As we explored last week, a central component of conservative thought—perhaps the central component—is belief in the existence of an enduring moral order. I noted too how this concept goes by many names—from law to norm to authority to divine truth to natural law to sacred law to God’s law to many others—and that I’ll be referring to the whole affair as simply “order”.
This idea is, of course, controversial. While other worldviews may have similar notions of order, there are plenty of others who find the idea strange, laughable, dangerous, and unproven. A universe of some divine, transcendent, outside “order” making truth claims may sound like a recipe for authoritarianism. As conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans put it, “Many attacks on the idea of a transcendent order can be traced to fears about the uses to which any particular affirmation of truth may be put.” This fear is certainly not unfounded. But we’ll address ways in which order can be twisted to authoritarian ends in next week’s post.
For now, I’d like to turn to another aspect of this idea of order that may be equally controversial: If order exists, where did it come from?
“There are many American conservatives,” wrote British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, “who believe that, in the end, the conservative position rests on theological foundations…in this view, fundamental features of the Western democratic order are ordained of God: private property and its free exchange; accountability and the rights and duties that spring from it; autonomous institutions, in which the Holy Spirit works among us and from which we learn the ways of peace.” While I have often stated that a belief in God, let alone the Christian God, is not necessary to conservative thinking, it is nevertheless far more challenging to see all the components of the conservative worldview snap into place in a universe where God is not present.
The simplest reason for this is that the conservative worldview rejects the doctrine of pure materialism. That is, conservatives may differ on the nature of the supernatural, but they do agree on the existence of the supernatural. To the conservative, humans are not merely highly sophisticated computers wrapped in meat, but beings with a physical and spiritual nature, nor is reality composed of matter only but beauty, truth, and goodness. The conservative would say that beauty, truth, and goodness are just as real as physical objects made of matter. That is, they are not mere preferences but things that derive their value and being from an enduring moral order.
What’s more, conservatives have also insisted that it is absolutely essential humanity observe the spiritual order if it ever hopes to get on in the physical world. “The material order rests upon the spiritual order,” wrote Russell Kirk. Literary critic Irving Babbitt further explained, “the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.” The issues society wrestles with today cannot ultimately be resolved until we first place order in the proper—if you’ll pardon the pun—order.
Edmund Burke was even more to the point: “Religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort.” Here again I’ll add that a belief in the supernatural does not necessarily include a belief in supernatural beings or in the God of the Bible. But it may be easier to comprehend order that exists outside of the material world if one understands this as something emanating from God in the same way the material world is part of His creation. “If one accepts the reality of a just and loving God, whose eternity is the escape from the shackles of time and the sufferings of this world,” Kirk posits, “it must follow that a people should enter into the order which God has designed for them. If God has ordained an order for the soul or the person, and an order for the community, to flout that order is a destructive act of disobedience, by which a man would make himself a prisoner of time.”
Sir Roger Scruton’s views seem less religious than Burke or Kirk. As he wrote in the opening of his book How to be a Conservative, “the conservative philosophy that I summarize in what follows in no way depends on the Christian faith.” Scruton goes on to acknowledge that the virtues that made American and British civilization possible could not be understood apart from their Judeo-Christian roots. He was not objecting to the importance of the Christian faith in conservative thought, only in the necessity of the truth claims within Christian teaching. That is, Christianity may be necessary to create the sort of cultural virtues needed to sustain Western society, but that wasn’t the same as saying the religious teachings of Christianity are true.
But this was precisely the concern Irving Kristol wrote about a generation earlier. He contended that, historically, the liberalized civilization of the West was “successful precisely because it did incorporate the older Judeo-Christian moral tradition into its basically secular, rationalist outlook. But it erred in cutting this moral tradition away from the religious context that nourished it. And so, in the nineteenth century in all Western nations, we had, what was called a ‘crisis of faith’ among writers and philosophers.” In other words, when the idea of order and the virtues that order demands is severed from its religious roots, sooner or later the tree of virtue begins to wither. (Ironically, Kristol himself was not a professing Christian.)
Clearly, this is a big subject and I do not mean to turn this series into an evangelistic tract. My larger point is that the conservative notion of order is not something that humans simply developed or adhere to out of some evolutionary advantage, but it is something real and imposed on us in a supernatural sense. Trying to hold this notion in mind without appealing to God as its origin can be challenging—let alone trying to get an entire nation to hold to the idea of a supernatural order in a culture where religion has been relegated to private superstitions. But I digress.
Those who oppose conservative thought often object to the conservative’s dogged fixation on these spookish, religious notions. Some liberty-minded classical liberals and libertarians who might otherwise be sympathetic to conservative ideas may object to what they view as the needless spiritualization of political matters. And, here again, one can find legions of examples where ideas of religious imperatives can be twisted to authoritarian or theocratic ends. I am not ignorant of the destructive ways in which religious dogma has been used to suspend judgment or debate in matters of politics—something I’ll delve into in Part 3. But the conservative does profess that—at bottom—all societal issues are the result of our imperfect and—trigger warning!—sinful nature.
The conservative rejects the idea that societal ills can be entirely, or even predominantly, blamed on the Marxist concept of class struggle or the progressive’s notions of social injustices or even the libertarian/classical liberal’s views of state coercion. To whatever degree those problems persist, they pale in comparison to humanity’s real problem: original sin. Put simply, the conservative believes in both an enduring moral order and humanity’s consistent failure to live up to that order.
