One of the most used words in U.S. politics is the word conservative. Conservatism is proclaimed by many people to be a style of interpreting the world and formulating our living practices that is needed in order to optimize the health of any society. When spoken of by its most enthusiastic advocates, the idea of conservatism is always presented like a beacon of all that is good in our democratic republic. Its promise rings in the ear like a message of salvation. All we need to do is heed its call. But what is the call of conservatism? This important word is used daily in speech and in writing, which is consumed by millions of Americans. But does it have a shared public meaning or is everyone thinking different things when using the word conservatism? Before we can explore what is of value in conservatism, we have to ask a basic question that we almost never hear asked in public by politicians, pundits, or TV ministers. Our pursuit of the fundamentally important question below will involve a defining look at the life and civilization preserving benefit that conservatism offers to individuals and the nation in which we live.
- 1. What is Conservatism?
- 2. The Accountability of Knowledge: Politics, Trades, Arts, and Sciences
- 3. The Defining Work of Russell Kirk
- 4. Some Conservative Principles Must Actually Be About Conserving
- 5. What are You Choosing to Conserve?
- 6. Attending to our Heritage in order to Choose
- 7. Can Conservatism Really be Defined by Principles?
- 8. Can Conservatism be Defined in Terms of Claims about Knowledge?
- 9. A Defining Problem within Conservatism
- 10. When The Conservative Mind is Most Beautiful
- 11. The Conservative Mind and the Examined Life
- 12. A Call to Conservative Action!
What is Conservatism?
One of the things I (Max) learned from my reading of Plato is that, if I am going to use an important word in a sentence, I should know what the word means. Words such as justice, virtue, courage, goodness, piety, righteousness, beauty, and friendship, should have real meanings that endure. I also learned from Plato that the more important and central the word is to the living of a human life, the more difficult it is likely going to be to define clearly. A word like, conservatism (or conservative), which is used so much, is so important to political and social discourse in the U.S., and plays a role in the identities of millions of people, should have clear meaning that can be shared publically in useful ways. Plato taught me to be suspicious of my own individual understanding and to seek the wisdom of the society in which I lived. So it was that I began to ask people, who identified as conservative, a very important question.
"What is conservatism?"
What I discovered as I talked to people, who identified as conservative, is that the terms conservative and conservatism are not terms whose meanings are publicly known and shared in a precise manner. Some conservatives were very clear and knowledgeable about the traditional origin of their perspectives and about the nature of their commitments to bring an esteemed heritage to life. My conversations about conservatism also revealed the existence of conservatives who are unable to define or understand the meaning of their own conservatism. Based on years of my conversations with conservatives about social and political issues, which originally began in full back in 1987, and my observations of contemporary public political discourse, it is clear that there are a large number of conservatives in the United States who are unable to explain their own conservatism. This problem is growing and the wider spread this problem becomes, the closer we come to making the word conservatism an empty label that means nothing. If we allow conservatism to come to the point of meaning nothing, then the good that conservatism can bring forth is brought to nothing.
Some of the conservatives, who did not know how to articulate their own understanding of conservatism, seemed to have memorized the second hand talk of others and were just repeating it back to me like a parrot. The problem was that what they were repeating had little to do with defining conservatism. Automatically repeating the political or religious marketing slogans that we hear on the news and see on internet is no substitute for expressing a capacity to engage in genuinely conservative reasoning about the world. Thoughtlessly repeating what we have heard repeated is something any child can do. But expressing a developed capacity for excellence in conservative reasoning is something that all conservatives can learn to do with confidence. Our country desperately needs conservative excellence more than ever before.
While trying to explain their conservatism, some conservatives did not seem to understand the nature of a conservative principle as it relates to thinking about the world. Responses to the question of defining conservatism such as, "I believe in America." or "I reject socialism." do not articulate conservative principles that influence how we think and live. Such responses are, at best, only the outcomes of a thought process that presuppose the existence of an unspoken conservative perspective. This kind of response is also not able to define conservatism because the responses above are not capable of distinguishing the conservative believer and rejecter from the non-conservative believer and rejecter. Any data, idea, principle, or belief that is incapable of helping us distinguish the conservative from the non-conservative is incapable of helping us define conservatism. Whenever I ask further questions to clarify the meaning of conservatism, I typically find that many conservatives' enthusiasm to engage in reciting what they have memorized is not accompanied by an equal quality of enthusiasm to engage in their own reasoning about their own worldview or to stay focused on the issues that conservatism demands we examine in detail.
As my talks with fellow conservatives touched upon the issues of our time, I found that a significant number of people had trouble staying focused, which stopped them from exercising their capacity to reason about the important issues facing our nation. Their focus was in bondage to an obsession with low grade gossip about the defects of the personal character of individual people and groups. This melodramatic focus on soap-opera like personal defects of political actors and imaginary enemies, had replaced any high quality focus on the social and political issues that are affecting our nation. Judging by the absolute dominance of attacking people instead of discussing ideas that we find in U.S. political conversations, it is obvious that this phenomenon is wide spread among the entire population of the United States. The very idea that it is important and necessary to directly discuss and interpret the ideas and principles, which are part of the foundation of governing individual lives and nations, is less interesting to many conservatives than talking about every traceable perversion of people on the public stage. Cheap trash talk, long winded melodramas, and an insatiable vulnerability to distraction have left many conservatives unable to stay focused on a single socially or politically useful topic. Cheap, irrelevant, soap-opera like talk masquerades as useful political conversations in most of our public political conversations. Vulgar and politically meaningless trash talk has completely replaced productive discussions about the actual political and social issues in the minds of many people. Conservatism will never be defined or faithfully expressed through our capacity to engage in empty trash talk.
In today's political landscape, there is no shortage of self-proclaimed conservatives who have no self-aware interest in understanding the conservative principles of their own worldview or how those principles must shape their thinking on the issues. Instead of expressing the necessary due diligence with regard to reasoning about important issues, many conservatives are endlessly consumed with a passion to just thoughtlessly repeat a party approved marketing slogan or religious talking point, express a flight of emotion, or to express some vague, ill-defined notion of "owning the libs". Vague, undefined ideas of winning seem to hold sway over many people's minds as they proceeded to spend all of their energies attacking people instead of reasoning about ideas and issues. Exactly what people think they are going to win with such unproductive, uncivil behavior is a mystery. When the ability of citizens to reason together about important issues takes a back seat to childish bickering and personal disrespect, everyone loses. George Washington was well aware of the evils of allowing a partisan party spirit to take hold of the country.
"The common and continual mischief's [sic] of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion."
- George Washington, Farewell Speech, 1796
Conservatives who respond to political talk with an obsession to attack people instead of reasoning about ideas demonstrate a disturbingly undeveloped understanding of what it means to realistically talk politics as a conservative. Obsessions with personal disputation reveal a lack of understanding of how to apply principled conservative thinking to the most important issues of our time. What can conservatism ever amount to in the minds of people who are obsessed with personal bickering? The extraordinary national importance of our need for conservatives to able to express a capacity for effective conservative reasoning cannot be overstated. It is through the conservatively biased reasoning of principled conservatives that the full benefit of conservatism is brought forth to serve the good of the nation. The nature of that benefit will be clarified as we proceed.
Russell Kirk, the most influential American conservative that most U.S. citizens have never heard of, is looked up to by those who know of him as a father of modern American conservatism and has done more than anyone to add defining substance to American conservatism. William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review, was one of the most widely known and influential conservatives of the 20th century. William Buckley said of Russell Kirk: "It is inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without Kirk's labor."1
Kirk's most important work relative to the advance of the conservative movement in the United States is the public version of his doctoral dissertation, The Conservative Mind2, published in 1953. Kirk described the book as "a prolonged essay in definition". Kirk began the book with a couple of powerful opening lines that were a sharp declaration about the intellectual viability of conservatives:
"'The stupid party': this is John Stuart Mill’s description of conservatives. Like certain other summary dicta which nineteenth-century liberalism thought to be forever triumphant, his judgment needs review in our age of disintegrating liberal and radical philosophies."
The publication of this book in the 1950's gave a tremendous boost to the existence of a self-aware conservative movement in the United States. Immediately following these two opening lines Kirk acknowledged, "Certainly many dull and unreflecting people have lent their inertia to the cause of conservatism". He illustrated this statement with a history professor's observation that it has been sufficient for practical purposes for some conservatives to not think at all. Kirk acknowledges the history of non-thinking conservatives and takes some pains to put this all nicely. Yet, after he describes Edmund Burke's affectionate metaphor for conservatives as cattle passively sitting under the English oak trees, deaf to innovation, Kirk begins a significant criticism.
Immediately after the Burke metaphor, Kirk writes "But" and continues, "the conservative principle has been defended, these past two centuries, by men of learning and genius." The nature of Kirk's criticism is illustrated in that the book's very existence, which explores the history of conservative ideas in light of the aforementioned "learning and genius", is evidence that Kirk believed it is not sufficient for a conservative to be "dull and unreflecting", a non-thinking conservative, or one of Burke's cows.
Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation wrote: "Kirk was proud to be a conservative. The true conservative, he insists, is not the cruel caricature of a "dull, boorish, bigoted and avaricious being" presented by most liberal and radical journalists and politicians."3
Kirk did not believe that true conservatives needed to be intellectuals with PhDs. For Kirk, all it requires to not be a dull, Burkean cow is for a conservative to express an ordinary human capacity to be a thoughtful person with the knowledge of a heritage that is important to them. Feulner continued,
"The true conservative, Kirk says, could be many different people: a "resolute and strong-minded" clergyman; a farmer who "holds fast" to the wisdom of his ancestors; a truck driver in the very heart of the metropolis; a proprietor with an ancient name endeavoring to moderate inevitable change by "prudence and good nature"; an old-fashioned manufacturer, diligent, shrewd, and just; a physician who knows human nature too well to talk of social perfectibility; a lawyer who understands we cannot divorce ourselves from history; a schoolmaster who knows there is no reward without labor. The true conservative is a man of the future rooted in the past. All of these true conservatives, Kirk says, prefer the old and the tried to the novel and the dubious, and in whatever they do, endeavor to safeguard the institutions and the wisdom of the past, not slavishly but prudently."
There is no heritage of our past that can have any meaning or value in the absence of efforts to employ the knowledge of it in our reasoning. If the past does not influence how we interpret the present, it is impossible for us to be conservative. Kirk knew that it is impossible for conservatism to be fully functional in the absence of a capacity to reason. To the extent that the call of conservatism is also a call to excellence in reasoning (an idea that will be engaged below), it seems a matter of common sense to assert that it is not sufficient for a conservative to allow themselves to be reduced to the meager functioning of a talking party parrot or Burkean cow. Conservatism, in the hands of thinking citizens, has more power to serve the good of the nation than the mindless chatter of parrots can ever bring forth. Conservatism, as the principled engine of insight in the hands of willfully thoughtful human beings, has more benefit to secure and deliver to the people than the thoughtless, instinctual inclinations of Burke's cattle will ever manifest. Parrots and cattle cannot lead the way into the future, but thinking, principled, conservatives can.
Kirk's study on defining conservatism resulted in the articulation of conservative principles. A principled conservative is distinguishable from a conservative who claims the name by virtue of identity. Some of the people I talked to thought their involvement with a particular group or support for a particular law made them conservative. "I am a Christian therefore I am conservative." No. There are Christians who identify as liberal. "I am a Republican therefore I am conservative." No. Voting Republican is a chosen outcome. What conservative principles influenced your thinking to choose to vote Republican? The same is true for voting in support of a particular policy. Supporting the policy itself does not make you a conservative; the principles that shaped your thinking to support that policy say more about your conservatism. This is true because both liberals and conservatives can support the same policy yet get there through different styles of thinking. Neither being a Christian nor voting Republican defines conservatism at all. Not your family, your religion, your political party membership, not the fact of your support for a particular policy position or law, nor your job, defines conservatism. I will go as far as to say that nothing to do with your identity has anything to do with defining conservatism.
What is conservatism? The only way to have an "ism" is for that "ism" to draw its life from its habitation in a human mind. The only way to inhabit a human mind is for the "ism" to have principles that affect how the mind operates. The process of defining conservatism, therefore, must involve defining conservative principles that guide how we think and live. If we are not guided at all by conservative principles in our thinking and living, how can we uphold any conservatism at all? When asked to define the principles of conservatism, some conservative's understanding of this was incomplete and fragmented. These fragmented understandings of conservatism seemed to leave people adrift without any help from clearly conservative principles to hold them fast to a productively conservative course. If conservatism lacks all principles then conservatism ceases to exist. This is why it is grossly insufficient for conservatives to reduce ourselves to blindly repeating the talking points of our political party or religion as would be fitting for a talking parrot. In the absence of exercising our capacity to reason in a conservative manner, the conservative gives up all power to personally make a difference. When we mindlessly repeat something, we are not expressing our own power. We are not making our own contribution. We have merely become an echo of someone else's power and contribution. The United States of America does not need a population of mindless echoes, who are only capable of repeating without thought what they have already heard repeated. We need a body of fully engaged citizens, who are principled, thoughtful conservatives that can make their own contribution to the public good.
How can one stand up for anything in a conservative manner without conservative principles influencing our minds? If we cannot exercise our capacity to reason in a way biased by conservative principles, we will not stand for anything in an authentically conservative manner. This also means that, in the absence of a principled, thoughtful understanding of our own conservatism, we will fall for everything that pretends to be conservative. And so in our time we see the presence of non-conservative charlatans pretending conservatism in front of significant numbers of conservative identified people who are unable to understand or apply their own worldview.
Some people responded to the question of conservative principle by exclaiming a slogan they heard on TV or at a rally such as "Free Market!" or "No Socialism!". The blunt truth is that if one's only idea of conservative principles is to repeat without thought a few overly simplified party slogans that are not even properly understood, such a person is not a principled conservative. In the absence of expressing our own capacity to reason in a conservative style, we allow the beauty and power of our conservatism to die. Fully functioning conservatism requires the influence of conservative principles. The importance of having conservative principles presupposes that we are going to be using the knowledge of our own heritage as we exercise our capacity to reason during our attempts to interpret the world. In the absence of any thoughtfulness of mind, the existence of a conservative mind is impossible. Neither principles nor knowledge have any habitation in a mind that chooses not to reason. This is a critical distinction.
The Accountability of Knowledge:
Politics, Trades, Arts, and Sciences
Nobody would use the word conservatism, as it is popularly used for social and political issues, in the context of the methods of mathematics or the tasks that are attended to by engineers. The people of the United States have different standards for accountability in the talk about practical trades, arts, and sciences than we have for our discussions about social and political topics. Nobody would tolerate the simplistic, uninformed, irrational talk we get in commentary on political issues if it came from an auto mechanic fixing our car or a surgeon who was about to operate on our brain. If you heard your doctors talking about your upcoming surgery and realized, to your immense horror, that they were talking like politicians, meaning they were ignoring the full details of your medical condition, refused to talk in depth about the details of their diagnosis and proposed solution, and spent most of their time and energy accusing each other of weirdly corrupt things, you would run for your life. We demand in all areas of life that all people use their capacity to reason, that they stay focused on issues, and that they work to actually solve the problems at hand…except for politics. We would never accept the childish personal attacks, the refusals to realistically discuss the actual details of problems, or the melodramatic antics of circus like distractions, if they happened in the context of the functioning of any practical trade, art, or science that affects our daily life. The refusal to realistically talk in depth about real problems and solutions in the absence of personal attacks is obviously ridiculous when real work needs to be completed. But such ridiculous, unproductive talk is the bread and butter of politicians and political pundits.
What is it about social and political issues that we allow politicians to offer only simplistic slogans when such issues are complex? We would never tolerate mere slogans from someone selling us a house if that person does not let us inspect the house in detail. Why do we allow politicians to get away with such behavior with their policy positions? Almost everyone allows politicians to persistently avoid discussing the full details of the issues and their proposed solutions to problems. The failure to hold politicians accountable to knowledge points our attention to the fact that there are no real specialists in politics. Our ability to apply knowledge and to be accountable to knowledge in the trades, arts, and sciences seems to be of a different order than that of politics. The primary reason for this is that the end goal of a trade, art, or science is clear. It is easier to hold people immediately accountable to their claims of knowledge when a goal is clearly defined. A carpenter makes things out of wood. Everyone agrees that producing things made of wood is clearly the end goal of all carpentry. But what is the end goal of a society? The object of the art of painting is to produce a painting. But what is the object of the art of living? The performance values in the trades, arts, and sciences can be measured with precision because the ends are defined with precision. But what is the measure of a life well lived and a nation well governed? What knowledge and skill is relevant to that?
When we are reasoning about the complexities of governing an individual human life or a society, things are less clear. The end goals of life are not defined with the same universal consensus as we enjoy with the practical goals of the specific trades, arts, and sciences that we employ in our daily living. The question of what proper values and end goals should be used to structure individual and social life lacks a universal consensus on the answer. All carpenters know when it is desired for two pieces of wood to be bound together and when they should be loosed from one another. All carpenters know the best methods for binding and loosening. When there is disagreement on such things, carpenters know how to resolve such disagreements in a technically efficient manner. But what should be bound and what should be let free in a society? There is no standardized agreement on social obligations and freedoms, and the exact knowledge needed for resolving disagreements is less than clear. We are more confident and hold ourselves to a higher standard in the trades, arts, and sciences because the ends have been decided through overwhelming consensus. When we are only required to employ instrumental reasoning to achieve the means to clearly defined ends, the accountability to knowledge is firmly within our grasp. But when we are required to reason about the fundamental values and end goals of life itself, we are not as confident about reaching a consensus.
When there is a lack of consensus about the fundamental values and end goals of a society, the need for effective reasoning about our values and goals as a society becomes vitally necessary. As carpenters call upon the history of their art to clarify the needs of today's job, conservatives call upon the history of our heritage to assist in our reasoning about the end goals of a life well lived and the means to them. Yet, when a carpenter uses some of the same methods of the carpenters of ages past because it is the most efficient way to work, they are not said to be conservative. Purely instrumental reasoning and acting, in which the fundamental values and end goals are already decided, are free to repeat the past without the need for terms like conservative or liberal. However, when we need to decide what values and end goals we should uphold in life, the terms conservative and liberal are often brought into consideration.
