In a recent live stream I participated in with Tim, of The Tim Preuss Podcast, we discussed what the term “conservative” meant, both in the past and present. For the occasion I had picked up a copy of Russell Kirk’s authoritative work on the subject, “The Conservative Mind”, and waded into it.
The opening chapters focus on philosopher Edmund Burke‘s rise to recognition as the “father of modern Conservatism”. Subsequently, Kirk also addresses the innovative spirit of the age which Burke gained prominence for vehemently railing against. In the wake of both the American and French Revolutions, Burke severely denounced much of the English sentiment toward the “progressive” political theory of his day. The radical egalitarian spirit, the exuberant desire for self-rule, and radical notions of political rectification of social ills were all themes that Burke addressed, and were common themes of his era.
Strangely enough, many of these themes run through our culture today causing one to question if this long-standing discussion will ever reach resolution. It isn’t my desire to answer that question today, but I do wish to make a case for the necessity of that discussion. The balance between ambition and caution is a precarious one. Throughout history each characteristic has had stretches of dominance, resulting in tragedy for mankind. Each characteristic brings necessary attributes to human relationships and evolution as a species. Both ambition and caution are necessary.
Edmund Burke’s conservatism heavily advocated for the gradual changing of society through the process of drawing on past experiences, and subsequently modifying those experiences to fit the next level of societal evolution. Many of the radical philosophies he spoke out against were the same ideas that had, not long before, racked France with revolution, terror, and the eventual dissolution back into despotism and dictatorship. The cost in human life was astounding given the technology of the time.
Conservatives are always wary of change for the sake of change. They are skeptical of human nature, unwilling to simply believe that humans are at their core noble and altruistic. They gesture to humanity’s bloody history as evidence of this fact. We should all adopt conservative caution when ideologies are presented to reengineer society as a whole. We should look to past experience and not be caught up in momentary passion or the seductive rhetoric of “change”. There is a natural law of unintended consequence at play in the universe. Many of mankind’s greatest, noblest schemes have ended in utter tragedy; communist societies are a perfect example of this principle.
Conservative caution is a very valuable character trait to possess.
On the other side, liberal innovation shouldn’t be dismissed altogether, as many of the conservative persuasion are apt to do. Liberal innovation is necessary for the infusion of new, better ideas into the fabric of societies. Each new evolution in the state of human governance has been the product of liberal idealism. Conservatism is often very reticent to invoke change quickly, if at all. Much of the time those of the conservative persuasion would prefer the status quo. It took liberal innovation in the form of Lincoln era Republicans to push for the abolition of slavery in the United States. It took liberal advocacy on the part of Locke to challenge the monarchical status-quo, and widely accepted tenant of “divine rule” to spur those after him into thoughts about representative government.
Without liberal innovation society would not make strides forward but would, instead, remain mired in stagnation.
These two, seemingly contradictory, world views need each other to strike a healthy balance for the growth of human society. History has repeatedly shown that extreme manifestations of either tendency, whether overly-innovative or overly-cautious, result in the abuse of men by other men.
When we find this balance, and understand that both world views have wisdom to offer us, we will find the evolutionary advancement of humanity will be far more civil and far less chaotic.