“Conservative” today can mean a number of things. Some treat it synonymously with “Republican.” Others associate it with “traditional values,” fiscal restraint, and/or a certain kind of libertarianism. Some tie it to Evangelical Christianity, and others treat it as a kind of fascist bogeyman. To a great extent, “Conservative” is treated as a negative value (understood as “not liberal” or anti-change), a position defined more by what it is against than what it is for. The positive content, however, is often unclear and can vary from person to person.
I know a number of young adults who grew up in communities that self-identified as Conservative. These young adults later stepped out of the socio-political consensus of those communities, and have struggled to make sense of their ideological pasts. For this reason, I hosted a seminar on the foundations of Conservatism, focusing on Russel Kirk’s history of English and American Conservative thought in The Conservative Mind.
The foundational principles, canons, and ideas of Conservatives over the last two centuries surprised many of us in the seminar. They pushed us to consider the ways in which the founders of Conservatism might find today’s “Conservatives” confused, mistaken, and disconnected from the past which they thoroughly misrepresent while claiming to preserve. The book also pushed us to consider ways in which we ourselves may be more conservative than we had originally thought.
Kirk gives six “canons” of conservative thought. I’ll list them below, with some commentary on how I make sense of them today
Canon 1: Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society.
Conservatives believe in a transcendent order of the universe, whereby Justice is not a mere human invention, but is something discovered through contemplation, prayer, observation, study, and interaction with others. The discovery of this order need not be limited to one sectarian group. While conservative thinkers have usually been Christians, some have tended towards Deism or agnosticism. Kirk gives a complicated narrative of the relationship between conservative policy and Christian belief, where Conservatism has seemed to move back and forth between Anglo-Catholic orthodoxy and a sort of poetic agnosticism, but has flourished most when spirited by the former. What is necessary for a true Conservatism, at base, is a pursuit of transcendence.
What might trouble many self-identified Conservatives today, however, is Conservatism’s treatment of natural law over the course of its history. Edmund Burke, understood as the British founder of Conservatism, treated of natural law in a restrained way. Kirk says that while the father of Conservatism believed people had a responsibility to discern and drive politics through the natural law, the natural law could be evasive and dangerous to enshrine in law. Burke saw it as “conceited” to believe one could have a full grasp of the natural law or seek to enshrine its totality in human law. At best, we can pursue “imperfect statutes” as “only a striving toward an eternal order of justice… We grope toward [God’s] justice slowly and feebly, out of the ancient imperfections of nature.”
Conservatism has also rejected the idea of “objective” disembodied natural rights. Prudence is always necessary, “because natural rights do not exist independent of circumstances: what may be a right on one occasion and for one man, may be unjust folly for another man at a different time.” It is this contextualized conception of “natural law” and “natural rights” that can lead Paul Elmer More to say: “To the civilized man the rights of property are more important than the right to life.” In another section, Burke says that while one may have a right to self-defense, this right only exists when the context establishes it. One “does not have, in all times and all places, a right to carry a drawn sword.”
The idea of a transcendent order of justice which men and women pursue politically seems correct to anyone who believes in a God who is good, loving, and community-oriented. At the same time, the humility of this conservative understanding of natural law stands in stark contrast to the ways in which today’s “natural lawyers” use “objective claims” of “natural law” to drive conformity. It’s a helpful vision worth continued restoration.
Canon 2: Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
In the early decades of Conservatism, England and other countries began efforts to standardize, universalize, and globalize systems of education, religion, and socio-political structure. Burke strenuously criticized England’s attempts to replace India’s religions and education with Christianity and British schooling. Though a committed Christian himself (and certainly not a “relativist”), Burke believed that cultures had rituals, religions, and formation structures that needed to be respected and cultivated, rather than simply replaced. Wholesale replacement, he believed, could result in societal collapse, an disruption of cultural continuity, and an inhumane rupture with the past.
Similarly, one of the key critiques of socialism throughout the text is that it fails to respect the variety of human life and, instead, seeks to bring all humanity under a system which will collapse differences and drive conformity. It, like capitalism, tends to reduce the complexity of human existence to capital, labor, and/or material comfort (more on this with Canon 4). This reduces humanity to a lesser existence.
In other ways, Canon 2 prefigures today’s critiques of, for example, standardized testing, as a system contributing to racial inequity. Ibram Kendi, among many other antiracist activists, criticize the SAT for failing to objectively measure intelligence and college readiness (as it claims), and instead argue that the SAT is a test measuring access to preparatory courses and the ability to do well on a meagre variety of poorly represented disciplines. Kendi and others believe that these “objective” tests are poor ways to measure human potential and intellectual capacity, and in this Kirk would agree.
In other passages, Kirk emphasizes that men and women are unavoidably unequal, and that the only true equity that can be achieved is that before God and before the law. (This is related to Canon 3). This is one of the more challenging aspects of Canon 2 to make sense of for today’s readers. In some ways, it has obvious truths. Certainly, not everyone will have the same ability to play basketball or become an astrophysicist. There is only one Meryl Streep. But where Kirk and I diverge are the extent to which we claim responsibility for aiding the poor through social policy.
Canon 3: Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.”
This is another Canon with which we struggled. On the one hand, there is something troubling about social classes and the ways in which one’s life is conditioned by the class in which one begins. On the other hand, hierarchies of bosses and workers, elected officials and everyday citizens, and parents and children seem unavoidable in a society with structure and momentum.