Nobody works a job where the knowledge of a trade is deployed and they are required to rethink the end goal of that trade. The end goals of all trades are clearly defined and specialized knowledge of each trade is commonly available. But there are no specialists in politics. The end goals of a nation regarding the public good defy easy consensus. When we find we also have to reason about the values and goals of life itself in addition to reasoning about our means to already defined ends, this dramatically increases the demand to put in our best effort. Reasoning about values and end goals is a much more difficult task. This is precisely why conservatism is insistent on calling us to embrace the heritage of our past as an ally in helping us to think clearly about the present. Because of the increased complexity and demand that comes with values based reasoning, those who speak on social and political issues have more need to be held accountable to knowledge than do the practitioners of trades, arts and sciences in which being a specialist is common. The lack of political specialization, which is mostly due to the lack of consensus in defined end goals and fundamental operational values, gives us a greater work load. In politics there is more need for the rigors of being held accountable, not less. Conservatism invites us to lessen the burden by incorporating the knowledge of our heritage to assist us. Conservatism sees social and political accountability to the knowledge of fundamental values and end goals partly in terms of the knowledge of our own heritage. The invitation of conservatism to use our heritage in this way relates to the essential principle of all conservatism, which will be discussed below.
Conservatism calls us to use the knowledge of our heritage to help us interpret the present. This is why, in today's time of crisis, we do not need mindless parrots who only recite the party line by rote. We do not need those who just sit in the dead silence of their lack of ability to willfully assert their own reasoning powers and thus give rise to the image of the Burkean cow. We do not need passive consumer sheep, who are always on the lookout to purchase with their vote, the next leader to do their thinking for them. What this country needs is the presence and actions of fully functioning conservative citizens capable of speaking up with thoughtful conservative voices, which speak and act through principled conservative minds. The conservative mind is a mind that reasons about the end goals and values of life itself. The conservative mind is a mind that intimately engages the knowledge of its own heritage to assist in the task of determining the goals of a nation. Any conservative can choose to reason in a principled manner and allow their conservatism to shine as the light it is supposed to be. It is a willful choice to be a fully functioning conservative. It is willful discipline to take a genuine conservative stand in which we are obligated to express a capacity to reason about the values and end goals of life. In the art of politics, conservatives must learn to be specialist at bringing the knowledge of their heritage into the present day. The conservative mind is a mind that is accountable to the knowledge of its own heritage.
The Defining Work of Russell Kirk
With regard to examining the idea of defining conservatism via principles, I simply could not rely on what I can only describe as the random chaos that came from many of the conservatives with whom I spoke. So I have chosen to examine the work of Russell Kirk. I am not claiming that Kirk's principles are THE principles of conservatism. Even Kirk did not claim this. A very important topic of conversation among conservatives, which has been severely neglected due to the deteriorated intellectual environment that infects the entertainment oriented public media and the behavior of political parties, consists of healthy public debates over the principles that define conservatism. Instead of a healthy habit of improving our understanding of what it means to live out a principled conservative worldview, we have a blind rush among self-proclaimed conservatives to artificial conformity for the sake of political expediency. Some of Kirk's principles may not be for every single conservative identified person in existence, but his attempt to define conservatism is an excellent example for all conservatives and is worthy of thoughtful consideration.
In his most defining work, The Conservative Mind, Kirk spells out "six canons" of conservatism. I am going to pass over the six canons of conservatism and use Kirk's ten principles of conservatism from his 1987 lecture given to the Heritage Foundation4. The ten principles are a closely related to the six canons. Kirks understanding of what it means to define conservatism is a crucially important lesson for conservatives today.
Kirk's lecture begins with, "Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata." In very sharp contrast to the marketing behaviors related to popular conservatism as it is proclaimed by powerful special interests, who seek artificial uniformity as an ideological pathway to the consolidation of power, Kirk realized that, "The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed. (Test Act: laws serving as a religious test for public office in England; Thirty-Nine Articles: defines for members of the U.S. Protestant Episcopal Church what must be believed)". Of his own ten principles Kirk acknowledges that some conservatives may disagree with some of the principles, reiterating that "conservatism is no fixed ideology".
This is a very different attitude than popular conservatism's desire that all conservatives get in a single line, walk in lock step, and publicly say the same thing at all times. To the extent that the special interests who dominantly shape conservative political behavior in the U.S. have emphasized conformity to the point of mimicking ideology for the purpose of marketing themselves, they have betrayed an essential characteristic of conservatism. A regular habit of American political and social leaders today is to want passive followers, who can faithfully repeat the party line without thought. The conservative mind never simplistically embraces, and tenaciously repeats without thought, the advertising slogans of today's marketing…I mean…election cycle. Extraordinary varieties of thought and healthy public debates between conservatives naturally arise when conservatively inclined minds exercise their powers of reasoning. Thoughtfully principled conservatives are not considered by the cynical marketing arms of the political parties to be politically advantageous to party power. However, fully functioning, principled conservatives, who bring the knowledge of their heritage into public discourse about the values and goals of our nation are a power for good that is desperately needed the United States.
(A note regarding Kirk's use of the phrase: "the body of opinion termed conservatism" With the use of the term opinion, which will also be referred to below, we are not talking about whether or not the heritage we desire to conserve has truth. Opinion refers to the belief of any particular conservative as to what portion of heritage should be conserved, and how that conservation should be performed. Even if a portion of our heritage, which the conservative wishes to conserve, is all truth; it is still just the opinion of the conservative that it should be conserved. It is also the opinion of the conservative as to exactly how we must act in order to conserve the truth and knowledge of our heritage.)
Some Conservative Principles Must Actually Be About Conserving
The minimal essence of all possible conservatism is that something is conserved. Abraham Lincoln asked and answered, "What is conservatism? Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?"5 Something of the legacy of our civilization's past must be brought into today's thinking, living, and structuring of society in order for there to be any conservatism at all. This essence, which has its strongest expression in traditional conservatism, is well illustrated in the first four of Kirk's principles. The first four principles of Kirk's ten principles of conservatism are an articulate expression of the essence of all possible conservatism, which is founded on the notion that something should be conserved.
The text in bold are the principles quoted from Kirk's 1987 lecture, the non-bold text is my commentary on Kirk's principles as they relate to the state of conservatism in the U.S. today.
1. The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
Enduring moral order is an important phrase. With this principle, Kirk is not talking about today's convenient "truths" and "values", who's meaning and relevance varies from election cycle to election cycle. In the mission statement of the National Review, which William Buckley founded, Buckley was critical of the liberal tendency to vet their society redesigning abstract principles in the voting booth, "The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.6(Italic emphasis mine)"
Blindly repeating party marketing slogans to win political points is no replacement for a genuinely conservative and thoughtful study of the history of human experience, which has given us the rich legacy of our civilization's vast heritage. In the absence of knowing our own heritage, conservatism dies through the inability to conserve anything. Buckley's criticism of the "liberal" style of determining truth is well applied to the unprincipled conservatives of today, who embrace the "party before all" mentality. The conservative mind knows that the truth is not just whatever happens to win an election. That we can do a thing does not mean that we should do it. Truth is not proven through democracy. The majority can be wrong, especially when the parties work hard to avoid giving due diligence to the public vetting of issues through rational dialogue. And when the parties deploy deception in the marketing of themselves, we need to remember that the lies, which happen to get votes, do not therefore become the truths that deserve the approval of principled conservatives. Principled conservatives do not play word games with "alternative facts" or with the justification of morally dubious positions that fly in the face of established tradition. Principled conservatives cannot afford to remain silent in the presence of so many pseudo-conservative actors who are willing to sacrifice all morals and truth to the only truth that means anything to them (i.e. winning an election and having lots of money). It is time to stop thinking about the welfare of this or that political party and start thinking about the welfare of conservatism and of the nation itself.
Kirk's first principle is not talking about the political habit of having morals that only apply to our opponents but not to us. Kirk is referring to an enduring moral order that is the moral foundation of harmony within all individuals and whole societies. It endures for the whole of one's life. This enduring moral order last from generation to generation and from age to age, providing the foundation of harmony and stability for nations and civilizations. This order is rooted in and draws its nature from the enduring character of humanity. The basic truths of living as a human being have been discerned and responded to over the course of millennia. The legacy of our heritage, which has been handed down to us through the knowledge and traditions of our religions, philosophies, and the structures of nations, are realities of life that do not change just because this or that current party leader decides it is easier to do something new just to win an election. The shallow, abject lying and cheating going on in the political parties today, which have replaced a proper reverence for truth and morality, are not behaviors that can in any way be called conservative. A traditional reverence for the moral truths and the governing structures, which have been vetted by centuries of human experience, is not an obsolete sentiment that can be discarded by leaders according to the whims of their political avarice. Principled conservatives insist that a reverence for the moral truths that endure must remain a part of the foundation of conservatism. Whipping up reverence for any new thing that happens to be convenient for today's election is never a substitute for genuine conservatism, which always seeks to maintain a rich continuity with its own history.
