What is Conservatism? Part I
In the ongoing series concerning Edmund Burke (part I is here and part II is here) it is also beneficial to consider what is meant by conservatism. And so, following my heroes Burke, Johnson, Coleridge, and Newman, below the fold is the first part of a consideration of this question.
Previously, I have defined conservatism as:
an approach, a style, a sentiment, a bias: against efforts of utopianism, against ideology, and against the promise of a bright new future casting aside considerations of human nature. If a policy, a custom, a norm, a tradition, an institution does not violate the natural rights and has suited the past – if these belonged to your father and grandfather and great grandfather – it is to be granted, across the generations, a high status of received wisdom worthy of commitment against movements that would seek to alter them so as to pursue ideological aims.
The chief popularizer of this view was Russell Kirk, whose ten conservative principles may be read here. Conservatism is opposition to all forms of political religion, a rejection of the idea that government can be redemptive. Instead, good governance, part of a more purposeful moral universe, is embodied by cultivated humility and prudence. The true natural rights, the purposes for which God willed the state, are equal justice, security of labor and property, the amenities of civilized institutions, and the benefits of orderly society. These are the rights which contrast with the delusory “rights of man” fiercely pursued over the course of the French Revolution and throughout the advances of liberalism. It scorns those who worship at the alters of science and rationality, seeking to build a heaven on earth and pining for the authority to order societal problems, and the persons that constitute them, according to their image of economics or politics – anything other than in the image of God. Yet for Kirk, as for Burke, Johnson, Coleridge, and Newman, the permanent things of human nature and our calling to full communion with God will never disappear.
The word conservative is an adjective, not a noun. Sustained by a body of sentiments, flexible so as to accommodate a diversity of views on a wide range of subjects, this negation of ideology is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. As Burke stated, the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged. Consciousness deliberately separated from a living reality is an ideological mind building systems of thought around concepts of utopia, manipulating humans with attractive false hope. Such ideology is always wrong because it edits actuality and in doing so simplifies reality. The best arrangement for discussion in the self-governing of human affairs is opinion filtered through accumulated experience, embodied in habits, assumptions, and institutions, and cautiously subject to change as change is necessary. Against the devolution of the term “natural rights” sprung from the radicalism begun at the end of the eighteenth century, conservatism holds that the notion of inalienable natural rights has been embraced by the masses in a vague and belligerent manner. Rights, which have practically evolved as a synonym for desires, have become a confusion that plagues society. The lengthy catalogue of “rights” that have grown through the generations since the American founding ignore the essential conditions which are attached to all true rights: first, the capacity of individuals to claim and exercise the alleged right; second, the correspondent duty that is married to every right.
The ancient truth of considerable limits to what humans know and may know indicates, for the conservative, that the best actions in the selfish arena of politics are incremental and informed by accumulated prejudice acclimated to circumstance. The sudden construction of universal law, prone to the whimsical and superficial casting aside of human nature and history, is inflamed by the desire to be freed of duties. All systems, ethical or political, attain ascendancy over the minds of men through their appeal to the imagination. Nevertheless, when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided. Man lives by myth, which is not a falsehood but a source of wisdom. The “true” myths are represented in ways particular to time and place; they are not simply an entertaining fancy. A myth may grow out of an actual event lost in the remote past, but it eventually comes to transcend the particular circumstance of its origin to assume significance universal and abiding. These are the products of the moral experience of people, stumbling toward the divine love and wisdom implanted in the consciousness from before the dawn of existence by a power and a means knowledge can never describe. There is a manner of discernment surpassing the private reason of the supposedly ingenious. Recognizing that humans are created in the image of God, the conservative moral imagination seeks the abiding amid the chaos.