This essay is going to be on the topic of, "What is conservatism?" Or, more accurately, this essay is going to be on the topic of, "What is conservatism as I understand it?" I make no claims to originality. In fact, this essay will be extremely derivative. It will be derived from the thoughts of many men, men who in turn derived their thoughts from many other men &c. But that is necessary and as it should be, as I hope will be clear in the end.
First and foremost, I tend to see the distinction between liberals and conservatives as a distinction between two views on man's summum bonum and the foundation of a just society. Liberals view freedom as man's greatest good and the foundation of a just society. Since freedom is primarily an attribute of the will, it follows that liberal views assert the will as man's highest power and assert the primacy of the will in the life of man.
Conservatism, on the other hand, views order as the greatest good and the foundation of a just society. And since it is reason that orders things, it follows that conservatives view reason or the intellect as man's highest power and assert the primacy of reason in the life of man.
Now, if we accept these preliminary definitions as true, it follows that most of the so-called conservatives in the United States are not conservatives at all, but rather liberals. Far too many of them drone on about freedom and the ability to have endless choices as if these were goods in themselves. They are not conservatives at all, but rather right-liberals.
Key to the liberal exaltation of the will and freedom is the idea of autonomy. The autonomous individual is a law unto himself. As long as he is not causing physical harm to others, there can be no legitimate rule or norm imposed from without to bind or limit his will. This does not simply include the freedom of being left alone so favored by pure laissez-faire capitalism, which holds that, as long as one party is not harming another party by violence, theft, breaking faith on a freely entered into contract &c., there is no reason for there to be any laws governing the trading of goods and services. It also includes the freedom, so favored by feminists, homosexuals, abortion supporters &c., which actively seeks to destroys any law, custom or norm that that seeks to limit the number of choices open to individuals through legal punishment, social scorn, cultural ostracism &c.
Conservatives, as previously stated, do not see freedom, but rather order as the foundation of a just society. This order is not, however, an arbitrary arrangement. The order conservatives favor is an order rooted in the natural law and in human nature, permanent truths and principles of what it means to be human.
This does not, however, mean that conservatism is founded upon pure abstractions. This is far from the truth. The truths of the natural law and human nature are arrived at not by beginning with the universal and trying to reason them out. Rather, they are found in the human experience as lived by particular individuals and observed across the centuries. It is through history, the memory not simply of an individual, but of a people, a race, a species, that we may find the experience necessary to discover how man should live, how he should not and the consequences of each.
Some may think that even though history and the particular deeds of particular men and particular societies are the source of our grasping the principles of the natural law, it follows from the fact of the universality of these principles that they have universal application. Such a view may be true or false, depending on the meaning of the "universal application." If it meas that the principles of the natural law are valid and binding on all men at all times, then this is true. But if it means that the application of the principles of the natural law must be the same for all men at all times, then it is false.
The application of universal principles to particular situations requires particularity. It requires the use of prudence, or practical reason, to discern what the universals principles of the natural law require in these particular circumstances. The primacy of reason in the foundation of a just society is the primacy of prudence, for it is prudence that allows for the universal norms of the natural law--as discovered through human nature lived out historically--to be applied to the particular and concrete circumstances each society faces.
Prudence forces us to realize that in many things, especially the form of government that a society adopts, there is not necessarily a single, universally applicable solution. What is best for one society may heavily depend upon their specific circumstances. Trying to force other societies, especially ones with completely different historical and cultural circumstances, to fit the mold of our own is the height of folly. A conservative in a democratic society would feel no need to try to eliminate another societies monarchy, for he would realize that either form of government is capable of establishing and sustaining a rightly ordered society.
The primacy of prudence also favors the more particular over the less particular, the more local over the less local. Or, to put it another way, solutions should not be further removed from problems than they must be. This is because particulars differ in their circumstances, and thus sometimes differ in how one should properly apply the universal norms of the natural law. This is not to say that we can never treat things as members of a species or type rather than particulars, or that laws can never be passed on a level higher than the most local. It only means that one should not do this if it is not necessary. If something is a problem for a town rather than for the country, then there is no reason to pass laws at the national level rather than the local. If an action is not objectively evil in its species, then it must be dealt with according to the particulars of intent and circumstances.
The favoring of the local and particular does not simply mean that, all thing considered, laws should be passed by local communities rather than at a higher level. It means that non-governmental, non-legal organizations should be respected and can be forces that stabilize society and enforce moral norms without the need to pass laws and prosecute people. Societal pressure, backed by the support of local religious communities, civic organizations, commonly accepted morality &c., can be influential and effective in supporting the common good.