To the conservative, the purpose of civilization is to literally civilize the otherwise barbarous instincts of our species. Take an infant from your typical American family and give them to parents living in the heart of the Congo, and that infant is unlikely to grow up working at Starbucks and spouting Bernie Sanders campaign slogans. Humans are hardwired to behave in certain respects and the civilization and institutions that surround us are meant to shape that hard-wiring into ways that our civilization has discerned to adhere to some understanding of an enduring moral order. Perhaps you may object to the idea of society imposing some value system on us. Very well, show me a society that makes no efforts to shape the next generation by imposing a value system and I’ll show you a group of hairless apes.
As Russell Kirk put it, “the problem of ordered soul and ordered state cannot be split into halves.” While the grave temptation of our ever-secularized world is to ignore this fact, the fact remains. “There exist always two aspects of order,” Kirk elaborates in The Conservative Mind: “the outer order of the commonwealth and the inner order of the soul. So it is that, in our years, conservatives confront the tremendous dual task of restoring the harmony of the person and the harmony of the republic: neither can endure long if the other has surrendered.”
But we can’t restore order to the state or the soul if we don’t first begin to understand that order. It’s one thing to settle upon the existence of order, it’s quite another to reach some consensus on what that order would have us do.
The most common—perhaps we could say “accepted”—means of discerning order is utilizing our capacity to reason. Indeed, some have argued that reason is not only all one needs to discern order, but the only legitimate tool at our disposal. The Enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine was absolutely insistent on this idea. As Yuval Levin noted in his book The Great Debate, “Throughout his writing Paine rejects appeals to authority and demands instead appeals to reason as a standard of judgment. He even prides himself in his own work on avoiding making points by quotation of familiar and learned authorities—a practice Burke engages in frequently.”
Burke, as we’ve noted above, had no problem appealing to authority. If order is indeed supernatural in nature, then it just won’t do to limit our understanding of that order through natural means such as reason alone. I don’t want to get sidetracked with the arguments against an appeal to reason alone—a topic I cover at length here–other than to point out the contradiction in appealing to reason while denying the viability of proofs such as revelation or authority: reason itself is a form of authority; for it is a means of proof that cannot itself be proven. Certainly, appeals to revelation and authority can be wrong, but so can reason. That doesn’t disprove their validity, only their specific usage in a particular instance.
I like the way Kirk puts it:
“Revelation and reason both are ways to order, and by either can a transcending leap be achieved. But that leap is not the work of narrow logic; instead, it is accomplished by the higher imagination, by the perceptions of genius, by an intuition which transcends ordinary experience—by a means, in fine, which we cannot adequately describe with those tools called words. Neither the leap of Israel nor the leap of Hellas brought full knowledge of the transcendent order; it required the fusing of Jewish and Greek genius in Christianity for a leap still higher.”
Stanley Parry, professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, further explained the trouble with appeals to reason alone:
“The conservative appeal to reason within the natural-law tradition fails to cope with the problem in its existential form. Its basic error is to appeal to nature as the source of order, precisely when ill minds perceive nature as the source of disorder, as the dilemma from which they must save themselves. A simple counter-assertion cannot work the therapy needed. The real problem is to move to a perception of nature as ordered by a transcendent purpose, whose intention can be learned only by a revelation from on high. The real solution is to move from the threat of disordered nature to the perception of the right order that has been determined by divine intention.”
If we hope to make any progress in discerning supernatural order, we must abandon the idea that we can achieve this through our natural means of reasoning. Appeals to authority must also be allowed. And what might those appeals be?
“Conscience is an authority;” writes theologian and poet John Henry Newman, “the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is Antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are historical memories, such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions.” Advances in our understanding of order come not through reason alone, but through turning to the understanding that has been passed down to us by generations long dead. “From revelation, from right reason, from poetic vision, from much study, from the experience of the species—so the conservative argues—we humans have learned certain ways and principles of order,” Kirk notes, “Were we lacking these, we would lie at the mercy of will and appetite—in private life, in public concerns.”
Kirk summarized two methods of discerning order outside of reason. The first was prescription—"those ways and institutions and rights prescribed by long—sometimes immemorial—usage”—and the second was tradition—“received opinions, convictions religious and moral and political and aesthetic passed down from generation to generation.” Both methods operate from a basis of faith—namely, faith in the notion that order can be discerned via revealed truths or those things shown to be true through generations of trial-and-error. The conservative who believes in God might go so far as to say that the only reason humans would ever conform to order—which grates against our sin nature of appetite and pleasure-seeking—is that God has put inside of each of us the capacity for both discerning and obeying that order.
But if this is so, does this imply that our best shot at governing society in accordance to this God-willed order is to leave that governance in the hands of the theologians? Would accepting revelation as a means of discerning order—quite literally, what we’re defining as how humans ought to behave—undermine the entire notion of liberty? For how could government be just if it leaves citizens alone to pursue their appetites in accordance with their sin nature, and not the higher virtues order calls us to? Secular society seeks to separate the church from the state; does the conservative’s notion of order seek to replace the state with the church? This is where we’ll pick things up in Part 3.