31 October 2020

The Ten Principles of the Orthodox Conservatives - 2. That Western Civilisation Is an Achievement, but Easily Lost

The Second Principle of Conservatism, from the Orthodox Conservative website. 

From Orthodox Conservatives

2. That Western civilisation is an achievement, but easily lost. (One that can be shared, but must be preserved and occasionally revived.)

2. That Western civilisation is an achievement, but easily lost

The West is the civilisation that has contributed most to the history and development of Mankind; some may be older (the Chinese), but the political settlements that have arisen in the context of the West – the nation-state; religious toleration; the rule of law; amongst others – have been the most conducive to the enrichment and advancement of human civilisation. But this civilisation is not natural, easy, or ancient; it is hard-won, and only recently found its clearest expressions, and must be defended.

The key institution of the West, of the nation-state, is explored further below (in principle five), but here our concern is principally with that web of loyalty we call the ‘rule of law’. The gradual development of the West has been one of reconciliation, first and foremost between the rulers and ruled who, in times past, were separated by the gulf of conquest, but through the mixing of cultures (and, often, blood) found points of agreement between themselves. This mixing was gentle, for the most part, but would often erupt into violence when that gulf became too much to bear. Take the Barons’ Rebellion of 1215, for instance, when King John was forced to recognise the ancient rights and liberties of the Barons and the church. The charter, originally drafted in the previous century, was dedicated to the liberty of ‘the realm’, because the Barons of the time knew (quite rightly) that while individual Barons would come and go, it was the land that was permanent, and the shared home of those who lived there. In this respect, the long tradition of law (that, as we say, only found its clearest expressions in the recent past) as binding all who lived under its aegis – including the rulers – reflected that reconciliation necessary for the foundation of good order; that all are equal before the law.

But the law is itself based on the reality of social life, which is that of a shared space in geographic terms – the land – and it was the gift of Western civilisation that slowly eroded the assumption of claim to the land on the grounds of blood. The violence of the previous century was the final repudiation of this idea – specifically that obsession with race of the National Socialist government in Germany – and instead sought to justify inclusion to a political order on the question of behaviour in legal terms.

That system of law that has grown through the development of the West has not only been one of reconciliation between rulers and ruled, but also through tradition and change. When the West was shaken so violently by the birth of the Industrial Revolution, it was the rule of law that mediated between the demands of society and the impulses of the industrialists. Granted, the violence and speed of the Revolution often led to a situation in which the law struggled to keep up – but this is testament to the challenging nature of the Revolution, not the foundations of the law. Good sense prevailed – sometimes too late – but the key method of that mediation (the law) was always there. The greatest change we face now is one of declining religiosity and increasing atheism and multi-faith societies; but the ancient recognition of the law in the West has been one of toleration and privatisation of faith, to the extent that (as Sir Roger Scruton remarked), “to us it is not just absurd but oppressive that there should be a law punishing adultery. We disapprove of adultery; but we also think that it is none of the law’s business to punish sin just because it is sin”. The sentiment, as we say, is not recent but ancient: John Locke’s Letter on Toleration summarised this most clearly:

“The care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men… nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other… to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace”.

But this is not to say that toleration cannot go too far. It was Karl Popper’s great paradox to ask how we tolerate the intolerant, but the conservative ought not to think of the government as an impartial mediator in this debate. Instead, the government (whilst respecting religious freedom) should make it clear that the practice of modern secularism has only been possible with a harsh submission of religious identity to the primacy of law and the nation. Any religion that sees no distinction between religious identity and the law – as shari’ah Islam does, for instance – will struggle to accommodate itself to the West. We say this with awareness that shari’ah is not the mainstream religion of any Arab states bar the odd exception (Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, for instance), but the conservative is not the only mind aware of this problem. The fantastic series of essays, Minorities Within Minorities, edited by Avigail Eisenberg, is the clear expression of liberalism’s wrestle with this problem.

The undercurrent of this is the way of life we know in the West is the product of gradual, long and experimental reconciliation, but this reconciliation can be damaged if there is no shared ground on which we stand, or overriding order to which we are committed.

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