John Adams said in 1775, "Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics."7 A politics that exists without reverence for the integrity of the human character of the individual cannot bring forth the public virtue of the nation. A politics that disregards the enduring moral and epistemological foundations of conservatism in exchange for the pragmatic expedience today's temporary political advantage is not a conservative politics. Out of the enduring moral order come enduring moral truths, which the conservative mind must consider. The pseudo-conservative, unprincipled actors, who reject the notion of any enduring moral order in favor of "whatever wins today", must be rejected as representatives of conservatism.
2. The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
A deadly force that is destroying American conservatism on a massive scale is the dominance of forgetfulness and ignorance in the minds of self-proclaimed conservatives with regard to the heritage that they want to conserve. When we forget the moral, social, and political legacies of our civilization, our nation, our religions, and the history of thought, which have been vetted over many generations and centuries, the best of established customs and conventions cannot influence our thinking on current issues. Today, it is so common that the cartoonish meme of the current hour has more power of influence over the average conservative than the whole history of the established conventions and customs of an entire civilization. Today, a 10 second sound bite from some TV talking head has more weight in the thinking of many conservatives than the whole history of a nation or a religion. For many conservatives today, the life giving continuity with our heritage, which is the very soul of conservatism itself, is murdered in the sleep of forgetful ignorance.
The thoughtfulness of the conservative mind is grounded in the continuity of its connection to the past. Detailed, rich, meaningful, and life giving continuity with our civilization's legacies of moral truths, principles, structures of government, and proprieties of social convention must inform the conservative mind as it thinks about the issues of our day. The conservative mind embraces custom, convention, and continuity, because this quintessentially conservative habit improves our ability to reason with excellence about individual, social and political issues. In the complete absence of this embrace, it is impossible to be conservative. How can one conserve a heritage, if one has no knowledge of that heritage? In disconnection from our civilization's customs, conventions, and in the absence of all such continuity with the legacies of our past, the unprincipled conservative is conservative in name only. In such a disconnected condition, the unprincipled conservative has arrived at the point where the name conservative means nothing.
When we allow the best of the legacies of our civilization to inform us and help guide us, we can think and behave as conservatives who actually possess a valuable heritage and can actually make a useful difference. The conservative mind is biased against novel pronouncements and abstract reasoning that are asserted in a disconnected way from our past conventions and traditions. But when conservatives forget, or worse yet, are just completely ignorant about the profound depth and details of the heritage of their own country and religion, we cease to be conservative in any measurable way except that we may have some remnant of inert inclination akin to one of Edmund Burke's cows. Adherence to custom, convention, and continuity, demands that we remember and are thoughtful about the best of our heritage. The forgetfulness and ignorance of so many modern American conservatives about the very things that are needed in order to make them functionally conservative is forcing them to be vulnerable to conservative pretenders. Today's conservative pretenders, who are empowered by the people's forgetful ignorance, eagerly toss genuine conservatism into the trash in the mad rush to win an election. The predominance of the forgetfulness and ignorance about the full richness of the legacies of our past is killing the power of conservatism to bring forth a beneficial contribution to the welfare of the United States of America.
3. Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
(prescription: the action of laying down authoritative rules or directions from long continued customs)
We can study the past to determine prescriptive values for today. To know our history, to be thoughtful about that, which we inherit from our civilization, is to be empowered and lifted up by the best of those who came before us. Careful observation of our histories reveals behaviors, values, and human rights and obligations that appear, not as the one off random abstract design of some armchair philosopher, but come into being again and again in different contexts through the efforts of a great many individuals and societies. Some things should be considered for their prescriptive value as they have been shown to have value again and again, having been vetted by the unfolding of an entire civilization. The conservative is assisted in making rules for today's living through observing the history of human experience. Yet, if one is ignorant of the histories that should be informing our thinking about living, we not only lack the benefit of standing on the shoulders of giants in order to be lifted up, we cease to be meaningfully conservative at all.
Every speaker who claims the mantle of conservatism should be compared in our minds to our own knowledge of the history of values, principles, traditions, and legacies of moral truths that help us determine if the speaker has merit or not. However, the horrifying truth is that a large number of conservatives let the power of their comparisons die by limiting it to what one TV talking head says against another TV talking head. For such unprincipled conservatives, history means nothing. The enduring truths of our civilization mean nothing. The historically vetted customs, conventions, and moral truths that are our inheritance from an ancient civilization mean less to the unprincipled conservative than the 10 second sound bite from a TV talking head. The conservative mind does not act just because someone came up with an idea. Conservatives must be thoughtful and careful that the prescriptions, which influence our ethics and behavior, have a real continuity with the heritage we have chosen to embrace. The prescriptions and normative ethics of our present day must have some continuity with our heritage in order for the fulfillment of our obligation to act to have any conservative value at all. If the dominant knowing that is used to interpret those who speak on the issues of the day is nothing but our forgetfulness and ignorance of our own heritage, then the power of conservatism in the minds of the people has been forsaken in exchange for whatever is in fashion today.
The prescriptions that the conservative mind values the most are not the disconnected novelties of today's political strategies, which lack any real coherence with the historical legacies that should be informing conservatism. The conservative mind values prescription that has grounding in time immemorial with a legacy that was produced by the historical vetting of a whole civilization. The novel innovations of any individual and the strategic contrivances of political parties must always be evaluated in the light of well established norms, values, and principles. Otherwise conservatism has no epistemological or moral distinction at all. If there are no principles, there is no conservatism. If there is one fundamental prescription for all conservatives that is clear, one prescription that has the greatest testimony of the ages, that prescription is that we must have principles. A conservative without principles cannot stand for anything as a conservative, and will fall for anything that pretends to be conservative. A conservative must have principles. In the absence of all principles, there is only one prescriptive imperative left in much of popular conservatism, which is to win at all costs. Unfortunately, this kind of poorly defined "winning" is costing us everything.
4. Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
Pure abstract reasoning, which is disconnected from the long history of human experience, finds a temptation to quickness in the implementation of its designs. The rush to implement a new design is compelling. Conservatism calls us to integrate our capacities for abstract reasoning with a respect for the history that preceded us. We are called to incorporate the moral, social, and political legacies of our civilization into our own consideration of the issues. This will slow us down through the addition of the necessary labor that comes with the conservative call to integrate careful and respectful consideration of the enduring truths, customs, and conventions of our civilization into our reasoning process. The conservative mind refuses to wipe out the past in an instant of theoretical reasoning. The conservative mind does not consent to limit the whole of conservative due diligence to the time between two TV commercial breaks.
Conservatism does not reject theoretical reasoning, but calls us to improve our thinking by making sure we give our due diligence to the reasoning process through the consideration of a larger context of human experience. The religions, philosophies, structures of nations, and institutions that exist today are not just empty shells that can be discarded without further thought. They are the products of the development of our civilization, which has been built by the ongoing thought and labor of billions of people over the course of thousands of years. Conservatism insists that we spend time thoughtfully considering the value of what we have inherited.
In The Conservative Mind, it was explicitly Kirk's desire that we do not just sit as unthinking conservatives. Prudence is not just sitting idly in the silence of our inability to reason about issues. This means that conservatism is not just automatically obeying, like a mindless machine, anything that has a history. The only way to manifest the full character of prudence is to assert our capacity to reason about life. Kirk mentions that Edmund Burke agreed with Plato about prudence being the chief virtue for the statesman and then he wrote, "Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity."8 For Kirk there is a relationship between the judgment of long term consequences and prudence. Kirk saw that the conservative mind never embraces today's temporary advantage or fickle popularity as its foundation. The habit of political parties to judge everything in terms of today's temporary election advantage and polling results could not be further from Kirk’s vision of conservative prudence. It is impossible to make a judgment about long term consequences without exercising our capacity to reason.
It is also impossible to reason effectively about policy positions when political parties desperately work to hide the full details of their policy positions from their constituents. Do you want to make the typical congress representative run from you? Just try to pin them down to the details of an issue and watch them run away. If running does not work for them they switch from rational discussion of issues to an inferior mode of dialogue, which is to just start personally attacking people and groups thereby avoiding a real conversation about issues and ideas. It is not a conservative principle to give up on reasoning. It is not a conservative principle to allow an inferior structure of dialogue to make our political conversations useless.
That inferior structure, which is the favorite method of manipulative special interests, consists of continuous partisan division. Today's continuous partisan division is regularly focused on personal attacks, which automatically excludes detailed, reasoned talk about the long-term consequences of public policy measures. The overwhelming prominence of personal attack talk, which always shuts down reasoned discussions about the issues by refocusing all talk away from issues and on to people, is the sickest defect in all of American political discourse. Of course we want the politicians to have personal character. We want that for everyone involved in our lives, the auto mechanic working on our car or the doctor who is going to operate on our brain. We want them all to have character. But the vetting of human character is a separate subject that should never replace talk about the issues of governing the nation.
Nobody talks about the human character of a biologist and thinks they just had a conversation about the science of biology. You would never talk about the human ethics of a carpenter and imagine that you just had a discussion about how to make things out of wood. The evaluation of human character is a separate subject from all of the goals of the trades, arts, and sciences, except for politics. Millions of people regularly make the mistake of talking endlessly about the character of politicians while thinking they are talking about topic of politics. Big mistake! In the absence of reasoning about issues directly, judgment about long-term consequences is impossible and therefore genuine conservative prudence is also impossible. It is the height of imprudence to abandon our obligation to engage in responsible, rational dialogue about the nation's important issues in exchange for petty partisan bickering that amounts to little more than a melodramatic episode of a soap opera filled with childish name calling. We need the independent voices of principled conservatives to insist on the priority of the exercise of principled conservative reasoning in public discourse. The exercise of reason is the only pathway to prudence. In the absence of reasoning guided by principles, there is no such thing as conservative reasoning or conservative prudence.
