29 December 2020

Conservatism: Born Against Simplicity

To say that 'the philosophy ... arose ... sometime in the 1880s or 1890s' is to ignore the history of conservatism going back to Burke, de Maistre, Chateaubriand, Calhoun, Donoso Cortes, and other late 18th and early 19th century thinkers.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Bradley J. Birzer

The philosophy and way of conservatism arose sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. This is not to suggest that conservative acts had not occurred previously in Western civilization. Indeed, some of the finest and most important moments in Western civilization occurred upon and with the act of conserving something good. From Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine each preserving an idealized version of their immediate past to King Alfred’s codification of the common law to the noble restraint of King John at Runnymede to the Protestant attempt to reform the Catholic Church back to its primitive origins to the American signing of the Declaration of Independence (itself, modeled on the Magna Carta), women and men have striven to preserve, conserve, and remake the best of the past, each an act of conservatism. Indeed, according to the Roman tradition of adaptation (under the republic) and the Anglo-Saxon vision of the common law, experiences culminated in the judgment, always, of the past. Every generation must decide three things when it comes to the inherited laws, customs, and mores of its society: It can pass them on without comment; it can abolish them; or it can, in most cases, reform them, removing that which is wrong but preserving that which is right. By such a definition, society itself is the great conservator.

It’s sometimes hard to remember exactly how “short” the nineteenth century was. At its very beginning, Thomas Jefferson delivered one of his most beautiful pronouncements, his first inaugural, a call for decency, liberality, free speech, and toleration. By the end of the century, V.I. Lenin was already planning the Russian Revolution. In 1789, though, everything had changed with the rise of the French Revolution and its ideological ideas of brotherhood and fraternity. Most of these ideas, it had taken from the mighty philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and J.J. Rousseau. Rousseau, especially, had influenced the French revolutionaries. “Each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will,” Rousseau had advocated in his justly famous (or infamous) work On the Social Contract, “and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”[1] The revolutionaries reified this sentiment in Article Three of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, November 1789: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”[2] As such, no two or three women or men could gather to form families, schools, churches, businesses, or any other associations without the approval of the whole. Society, therefore, became not a conservator, but an agent for radical change. Not surprisingly, then, the French Revolutionaries’ most vehement attacks on institutions of subsidiarity were against the Roman Catholic Church, then seen as an ally to the hated French monarchy and aristocracy. Priests and other religious were beaten, tortured, raped, exiled, or executed. Church property was confiscated, and a prostitute was put on the altar at Notre Dame Cathedral and declared a goddess. One apostate abbot desired to distribute the bodily remains of “reactionaries” as a “Republican Eucharist.”[3]

In response, the grand Anglo-Irish statesman—equally liberal and conservative—declared: “I may assume that the awful Author of our being is the Author of our place in the order of existence,—and that, having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has in and by that disposition virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us.” In other words, no one has a choice about his or her coming into the world. But, upon reaching the age of reason, every choice one makes has moral consequences and import. Counter to Rousseau, though, Burke argued, “We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice. On the contrary, the force of all the pacts which we enter into with any particular person or number of persons amongst mankind depends upon those prior obligations. In some cases the subordinate relations are voluntary, in others they are necessary,—but the duties are all compulsive. When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not matter of choice: they are dictated by the nature of the situation.” Our very choices establish our very choices, Burke claimed. Finally, we must acknowledge one of the greatest of mysteries for every single human person: “Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, the greatest thinkers of the era narrowed and sophisticated thought regarding the individual human person. For Charles Darwin, biological evolution and environmental adaptation fundamentally shaped our lives. For Karl Marx, a rather complex set of economic factors, predetermined by progressive steps of history, led to utopia. For Sigmund Freud, unconscious psychological and sexual decisions made at the time of two or shaped the remainder of our lives. No good thinker would deny the brilliance of Darwin, Marx, or Freud, but one would be foolish to accept their specific visions for the human person. The individual is biological, economic, and sexual, but he is not only these things. He is all of these things and so many more.


[1] Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Book 1, Chapter 7.

[2] Article III, Declaration of the Rights of Man.

[3] Erik Ritter von Kuenelt-Leddihn, “The Age of the Guillotine,” in Reflections on the French Revolution: A Hillsdale Symposium, ed. Stephen Tonsor (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 1990), 79.

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