The primacy of prudence is also demands respect and deference to tradition and custom. For tradition and custom are nothing less than the prudence of our ancestors. They are decisions made to apply the universal principles of the natural law to the particular circumstances of our society that have been found to stand the test of time. This does not mean that traditions and customs can never change. If circumstances change, then it may be necessary that they change also. But in changing traditions and customs it is important for the change to happen gradually and organically. For if we are mistaken about the need for change or about what kind of change is necessary we may find that radical change--change that cuts off tradition and custom at their roots--causes more evils than it cures. Gradual and organic change allows us to observe the effects the change is having as it is being made, as well as allowing us to alter or abandon the changes we have decided upon if it appears they are not for the best.
It should be obvious, then, that conservatism is not revolutionary, at least not insofar as "revolutionary" means "in favor of overthrowing the current order in order to institute a new, better and more just order." Such an idea is antithetical to conservatism. Overthrowing the current order cuts a people of from its history and traditions, i.e. from its memory and its attempts to prudently apply the natural law to its concrete circumstances. Such a loss makes the further application of prudence towards the implementation of the principles of the natural law incredibly difficult, if not impossible. More importantly, the total overthrow of traditional political and social norms is foolish in the extreme, for it destroys the good as well as the bad, making it more likely that a greater evil will arise than the evils that the revolution attempts to abolish.
In another sense, however, conservatism is revolutionary. For insofar as "revolution" means "a returning, a turning back," conservatism is inherently revolutionary. For conservatism has a constant impetuous to return to the principles of the natural law, to return to history as the place where these principles are discovered and clarified through the concrete actions of particular men, to tradition as the prudent application of these principles to the particular circumstances of a people &c.
It follows, then, that where a revolution in the first sense has been successful and destroyed the organic traditions of a people it becomes the conservative's job to bring about a revolution in the second sense, a counter-revolution. The conservative has the duty to follow the reactionary imperative that the situation demands. He must do all that he can restore that which has been senselessly destroyed and to stay true to those truths that have been betrayed.
It must be remembered, however, that the power of conservatism does not come through force of arms. A conservative does not shy away from war when it is prudent or necessary. He does, however, realize that war is primarily the means of the revolutionary, for war is inherently destructive. War may be prudent, necessary and just when no other means will be successful in defending the traditions and order of society, and when the evils of not fighting will be greater than the evils brought about by war. But war is always to be a last resort.
No, the primary power of conservatism is the cultural and spiritual capital inherent in the traditions of a people. It must be remembered that the revolutionary has no true understanding of human nature, and thus the way of life the revolution tries to enforce upon people is non-human. The conservative brings about the counter-revolution by cultivating the truly human way of life found in the cultural and spiritual traditions of his people. He cultivates these in his own life, the life of his family, the life of his community &c. In-so-doing he concretely expresses and demonstrates the superiority of these traditions.
What, then, should be the prospects for conservatives today? I can speak with no authority other than what little I have as a man who seeks to know the truth about reality and to live in accord with this truth through prudent action. But I would suggest the following: Believe in God, go to Church, live your faith. Pass it on to your children. Stay true to the traditions of your family, your town, your state and your country (in that order). Teach your children to do the same. If you can or must, home-school your children. Keep your garden. Do what you can to support your town, especially local businesses. Work to keep it self-sufficient rather than tied to uncaring corporate giants on the other side of the country, or even the other side of the world. Seek the true and ordered liberty that comes when every man walks in the name of the Lord, and sits under his vine, and his own fig tree, and there is nothing to make any afraid (Micheas IV.i-v).
Now, there are some who will say that this is nothing but a retreat. They will argue that it is required that we engage the culture. But "to engage" can mean "to enter into battle with." And the culture is poison. What enters into battle with poison? Nothing but its antidote. Living such a life is nothing less than becoming an antidote to the poison of modern culture. And as long as poison and its antidote are together, either in the same blood stream or the same society, they are engaged by definition.
As I said in the beginning of this essay, there is most likely nothing original in it. And this is as it should be, since I am a member of a tradition of better and wiser men than myself, who have gone before me and shown me the way. If I can show others the path they have shown to me, then that is enough. And, if by some chance I have said something that is both original and true, if I have gone further down the path they uncovered, it is only because they showed me the path and taught me how to walk it.
This is one of the ironies of conservatism. Trying to shake off the past in an attempt to be original destroys piety while simply repeating old errors. Staying true to the past out of reverence and piety, on the other hand, is the only true source of originality. May I never seek to be original and may I always seek to be pious.