What are You Choosing to Conserve?
The first four of Russell Kirk's principles revolve around one central principle. This principle articulates the basic functional identity of all conservatism. The functional identity of conservatism is that in order to be conservative, something must be conserved. This idea is simple and uncontroversial. In the absence of this idea, it is impossible to even imagine any form of conservatism. Is there no conserving at all? Then there is no conservatism at all. It is as plain as the noses on our faces. If you want to be a conservative, you must conserve something. Kirk defined the scope of possible conservation in terms of the enduring moral order of humanity, and the conventions, customs, and prescriptions that we inherit as the legacy of our civilization. Maintaining a living continuity with this scope of possible conservation is the essential labor of conservatism. This means that there is a necessary principle for all conservative action. The necessary principle is that all conservatives must choose what they desire to conserve. Living out this principle is the actual act of being conservative. The reason this principle of choosing is absolutely necessary for all conservatives is that there are zero conservatives who import the whole depth and breadth of their heritage into their daily living. It is impossible to do this. It is impossible to maintain continuity with the whole history of a civilization. This means that all conservatives, regardless of their particular background, must choose what customs, conventions, and historically vetted prescriptions they embrace in order to create and maintain a healthy conservative continuity with their past. All conservatives must actively interpret, with the knowledge of their own heritage, the enduring moral order of humanity in order to decide what moral truths ought to endure in their personal lives and in their society. A conservative who is not thoughtful about this selection process will fail to manifest the necessary depth of essential continuity with our heritage that is the life blood of all fully functioning conservatism.
What are you choosing to conserve? There exists a deadly combination of elements that is short-circuiting the selection process of millions of conservatives. Conservatism is dying in America, not because the "liberals" are "winning", or the "deep state" is subverting all that is good. Conservatism is dying because so many conservatives are paying no mind to the essential legacies of their country, religion, and civilization. A conservative's heritage should be informing a conservative's worldview. The fact is that the popular conservatism of today is commonly conducted in the absence of conservative principles. Unprincipled conservatism is less concerned with conserving the time immemorial heritage of our ancient civilization and more concerned with debate tactics and novel political strategies that take advantage in the present hour. The unprincipled conservatives of today tend think that they must automatically give all their focus to the imprudent rush to "win" a debate or election. Unprincipled conservatives have exchanged a proper focus upon our civilization's enduring moral order, customs, and conventions, for the mindless cheerleading for any new thing that is convenient for the present hour. All conservatives must give serious thought to the question, "What are you choosing to conserve?". In the absence of principled, self-aware, conservative selectivity, the beauty and power of the conservative mind is severely diminished.
If we are not engaged in our own selection process of choosing what we shall conserve, which is the only viable pathway for all fully functioning conservatives, then the selecting is done for us. When the selecting is done for us, individual choice is eliminated and the necessity of reasoning is diminished. When the necessity of reasoning is diminished, we look more like passive farm animals who are being led by the nose, than like full human beings capable of participating in the republic as conservative citizens. Fully functioning, self-aware conservatism is a much more powerful good to individuals and the nation than the lazy, consumer sheep mindset of always allowing others to do all the choosing for us. The chaotic results of failing to give due diligence to the selection process of choosing what we shall conserve is that such conservatives often find themselves in the position of actively working to destroy the very things they might actually wish to conserve. Accepting any random thing their leaders say without any thoughtful comparison to the rich legacies of the moral truths, customs, conventions, and traditional sensibilities that are supposed to be informing the conservative mind is the plain fruit of this lack of self awareness. Much of the forgetful ignorance found in the unprincipled conservatives of today is due to the lack of diligence in paying detailed attention to our heritage in order to choose what should be conserved. This lack of attention forces the forgetful conservative to languish in relative disconnection from the traditions and moral truths that are the necessary foundation, the beating heart, and living soul of conservatism.
In the absence of conservative principles that keep us thoughtfully connected to our heritage, the unprincipled conservative will often function like passive cheerleaders repeating what they have heard repeated. Instead of behaving like they have conservative minds able to apply conservative reasoning to the issues of the nation, unprincipled conservatives recite with passion, the current marketing slogans of the hour. Unprincipled conservatives have traded in their responsibility to be fully functioning conservatives in exchange for embracing the more passive role of playing the consumer sheep, the party parrot, or the Burkean cow. This betrayal of responsibility is the death of fully functioning conservatism. The over hyped paranoia among unprincipled conservatives regarding the loss of a political contest has overcome the just fear of losing touch with the foundations of knowledge and morality that make us conservative in the first place. This happened not because of some demonic, socialist plot from the left. This terrible loss is the result of the ordinary failings of conservative identified people, who forgot that in order to be conservative, something must be conserved. In order for something to be conserved, conservatives must choose what that shall be. In order to choose well what shall be conserved, the human capacity for reasoning must be engaged in way that embraces the richly detailed heritage of our civilization.
Attending to our Heritage in order to Choose
In the absence of actively choosing the portion of our heritage we believe must be conserved, we allow the full beauty and power of the conservative mind to wither and die. In order to clarify the extraordinary power of choice in the conservative mind, we must consider the idea of what it means to choose well. Choosing well requires that we have bothered to exercise our capacity to reason about our choices. Choosing well in the conservatism context means we must be diligent and persistent at paying close attention to the historical legacies that are the only founding details of our conservatism. It is impossible to choose well if we do not pay attention to our heritage. It is impossible to choose wisely if we are not even aware of the need to choose. When choosing what to conserve, we are selecting the moral ideas, and the customs, conventions, and prescriptions from our own history of traditions, which we want to remain active in our individual living and in our society. This act of selection identifies and embraces valuable information from our past in order to make it take shape in our present.
This is a very different act of attentiveness than simply using information from the past to justify something new in the present. The most common form of consulting with our heritage among unprincipled conservatives is to attempt to prove that some new strategy or idea in the present can be supported by conservatives. This style of interpreting our heritage is the same style as some Christians use to read the bible, which is called proof texting. Instead of reading to learn from the Bible, these Christians already know what they want to believe and use the bible to find proof that justifies their belief. In order to choose well what we desire to conserve, there must be attentiveness to the question of choice that leads us to a genuine consideration of what our heritage has to teach us. It is an abuse of heritage to use it merely as a proof text to justify any new thing in the present. The conservative mind is ever the student, learning from its heritage. The conservative mind does not merely consult one TV talking head compared to another TV talking head. Principled conservatives must compare the speech acts of all TV talking heads, politicians, and fellow citizens, to our own knowledge of the enduring moral truths, customs, conventions, and prescriptions of our heritage in order to discern if another person's talk and ideas have merit or not. In the context of politics, choosing well is not about being a passive consumer who merely looks at the prepackaged menu of pre-defined options to make their overly limited choice. It is about bringing knowledge to bear upon the issues. If conservatives have no knowledge of their own heritage as they consider the issues, then their conservatism has died.
Genuine conservative choice draws off much broader and richer sources of information than the self serving noise of TV talking heads and party leaders. That source is the rich heritage of an entire civilization, which the conservative is supposed to have some interest in conserving. Our adherence to what we have chosen to embrace in that heritage is what makes us conservative in the first place. It is a simple truth that all conservatives must choose what to conserve of our own heritage. Active conservative choice is the power of the conservative mind to bless the nation. Blind party loyalty is the repudiation of conservative choice. Blind acceptance of whatever random exposure to our heritage that has been handed to us as a matter of circumstantial luck is also a repudiation of the beauty and power of conservative choice. The conservative mind pays regular, thoughtful attention to its rich heritage. In that attentiveness to the legacies of our civilization, the conservative mind always compares the pronouncements of political parties to its own knowledge of its chosen traditions. The conservative mind never blindly supports any party, person, or policy in the absence of conservatively principled consideration. The beauty of the conservative mind is that its ability to choose well transforms the best of our past heritage into a living reality of today, which can survive into the future. Selecting what is best out of out of our heritage and figuring out how to make it live in the present is the primary duty of conservative reasoning. In the absence of conservative choice, the conservative principle is abandoned; and the conservative mind is destroyed. When the conservative mind is destroyed through a lack of thoughtful choice, the impotent remnant that is left is a mechanically repetitious, servile robot that regularly falls prey to the depraved influence of pseudo-conservative pretenders.
The conservative mind does not consult the past merely to make glib justifications of any new idea in the present. The conservative mind makes choices about how to interpret the world, live in the world, and structure our societies by ensuring there is a living continuity with the established traditions of our past. We consult with the enduring heritage of our civilization in order to bring forth prescriptive values that shape how we think and live today. The conservative mind does not embrace the new out of the blue and try to force the past to justify the convenience of its present desire. Doing right according to the dictates of the heritage we wish to conserve is more important to the conservative mind than winning a debate or an election. Doing right by the prescriptive implications of the heritage we wish to conserve is the actual sacred act of being conservative.
