Profiles in Conservatism: Looking Behind

The essence of Conservatism is to look to the past when searching for answers. Not out of nostalgia, because we long for a utopian past where society only had a few minor problems that could be solved by a Sheriff without a gun, but on the contrary, because the past is full of problems. We face the past, not blind to history’s failures, but embracing them so we can make a change.

The current state of Conservatism is one of great crisis, and essentially of civil war. There are those who say the way to save Conservatism is to embrace “progressivism lite.” On some points, such “progress” may be in order, but as a whole, it is only fitting that anyone who claims the name Conservative should first pause, and look back.

This year, I propose we look back. Throughout the year, I will be profiling the greatest Conservative thinkers on days of note in their lives and in history. For our purposes, I will stay in the modern era, and focus on the Anglo-American tradition of Conservatism, which is sufficient to supply us with numerous thinkers and leaders who have faced tragedies greater than ours. These men were forged by history, learned from crisis, and “stood athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’”

Together these men may best be described as eclectic dissidents. Among them there are Catholics and agnostics, a French Aristocrat and a French Rebel, an American Revolutionary and an English Whig. Some described themselves as traditionalists. Some, mostly due to the regional understanding of the term, shunned the title of Conservative at all, one even going so far as to call himself “a man of the left.”

They are novelists, poets, travellers, academics, and politicians. What they all have in common is a belief that man cannot forge heaven on earth, but that he has all to often managed to forge himself a hell. They all recognized that the hope for man is not in man, whether it be man the individual or man the state.

Instead, they all shared a belief in moral transcendence, and that all men are equally bound to a transcendent set of virtues, or Natural Law. United in the belief that mankind is a brotherhood made equal by the grave, they cared less for numbers and more for virtue.

They all deplored centralization and autonomism equally, recognizing instead that individuals can only be diverse and free when grounded in community. History taught them that community would keep the more selfish instincts of the individual in check, so that the individual would have no need to rely on centralized power. It would also in turn keep centralized power check by providing support and identity to the individual, and jealously guarding its place and power in society.

Today’s Conservatives, if an alliance of nationalists, interventionists, and materialists can be described as such, have failed time and again to connect with everyman. This is surprising, because the philosophers of their namesake obsessed with the nature of man and how to forge a society where he could live happily.

The past election cycle should have served as a humbling one for Conservatives. Anyone who is still bombastically blundering about how we must carry on with “titanium spines” has failed to engage in the Conservative practice of facing reality. The reality is that spines are not made of titanium, and for quite a good reason. Spines have to bend quite often in order not to break. Of course it should never stay bent, indeed, the healthy spine, after having to bend, will straighten perfectly back into shape.

The act of bending may be humbling, but it is necessary to do the two most Conservative acts: to look behind and to kneel.

Brian Miller | George Mason University | @BrianKenMiller

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2 Responses

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  1. Mark
    Feb 04, 2013 - 04:23 PM


    How anti-Semitic are you really? Every comment you make bashes Israel.

  2. Christopher Rushlau
    Jan 30, 2013 - 04:57 PM

    The problem with this project is that “conservative” and “liberal”, as standard terms of political philosophy, mean the same thing: reliance on the reasonableness of the individual, the need for limited government for when free association among persons does not produce mutual satisfaction, and the right of persons to be assisted in the life of virtue, as opposed to being thrown in a dog-fight at birth. That said, let’s see what you’ve written today.
    Okay, on the capitol in Lincoln, NB, are written the words, “Constant vigilance is the price of liberty.”
    The definition of reasonableness is that you can be moderately aware of what’s going on around you, so as to communicate this to other persons. So the first moral implication is: pay attention. But the second, by implication, is: do not obsess. That word means “sit down in front of”. When doctrines replace “what’s happening now”, politics becomes a sick religion. The only doctrine can be that we have to always work on paying attention to what’s happening now. A minor implication, then, will be that sometimes things are alright and I can go watch the sunset.
    Modern Israel is the great test of our political philosophy. Why not discuss its legal and moral credentials, and those of its supporters in the US? In that light, “liberal” and “conservative” both seem to have come to mean “toady for Israel”. That’d be bad enough if Israel was any sort of a viable enterprise. As a suicidal lynch mob, its centrality in our civic life makes our politics nothing of the sort I have in mind (above), but rather an organized denial of what’s happening now. There is no stupidity stronger than organized stupidity.
    Now we have to break that down for everyday purposes. Purple prose is for nostalgia. Yearning for the past is a major component of denial, and I guarantee that whatever past we yearn for, it never really happened that way.


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