We often hear that conservatism comes from a sober recognition of limits—getting mugged by reality. We are fallible, fallen creatures, and the conservative learns to doubt the efficacy of the grand schemes of progressivism, efforts of social transformation that often require the power of government. Ignorance, self-interest, greed, hubris, sloth—these and other vices, so stubbornly resistant to the beneficent ministrations of progress, subvert even the best plans. The conservative, therefore, argues for political humility. We should seek to ameliorate injustices and make marginal improvements in our political system. But let’s not imagine we can perfect society with a masterstroke of social engineering.
Conservatism certainly draws from this skeptical insight into the limits of politics. Good intentions aren’t enough, compromise is almost always necessary, and life is unpredictable. But conservatism has an aspect other than cold realism about our fallen condition. There’s a warm element of piety in conservatism that encourages us to relish the givenness of things. As Yuval Levin put it, “conservatism is gratitude.”
St. Augustine illuminates the disposition of gratitude when he identifies two fundamental modes of relating to reality: use and enjoyment. To use means taking up what is before us for the purpose of some greater end. Most of us, most of the time, are in some sense working toward goals of one sort or another, and so we are oriented toward the world in the mode of use. Enjoyment has a different character. When we enjoy something, we are grateful for it, resting in the blessing of its presence. St. Augustine teaches that we can truly enjoy only God, and others in God. We seek rest in that which is eternal and unchanging. All created things are finite and subject to change, and therefore cannot give us lasting, final rest. That only God can sustain.
In a strict sense, Augustine is right. God alone provides rest. Yet we don’t go through life “in a strict sense.” There are finite realities that, though not divine, have a sacred character we enjoy and in which we find rest. These dimensions of life evoke responses of gratitude. Our families provide the most obvious example. They are not perfect, nor are they eternal. Loved ones die; children can grow up and rebel; we quarrel. Yet we relate to our families in the mode of enjoyment, not use. My family is not ideal. None are. But it’s mine, and that alone is a source of joy. I did not choose them; they did not choose me. This transcendence of purpose and usefulness gives our experience of family a sacredness that is the source of great consolation. My parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins are many things, but it is their givenness, their “assignment” to me, that allows me to rest in them.
A nation is not a family. But classical thinkers have assumed there are analogies, which is why notions of fatherland and motherland also have connotations of sacredness. Here, too, we are encouraged to enjoy that which is given. I’m a proud American. By my measure, New York City is a remarkable testimony to human creativity and enterprise. The landscapes of the American West are stunning. Our Constitution is wise and long-lasting; our military might awesome. But more than pride, I feel gratitude that runs deeper. A nationalist boasts. He uses his country to enhance his self-esteem or to conquer and dominate. A patriot enjoys his country. He rests in it.