The unprincipled conservatives in the United States are seriously disconnected from the customs, conventions, and moral truths of their own traditions. Instead of willfully conserving the past, unprincipled conservatives often rush to the new in the lust to win. Any party pronouncement, no matter how absurd and contrary to common sense, is supported through the unprincipled lust to feel powerful. The irony of unprincipled conservatives feeling powerful by behaving like sheep, who are being led by the nose, is more than a little disturbing. In allowing themselves to be disconnected from their own heritage, unprincipled conservatives have become vulnerable to any new or radical thing that captures their fancy or seduces their lust for power. Such disconnected behavior by unprincipled conservatives is wholly lost and fundamentally anti-conservative. This destructive anti-conservative phenomenon has grown to the point that leaders of political parties now ask their followers to deny their own common sense in favor of remaining blindly faithful. This is right out of the dystopian novel 1984:
"The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command."
– George Orwell's novel 1984.
In 2019, Big Brother is everywhere. Big government and big business are watching you through your computers, phone, TV, and internet connected appliances. The individual acts that are done in order to quietly watch you, with your semi-conscious consent, number in the dozens to thousands per day (depending on your usage of the internet). In the context of this omnipresent surveillance, we are told by leaders to deny our own sense, to forsake our own capacity to reason in favor of blind party loyalty, and to replace responsible conservative thought with the blind chanting of simplistic marketing slogans. Conservative minds are not the minds of sheep. The conservative mind rejects all such Orwellian nonsense. There is an American tradition of taking responsibility to think for ourselves, even if it means questioning authority.
"It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”
- Benjamin Franklin
“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
- George Washington
“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.”
- Thomas Jefferson
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people.”
- Theodore Roosevelt
It is the most essential conservative command to pay close and intelligent attention to the enduring moral truths, customs, conventions, and prescriptions of our rich heritage. To use the information provided from our own eyes and ears in order to actually think about the world in a conservative manner is the essential soul of the conservative mind. Conservatism is not about giving up our own responsibilities and asking someone else to always lead us and do our thinking for us. The conservative mind always holds itself accountable to questioning everything in relation to its own knowledge of its cherished heritage. The dictates of any leader must always be questioned in comparison to the dictates of our heritage's enduring moral truths, customs, conventions, and prescriptions, which we have chosen to embrace. This assumes that we have actually paid enough attention to that heritage in order to make our own choices.
The conservative mind does not just blindly support the proclamations of a few leaders as if they somehow, magically, have the power to represent the totality of our heritage. We must actually step up as responsible conservatives and choose what we are going to conserve. Nothing is conserved that is not considered in the context of our choosing how to live. The conservative mind connects its present living with best of the heritage from its past. Deciding what is best in our heritage requires that we choose what to embrace in our heritage. The conservative mind does not embrace every new and novel innovation of ambitious pretenders just because they claim to speak for all of conservatism. The key to thriving well as a conservative is to pay close, personal attention to our own heritage, which helps us answer the essential conservative question, "What are You Choosing to Conserve?". The persistent attentiveness needed to answer this question is the workhorse of conservative worldviews. The labor of attending to this question is the heart and soul of the conservative mind. The failure to be selective about what to conserve means that many conservatives are simply repeating what they are hearing spoken in public, which is often the shallow distortions of a small group of special interests who are only interested in conserving their own power and money.
Can Conservatism Really be Defined by Principles?
The first four principles in Kirks 1987 lecture relate to the essential essence of all conservatism. This essence is that in order to be conservative, something must be conserved. The rest of his principles are subject to a much greater range of interpretation with regard to their status as conservative principles. Virtually all conservatives agree with the first four principles. And all possible definitions of conservatism are at least partially covered by the essence of those four principles. All people who embrace the label of conservative must seek to conserve something. All self-identified conservatives, and this label covers a vast diversity of humanity, are looking to repeat something from the past. The rest of Kirk's principles may or may not be necessary to the idea of conservatism, even though all ten principles have had wide support from conservatives since before The Conservative Mind was written. Yet, it is possible, and probably necessary, to take the essential first four principles and connect them to different sets principles as part of the process of exploring conservatism.
So far in this essay, one could be forgiven for inferring that we thought that establishing the existence of necessary conservative principles was the complete and satisfying answer to defining conservatism. It is true that principles lend extraordinary defining substance to conservatism. It is also true that the complete absence of principles kills the possibility of any coherent "ism". However, asking if a particular set of principles or if principles in general can actually define conservatism in a complete manner is a separate question with less than clear answers.
Conservatism is not a simple object with the same razor sharp and crystal clear definability that we have with the task of defining a water molecule or a hammer. The most basic assumption about defining conservatism is that it will make it possible to distinguish the conservative from the non-conservative. This is not as straightforward as one might think. Kirk insisted that there is no iron clad list of principles to absolutely define conservatism, but his first four principles are as close as it gets to being just that. However, I found that Kirk's first four principles cannot define conservatism in a way that reliably distinguishes the conservative from the non-conservative. Ironically, this failure exists precisely to the extent that the principles are either true or useful.
To illustrate the difficulty in defining conservatism, consider the nature of the first four principles, which have something to say about all conservatism. The four principles are reducible to one defining essence, which is that in order to be conservative, something must be conserved. This is as clear and simple as it gets with regard to illustrating a defining essence of conservatism. Kirk's four principles are all about choosing what parts of our past we want to bring to life in the present and the future. The idea that conservatives ought to respect the enduring moral order, customs, conventions, and prescriptions of our heritage both in our living and in our philosophy of governance is not the slightest bit controversial among virtually all conservatives. However, there are two things that inhibit this defining essence from helping us to identify conservatives from non-conservatives.
First, implementing Kirk's first four principles of conservatism means that conservatives must, by the very nature of what is required to follow the four principles, sometimes do the opposite. There is not one conservative on the planet who imports the whole of our civilization's heritage of morals, customs, conventions and prescriptions. This is literally physically impossible. Therefore, all conservatives must be very selective. In the act of choosing what portions of our heritage we wish to embrace, we also act to reject a portion of our heritage. Therefore, all conservatives sometimes must reject various interpretations or aspects of the enduring moral order, and reject many customs, conventions, and prescriptions that are part of our whole history of heritage in order to be faithful to the conservative principle. In order to choose some things to be conserved; other things must be left behind.
Second, there is significant truth in the conservative principle. This means that it is true for all and not just true for conservatives. There is not a single so called liberal on the planet who absolutely rejects every trace of our civilization's heritage and decides to do everything new. This is also impossible. All liberals conserve something sometimes. All conservatives sometimes do the opposite of the conservative principle and all so called non-conservatives sometimes obey the conservative principle because the principle in plain truth is not a principle for "conservatives". The conservative principle is a human principle that has benefit for all humanity not just for people who claim the label "conservative". To the extent that conservative principles are either true or useful, they are true or useful for all and are therefore cannot define conservatism in a way that reinforces group identity in the manner that is popular in U.S. politics. All human beings conserve something from the past. All human beings let some portion of our heritage die.
If even the first four of Kirk's principles are limited in their capacity to define conservatism in terms of identity, we must realize an important truth. The truth is that any other conservative principle not reducible to the essence of conserving is less able to define conservatism in terms of group identity than Kirk's first four principles. Kirk claimed that conservatism is neither a religion nor a dogma. He said that conservatism is a body of opinion, while leaving it open as to exactly what that body of opinion must be. There must be diversity in conservative thought and principles because that is part of the enduring nature of humanity, which is the foundation of the enduring moral order. Whatever definability conservatism has, it will not be expressed in terms of a comprehensive list of principles that all conservatives must obey all the time. This is impossible. There are no principles that can reliably distinguish the conservative from the non-conservative in terms of group identity. Only the essential conservative principle (actually conserving our heritage) defines conservatism for all humanity, which breaks down the group exclusive defining habits that are popular in U.S. politics. All humans have both inclinations to conserve the past and to innovate a new present.
The inability to create an absolute list of principles all conservatives must obey, Kirk's relegation of conservative ideas to the realm of opinion, the fact of extraordinary diversity in genuine conservative thought and choice, and the universality of the essential conservative principle, all illustrate that any principled definition of conservatism is going to be limited. Kirk's understanding of conservatism allowed for considerable diversity of thought, but the marketing interests of today's unprincipled conservatism always wants artificial conformity at all cost. Much of the passion to precisely define conservatism today exists to only serve the consolidation of the power of special interests. But the defining power of the conservative mind is its capacity to actually conserve a heritage. This defining conserving act of individual conservative minds exists in accord with a diversity of genuine conservative thought and choice that serves the wellbeing of the nation.
Can Conservatism be Defined
in Terms of Claims about Knowledge?
