By S.R. Piccoli
As a good detective would say, the more you ask the right questions the more likely you are to get the right answers—and the less time you waste. From this point of view the best option would be to avoid questions that are too direct, because direct interrogation requires simple and straightforward answers, which is what is lacking in today’s complicated and often confusing world. In the case in point here, the best way to begin our investigation wouldn’t sound like this: What does it mean to be a Conservative? This is even truer if we narrow the focus to the American political tradition. In fact, American conservatism has always embraced elements of classical liberalism, and this to the extent that it would be reasonable to advance that the ideas of classical liberalism are the core of modern conservatism in America. But, as we know, liberalism has its roots in Enlightenment, while conservatism has its roots in the critique of Enlightenment…
As if that weren’t enough, things get even more complicated if we embrace the point of view of English philosopher Michael Oakeshott on being conservative: “My theme is not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition. To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; it is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices…”
However, although debatable in many respects, Oakeshott’s definition of conservatism as a disposition rather than a belief from general principles is food for thought. Firstly, as a new kind of approach, it’s intellectually challenging and stimulating—more concrete, and therefore more understandable—to a complex and multi-faceted political philosophy. Secondly, it is pedagogically useful because it seems to automatically provide an abundant amount of information on a very wide variety of topics that are directly or closely related to the main subject. By the way, that’s the method used in this book. By looking through its pages one can easily perceive the operational scheme which consists of (implicitly) asking and answering questions such as “What does a conservative feel and think about this or that issue/topic/event?”
Michael Oakeshott’s above-quoted statement is from a lecture delivered at Swansea University, U.K., in 19561, but a similar sentiment was echoed almost forty years later by Russell Kirk in The Politics of Prudence:2
Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries. […]
Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is 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. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.
In its own way, this book reflects the above-described approach, since “by default” it refers to what important leading conservative thinkers and public men have professed during the past two centuries up until the present time, no matter how many or how big the differences between the various thinkers on many issues might be.
That being said, however, as Russell Kirk himself points out, there is a great line of demarcation in modern politics: on one side of that line are those who think that the temporal order is the only order, and in consequence material needs are the only needs, on the other side are those who “recognize an enduring moral order in the universe” and “a constant human nature.” As Eric Vogelin put it, the fundamental source of order in history and society is rooted in experiences of transcendence, in the attunement to divine reality. In other words, and as Voegelin himself would put it, the line of demarcation is between those who think that religious experience is the ground of political order and those who don’t. That is where we must start. And as a matter of fact, this is how Russell Kirk’s famous list of ten conservative principles3 begins: “First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.” The rest of the list—widely regarded as perhaps the best general definition of “conservative”—is interesting as well. Here is a summary (titles & a few explanatory remarks when necessary):
“Second, conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity” (conservatives prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know).
“Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription” (that is, “things established by immemorial usage”).
“Forth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence” (in the statesman, prudence is a chief virtue).
“Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety” (different is beautiful, God bless variety… “the only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law”).
“Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability” (conservatives believe that there is a universal human nature, and that this nature is imperfect… but if man is imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created).
“Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked” (great civilizations are built upon the foundation of private property).
“Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.”
“Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions” (conservatives endeavor to arrange government and society in such a way to avoid anarchy and tyranny).
“Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”
This book, which could be described as an anthology of conservative analysis and insights on some key issues, is for readers who wish to acquaint themselves with conservative political thought and to get a critical and comparative perspective on what passes for political, social, economic, and cultural conservatism in their own time and place.
The book is intended for both European and American readers. It provides readings from European and American thinkers, which besides may help to call attention to some of the peculiarities of American conservatives, who, for instance, believe in Progress even more than liberals do. Last but not least, as the subtitle reads, this volume wants to be a teaching tool and a guide “for busy conservative-minded people,” even though I must confess that I don’t know what “busy people”—whether conservative-minded or not—exactly means…
Be it as it may, despite its brevity and modesty, I hope this book, will lead readers to a greater appreciation of conservative values and principles. After all, as we all know, the ways of the Lord are mysterious.
F FAMILY VALUES
There is not conservatism; there are conservatisms. There are neocons and paleocons, theocons and crunchy cons, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives1… That’s why perhaps the best way to understand what we are talking about when we refer to someone as a conservative is by asking the question, “What do you want to conserve?” Russell Kirk once answered,2 “The institution most essential to conserve is the family.” Which, of course, makes him a social conservative, or if you prefer a “Burkean conservative” (whose basic political principles are based on the ancient classical and Christian moral natural law, derived from God and perceived by all uncorrupted men through “right reason”):
Men and nations are governed by moral laws; and those laws have their origin in a wisdom that is more than human—in divine justice. At heart, political problems are moral and religious problems. The wise statesman tries to apprehend the moral law and govern his conduct accordingly. We have a moral debt to our ancestors, who bestowed upon us our civilization, and a moral obligation to the generations who will come after us. This debt is ordained of God. We have no right, therefore, to tamper impudently with human nature or with the delicate fabric of our civil social order.3
In the same line of thought Roger Scruton argues that two basic views exist of society and politics: contractual, which is the liberal view, and family (or transcendent) which is the conservative view. Like Robert Filmer in the 17th century, he thinks that conceiving or imagining political society as a contract between people is unrealistic, and that the family is by far a better model for understanding political society.
Of course, it goes without saying that, in this perspective, protecting and preserving the family and its values as an institution is protecting society and promoting the common good. But what are those family values? First and foremost, let’s say that, at least since the time of the Roman empire, they are inextricably entwined with religious beliefs—the early Christians “chose the domain of family values to mark themselves off from their non-Christian neighbors,” and “the early Church fathers preached against divorce, against infanticide and abortion, and against sexual activity outside marriage.”4 Today in the U.S., for instance, social conservatives use the term “family values” to support traditional morality and Christian values. Therefore they oppose legalized induced abortion, pornography, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, polygamy, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, certain aspects of feminism, etc. At the same time they support abstinence education and policies aimed to protect children from obscenity and exploitation.
Yet, sometimes things don’t work out the way one might have anticipated: on February 6, 2013, in the U.K. more than half of the Tory party failed to support Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron on his opposition to gay marriage, an issue he had personally invested in—but Conservatives know that human nature is not and never will be perfect… Be it as it may, here is what Roger Scruton had to say about that:5
Our situation today mirrors that faced by Burke. Now, as then, abstract ideas and utopian schemes threaten to displace practical wisdom from the political process. Instead of the common law of England we have the abstract idea of human rights, slapped upon us by European courts whose judges care nothing for our unique social fabric. Instead of our inherited freedoms we have laws forbidding “hate speech” and discrimination that can be used to control what we say and what we do in ever more intrusive ways.
The primary institutions of civil society—marriage and the family—have no clear endorsement from our new political class. Most importantly, our parliament has, without consulting the people, handed over sovereignty to Europe, thereby losing control of our borders and our collective assets, the welfare state included. […]
Conservatives believe, with Burke, that the family is the core institution whereby societies reproduce themselves and pass moral knowledge to the young. The party has made a few passing nods in this direction, but its only coherent policy—sprung on the electorate without forewarning—is the introduction of gay marriage. Sure, there are arguments for and against this move. But for the ordinary voter the family is a place in which children are produced, socialised and protected. That is what the party should be saying, but does not say, since it is prepared to sacrifice the loyalty of its core constituents to the demands of a lobby that is unlikely to vote for it.
Read an interview with author S.R. Piccoli