The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Part 2 of 3

In my first essay of this series, I asserted that Alpha-Wolfe Conservative Edmund Burke deserved careful reassessment in light of impoverished tradition. Now I want to investigate his claims regarding the evolution of culture and institutions. I confess that I will be using that great reactionary romantic G. K. Chesterton as my intellectual crutch in dismantling some problems with Burkean conservatism. Once again I will also assume that my reader is familiar with the general theses of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The ever-prudential Edmund is remembered best for rejecting the radicalism of the French Revolution. Whereas Continental ideology encouraged the sans-culottes and the parlor-bound intellectuals to violently turn the world upside down, Burke looked to the slow moderate change of individual nations to organically alter the social order. History not only sifted through wisdom and foolery; it also established the rights of Englishmen. The contract theorists’ abstract “rights of man” and individualist rationalism posed a threat to the easy-going acculturation of reflective reform and historically-rotted progress.

Now, what bothered Chesterton was not Burke’s rebuttal against (most) of the Enlightenment. Instead, it was conservatism’s practical atheism in response to liberalism. In a chapter of the magisterial What’s Wrong with the World called “The Empire of the Insect,” the author observed that “Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory” but rather “that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic.” He asserted:

[Burke] did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the  modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He  suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and  institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but  the tyrant it ought to have.

In other words, Burke chose Montesquieu over Aquinas. After reading the leading lights of the Enlightenment, one begins to see that Burke could be casually labeled “Hume light.” The concerned statesman was a student of the Scottish skeptic. Burke adopted similar conceptions of society as the atheist-agnostic Hume, even if Burke was no full-on skeptic himself. Perhaps the “father of modern conservatism” thought he could keep the traditional content of human society while adopting Hume’s form. This intellectual move is a bit of a novelty. In fact, in the English setting, devastating arguments against novel social tinkering which DOES view man as God’s image-bearer can be found in the great Anglican divine Richard Hooker. For Burke, then, the process replaces God as the immanent and authoritative issue in the realms of policy and jurisprudence (if not the entirety of life).

Against the Anglo-Irish MP, Chesterton complains, “His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God!” In typical fashion, he concludes: “Thus, long before Darwin struck his great blow at democracy, the essential of the Darwinian argument had been already urged against the French Revolution. Man, said Burke in effect, must adapt himself to everything, like an animal; he must not try to alter everything, like an angel.” For Burke, the slave will come to adapt to his quarters, those under monarchy become “snobs,” and no divine judge may intervene in this evolutionary process.

Indeed, for Burke, there is still progress. It is simply slower progress; the kind in which mankind gradually finds odious institutions and policies more appetizing. Granted, most people find a gradual relativism (a la William James) much more pleasant than radical relativism (a la Friedrich Nietzsche). But what difference does it make? Both act in a cosmos devoid of the divine. Whether “civilization”  or the audacious individual is the vehicle to realize the godless self seems irrelevant.

With Burke somewhat deconstructed, how then do we handle such dangerous novelties and progresses spewing forth from the cesspool called “Enlightenment”? Well, we can start with Chesterton’s essay “The Red Reactionary.” He chides the English because they believe the “past is past.” On the other hand, the French are aware that things can be removed or restored with readiness: “Those who have cleared away everything could, if they liked, put back everything. But we who have preserved everything–we cannot restore anything.” He even contests, “The one case for Revolution is that it is the only quite clean and complete road to anything–even to restoration. Revolution alone can be not merely a revolt of the living, but also a resurrection of the dead.”

The Burkian conservative chafes at revolution, which is a good habit. Nevertheless, Burkian evolutionary politics is flawed. In Orthodoxy, old G. K. teaches, “[A]ll conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change.” Entropy can be cultural just as much as cosmic. Mutability is in the nature of human, earthly things. Chesterton continues: If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.” The working out of traditional politics in the public sphere is not one of preservation for the sake of evolution. As Josef Pieper has argued,traditio (the passing on) is a constant activity, though not necessarily intentional and should certainly not be self-conscious for the young. Chesterton urges: “But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old.” Society, then, is organic like a vineyard. The evolutionist refuses to trim the vineyard; the Jacobin hopes to cut it all down.

In Chesterton’s vision, at least, being a mere curator for the sake of slower progress is an insanity. Burkians may contest that their hero is looking out more for human happiness than blind progress. Nevertheless, Burke’s conservatism can tend to see man’s inevitable mutability as a linear movement. I speak of the school rather than the man since he seemed to believe descent into barbaric chaos was only a few generations away. Popular adoption of his ideas can lead to an overly-progressive view. Perhaps it is time we made political room, not just for the usual radical revolt or moderate reformation, but also for restoration and resurrection.

“But wait!” my reader replies, “man today IS different from the ancients. What about those differences?” Stay tuned for Part Three.

4 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary”

  1. Just stumbled upon y’all from Bad Catholic, love the concept of the blog.

    Great critique of Burkean Conservatism, even if I am a bit more partial to Mr. Buke. I wonder if perhaps, there’s good room to argue that Burke is well situated to (a la Russell Kirk) martial and rally what’s good within a tradition and hold the line in a Tolkienesque Long Defeat against abstracted and detached revolutionaries? In other words, Burke may not be able to “save” us, but he can offer smart reminders about the virtues of prudence and human limitation, as useful tools to man the walls until someone else can come along and offer a positive solution.

    In any case, hope to visit the blog more often and read (and comment) in more depth.


    Fabius (the cunctator, not the socialist)

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