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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

'Why Conservatism' Intro to the Founders

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain 

Due to the length of the chapters many of them will be broken at logical places and published in parts so as not to overwhelm readers with 3000+ word monographs, but instead keep 'Why Conservatism' digestible as possible. You can find the intro post/Index here.

When I consider conservatism I consider it broadly and in so doing draw on and acknowledge sources, which are either common or relatively obscure, and perhaps disowned by the conservative movement as a whole. There exists, at least in my mind, three currents of thought, which I used to divide conservatism as its grown and evolved throughout history: firstly, there is pre-modern conservatism, which I again subdivide into rationalist and anti-rationalist streams; secondly, there is modern conservatism, which would be the strain taken up by the followers and interpreters of Edmund Burke, in this case modern refers to its response to the modern political movement of the enlightenment and instrumental politics more broadly; and thirdly I chose to add a final division, which I title, Conservative Liberalism, which, is highly oxymoronic, yet the only viable way I see to systematize the modern conservative movement wedded to laisse-faire economics, modernity, and many of the premises first introduced by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
When I speak of the pre-moderns I am referring primarily to the big names in ancient Philosophy in this case I will reference three as exemplars, Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo. Both Plato and Aristotle in many ways were revolutionary, but valuable tenants of conservative thought were also insipid in their works, and its important to recognize such currents. It may go without saying that philosophy in this era, like society itself, was necessarily conservative based upon the sociological make up of the ancient Mediterranean world, but this is not the point, but rather that the thoughts expressed by students of Plato’s Academy would have immense influence on conservatism, conservative interpretations of nature, and conservative thought generally, even when such influence was carried forth and mutated (for better and worse) by the Catholic Church, which until this day remains the chief proponent of teleological and Aristotelian philosophy through the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Saint Augustine on the other hand gets reference independent of the Greeks for three reasons: firstly, because at least in my experience he represents the first strong currents of anti-rationalist thought that explored the limits and viability of human reason; secondly because Augustine though primarily Neo-Platonic, represented an advanced evolution of Plato’s thoughts due to his writing as late as 748 years after Aristotle; lastly because Saint Augustine, innovated a great deal due to his attempted reconciliation of Platonic philosophy with Christian monotheism[1] and out of this a number of conclusions arise such as considerations of linear time and historicity, which would play a large part in conservative epistemology even if such currents are not directly traceable to the moderns and Liberals.
What I title the moderns are truly a unique case. This is because for the first time in the era between the mid 18th century and early 19th century conservatism became self aware. What do I mean by this? I mean that the new writers in the tradition. People like Edmund Burke and Louis De Bonald knew that they were working to refute a new wave: a dangerous wave, a movement that prepared to bring anarchy across the world in its search for mastery of man, his politics, his society, and his environment.
In this modern era conservative awareness grew, and the writings of the time take on a distinctly polemical style. Treatise were not written, but impassioned books and essays instead. Each of these writings argued for the restoration of something quickly being lost and soon to be forgotten. The era of the moderns was the era of revolutions and has to be understood as such. Events such as the Glorious Revolution had to be rationalized, the American Revolution remained tendentious, France fell into turmoil and terror, and finally by 1848 all Europe burned in a conflagration unparalleled in history. One likely spread by pernicious political liberalism seeded into the earth by Napoleon’s armies, but that is something for historians to determine. All these events, the tumult and the horror, as well as the feeling of being on the decline, on being on the wrong side of history, caused the stirring of conservatives across Western Civilization. That is why the moderns are unique.
I so titled the modern conservatives of the American ‘Conservative Movement’ and its predecessors, influencers, and intellectual cousins, for example Friedrich Hayek, as elements of Conservative Liberalism; this is in opposition to the name provided by Russell Kirk in the Conservative Mind where he styles them ‘Liberal Conservatives.’[2] Though Kirk, correctly identifies a unique strain of thought, I see an err in interpretation, insofar as the representatives of Conservative Liberalism derive the fundamentals of their world view from axioms first articulated by Liberal thinkers: firstly John Locke, above conservative influences, which grew primarily out of economic and religious considerations and not a moral philosophy unique to the movement; thus the appellation I provide is more fitting to the object of study. These thinkers lead to the first conclusion of the book the one that asks for criticism of the modern conservative political movement in the western world.
I divide the voices of conservative liberalism into two specific camps. One is a group of thinkers obviously liberal, yet tempered by conservative social leanings at the personal level. What sets these liberals apart in my eyes is service to the notion that mankind has some form of limit. They may say reason is not equal in all man and political constructivism is unattainable, yet they still hold to a constitution which places freedom as the concept of utmost value. These are the thinkers which see autonomy as the its own end and the state as its instrument.
The second group under the umbrella of the conservative liberalism, and this a contentious statement, are many of those relatively contemporary post WWII American public intellectuals and academics who attempted to synthesize conservative social policy with small government and the dominance of the market. Men like Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Sowell, William F. Buckley Jr, and to a lesser extent Irving Kristol (insofar as Kristol supported the free-market and supply side economics) make up this group. They are small in the relative scheme of things yet they deserve our attention because despite their best efforts to ensure the soul of conservatism lived on in a viable form: one that could gain and maintain electoral success. The movement conservatives and others, ultimately cost conservatism its soul; I say this because through the efforts of the men these men influenced, economic thinking became the sine qua non of the conservative parties in the western world.
Once election became dependent on low taxes and silence on social issues conservatism as we knew it died. Society became the purview of liberals and the state, and by extension the market, the purview of conservatives and if these lines were crossed then the liberal populace, as well as the political machine of the capitalist order, would take revenge. Conservatism as we know it, cannot become itself whole in body and spirit until it abjures electoral success and yet this is seemingly untenable. No one wishes a liberal dominated order, but perhaps, its already happened. Perhaps, conservatives, as we know them—as opposition parties across the globe—are just as liberal as their counterparts. Examining the conservative liberals and looking at the effort to synthesize the libertarian and conservative movements will hopefully begin to shed light on this question.

[1] "Augustine (354-430 C.E.)," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed September 14, 2016,
[2] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind From Burke to Santayana, 7th ed. (Lake Bluff, IL, 1986),185-187.