In contemporary U.S. political talk, questions about the validity of knowledge permeate almost everything. The whole of American political discourse in the U.S. is continuously spiraling around questions about who has the needed knowledge to solve problems, who has just another useless opinion, and how can we tell difference. Does conservatism have a unique take on these questions that enables us to use it in defining the difference between conservatives and non-conservatives? An example of a unique claim about knowledge that correlates with identity is found in Christianity. There is a claim in Christianity that all Christians have access to reliable knowledge through the special revelation of God. The claim that Christians have reliable knowledge gained through special revelation is often contrasted with their claims about the unreliable opinions of non-Christians, who are separated from God. This unique Christian claim about trustworthy knowledge could be used in attempts to create a definition of Christianity that distinguish all Christians, who have access to trustworthy knowledge from God, from all non-Christians, who have no such access. Whether or not any such attempts at defining Christianity are satisfying is a separate question. The question here is, "Is there anything like this for conservatism?". As we seek an answer to this question, we cannot just import claims about knowledge from any particular aspect of the heritage that any particular conservative may look up to. For example, the possible defining uniqueness of Christianity's claims about knowledge may help define the Christian conservative, but it does not define the non-Christian conservative. Is there anything about conservatism's relationship to knowledge that helps us define conservatism itself and thereby define all conservatives?
Conservatism as a self-aware perspective was born partly in relation to a specific criticism of knowledge. Edmund Burke, who is considered to be the father of Anglo-American conservatism, gave us the first historically notable glimpse of this conservative criticism in his response to the French revolution. It is possible to frame some of Burke's response to the French revolution in terms of issues about human knowledge. The traditional conservative criticism of the knowledge of "liberals" and "radicals", which is often linked back to Burke, consists of the conservative insistence that social and political problems cannot be solved through the application of isolated theoretical reasoning applied through abstract principles. Theoretical, or a priori, reasoning is seen as a problem when it is done in isolation from a serious consideration of the history of human experience. When theoretical reasoning about social and political changes is isolated from any consideration of the relevant historical heritage of the context in question, traditional conservatism considers such reasoning to be highly likely to produce defective knowledge. The ideas and abstract reasoning of one armchair philosopher about changing a whole society, whether it is formulated over the weekend, a period of years, or even a lifetime are less trusted by conservatives than the wisdom that comes from the whole history of an ancient civilization's historical vetting of knowledge and its formation of sociopolitical structures.
It may seem strange to some to try to define conservatism in terms of a claim to superior knowledge and reasoning when its foundation seems much more sentimental. Kirk wrote during his discussion of Burke in The Conservative Mind, "The individual is foolish, but the species is wise; prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites."9 The desire to let our heritage have a say in the present may be nothing more than a sentimental bias. Our attachment for the embrace of ancient prescriptions may be a matter of pious reverence. The presumptions we employ to interpret the world may have simply been handed down to us as an inheritance of heritage toward which we possess a deeply felt trust. Sentimental, reverent trust is not considered by philosophers to be sufficient for the vetting of knowledge. But the bindings of sentiment, reverence, and trust open the conservative mind to the tremendous value of the knowledge and wisdom generated by a vast history of human thriving. Such bindings connect us to the historical vetting of knowledge and institutions that we inherit with the development of a whole civilization. Such bindings are the essential heart of conservative perspective. The power to connect to a heritage, which we find in our personal attachments are not the end goal of conservatism, but merely the beginning. These sentimental attachments are an invitation to continue on a journey with a powerful friend to help us on the way. To form a friendship with our heritage as we work to interpret life is the founding alliance of conservatism. Our sentiments, reverence and trust are not, in point of fact, rational. But they are the conservative foundation for binding ourselves to a capacity for increasing the quality of our reasoning about the values and goals of life. To open ourselves to learn from our own history can be an act of the highest rational value and is a benefit to all humanity.
There are two things that make the traditional conservative criticism of theoretical reasoning on social and political change a candidate for use in defining conservatism. First, this criticism of theoretical knowledge is a very common epistemological element in the history of traditional conservative thought and therefore stands some chance of covering a wide diversity of conservatives. Second, it is related to the essential defining act of conserving in a very basic way because it is an epistemological argument that justifies conservatives' attachment to the legacies of their heritage. Yet, there are also two things that limit this traditional conservative criticism of "liberal knowledge" from being useful for distinguishing the conservative from the non-conservative in a defining manner.
First, unlike the unique Christian claims about the knowledge verifying power of God, which definitively draws a difference between Christian and non-Christian, the conservative take on improving our reasoning about social and political issues is a matter of common human perspective. There are no serious philosophical arguments, which state that theoretical reasoning alone is sufficient for building a civilization. It is a matter of common human sense to understand the basic need to consider the history of human experience as we solve problems. Second, traditional conservatism does not reject theoretical reasoning categorically nor insists that theoretical reasoning be completely excluded from our attempts to think about social and political change. For all human beings, conservative and non-conservative alike, the observation of human experience and our ability to reason theoretically are joined together in the functioning of our minds.
This means that the claims about knowledge that come out of traditional conservatism are not able to provide us with a defining ability to reliably distinguish between conservatives and non-conservatives. Some non-conservatives seriously consider the preservation of the legacies of our civilization as they abstractly reason about social and political change. In moments of such behavior, the so called liberals can wholly or partially express the conservative principle. Some conservatives are comfortable engaging in theoretical reasoning as the leading edge of their engagement of social and political issues, even though they do not let go of their commitment to conserve the knowledge, principles, and institutions of their inherited legacy. In their theoretical comforts the so called conservative brings forth a so called liberal flavor of reasoning. The real defining resolve to our question here is one of individual expression. Each conservative is responsible to express their own opinions with regard to choosing what should be conserved from a beloved heritage. Each conservative is responsible to embrace some set of methods for conserving. Every individual is capable of a unique expression of the conservative act. As such, the essential conservative principle, which is that to be conservative one must conserve something, only applies at the individual level. Conservatism is not an absolute, unchangeable list of agreements on what to conserve and how to do it. Conservatism is the individual standing up and acting to make such conservation real. Conservatism is our individual attachment to and execution of the conservative act. The individual feels a connection to a heritage, chooses what in that heritage must be conserved, and acts to conserve. This individuality of expressing the conservative principle allows for extraordinary diversity. Any answers to the question of conservative distinction that is based on the uniqueness of every individual's expression will not be useful for defining people in terms of the political group category "conservative" as is popularly done in the United States.
A Defining Problem within Conservatism
The functioning essence of conservatism is the act of conserving. Why should we conserve the past? The conservative claim about knowledge is, literally, the only justification of the existence of traditional conservatism. Nobody argues that we should conserve the past because it brings us incorrect knowledge or because making our heritage live in the present will destroy the society in which we live. All arguments that we should conserve some aspect of our inheritance from the past are grounded in an understanding that our heritage communicates useful knowledge or an understanding of how to live that is life affirming in some way. The knowledge of what it means to live well has been in development for millennia and the conservative mind wants to access to that valuable history in the present. This brings into focus, a defining problem within conservatism in the United States.
If the only justification for the existence of conservatism is related to its claims about knowledge, and these claims about knowledge demand that we pay rigorous attention to the details and history of our own heritage, then our only possibility for being conservatives is to participate in what turns out to be the defining conservative act. That act is to pay high quality attention to learning of our heritage, which involves interpreting our heritage, heeding the enduring moral truths, allowing ancient principles and well established traditions to have a say in the present, and using what we learn of our inheritance to assess the present. The closure of the defining act is to make a choice about what should be conserved and then to act to conserve it. The failure of many conservatives to even be self-aware of the necessity to make conservative choices in light of the knowledge of our heritage is a defining failure of conservatism in the United States. The less we pay attention to our heritage and the less we choose what is valuable from our own heritage and act to conserve it, then the less conservatism will be realistically defined in terms of being a living reality in the United States. This defining failure has resulted in the extraordinary disconnection of modern conservative political thought from our own heritage and the loss of power to conserve anything. If we do not understand our own heritage, we cannot use it to assess the present. If our heritage plays no role in assessing our nation's issues and evaluating the pronouncements of our leaders then we have no genuine conservative stand at all. If we have no real conservative stand at all, then we fall prey to every fake conservative pretender. The failure of many conservatives to bring forth the defining essence of conservatism in their thinking, choosing, and living has resulted in the severe distortion that is popular unprincipled conservatism.
An irony of conservatism in the U.S. today is that unprincipled conservatives now employ what a traditional conservative perspective could describe as a liberal epistemology in their assessments of political and social issues. The knowledge of traditional moral understandings and time tested conventions and practices have lost relevance as unprincipled conservatives support every novel idea and theoretical strategy of their leaders because they are functioning as passive consumers, who know only the desire to win in the present moment. Our heritage is never consulted in a conservatively principled manner when the concocted theoretical abstractions of how to win an election are the only focus of unprincipled, marketing obsessed, conservatives. To simply act as a consumer, choosing from the political menu that has been prepared for us, purchasing our choice with a vote then proceeding to blindly support that purchase no matter what, calls for the rejection of reasoning about our own heritage. The conservative mind is not the mind of the consumer sheep or the party parrot. The valuable moral principles, knowledge, and traditions of the past are being drowned in a flag colored bathtub filled with irrelevant marketing hype. Winning, as an end in itself, has become more important than truth. It has even been implied by some self-proclaimed representatives of conservatism that truth does not exist and can be replaced by "alternative facts" at the whim of the party. The rejection of the concept of truth is as anti-conservative as it gets. Who needs the time tested traditions of our heritage? We have an alternative tradition and heritage that we just made up! Conservative pretenders inhabit a lot of the political landscape in the United States. These pretenders believe they can just spit any foolish and immoral thing into the face of the U.S. public without any reverence at all for the moral truths, customs, conventions, and prescriptions that are the legacy of our esteemed heritage. That they are getting away with this bald defacing of conservative thought is a warning signal to us that traditional conservatism is dying in the United States.
