Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought
Edited by Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press. 450 pp. $44.95

Conservatism has undoubtedly established its presence on the American political and intellectual landscape, but most of us would be at a loss to define it with any kind of precision. To begin with, one must separate American conservatism as a political movement, a broad coalition of forces that defends the integrity of civil society against the collectivist encroachments of the state, from the larger currents of intellectual conservatism that have European origins and are often less libertarian or anti-statist in orientation. Despite an occasional nod to Edmund Burke or Friedrich Hayek, most American conservatives actively engaged in political life are singularly uninterested in attaining clarity about the character of conservatism as an intellectual movement.

This should not surprise us, since conservatism entails the rejection of abstract and doctrinaire theoretical approaches to political life. But it was Burke himself who tried to persuade the gentlemen of his day and party that they must defend themselves and political decency in general against theoretical currents that undermined the integrity of “sound practice.” So conservatives, who have a distaste for political theories, must nonetheless theorize about politics. Here we arrive at a paradox that Jerry Z. Muller’s anthology of conservative thought richly highlights: conservatism is that theory which aims to protect sound practice against corrosive and corrupting theory. It is a political philosophy deeply suspicious of “metaphysical” or “literary” politics.

From David Hume and Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich Hayek (each of whom is amply represented and thoughtfully commented upon in this book) conservative theorists have criticized “contractualist” and “constructivist” approaches to political life that ignore the dependence of the social fabric upon institutions, customs, and habits that are not the product of human design. In his excellent introduction, Muller emphasizes the conservative critique of “theory,” of what Burke called “the abuse of reason.” Muller locates conservatism in an approach that he calls “historical utilitarianism.” It emphasizes the wisdom of long-established historical practices, the latent functions served by seemingly obsolete institutions and traditions, the indispensable role of custom and habit as a “second nature,” and the unintended consequences that stem from efforts to radically transform the social order. Conservatives, despite their substantive disagreements about the ultimate nature of things, have resisted liberal and radical calls for “transparency” in social life precisely because they understand that society cannot withstand a too systematic or energetic analysis of its sometimes fragile foundations.

But Muller is careful to differentiate conservatism from orthodoxy. He locates conservatism in a profound skepticism regarding knowledge of the nature of man or a natural order of things”hence his choice of David Hume as the founder of a modern, enlightened, skeptical, and “utilitarian” conservatism. What are we to make of this seemingly idiosyncratic choice of origins?

Muller is undoubtedly correct to distinguish conservatism both from orthodoxy and from a radical conservatism that aims to uproot liberal civilization in the name of vitalistic and nationalist values. But, in my view, he understates the important connections that persist between conservatism and orthodoxy. By “orthodoxy” I mean any political-philosophical approach that admits the possibility and necessity of theoretical metaphysics and philosophical ethics rooted in a reflection on the “nature” of things. Muller is right to emphasize the conservative critique of rationalism and the strongly historicist or anti-universalist character of many conservative thinkers. He is also right to raise the question of whether the conservative emphasis on the utility of institutions and social practices does not ultimately undermine belief in “the truth of existing institutions, or indeed in the idea of truth as such.” But that objection to historicist conservatism was raised, as Muller notes, by Leo Strauss, certainly a conservative thinker, at least in the sense that classical political philosophy is a major source of modern conservatism. By overemphasizing the historicist and utilitarian character of conservative thought, Muller inevitably is forced to downplay an equally fundamental conservative theme: the critique of moral and philosophical relativism in the name of a permanent order of things.

I believe that Muller’s mistake is rooted in a too facile assimilation of Hume and Burke (Burke attacked metaphysical politics and not metaphysics per se, and assuredly believed that custom as “second nature” was deeply rooted in an unchangeable human and social nature) and in a general failure to confront fully the important conservative critique of relativism and historicism. He provides rich selections from Irving Kristol, Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, and the German writer Hermann Lubbe that stress the limits of social and cultural “emancipation.” But he understates the anti-relativistic character of that critique because he is rather dogmatically attached to a skeptical (e.g., Humean) conception of conservatism.

It seems to me that a whole range of more or less conservative thinkers aim to steer a middle way between a deductive, natural law approach to political things and the anti-rationalism highlighted by Muller. For example, the Hungarian-born moral and political philosopher Aurel Kolnai speaks for a conservatism that attempts to do justice to the reality of a natural order as well as to the prudential requirements of political life. In a remarkable review of Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics in the English journal Philosophy (January 1965) that ought to be read by all self-described conservatives, Kolnai wrote:

The concept of “nature” has been artificially overworked by metaphysicians of various kinds, but there is something unreal and artificial also in the studied negation of the natural order of things. And this very observation, for what it may be worth, has, I think, a conservative rather than a subversive point.

This fundamental caveat aside, Jerry Muller (and Princeton University Press) are to be applauded for providing a first-rate anthology of conservative thought. Muller’s general introduction, afterword, and particular introductions to the individual selections provide an eloquent and learned overview of some of the greatest conservative themes.

His selections are drawn broadly from British, French, and German as well as American writers and hence avoid the parochialism typical in American discussions of conservatism. Some of the readings are little gems: Justin Moser’s 1772 warning about the dangers associated with “Diminished Disgrace of Whores and Their Children in Our day”; T. E. Hulme’s “Essays on War” (1916), which respond to Bertrand Russell’s arguments for pacifism; and Winston Churchill’s “Speech on Rebuilding the House of Commons” (1943), a remarkable critique of “rationalism in politics” by a Burkean-minded statesman.

But the book is nonetheless marred by the absence of any selection from Alexis de Tocqueville (whose influence on contemporary conservative theorists is duly noted by Muller) or of any contemporary French conservative liberals, such as Raymond Aron or Bertrand de Jouvenel, who operate within a broadly Tocquevillian framework. In my view, no thinker better highlights the necessity or dignity of intermediary associations (a conservative theme par excellence) nor provides a deeper account of the dependence of modern liberal democracy upon the “moral capital” of premodern times. Better than any other conservative theorist, Tocqueville appreciated both the comparative justice of modern democracy as well as the threat it poses to the higher excellences of human nature. And I know of no figure who better inoculates thoughtful people against the utopian temptations of both left and right.

But omissions and biases notwithstanding, general readers and scholars alike will find Muller’s anthology an excellent place to begin the necessary conversation on the meaning of conservatism in the modern world.

Daniel J. Mahoney is Associate Professor of Politics at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachussetts, and the author, most recently, of DeGaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy (Praeger 1996).