This week hasn’t been that busy, it should’ve been busy but I put too much stuff off (including this blog).
My recaps will have a common theme for a few weeks as I’m listening to an audible series of lectures on the Conservative tradition. I’m just going to summarize what I’ve learned from the series these past two weeks (I only listened last week!) and give some brief reflections. A lot of this is just a copy paste of notes I take on my phone while I listen, so don’t expect too much analysis…
The Conservative Tradition
Patrick Allitt believes that the conservative temperament is more concerned with patience than perfection. He finds this underlying temperament acts as a guiding principle for many broadly conservative feelings. Allitt lists a few quintessential conservative beliefs that be classified into a few rough and ready categories.
Societal planning: Well, there really isn’t such a thing as perfect societal planning. We can’t build society from scratch and our attempts to do so inevitably result in coercion. We just cannot plan society around the inescapable reality of human variability.
Human nature: We are all broken people and are born with original sin. As such, human imperfection is unavoidable and integral to our very nature. War is an offspring of our nature. Thus, if our nature is inescapable, and war is entailed by our nature, then war is inescapable.
Note that this concept of original sin isn’t strictly religious. One can accept a purely secular account of human psychological hedonism or egoism adhering to a similar outcome as the theologically rooted concept of original sin. This is a position just as strongly grounded in a religious or secular account: we’re extremely fixated on ourselves and the well-being of those immediately around us or within or social in-group. Human psychology is shaped by evolutionary impulses to survive and propagate; it doesn’t surprise me that we have a difficult time taking into consideration the well-being of people wholly removed from our daily lives.
History: Tying in with human nature, we are essentially the same as past generations. People just don’t change all that radically. Moral and cultural mores may shift, but deep human desires to live well are just as strong as they were two millennia ago. There’s also a historical nostalgia at work in the conservative mind, and I experience this myself. One commonly hears people bash the psychological deception of nostalgia, as if it’s a form of childish forgetfulness or idealism. It’s encouraging to hear Roger Scruton praise the value of nostalgia from time to time. I think I’ll write about this later.
This is all super broad and general, but I think it’s a nice quick look at some of the broad conservative ideas that compel American conservative skepticism about pop liberals’ hopes for a safe and fully accommodating society.
I like Allitt’s reflection on history’s immovable differentness from us and our own world. He notes from the offset that history is alien to us and that we won’t be satisfied as we would expect. That’s a good thing to keep in mind while I briefly (real briefly) dive into some of the history he covers.
First, there was the Glorious Revolution of 1688. King James II abdicated and fled to France, prompting parliament to invite William of Orange to come over and help out. However, from now on parliament held supreme power. Through these stable (no bloodshed), yet revolutionary events, the Tories and Whigs emerged. Sweet.
Richard Hooker: who is sometimes considered the originator of Anglicanism, used the phrase via media, “the middle way” or “middle road”, as a maxim for life and political involvement. It affirms the value of moderation in life and has its roots in Aristotle’s lessons on the mean of virtue between two extremes.
George Halifax: first secular conservative according to Allitt.
Edmund Burke :I like Burke and started, but never finished, a book about Burke and Paine. Burke is incredibly important to conservative political thinking so this won’t be the only time I mention him. Here’s a few of his key insights and ideas:
-Society is bound by our pre-judgments, otherwise known as our prejudices. These prejudices are not inimical to the healthy functioning of society as we may think today. Rather, they form the basis of our pre-reflective familiarity and functioning with those around us. In other words, Burke’s idea of prejudice falls more in line with ways-of-going-on or forms of life instead of our current notion of affective biases.
-We ought not to tear down the veil of convention and strip government of its desire to hide its ugly side. I thought this was an odd idea in the segment on Burke and I’ll have to read more of his work to fully appreciate what he means by it. Allitt mentions Burke’s emphasis on manners to help flesh out this idea but I still don’t fully see the connection. I strongly desire more transparency in government so I can’t quite see why we would want the government to purport to be something it is not. If we assume the conservative commitment to original sin and the tendency of human nature towards destruction why would we want to mask it instead of fundamentally improving it? Additionally, where’s the line between snobbery and refined tradition?
-Burke, along with most thinkers in his period, accepted human inequality and did not suppose that everyone was equally endowed to succeed or function to the same degree.
-Society is an organism and not a mechanism. I really like this idea in Burke and have always felt drawn to a more “communitarian” concept of the state and human relations over a liberal individualism. Burke’s notion of a spiritual unity spreading across generations is also highly appealing even though it brushes against a form of romanticism or even naivety and is clearly informed by historical nostalgia. I do find his emphasis on our identity as a people or nation bound up in our sense of ancestry and posterity linked together. This is something that has been attacked recently I feel. There’s a strong incentive to undermine the historical value of what may be called “traditional western history”. A friend of mine currently in a PhD program recently told me that a fellow student lambasted their study of American history because these stories “weren’t worth telling” unless they focused on oppressed people groups. That’s a massive topic for another day.
-Burke wants us to cultivate particular and local loyalties instead of relying on grand abstractions. He’s clearly and vocally against contractarian political philosophy and views the idea of a state of nature as fundamentally misguided. He believes that we, as humans, have never existed as single selves amidst other individuals. The basic unit of human society is the family, “the little platoon.” There is neither a nasty Hobbesian state of nature nor a rights filled Lockean state of nature; the family is our first entry into society and it is only in society that we have rights.
-It wouldn’t be conservative if there wasn’t a deep pessimism about human nature lurking underneath. Burke believe that society is fragile and vulnerable. To keep our societal norms and bonds strong, we must live according to the accumulated wisdom of our tradition.
I like Burke and will try and read more of him throughout the coming year. It’d be nice to get through his Reflections on the Revolution in France and his work on aesthetics. He does undeniably engage in snobbery from time to time, and I found his brief section, a eulogy for deference, to be a bit dishonest.
William Pitt: If Burke is a powerhouse in the conservative political philosophy tradition (maybe ideology or belief system would be better?), then William Pitt is the political actor equivalent.
-Pitt didn’t like democracy very much. It’s fair to say that he support a government for the people but certainly not by the people.
Development of Conservatism
Allitt’s comment that conservatism is a post-industrial revolution phenomenon is illuminating. He notes that conservatism can and has encompassed individuals on both sides of social and fiscal background. For example, in the late eighteenth century, the new industrialists were as much a threat as a support to the conservatives.
During the American Revolution, the revolutioanries and founding fathers were appealing to a British tradition of liberty under limited government. They were not as radical as Americans commonly believe. In fact, many of the American leaders saw themselves as restorationists more than revolutionaries; they venerated the Glorious Revolution and argued for their rights as Englishmen. They were not radical democrats.
No one seems to include the loyalists in the study of the revolution and that makes Allitt sad.
Finally, a lot of the American leaders looked to Cato as a heroic model. Washington allegedly had the play Cato, A Tragedy performed for the Continental Army when they were in Valley Forge. The Stoics weasel their way into more things the more I read about them…