Fitting right in with William F. Buckley's criticism of the liberal "social engineers", conservative leaders determine what is true and false at the voting booth because winning matters more than our heritage. In an apparent wish to outdo the "liberals", we see conservative leaders rushing to spend big. Many conservative leaders want to spend big money in the context of big government. Living up to a traditional conservative criticism of liberals, modern conservative leaders act as if they despise local governance and the voluntary community of local citizens, which has been a time tested ideal of traditional conservatism (see Kirk's 8th principle). National conservative leaders carelessly toss the traditional conservative principle of favoring local governance and the voluntary role of individual citizens in their community into the trash as they engage a mad rush to put as much power as possible in hands of as few people as possible (also departing from Kirk's 9th principle). The pseudo-conservative leaders of today have replaced the need for conservative principles and for conservative minds capable of taking heritage seriously with the need for dog whistles and pavlovian slobbering.
The conservative mind has no loyalty to pretenders just because they use the word "conservative" or any other favored terminology. The conservative mind, precisely to the extent that it is a conservative mind, only has loyalty to the ideal of working to make sure the legacies of our heritage have a real say in the present. The only way to engage such work is to be knowledgeable about our heritage enough to choose that which we believe should be conserved. Then we must allow our knowledge and our choices to shape how we assess the personal, social and political issues of our time. When we forsake our own knowledge of our own heritage in exchange for any new thing that serves an intemperate lust to win by any means, conservatism dies in forgetful ignorance. Unprincipled conservatives, who are this severely disconnected from a detailed, life affirming knowledge of their own heritage are unable to function fully as a conservative. The extraordinarily rich heritage of our civilization has much of value to say about how to live well and how to govern. Unfortunately, the cartoonish memes of the present hour have become a replacement for the thousands of years of human experience that make up our heritage, inform our religious and philosophical understandings, and have created the principled structure of our country. We have traded in a vast heritage for cartoon memes and junk talk. If we learn to think like a cartoon, we will die like a cartoon. The death of conservatism in the United States is not being boldly announced with the trumpets of angels. Conservatism is slowly dying to the sound of a sitcom laugh track as conservative identified people pay more attention to the irrelevant distractions of the present than they give to the enduring moral truths of the heritage they claim to want to conserve. It is time for all conservatives to seriously think about the question, "What do you want to conserve?"
When the Conservative Mind is Most Beautiful
With just an inkling of sentiment, a trace of reverence, a touch of deeply held trust in that which has enduring value, a human being can guide the rest of a life in the light of the values, ideas, and knowledge so esteemed. Even when we are profoundly ignorant, the slightest guidance on how to approach life can be used during the whole of a life to persistently seek the good in life. Every human being is born with an animal instinct for what is fair and good, even monkeys are born with that, but we are born with precious little real knowledge of what is just, what is good, what is of virtue in living, and what is worthy of our attention. In life, we must learn these things. The conservative mind has a faith in the idea that the past has something of value to teach us and that we do well to learn at the feet of our own heritage. There is nothing in the history of conservatism that proclaims to us that this learning happens by magic. The conservative mind is conservative only by virtue of its engagement in conserving actions, which result from making informed choices about our heritage. Genuine conservative actions that are the result of informed conservative choices are the defining movements of the conservative mind. Therefore, to the extent that it is genuinely conservative, the conservative mind is vigorous and persistent in asking questions of the past, because every act of conserving our heritage is an act of asking the past how to live in the present. The conservative mind deploys questions in its examination of life in order to make conservation possible. In the complete absence of questioning our heritage, the ability to conserve it is destroyed.
What should be conserved and what should be left to die? How shall we conserve it faithfully? What principles shall we live by and what does it mean to interpret those principles? What knowledge is relevant to a life well lived? What is justice? What is good? What is virtuous and excellent in regard to human character? Even if we have memorized what our chosen portion of heritage has taught on such questions, we still must ask what it means to live it out. Consider, for example, the teaching of Jesus that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. To say that there is a broad consensus among Christians that this teaching has substance and value for daily life is an understatement. Yet, how exactly do I love this particular neighbor on this particular day? What does it really mean to love myself? Even when the teachings of our heritage are all the truth we need for a particular issue, we still must ask important questions. We must develop a rigorous habit of asking questions in our examination of life especially if there is truth in the heritage we desire to conserve.
The conservative mind does not assume the completeness of its own knowledge. This is because such a haughty presumption of knowledge is a hindrance to our desire and ability to consult with our heritage in our daily life. Who needs to continue to study a scripture, or the founding documents of a nation, or our civilization's history of thought, if they already think they know it all? Who needs to ask of their heritage about the priorities of their living if they think their understanding is already perfect? Who needs a heritage at all if they believe they are self-sufficient? The imperfectability of humanity is Kirk's 6th principle. What Kirk applied in reference to the structuring of social order is also relevant to the individual. The conservative mind does not assume the perfection of its own understanding. The habit of unprincipled conservatives insisting they are always right in everything they advocate, merely to score political points, is a complete defilement of Kirk's sixth principle.
The arrogance of playing the "I am always right" game defiles the essence of conservatism to the extent that this shallow insistence on our own perfection tends to stop us from giving real thought to our own heritage. People who force themselves to think that they are always right do not need the continuing help of their heritage to make choices. The conservative mind has an abiding faith that its heritage is a powerful daily ally in its continuing quest for wisdom and expresses a commitment to conversing both with that heritage and with one another about that heritage. The results of our own efforts to conserve will often only be fully known in light of long term consequences. Therefore, the conservative mind gives due diligence to expressing our capacity to question and reason in order to excel at bringing the best of the past into the present. Examining our heritage with a view to make it live in the present is literally how a conservative must work in order to conserve. The instant conservatives stop consulting with their heritage, conservatism begins to die. The conservative mind is most beautiful when it is most conserving. The process of conserving a heritage is impossible without the knowledge of that heritage, which empowers the conservative mind to ask the important questions about how to live well.
The Conservative Mind and The Examined Life
The call of conservatism invites us to examine life in the light of the principles, ideas, traditional practices, ethical considerations, and wisdom generated by an ancient civilization. We have inherited a vast legacy from a heritage that spans a significant portion of the recorded history of humanity. The call of conservatism is an invitation to not forget that heritage. It is a call to be vigilant about learning from the finest teachers, leaders, cultural and political practices, thinkers and spiritual guides that the entire history humanity has produced. There is an important saying in the dialogues of Plato, which directs our attention to the necessity of being mentally alive and questioning. It is a saying that resonates deeply with the sacred call of conservatism. Plato's saying is, "The unexamined life is not worth living". To live the examined life is to be vigilant every day in our quest for knowledge and the virtue of human character. The examined life regularly asks questions about our understanding of what it means to live well and to be well. The call to conservatism is not an invitation to rest complacently in the false idea that we are somehow perfect, have "arrived", or must somehow always have the correct answer in a political debate. The conservative mind does not embrace the arrogant attitude that it has no need to learn useful things from valuable resources about life's most important issues. The examined life of the conservative mind assumes the imperfection of its own knowledge and seeks to strengthen its understanding of justice and virtue, of individual and social responsibility, of the nature of the public and national good, of our ethical obligations, and of what is good in life, while faithfully embracing our heritage as a valuable ally in this task.
Those, who live an examined life, question the knowledge, ideas, character, and behavior, of themselves and their society in order to improve their understanding and increase their capacity for good. The conservative mind is eager to learn of its own heritage as its gives careful examination to the task of living well. The conservative mind allows the heritage it wants to conserve to teach, challenge, and lead it into the future. The call of conservatism is a call to live an examined life as we thoughtfully embrace our heritage to help us see clearly. Examining life together in the light of our own heritage is the hearth and home of conservatism. The only way to fully live out Kirk's vision of the conservative as being a person of the future rooted in the past is for us to be diligently attentive to examining life in the present. The great beauty of the conservative mind is that its thoughtful examination of life through the lens of its heritage makes possible the existence of genuinely conservative choices, which help to preserve the best of our past so that the people of today can have a better tomorrow.
A Call to Conservative Action!
In the absence of fully functioning conservatism in the United States, the republic we have known and loved will not be conserved and shall pass away. The time for genuine conservative choice is now!
What are you choosing to conserve???
1. Buckley, William F., from the cover of the 7th edition of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Washington D.C., Gateway Editions; 7th Revised edition, 2001.
2. Kirk, Russell, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Washington D.C., Gateway Editions; 7th Revised edition, 2001.
3. Feulner, Edwin, (accessed 10-23-2019), https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/the-roots-modern-conservative-thought-burke-kirk, 2008.
4. Kirk, Russell, First Principles Series: Ten Conservative Principles, The Heritage Foundation, 1986.
5. Lincoln, Abraham, Cooper Union Address, 1860.
6. Buckley, William F., Our Mission Statement, The National Review, 1955.
7. Adams, John, letter to Mercy Warren, April 16, 1776.
8. Kirk, First Principles, p. 5.
9. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 34.