“Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors…; they are dubious of wholesale alteration.” – Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind
The conservatism I am here representing and promoting is what is sometimes called traditional or classical conservatism in contrast to today’s neo-conservatism. The former is especially rooted in Edmund Burke (1729-1797), but has been resolutely borne along by men like Richard Weaver (1910-1963), Russell Kirk (1918-1994), and Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020). What follows, structured on the acronym C.O.N.S.E.R.V.E., is a succinct explanation of these conservative principles regarding a principled society. Of course, when I speak of a principled society I am also speaking of the principled individuals that make up such a society. These are principles, therefore, that constitute the convictions of the conservative individual.
A principled society is built around community — the social institutions and social capital that constitute the customs and enduring heritage of a people. These communities are far from being collectivist (the group having priority over the individual and highly centralized). Rather, these are voluntary communities that respect the rights of individuals, centered around a common commitment or goal. Participation in local churches, charities, and clubs is especially seen as constituting this principle of community. Paradoxically, in an age when we are the most technologically connected, we have never been more disconnected both from one another and from reality. It is vital that we recover this principle of (face-to-face) community.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
A principled society is concerned with order of both a moral and structural nature. The former pertains to the first order of government which is self-government — individuals seeking to live a well-ordered life. “The just man does not allow the several elements in his soul to usurp one another’s functions; he is indeed one who sets his house in order, by self-mastery and discipline coming to be at peace with himself….” [Plato. The Republic] The latter pertains to the hierarchical structure of society, something evidenced in nature itself. This kind of order works alongside the principles of justice and freedom, otherwise order descends into chaos and ultimately totalitarianism.
“But all things should be done decently and in order.” – 1 Corinthians 14:40 (ESV)
A principled society can truly speak in the first person plural — “We”. That is to say, there exists a shared identity, such as language, customs, history, and to a large degree, even religion. In an age of politically-driven mass immigration, resulting in the rapid deracination of western civilization, it’s vital that we recognize the importance and immemorial nature of this principle and the political and social upheaval that results at its neglect (one need only read Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe). The identity of a nation, to include its social and political institutions, serves as a binding element for the unifying of a people. Scruton remarks: “This first-person plural is the precondition of democratic politics, and must be safeguarded at all costs, since the price of losing it is social disintegration.” [A Political Philosophy, 9.] This does not mean there is no room for diversity. Diversity is both expected and welcomed, but what we should not aim at is diversity for diversity’s sake.
“The LORD our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. May he not leave us or forsake us.” – 1 Kings 8:57 (ESV)
A principled society is marked by sensibility (or prudence). That is to say, we must not respond to political and/or social issues in a reactionary manner, but should instead show temperance. We must likewise not look only to short-term gains but must reflect upon long-term consequences. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, the decisions we make today have a rippling effect potentially lasting years, if not centuries. The wise and prudent look to the future, as well as at lessons learned from the past, and act for today in a measured manner.
“The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” – Proverbs 22:3 (ESV)
“Conservatism involves the conservation of our shared resources – social, material, economic and spiritual – and resistance to social entropy in all its forms.” – Sir Roger Scruton in A Political Philosophy
equal rights, Not equal things
A principled society recognizes the difference between equal rights (equality before the law) and equal things (equality of outcome). Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, remarked, “those who attempt to level never equalize.” Indeed, such levelers “only change and pervert the natural order of things.” Sound words that aptly describe the socialist experiments of the 20th century (though Burke wrote in the 18th century). Egalitarianism, the secular religion of our day, attempts to level society at the expense of liberty and natural differences. Not everyone is equally made: some are taller, some shorter; some smarter, some duller; some prettier, some plainer; some faster, some slower. A principled society will manifest these diverse characteristics and skills, naturally arriving at a difference of outcomes. Yet, all are to be treated with impartiality before the law.
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” – Leviticus 19:15 (ESV)
A principled society lives according to the transcendent order that evidences itself in nature and the faculties of man. God speaks to us, not only in his word, the Bible, but in creation itself. Kirk remarked, “Politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature.” [The Conservative Mind. 8.] Justice is nothing if it does not exist beyond the constructs of our own thinking; for our thoughts are many and differing, and if there be no ultimate standard from which to judge the actions of our fellow man (as well as our own), we are but fools in a race of the individualistic or collective will. Burke, as well as van Prinsterer, rightly recognized that unbelief was a significant factor in the radical nature of the French Revolution. On the contrary, the American Revolution was not characterized by the same irreligious philosophy and so guarded itself against such despotic outcomes. Yet, the rising unbelief — the secularization — of our own age, largely rooted in the Progressive Era, has essentially resulted in a societal U-turn towards the French.
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” – Psalm 14:1 (ESV)
A principled society is primarily concerned with local politics, or politics in its own vicinity. At the individual level, citizens should be aware of and take part in, as far as they are able, the political happenings of their own county and state. At the national level, we should cherish our sovereignty as a nation and respect the sovereignty of other nations. While conservatives welcome globalization (economic trade with other nations), we repudiate globalism (the merging of international governments that undermine national sovereignty; the globalized centralization of government).
“Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” – Proverbs 26:17 (ESV)
A principled society recognizes that its members are born, not into a state of nature waiting to sign the dotted line of a social contract, but into a society with established customs and institutions. We are by nature communal beings, entering this world with obligations first to our Maker and, therefore second, to our fellow man. As Burke said in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “Society is indeed a contract…. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Scruton writes in similar terms, noting that “the burdens of belonging have already been assumed.” [A Political Philosophy. 8]
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26 (ESV)