Wednesday, August 04, 2010

What Conservatism Is.

From "What's Wrong With the World" by G.K. Chesterton:

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl's hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict's; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

G.K. Chesterton was the perhaps the greatest modern apologist for Christianity. The levity of his writing frequently disguised the profundity of his thought. Chesterton realised that at the 19th Century that there were many social ills. Society at that time had serious problems which needed to be solved and traditional solutions did not work. He recognised that the "progressives" were willing to change society, but in the wrong direction, whilst the traditionalists at the time did not want to change society at all.

Chesterton recognised that before any social change should take place an understanding of life and things in general needed to be made:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Chesterton realised we needed to understand the "truth" of the matter before we proceeded with societal change. While Chesterton respected tradition (the democracy of the dead) he respected truth more. The aim of man and society was to live "rightly" and with that implied the concept of right and wrong.

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word "orthodox." In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law--all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, "I suppose I am very heretical," and looks round for applause. The word "heresy" not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word "orthodoxy" not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.

Therefore Conservatism is therefore the desire to live rightly, from which politics proceeds.
As "ought" can't be derived from is ultimately questions of right or wrong are religious questions. Therefore the Conservative view is premised on three things.

1) The belief in religion
2) The belief in right and wrong.
3) The desire to live according to those beliefs.

Over at James Kalb's there is an interesting paper up for discussion, Traditionalism and the American Order, which asserts that the American Revolution was the first Liberal Revolution and from a traditionalist view point it is. The thing about traditionalism is, that a thing is liberal relative to the traditions you want to preserve. And if you're a European Monarchist, then the revolution was decidedly liberal, on the other hand if you're a traditionalist Marxist, it was a manifestation of bourgeoisie conservatism.

Chesterton would have had none of this rubbish. For Him, the founding fathers were convinced that they were doing God's work:
The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that is founded on creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism. and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.
It satisfies the test of Conservatism. It changed the world, but it changed it rightly.


Thursday said...

Chesterton, while I love him, was an exalter of the French Revolution and frequently a radical proponent of democracy. That particular passage sounds an awful lot like neo-conservative propaganda, i.e. liberal propaganda. America as an idea, instead of a people with a historical existence. I don't think you could come up with a more liberal piece of writing if you tried.

Accordingly, his analysis of the American Revolution seems incredibly weak and sentimental compared to that of Laurence Auster:

Many traditionalists believe there was a fateful flaw in the American Founding. It was that America's liberal principles, relating to abstract rights and the functioning of government, were explicit, while its conservative principles, relating to the moral and cultural nature of the society, were by and large only implicit. As a result, over time, the liberal principles grew more and more dominant, steadily delegitimizing more and more of America's conservative substance, until we were reduced to what we are now, the Radically Open Society, inclusive of everything and everyone in the world, and thus unable to protect our society from cultural and demographic forces that are radically incompatible with our way of life. For example, would there now be two or three million Moslems in our midst, including many Wahhabi fanatics and an unknown number of Al Qaeda terrorists, if we had continued to think of ourselves as a basically European, Christian people rather than as a universal democracy whose borders must be open to the people of every culture and religion on the planet? Similarly, would we today be facing the systematic removal of all Christian expressions from our public spaces, if the founders had placed in the Constitution itself their frequently expressed conviction that religion and morality are indispensable supports of free government? The possibility of such disasters did not occur to the Founders, as they assumed the existence and authority of traditional values in America and couldn't imagine their being radically attacked as they are today. But with the experience of 200 years under our collective belt, we can see that it was a major error on the Founders' part to fail to make it sufficiently clear in the Constitution and other documents that our society and our form of government are dependent on certain underlying cultural habits and moral and religious beliefs.

Notice that Auster doesn't deny that there is some truth in liberalism, but neither does he try to conflate that truth with the truth of conservatism. Abstract principles like equality and liberty are often good things. But that doesn't make them conservative.

The Social Pathologist said...
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The Social Pathologist said...

Chesterton had his flaws I agree but I doubt that Chesterton would of approved of any of the politics that goes on today. He was big one for local and cultural identity. In praising democracy(he did not say unqualified) he wasn't praising it at the expense of all else. I imagine would have looked at multiculturalism with horror.

Auster's analysis is naive.

“It is apprehended that Jews, Mahometans (Muslims), pagans, etc., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States. Those who are Mahometans, or any others who are not professors of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President or other high office, [unless] first the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do themselves.
[Elliot’s Debates, Vol. IV, pp 198-199, Governor Samuel Johnston, July 30, 1788 at the North Carolina Ratifying Convention]

The founding fathers knew that all the constitutions of the world would not restrain a wicked people. The problem isn't liberalism, the problem is atheism. The de-Christianisation of America/Anglosphere has only come about because the faithful did not care and the faiths of Catholics, Protestants and Baptists became wimpified.

Thursday said...

Lydia McGrew comments on the same passage:

Let's start with the ways in which this passage is badly misguided. Chesterton is, after all, endorsing a revolution for the purposes of redistributing property. One might hope that he was being hyperbolic, and perhaps he was. But still, revolutions are hardly a conservative sort of thing to endorse, and those who endorse them tend, rightly in my view, to make conservatives very uncomfortable.

