Remaining fascinated by definitions of postmodernism and conservatism, and always returning to the notions of sentiment and “anti-ideology,” to view all the brutal ugliness and inhumanity of what might legitimately be classified as “modernist” (architecture and literature first and foremost) is, it seems to me, to recognize the elevation of “theory” as a chief enemy of suitable definitions for those large and complex terms. And so, below the fold, some summations.
There being no singular definition of conservatism, we begin with mine:
the negation of ideology, the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin, the cautious sentiment tempered by prudence, the product of organic, local human organization observing and reforming its customs, the distaste for a priori principle disassociated from historical experience, the partaking of the mysteries of free will, divine guidance, and human agency by existing in but not of the confusions of modern society, no framework of action, no tenet, no theory, and no article of faith, a distrust of the systems and processes of the idol of self and of the lust for power and status, scorn to all approaches of ideology and meta-narrative.
In this definition, “conservatism” extends beyond politics and philosophy. It may encompass, for example, literature. Philosophical and political arguments, by which we might understand the meaning of the term as it is used most commonly today, begin with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Related to that seminal work were arguments from within the liberal (meaning the Enlightenment) tradition, most notably: Smith (economics), Hume (skepticism), Tocqueville (democracy), and Mill (freedom). A century or so later, scholars such as Friedman, Hayek, Kendall, and Ropke considered the benefits and limits of “neo-liberalism.” Since that time, a variety of thoughts and biases have come toward an association with the label, such as libertarians, the southern agrarians, and the religious, as well as reconstructions of traditionalism (Kirk), calls for experience and history in the place of abstract reason (Oakeshott and Scruton), and a defense of moral and intellectual virtue outside organized religion (Strauss). Many strands shared a bias for moral excellence as well as a worry that democratic practice and egalitarianism threatened liberty and order. This is to say that morality is more important than politics as a keeper of social harmony, and that the quality of a population matters more than political or economic structures. The notable exception, in the alliances of modern conservatisms against statism, corporatism, and centralizations are some libertarians (neo-liberals) who wish to conserve an economic liberalism (meaning an elevated “liberty” and “right” in the public sphere). Within the classical liberal tradition, there is desire for a political system to respect the right to live free from physical force, for a government of limited function in the protection of rights, and for powers to be exercised in accordance with laws objective and universal. I think the abstract towers of modern conservatism in the tensions of practice may be thought of as “traditionalist” and “individualist.” This found influence in Meyer (“fusionism”), Buckley, and National Review.
Robert Nisbet, a sociologist best known for his books The Quest for Community and The Twilight of Authority, from his book Prejudices:
Conservatism is the protection of the social order – family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost – from the ravishments of the centralized political state.
From his book The Conservatives, Patrick Allitt, professor of history:
Conservatism is, first of all, an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy. It has often been reactive, responding to perceived political and intellectual challenges.
Roger Scruton wrote in Conservative Texts: An Anthology:
If you ask a conservative for a statement of his political convictions, he may well say that he has none, and that it is the greatest heresy of modernity is precisely to see politics as a matter of conviction: as though one could recuperate, at the level of political purpose, the consoling certainty which once was granted by religious faith. In another sense, however, conservatism does rest in a system of belief, and is opposed as much to the theory as to the practice of socialist and liberal politics. Many have argued that conservatism is a distinctly modern outlook, born of an uprooted consciousness and a disturbed equanimity. To some extent the same could be said of liberalism and socialism. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for thinking that conservatism (as here and now understood) arose out of a reaction, first to the French Revolution, and secondly to the habit engendered by that revolution, of seeking large-scale social transformation as a remedy for the unhappiness of man. This habit is shared, not only by revolutionaries, but also by constitutionally- minded socialists, and even by many who would describe themselves as liberals, and who locate the instrument of social transformation not in violent confrontation, but in law. So long as people seek, through social and political change, for a solution to problems that cannot be solved, just so long, the conservative argues, is the body politic threatened by the malady of agitation.
Evelyn Waugh, prominent English Tory, wrote in a South American travelogue (compiled):
I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth; that his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives; that the balance of good and ill tends to revert to a norm; that sudden changes of physical condition are usually ill, and are advocated by the wrong people for the wrong reasons; that the intellectual communists of today have personal, irrelevant grounds for their antagonism to society, which they are trying to exploit. I believe in government; that men cannot live together without rules but that they should be kept at the bare minimum of safety; that there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other; that the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace. I believe that the inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of elimination; that men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; that such a system is necessary for any form of co-operation work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together. I believe in nationality; not in terms of race or of divine commissions for world conquest, but simply thus: mankind inevitably organizes itself in communities according to its geographical distribution; these communities by sharing a common history develop common characteristics and inspire local loyalty; the individual family develops most happily and fully when it accepts these natural limits. A conservative is not merely an obstructionist, a brake on frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do. Civilization has no force of its own beyond what it is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women, who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace.
Russell Kirk, a mystery writer and “Bohemian Tory man of letters,” in one variation of his “canons of conservatism”:
1) 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.(2) Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization. Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence. Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.”(3) Justice means that every man and every woman have the right to what is their own—to the things best suited to their own nature, to the rewards of their ability and integrity, to their property and their personality. Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law, but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things. The just society requires sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty. (4) Property and freedom are inseparably connected; economic leveling is not economic progress. Conservatives value property for its own sake, of course; but they value it even more because without it all men and women are at the mercy of an omnipotent government. (5) Power is full of danger; therefore the good state is one in which power is checked and balanced, restricted by sound constitutions and customs. So far as possible, political power ought to be kept in the hands of private persons and local institutions. Centralization is ordinarily a sign of social decadence. (6) The past is a great storehouse of wisdom; as Burke said, “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” The conservative believes that we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions, the social experience, and the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The conservative appeals beyond the rash opinion of the hour to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—that is, the considered opinions of the wise men and women who died before our time, the experience of the race. The conservative, in short, knows he was not born yesterday. (7) Modern society urgently needs true community: and true community is a world away from collectivism. Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion. Conservatives are not selfish, but public-spirited. Through churches, voluntary associations, local governments, and a variety of institutions, conservatives strive to keep community healthy. They know that collectivism means the end of real community, substituting uniformity for variety and force for willing cooperation. (8) In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image. It is a law of politics, as well as of biology, that every living thing loves above all else—even above its own life—its distinct identity, which sets it off from all other things. The conservative does not aspire to domination of the world, nor does he relish the prospect of a world reduced to a single pattern of government and civilization. (9) Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions. We cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell. We all are creatures of mingled good and evil; and, good institutions neglected and ancient moral principles ignored, the evil in us tends to predominate. Therefore the conservative is suspicious of all utopian schemes. He does not believe that, by power of positive law, we can solve all the problems of humanity. We can hope to make our world tolerable, but we cannot make it perfect. When progress is achieved, it is through prudent recognition of the limitations of human nature.
Which sentiments may be useful for the postmodern conservative?