative of the new life." The word, in short, implied security-a commendatory word. But not until the third decade of the nineteenth century was the word incorporated into the English lexicon of political controversy.
True, one might trace a continuity of conservative political thought (though not of the word itself) back into the seventeenth century. Lord Falkland, during the English Civil Wars, touched upon the essence of conservative convictions in declaring, "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." A rudimentary conservatism may be discerned in colonial America, too, assuming definite form just after the American Revolution in the most successful conservative device, the Constitution of the United States. For that matter, conservative impulses and interests have existed ever since a civil social order came into being. By analogy, it is possible to speak of Aristophanes as a conservative, or Plato, or Cicero....
So we commence with the age of Edmund Burke-the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Modern use of the word "conservatism" implies those principles of social thought and action that are set against radical innovation after the pattern of the French Revolution. Edmund Burke opposed his "moral imagination" to what has been called the "idyllic imagination" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From that contest arose what Walter Bagehot called "the conservatism of reflection." Almost by definition, ever since Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the principal conservatives in the Western world have been conscious or unconscious disciples of Burke.
Burke himself did not employ the word "conservative," speaking rather of "preservation"-as in his aphorism "Change is the means of our preservation," or his remark that the able statesman is one who combines with a disposition to preserve an ability to reform. During Burke's own lifetime there existed no sharp demarcation between the words "conservative" and "liberal."
As a term of politics, the word "conservative" arose in France during and just after the Napoleonic era. Philosophical statesmen as varied in opinion and faction as Guizot, Bonald, Maistre, Chateaubriand, and Tocqueville all were influenced by Burke's writings. Seeking for a word to describe a policy of moderation, intended to reconcile the best in the old order with the necessities of the nineteenth century, French political writers hit upon the concept of the conservateur, the guardian of the heritage of civilization and of the principles of justice.
From France, this concept passed into England. The editors of The Quarterly Review, in 1830, approved "conservative" over "Tory" to describe the British party of order. By the 1840s, the word "conservative" had attained popularity in the United States, being employed with approbation by John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Orestes Brownson.
Burke's political concepts spread rapidly across Europe, especially in the Germanys and the Austrian system. The European revolutionary movements of 1829-30 and of 1848 caused greater emphasis to be placed upon distinctions among conservatives, liberals, and radicals. Throughout Europe, conservatism came to mean hostility toward the principles of the French Revolution, with its violent leveling innovations; while liberalism increasingly signified sympathy with the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and material progress.
Conservatives, especially in Britain, soon found themselves opposing another radicalism than the theories of Rousseau: that is, the radical utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, called by John Stuart Mill "the great subversive." Thus the intellectual heirs of Burke, and the conservative interest generally, did battle on two fronts: against the successors of the Jacobins, with their "armed doctrine"; and against the economists of Manchester, with their reliance upon the nexus of cash payment.
Our first necessity here, then, is to endeavor to describe (rather than to define) the conservatives' understanding of society. In recent years the term "conservatism" often has been employed to mean "reactionary" or "obscurantist" or "oldfangled"; it has even been confounded with the economic dogmas of the Manchester School. What does the word really signify?
Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology. In the phrase of H. Stuart Hughes, "Conservatism is the negation of ideology." Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the civil social order. Although certain general principles held by most conservatives may be described, there exists wide variety in application of these ideas from age to age and country to country. Thus conservative views and parties have existed under monarchical, aristocratic, despotic, and democratic regimes, and in a considerable range of economic systems. The conservatives of Peru, for instance, differ much from those of Australia, say; they may share a preference for the established order of society, these conservatives of the Spanish and the English heritages; yet the institutions and customs which these conservative factions respectively wish to preserve are by no means identical.
Unlike socialism, anarchism, and even liberalism, then, conservatism offers no universal pattern of politics for adoption everywhere. On the contrary, conservatives reason that social institutions always must differ considerably from nation to nation, since any land's politics must be the product of that country's dominant religion, ancient customs, and historic experience.
Although it is no ideology, conservatism may be apprehended reasonably well by attention to what leading writers and politicians, generally called conservative, have said and done.... "Conservatism," to put the matter another way, amounts to the consensus of the leading conservative thinkers and actors over the past two centuries. For our present purpose, however, we may set down below several general principles upon which most eminent conservatives in some degree may be said to have agreed implicitly. The following first principles are best discerned in the theoretical and practical politics of British and American conservatives.
First, conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society. A divine tactic, however dimly descried, is at work in human society. Such convictions may take the form of belief in "natural law" or may assume some other expression; but with few exceptions conservatives recognize the need for enduring moral authority. This conviction contrasts strongly with the liberals' utilitarian view of the state (most consistently expressed by Bentham's disciples), and with the radicals' detestation of theological postulates.
Second, conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. They prefer the devil they know to the devil they don't know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the lifeblood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke's reminder of the social necessity for prudent change is in the minds of conservatives. But necessary change, they argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never "unfixing old interests at once." Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills.
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. "The wisdom of our ancestors" is one of the more important phrases in the writings of Burke; presumably Burke derived it from Richard Hooker. Conservatives sense that modern men and women are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very frequently emphasize the importance of "prescription"-that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so "that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary." There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity-including rights in property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. "The individual is foolish, but the species is wise," Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for "the great mysterious incorporation of the human race" has acquired habits, customs, and conventions of remote origin which are woven into the fabric of our social being; the innovator, in Santayana's phrase, never knows how near to the taproot of the tree he is hacking.
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative holds, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be effective. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are perilous as sudden and slashing surgery. The march of providence is slow; it is the devil who always hurries.
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality in the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society longs for honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences among people are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality. Similarly, conservatives uphold the institution of private property as productive of human variety: without private property, liberty is reduced and culture is impoverished.
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent-or else expire of boredom. To aim for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are forgotten, then the anarchic impulses in man break loose: "the ceremony of innocence is drowned."
Excerpted from The Essential Russell Kirk by Russell Kirk Copyright © 2007 by Russell Kirk. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 1, 2011