Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Original Conservatism

The French revolutionaries learned that remaking society was a risky undertaking, and always is. The revolution teetered out of control, fell victim to military dictatorship, and perished after a quarter century of war.

The revolution endures in the historical memory as one of the pivotal events in modern European history. It unleashed previously dormant forces of republicanism, liberalism, and nationalism. Even after the defeat of Napoleon, Europe could not completely return to the status quo ante. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, conservative statesmen fashioned a settlement that led to nearly 100 years of peace in Europe. (A century and a half later,  Henry Kissinger saw the experience as a model for containment of the revolutionary Soviet Union). Conservatives restored as best they could the monarchy and the aristocracy dominated social and political order. And conservatives articulated a social and political ideology that supported that order. This became known as classical conservatism.

Classical conservatives saw society not as a collection of autonomous individuals inhabiting the same territory or political jurisdiction. Instead, they saw it as an organic unity. Some have likened society to a living organism. This unity, however, does not imply uniformity. Conservatives recognized that society exhibits a hierarchical structure based upon talent, virtues, inheritance, status, etc.

They also believed that ruling authority should reflect that hierarchy. Perhaps drawing upon Aristotle's conclusion that the best constitution is one in which the best people rule (an aristocracy), classical conservatives maintained that governing authority should be in the hands of people with talents and virtues. The challenge, however, was deciding who will discern these people and what will be the grounds for this discernment. European classical conservatives embraced the idea that only the aristocrats possessed the discernment necessary to decide such questions. Consequently, the aristocrats themselves served as a self- recruiting and self-perpetuating ruling order. A hereditary aristocracy with property in political office displaced Aristotle's aristocracy of virtue. Of course, at the head of his aristocracy is the monarch, “the first among equals.”

This conservative regime reinforced its position through distribution of titles and honors. They even maintained a legal system with distinctions in rights and privileges based upon social status, down to what one could wear.

Classical conservatives believed that the above social and political order should support a state church and should in turn be supported by it. The state supports an officially sanctioned church not so much because it possesses a monopoly on truth, but rather on grounds of social utility. Religious uniformity is crucial for social peace and harmony. In return, a state church supports the existing social and political arrangements. Through required attendance, the church not only teaches morality, but also reinforces every one's place in the social order.

It is no surprise that conservative state sanctioned churches exhibit the same hierarchical structure as society. From local parish priests to archbishops and bishops,the church manifests an ascending order of talent, virtue, and status. Neither is it a surprise that bishops represent the church in the constitutions, whether as part of England's House of Lords Spiritual and Temporal or in France's First Estate.

Some of these conservatives summed up their ideology in the concise phrase of “throne and altar.”

All this seems so distinctly European that it is difficult to imagine such ideas gaining much traction in America. Yet some Americans, in search of an American conservative pedigree and unsatisfied with the results, have crossed the sea and the centuries to embrace this original classical conservatism. (Some residues can be found here, here, here, and  here.)

Only a conservatism rooted in the American social and constitutional order will serve to preserve that order.

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