During the eighteenth century there emerged an explosion of intellectual, philosophical, political, and economic ideas that swept across the Western world collectively referred to as The Enlightenment. These ideas led to unprecedented breakthroughs in science, the emergence of the free market, revolutions and political upheaval, and massive shifts in how people thought about the concepts of God, the role of the church and state, society, and the individual.
It would be an understatement to say that this was an exciting time to be alive. Nearly every prejudice, presupposition, institution, and idea were being pulled apart, questioned, reconstructed, or discarded. Systems of government that had endured for a millennia were giving way to radical new ideas of the rights of the individual, the equality of all people, and the shared humanity of us all. Some began to see The Enlightenment as the Age of Reason where humans would finally rid themselves of the ancient religious superstitions and the barbaric hierarchy of slavery and monarchy and would enter a new age where reason ruled supreme.
But to suggest that the Age of Reason contained some cohesive set of ideas that everyone could agree on would be like saying the Age of Trump is an era of bipartisanship. Some may have believed that reason was inevitably progressing history, but others were skeptical or even opposed to this idea. As William F. Buckley once famously quipped, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘STOP’!” And in the Age of Reason conservatives were yelling “STOP” as loudly as they could.
But why would a conservative oppose reason? There are plenty of things the progressive calls progress that conservatives understandably oppose—collectivism, equality of outcomes, the loss of cultural traditions, expanding state control—but what could possibly be wrong with a call to reason? In fact, don’t conservatives often accuse progressives of being over-reliant on their emotions instead of reason?
The answer lies in what we mean by reason. As Thomas Sowell put it:
“Reason has at least two very different meanings. One is a cause-and-effect meaning: There is a reason why water expands when it freezes into ice, even though most of us who are not physicists do not know what that reason is—and at one time, no one knew the reason. The other meaning of reason is articulated specification of causation or logic: When it is demanded that individuals or society justify their actions before the bar of reason, this is what is meant. The more constrained one’s vision of human capabilities and potential, the greater the difference between these two meanings. Everything may have a cause and yet human beings may be unable to specify what it is.”
From this vantage point we see that conservatives are not opposed to reason but they are skeptical of humanity’s capacity for employing reason sufficiently or intentionally in certain situations or fields. Reason might be an appropriately sufficient tool in the field of philosophy or science, but can the same be said of the field of politics?
“Many of the greatest challenges a statesman must confront arise from the less rational elements of the human character,” writes author and political analyst Yuval Levin, “Governing is, of course, a rational activity, and political thought must certainly be guided by some general principles, but it’s a mistake to assume that effective principles can be drawn from abstract premises rather than actual experience. The general must be derived from the particular, not the other way around.” Reason is an excellent tool for deriving general principles; but it isn’t well suited for studying the nuances of highly specific situations.
The conservative does not believe we can govern well using reason alone because politics is more than applying general principles derived from reasoning. Throughout his book, The Great Debate, Yuval Levin uses British statesman Edmund Burke to illustrate this point: “Burke believes that the attempt to apply what he calls metaphysical methods in politics confuses politicians and citizens about the purpose of politics—leading them to think that governing is about proving a point rather than advancing the interests and happiness of a nation.”
What then does the conservative believe is required beyond reason to govern well? Again, Levin turns to Burke: “If the premises of Enlightenment liberalism are inadequate, and if the resulting faith in modern reason is unjustified, what is the alternative organizing principle of, and the appropriate means for thinking about, political change? Burke’s answer…is prescription—Burke’s great anti-innovationist innovation.”
Just what is prescription and how does it take us beyond reason? That is what we’ll be exploring throughout this series, beginning with Part 2 next week.