Relatedly, Chesterton is taking as his desired end a particular type of social order, a utopian vision of a world in which there are no usurious landlords, and he is saying that this vision must be realized by radical action, come hell or high water. Again, this is about as un-Burkean as you can get, and I tend to side with Burke (and Kirk) on the very great dangers of utopianism. I see bloodshed or, at least, added human misery, as a result of words like Chesterton's here, and I see poor G. K. himself standing in the midst of the post-revolutionary wreckage crying out, "But this wasn't what I meant!"
[My emphasis] How many little girls would actually be gravely harmed by the attempt to bring about the utopian state Chesterton seeks? (And that, even if it were done non-violently.)

A huge problem with the passage is that it elevates one abstract principle above all others. That's just crazy. As Lydia McGrew notes the passage is deeply disturbing and about as unconservative as can possibly be.


Here's another disturbing passage from Chesterton on the French Revolution:

That which was irritating about the French Revolution was this -- that it was not the introduction of a new ideal, but the practical fulfilment of an old one. From the time of the first fairy tales men had always believed ideally in equality; they had always thought that something ought to be done, if anything could be done, to redress the balance between Cinderella and the ugly sisters. The irritating thing about the French was not that they said this ought to be done; everybody said that. The irritating thing about the French was that they did it. They proposed to carry out into a positive scheme what had been the vision of humanity; and humanity was naturally annoyed. The kings of Europe did not make war upon the Revolution because it was a blasphemy, but because it was a copy-book maxim which had been just too accurately copied. It was a platitude which they had always held in theory unexpectedly put into practice. The tyrants did not hate democracy because it was a paradox; they hated it because it was a truism which seemed in some danger of coming true.

Chesterton is right that egalitarianism has long been an important part of human values, as studies of hunter gatherer societies have shown, but the elevation of equality as an abstract principle above all others is a particularly modernist invention and as such not at all an eternal human verity. And the actual results of the Revolution were the Terror and the military dictatorship of Napoleon, both of which Chesterton soft pedals.


Conservatism, like all political philosophies, is of course ultimately concerned about the good and the true, but it is also very skeptical of the ability of anyone to ascertain the true and the good directly, particularly through any abstract principles. The good and the true can for the most part only be approached indirectly, at a certain remove, through what has proved itself through practice.

Thursday said...
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Thursday said...

I imagine would have looked at multiculturalism with horror.

Irrelevant. To slightly modify McGrew, I see poor G. K. himself standing in the midst of the post-multicultural wreckage crying out, "But this wasn't what I meant!

Thursday said...

The problem isn't liberalism, the problem is atheism.

Oh, the problem isn't atheism, it is antitraditionalism.

There is a nice discussion of the liberalism of John Paul II starting here. This is to say nothing of the liberalism (or at least the radical modernism) of Chesterton as outlined above. Belief in God, religion etc. would seem to be an extremely unreliable bulkhead against liberalism or modernism in general. Anyway there is no evidence that people are becoming irreligious. They're rejecting traditional religion, but even in places like Western Europe the vast majority still believe either in a personal god or some other supernatural force overseeing the universe.

The Social Pathologist said...

It's strange that you should invoke Lydia McGrew in the debate, I was actually reading up on her stoush with James Kalb yesterday, thinking she was mighty unfair on him for not towing the anti-Islamic party line.

Now she may side with Burke but I side with Chesterton.

Sometimes you've just got to bring out the canon and grapeshot. Now there may be better and more prudential ways of bringing about change, ways which are consistent with Christian tradition and Doctrine but sometimes radical change is what you have to do.

The American founding fathers tried all the traditional approaches in reconciling their differences with the British Crown, but in the end it had to be sword and musket. And they were right(and therefore quite rightly called radical conservatives). BTW with the approval of Burke.

Here's another disturbing passage from Chesterton on the French Revolution:

I agree that Chesterton romantisises the revolution and is far less critical of it than he should be, however the lesson to be taken from the revolution is that traditional French society was failing.

Firstly, by failing to practically acknowledge that French society had problems and secondly, by failing to provide a mechanism to diffuse the tensions.

Imagine you are a starving Frenchman watching your kids starve, the established order is doing nothing to ease your plight and in fact is making it worse, what are you going to do?

Listen to Kalb et al?: "Sorry old Chap, you might be in a bit of a bother and society is doing it tough, but you've got to remember that things are the way they are for a divine purpose, our ancestors made things this way for a purpose, there is a wisdom in the way things are even though you can't see it. If you try and changes things, it will only be for the worse.We'll try and sort it out over the next hundred years or so. Please lay down and die for the good of the country"

Hell, even I'd be tempted to slit his throat.

I know that this is a caricature of his argument but it's not too far off the mark.

The whole point of the French Revolution is that the traditional wisdom failed. It failed because tradition did not provide for any mechanism of adaptation. Indeed, the insistence of tradition rendered society sclerotic. Part of Kalb's criteria for the goodness of a society is the fact of its continual existence.

Traditional French society was actively being destablised by tradition and hence it must have been bad. And that's the problem, a society is a living morphing thing and old solutions do not help new problems. The trancedental truths which guide society must be actively reinterpreted within the context of the current situation. Tradition is there to counsel but reason is there to be obeyed. And if reason (informed by trancedental truths) tells us that tradition is wrong then tradition be damned.

The Jacobins would not have seized any power were the peasantry fat and happy.

The revolutionaries may have acted vilely but the cause was legitimate.
Chesterton was praising the cause not the methods.