The End of Temperamental Conservativism
By “temperamental conservatism” I don’t mean a moody and irritable conservatism, but conservatism as a temperament, as opposed to a set of convictions or an ideology. And there has always been a touch of paradox in being any sort of conservative in America, but especially in being conservative by temperament.
Almost fifteen years ago, reviewing a book by Russell Kirk in the inaugural issue of Caelum et Terra, I posed the question “How direct must opposition to the prevailing tendencies of one’s culture become, how many of society’s assumptions may one reject, before one becomes, intellectually at least, a revolutionary?” This was of course not only a rhetorical but a loaded question. The United States of America is a restless nation founded on a sharp break with the past and having in its heart a sense that it’s always possible and often desirable to start over. It is true that the Founders did not see themselves as revolutionists in the French mold, but they surely conceived their experiment in self-government as a fresh start for mankind, an escape from the tyranny of kings and of the past itself. And whatever their intentions, the nation they founded had from the beginning a personality that valued liberty over tradition, was disposed to view change as a good thing, and saw real progress as the natural movement of history.
A temperamental conservative is one who believes that the burden of proof falls naturally on the innovator, that the proper question to ask about any existing custom or institution is not “why should we keep this?” but “why should we change it?” He believes in continuity and preservation and is a devout, if perhaps unconscious, believer in the law of unintended consequences.
More concretely, he believes in religion, family, and patriotism, and he believes in them not because a sociologist has proved their utility or a philosopher their truth, but because they are his, and because they are natural and traditional, the objects of what I always thought Wordsworth meant by the term “natural piety.”
And there is little place for him today. The American belief in progress, shared by socialists on the left and capitalists on the right, has pretty thoroughly plowed up the ground on which stood the shrine of this piety, and he who would enter it must expect to put some work into rebuilding it first.
What I call revolutionary skepticism, the attitude (not always a coherent belief) that anything whatsoever, particularly human life in both its physical and moral aspects, is subject to redefinition, and that society can and must be redesigned on the basis of such redefinition, has advanced very far and attained great power, both legal and cultural. The merely temperamental conservative is not likely to resist it for very long. When, for instance, a practice like abortion becomes legal and widely practiced, the simple intuitive presumption against it will not suffice as a political or cultural argument. Or when the idea that marriage might just as well be between two men or two women as between a man and a woman gets a good grip on influential and clever people, the inarticulate sense that the idea is absurd and repulsive on its face will be made to appear as unreasoning bigotry, not as an intuition about reality, which in any case is defined by emotions.
The temperamental conservative must either acquiesce to the proposals of revolutionary skepticism, and in so doing accept the revolutionary principle, or set to work discovering the implicit philosophical framework which makes reasonable his intuitive objections to them. But in doing this he ceases to be a temperamental conservative, and becomes a very conscious and principled one. And as the revolutionary spirit gains power and influence in his society, it is debatable whether the term “conservative” is any longer an accurate description of his position.
If I were re-writing that Kirk review today, I would probably not use the word “revolutionary,” as I am now more deeply skeptical than ever of the cast of mind which believes it possible and desirable to smash what exists and start all over again. I would perhaps call this figure in opposition a combatant, which he certainly must be, in what is all too accurately called the culture war. But I’m not sure I would even ask that rhetorical question. It seems pretty clear that anyone who wishes to preserve what is best in the Western tradition can no longer be a conservative in any simple sense, although we may still find it a convenience, or at least a habit difficult to break, to use the term to refer to the party of embattled tradition.
Note: the review to which I refer can be found here.