What would set past Conservatives apart from many self-identified Conservatives today, however, is the older belief that political leaders should be those who are well educated and exhibit a high degree of intellectual and moral virtue. Conservatives have held that political leaders should come from classes of educated and well-formed persons. The tradition of Conservatism has argued that general “relatability” is not a strong indicator of excellence in leadership; nor is being an “outsider” or lacking experience in politics. Trump and his supporters would have been considered liberals more in the vein of the French Revolutionaries than that of Burkean Conservatism.
Canon 4: Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked.
Conservatives have consistently promoted the importance of private property and the necessity of its protection for a free and civilized society. Early Conservatives saw identity as tied to the land; a person’s source of history, culture, and identity came from the land which he and his ancestors had occupied, and protecting the place where a man has rooted himself helps to cultivate a care for both the land and the surrounding community.
Land that was held and rented could also be an opportunity to cultivate classes of artists, politicians, and thinkers. By renting land, landowners could generate income and have free time to pursue activities which were valuable to a free society but not necessarily reliable sources of income. (Here, “freedom” means more the ability to act in accord with the natural law than the ability to do as one wishes.) In Renaissance Italy, wealthy landowners would generate significant wealth with which they became patrons of artists or universities. In England, the wealthy tended towards politics. In America, however, the conservative dream for a leisure-pursuing wealthy class has not materialized, taken over instead by hedonism driven by the capitalism which Conservatives had warned society about (again, more below with Canon 5).
Nonetheless, it does seem to me that safety and security in society requires the protection of what one has lawfully acquired. The application of this principle may not be straightforward, but it strikes me as obviously important.
Canon 5: Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.
While respecting the role of experts (and even economists), Conservatives have held a skepticism towards specialists who would read all of human experience through, or try to implement social policies solely on the basis of, their area of specialization. While economics can be valuable, seeing human experience solely through the lens of economics leads to a vision at odds with humanity.
Conservatism also has a special appreciation for things that are old, such as custom, convention, and prescription. A thing’s old age demonstrates that it has sufficient foundation to last, sufficient adaptability to dwell in new contexts, and sufficient depth to play different roles for different peoples. Old traditions are like old buildings: they remain standing because they are both strong enough to last through time and appropriately designed to be occupied in a variety of ways by a variety of people. This does not mean that old things are meant to last forever. But they are deserving of a certain respect, and it is good to make sure we fully understand them and what they could possibly provide before we do away with them. Indeed, just because we can’t find a way to make use of them now doesn’t mean we should discard them, as our current context may be an abnormality, and the old thing still has much to offer those who will come after us.
These old things can also provide protection. Prescription, “a customary right which grows out of conventions and compacts of many successive generations,” helps to ensure stability in society and protect communities from those who might seek to upend them. Custom, convention, and prescription are not unbending dead rules, however. Burke believed in “tradition, tempered by expedience.” But he believed that being thoroughly embedded in the traditions that have come before us will help to keep us from getting swept up into fads, whether they be economic, social, or political.
One movement believed to be temporary but destructive by conservatives was the tide of industrialism. Associated with the growing liberalism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, industrialism was seen as an anti-tradition movement by “innovators” with a limited vision of the human person. Conservatives were among the loudest opponents of industrialization.
Similarly, Conservatives have seen the rule of capitalism and of socialism as “two sides of a coin.” Kirk sees both as debasing women, producers of goods, and “the man of thought.” Capitalism is critiqued, as well as the socialism, throughout the history of Conservatism, both seen as inhumane systems that will debase society by, on the one hand, hindering virtue and, on the other hand, praising vice. They both upend custom and tradition. And while socialism is driven by a preoccupation with material comfort and requires the hindering of excellence, capitalism is driven by a destructive lust and results in the reduction of all human concerns to capital.
Canon 6: Recognition that change may not be salutary reform.
Burke “has no expectation that men can be kept from social change; neither is rigidity of form desirable. Change is inevitable, he says, and is designed providentially for the larger conservation of society; properly guided, change is a process of renewal.” Throughout The Conservative Mind, Kirk gives examples of stodgy conservatives who lost their energy, in part, because they became obsessed with resisting any and all social change, driven on more by nostalgia than tradition. Those resistant to all change are doomed to fail, and they tend to end their lives in resentment and isolation.
At the same time, Conservatives have held that change for its own sake is not a good. And change should be carefully considered before implemented. It should “come as a consequence of a need generally felt, not inspired by fine-spun abstractions.” Even bad laws should be carefully considered before eradicated, Conservatives have argued, because when a bad law has been in place for a long time, communities tend to have developed ways to mitigate its injustices, whereas a new law may just bring new unintended injustices which a community has not developed tools to mitigate. Significant changes to law and society may be necessary at times, but they should be carefully considered. Experiments often turn out differently from expected.
When change does occur, Conservatives can help society adjust by applying custom, convention, and prescription to mitigate damage that may result. Further, modeling graciousness can be a key way to direct change properly. As Kirk says, “Conservatism is never more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation.”
It is this graciousness which makes an older form of Conservatism particularly compelling to me. Kirk’s history takes us on a journey from thoughtful Burkean Conservatism, to that of vacillating Founding Fathers, to the modern South which “cannot be said to obey any consciously conservative ideas” (Kirk is no fan of the “conservative” South), to the imagination of Disraeli and Newman, to “Conservatism adrift” in the twentieth century. Kirk ends the book with his own time, the mid-1950’s, where he sees Conservatism as largely hidden within the world of poetry. He leaves the reader reflecting on Eliot, Frost, and Kipling. And this is what I find most compelling in his work, the implicit claim that there will be no Conservatism today where there is no poetry.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.