“Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
In our last post we discussed the belief conservatives hold that traditions should only be abolished with trepidation and much deliberation because they provide a foundation for a stable society. In this post I’d like to focus further on why conservatives have a peculiar reverence for ideas of the past.
What is the primary reason we Americans can simultaneously enjoy a standard of living and maintain a national defense that is the envy of the world? Depending on which side of the political aisle you identify with you may respond that it’s thanks to rugged individualism, or the United States military, or governmental benevolence, or capital and natural resources. But I believe it is entirely within the conservative framework to hold that none of these things, while important, are primarily responsible.
What is then? It is the enlightenment thinkers, the Western philosophers, the ancient idealists, teachers, and visionaries who’ve made the larger contribution to our current enviable position. For it is this august group who made America what it is fundamentally: a nation founded on ideas. The Heritage Foundation summarized it this way:
“Every nation derives meaning and purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history. The United States is different. America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of particular principles about man, liberty, and constitutional government.”
One can’t very well found a nation on ideas without idealists. And a nation founded on ideas would hardly be prosperous and powerful if it were founded on bad ideas. It is evident from their writings that the Founding Fathers were widely read and profoundly influenced by deep thinkers of their era and from centuries earlier. Below is a mercifully brief and woefully incomplete exposition:
John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau spirited the notion of “Social Contract”: that government can only govern with the consent of the governed, that people must agree on who their rulers will be, that government is limited, and that people have a right to revolt against an abusive government. Without these ideas the American Revolution would never have taken shape.
Charles Montesquieu believed the function of government was to maintain law and order and protect political liberty and an individual’s property. Abuse of power by government was to be avoided by separation of powers and checks and balances. It would be difficult to overstate the importance (or rarity) of this notion that powers within a society can only be held in check by carefully balancing them against one another. Without this key ingredient our democracy would have doubtlessly crumbled into anarchy or tyranny centuries ago.
David Hume argued a written constitution was needed to provide legal framework and stability. Though we may disagree sharply over the meanings and merits found within the text of our own Constitution, where would we be today without this foundational document as the basis for our laws?
Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan (one of the most influential books in Western civilization), argued that people give up certain freedoms and equality to government in exchange for order and security. Hobbes influenced the Founder’s complex views of humanity as both virtuous and deserving of liberty but also given to selfish passions and not to be trusted with limitless power.
And yet there are many others: Edmund Burke, Niccolo Machiavelli, James Harrington, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, William Blackstone, and Adam Smith deserve just as much credit and even still we haven’t begun to scratch the surface, not to mention the legions of philosophers and thinkers and idealists who influenced each of these individuals dating back to the dawn of civilization itself. Each thinker represented yet another brick in the foundation that ultimately gave rise to this great nation, and the Founders understood well the value of deference to our ancestors—reverence we are too soon to forget ourselves.
I am uncertain if it is a natural peculiarity of human nature or our culture in particular to possess a superiority complex over those who’ve come before us. We may enjoy a study of history because it’s fascinating to learn what happened in the past and how it connects us to the present, but we often stop short. One step further and we’d be asking what we can learn from our ancestors beyond what mistakes are best not repeated. C. S. Lewis coined the term chronological snobbery to describe this tendency to view thinking, art, or science of an earlier time as inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its distance from what is familiar to us. We may easily spot the evil or tomfoolery of past ages while remaining blind to our own.
Our generation has a laudable corporate concern for the health of the environment while taking less interest in the wellbeing of the individual’s soul. Where in the past people erred in attacking other faiths, creeds, and color, all the while taking a great deal of interest in dreadful words like chastity, sobriety, and moderation, today we have the opposite problem: a constant reminder to eliminate every hint of prejudice while unencumbered by whatever goes on in our own lives so long as it is not perceived to directly impact someone else.
Is honor less weighty than social justice? Is social responsibility more important than restrained perversions? Are we to congratulate ourselves for excelling at those virtues we perceive are currently en vogue while remaining blind to the intrinsic merits of those virtues our ancestors felt worthy of much consideration? G. K. Chesterton observed, “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues…The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.” And regarding tradition itself he noted, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
Perhaps some disciplines, such as science, truly are progressive but certainly this isn’t true of everything. And even when society is progressing in one sense there may just as well be regression in another. Are we truly capable of making any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste or culture? Reflect for a moment on someone you consider to be a great moral teacher. Do their contributions to morality really constitute something new or were they simply gifted at using contemporary expressions or ideas to remind us of what the ancients already well understood? It’s one thing to possess a certain talent in encouraging people to love one another. It’s quite another to claim to be the first to discover the virtue of love itself.
Is it really so difficult then to imagine that there are certain ages or cultures who possessed better ideas or morality or political philosophies than we do? The only true inherent advantage we possess over our ancestors is the opportunity to understand their perspective if we’re not so foolish as to arrogantly dismiss it as outdated. This is why the conservative often turns to precedents in political decision-making. As Russell Kirk said, “The great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.” And Edmond Burke noted, “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise.”
Yet in place of a proper reverence for ideas that have stood the test of time, it is not uncommon to hear old ideas dismissed as old-fashioned or to have all ideas treated as equally deserving. How often have you been told that everyone has a right to their opinion? If by “right” one simply means that they have ownership over their ideas, then this is certainly true. But I suspect what’s often meant by this is the notion that one person’s opinion couldn’t be more valid or superior to another person’s opinion. You may have a right to your opinion, but that doesn’t absolve your responsibility to have an opinion that’s right.
It may sound laudable and even patriotic to view our democracy through the lenses of an inevitably progressing society, or perhaps a diverse group of opinions, each no more or less “correct” than the other. But it is dangerous and foolish to hold ideas on the basis of private judgment and rationality alone. As brilliant as the Founders were, they understood well that they were but dwarfs standing on giants’ shoulders, laying bricks on top of a monstrous foundation that was begun ages before they arrived on the scene. Conservatives believe we would do well to follow in their example.
*The “What Conservatives Believe” series was inspired by Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”. As a diligent student of conservatism my aim in this series is not to improve upon his thesis—a task for which I’m hardly qualified—but to restate his ideas in a more digestible manner for the political layman who’s curious what it means to be a conservative but not interested in an academic definition.