The Meaning of Conservatism

What conservatism is

In every age, men have formed communities which embody a common understanding of an ostensibly objective good or objective order, be it natural, traditional, or divine. These communities exercise a definite moral force on their members. They do not fit liberalism’s “mechanical” model of society—they are not mere means for the satisfaction of individual desires. They are ends in themselves, because they are icons, hierophanies, of the goods they embody. As such, they possess authority. We are now ready to define conservatism. It is the defense of common understandings and structures of authority embodied in moral communities. The most important of these moral communities are the patriarchal family, organized religion, the traditional culture of a local community, and the nation-state.

The defense of authoritative communities contains a personal and an institutional aspect. On the institutional side, the authority of the community must be defended against subversion by the partisans of freedom and equality. On the personal side, virtues must be promoted which allow each individual to personally appropriate the goods of the community. Conservatism is indeed a politics of promoting virtue, but virtue of a particular sort. The virtues of self-control (temperance and fortitude) are appreciated equally by liberals and conservatives, since they can be put in the service of any conception of the good. The supreme conservative virtue is reverence, the sensibility towards an order of good which disposes one to appreciate its sacred character and to recognize its claim not only upon one’s acts, but even on one’s thoughts and feelings. For example, continence is a matter of self-control, but chastity is a matter of perception—it is reverence for the conjugal bond. Piety is the reverence owed to the sources of our physical and social existence. It is owed to parents, to country, and to God.

Objections to the conservative view always fall into one of a few classes. Some deny that there are objective goods, or that we could have knowledge of them even if there are, because they are not empirically observable facts. These objections are based on philosophical schools like empiricism or positivism which no functioning human being can hold consistently, so we needn’t be too troubled by them. The Marxist objects that common understandings are mere ideological superstructure, masking the realities of wealth and power. However, the Marxist has no reason but his materialistic prejudices for thinking that beliefs are less real than economics. To most men, beliefs matter far more. Finally, the cosmopolitan claims to approve of an institution, but demands that it abstain from drawing distinctions between insiders and outsiders, so that it can offer its good to the whole human race. This demand ignores the fact that all true love or attachment is directed towards a particular person or community, never to an abstraction like “humanity”. For example, the claim “all men are brothers” is a pernicious lie. I cannot love a stranger in the same way that I can love a man devoted to the same parents and with whom I spent my childhood. To demand that I have the same love for strangers that I do for my brother ultimately means that I must regard my brother as a stranger. Equality and inclusiveness are not worth such a sacrifice.

6 Responses

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