WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A CONSERVATIVE?
A Personal Clarification
A Personal Clarification
It's one of the most polarised words in politics – and this is because it is not only misjudged, but it is misread and (most telling, perhaps) it is misappropriated. Below I will discuss philosophical conservatism. First, some smaller clarifications: conservative is not a synonym of Republican or, for that matter, of Conservative Party members. This assertion is not made to merely split hairs: to be a conservative does not mean "to vote Republican", nor is it necessary to be a conservative to do so. The position does not, in fact, involve participation in partisan caucuses or political elections, which is a still wider misconception.
To 'become' a conservative requires only that first act of mere doubt expressed about our over-confidence in submitting to abstractions such as Reason as if they were the absolute bell-wethers of human existence. Conservatism goes beyond simple scepticism, however, because it involves drawing upon well-rehearsed, age-hold heuristics and a ruthless selectivity in the minutiæ of any prospective action, especially where it involves considerations of any increasing scale.
I am a self-identified Conservative, like my father before me and his own father before him. This too, the simple and unbroken chain which supercedes a single lifetime, is an important part of how I'm a conservative, as a way of living which spans the generations is a native part of conservatism as such (as are many of its qualities and when found elsewhere are nonetheless characteristically conservative). I may have easily and justifiably called this article 'Why I Am A Conservative', because it self-evidently appears through my own theoretical-practical frame of reference – and this, too, is very much a notion at home with being a conservative. Take heed, however, for conservatives are not necessarily mere empiricists (for the conservative, as I've said, knowledge so-called must as it were transcend that of a single lifetime). For me, "conservative" is not a label but a way of living. For this reason and those which will be explored below, I consider genuine conservatives in the strictest sense to be on the brink of extinction (and perhaps we must always be so).
The form of conservatism to which I refer below is certainly not the American kind. American conservatism is really too revisionist to be an authentic form. I am not an American, a so-called 'traditionalist', nor a Christian. I am Scottish and I have no creed. Let me draw upon a point I have already made: conservatism is occupied very little with the labels we wear. The relative unimportance of such labels will shortly be established below.
Issues of class and of an order of rank must profoundly and gravely occupy the conservative consciousness. An authentic conservative occupies a problematic place within the class structure and a more unusual role in the de facto class struggle of his society. First, he must avoid the plebeian drive to rebellion, further extended and intensified into the form of the bourgeois concept of 'progress'. Secondly, he must defend stratification as a means of protecting the nobility; for in so doing he not only vindicates conservative sentiments, but also defends the greatest body of conservatives - and, indeed, let it be said that in so doing he defends and exults conservatism itself. The nobility excel in, among other things, the degree and sincerity of their conservatism. The principle is stated simply and insightfully by old Friedrich in Beyond Good and Evil as an integral part of a noble outlook: "Deep reverence for age and the traditional – all law rests on this twofold reverence – belief in and prejudice in favour of ancestors and against descendants, is typical of the morality of the powerful; and when, conversely, men of 'modern ideas' believe almost instinctively in 'progress' and 'the future' and show an increasing lack of respect for age, this reveals clearly enough the ignoble origin of these 'ideas'." (BG&E, 2003 Penguin Classics reprint, pt.IX, §260, p.196)
This principle contains the essence of conservatism, including what it must combat (which it is contrasted with in the above passage). That it is aristocratic and is therefore borrowed from the nobility means that, at some point, it must be paid back to them if we are to call ourselves honourable. The conservative, therefore, must be serious in his belief about class society and consistent in his allegiance to an aristocratic order of rank.
This connection may seem tenuous to some - even spurious. The question is how it's possible to convincingly demonstrate the connection which has so far only been illustrated (and there is a difference between the two). This can be achieved through simple reference to the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, whose philosophy could arguably be the celebration of the nobleman (or "gentleman") qua the virtues of nobility. Something even more certain is that the historical, actual inspiration for this entire ethical and political paradigm was the Duke of Chou. To lose attention to rites is, for Confucius, a disgrace to a kingdom and its ruler – likewise, this lax attitude to ritual involves the closely-bound loss of nobility itself.
Where do such disparate thinkers as Confucius and Nietzsche agree? They agree, almost word-for-word, in the assertion that the wretched breed of man vainly seeks from others what the higher breed of man reveres in himself. This, of course, brings us to self-sufficiency, something which we in today's Western world find quite frankly incomprehensible. Whereas other, more arrogant servitors of our system debase themselves by surrendering to society en masse and to imprisonment within its relations of production, the conservative reserves much of his time and resources for himself and his own; he is cautious with his expenses, prudent with his investments and tirelessly enhances the livelihood of his family. The conservative lives upon his own economy.
The conservative as such turns 'back to the land', back to the earth which he can feel for himself; likewise, he turns away from the detached system prevalent in the Western world in the same way in which he turns away from the detached abstractions which it ascribes to its foundation. He thus problematises the future legitimacy of this system and makes of himself a kind of unintended revolutionary. He is, however, not a hippie nor any kind of Leftist. He lives in a world given to him by his ancestors and which he shall carry over to his descendants. The earth and its environment are of great importance to him because they are both his life and his livelihood – also, he has no illusory idols of the abstract to place 'above' and 'beyond' the world in terms of either metaphysics or of value. The earth is all he has and it is conservative in the fullest sense to preserve its dignity.
The maintenance of unverifiable/unfalsifiable traditions is not unusual or inappropriate for a conservative. The ancient Chinese, for example, justified strategic decisions in war through appeals to astrology and omens (and the Romans, also, took omens quite seriously). Those who value logic more highly than esoteric intimations forget that logic has as little grounds for being linked with prudence as do these superstitious exemplars of Unreason. Given our unfashionable habits and somewhat agrarian tendencies, 'earth' religions are more consistent with conservative spirituality (not to speak of leaving open the possibility of the conservative being a materialist – and the seamless overlap between them, to which I can attest myself).
That said, the conservative cannot in good conscience be a Judeo-Christian apologist insofar as it would be a personal and philosophical (not to mention theological) non sequitur to first reject the dangerous assumptions implicit in our broader abstractions and then to go back on one's word to celebrate their source and the site of their highest concentration, the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Conservatism as a minimum condition of being self-consistent and intelligible entails a passionate rejection of blind rationalism as that which disregards established, practical wisdom in favour of dangerous, untested hypotheses. We do as we do because it has worked so far, but this does not mean we must believe what we are told to because it has been demanded of us for as long as we care to remember. That is quite simply dogma, i.e. dogmatism – the most extreme form of rationalism, which entails that we submit to the most absurd a priori dictates with no grounds for doing so.
Conservatism regards ritual as being both important in itself and vital to the condition of the body politic. The ancient Romans, exemplifying this attitude, had the utmost reverence for the mos maiorum (the honoured traditions handed down to them from their ancestors) and considered them necessary for their continued glory. This way of living is embodied and best carried forth by the continuation of uncodified, even unconscious, rites of tradition. This is not because there is truth in the myths surrounding those rites, but because there is (more often than not) sense in following through with their performance. We adhere to ritual because rites are in themselves comforting, habitual, proper and reliable to us. In any case, it is not because we fear the wrath or court the favour of the Absolute.
Conservatism, to me, is merely the pursuit of propserity without the careless acquisition of harmful ideas; and the conservative is one who wishes to live without their bitter taste in his mouth. The conservative dares to dream that he might cherish and preserve what is familiar – and I, for one, aim to do so.
© Scott J. Irving
® The author reserves all other rights to this work as his intellectual property.