What Exactly Is Conservatism?
By Bradley J. Birzer | January 1st, 2023
From The Wall Street Journal to The Fund for American Studies to a myriad of Twitterites and Facebookers over the past month or so, conservatism and its meaning have been questioned. What exactly is it? What does it mean? What are its limitations? What did it ever do for humanity? The Wall Street Journal—or, at least, its guest editorial writer back in late November—even went so far as to proclaim that all real societal advances in America have been brought about by progressives (historically, completely untrue, by the way).
Well, ok, this conversation about conservatism been going on much longer than a month. In fact, it’s really been going on throughout the entirety of conservatism’s history. All this recent confusion, I would suggest, however, comes from the Trump presidency and its aftermath, which misidentified populism as conservatism as well as conflating nationalism with patriotism. Two photos of Trump even accompanied The Wall Street Journal’s editorial (at least the online version).
So, exactly how do we define conservatism? We could readily turn to Russell Kirk or C.S. Lewis or Dan McCarthy or Patrick Deneen. One thing that holds all conservatives together—from Irving Babbitt to Deneen—is the question, what exactly do conservatives want to conserve? Indeed, for the conservative, there is no greater question.
For all of conservatism’s history, I would argue, conservatives have wanted to promote all that is good, true, and beautiful. They believe, at least in the Western tradition, in prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, charity, labor, fate, and piety. These ten virtues—Greek, Roman, and Christian—have formed the basis of promoting the humane, promoting what it means to be human, to be man, to be woman, to be a person.
As has been the tradition since at least the 1890s, conservatives have also wanted to conserve the best of the western tradition (and I would date this back to Edmund Burke, though there might not be a link between Burke and Babbitt, except for Tocqueville). This is not to suggest that westerners are unique. My guess—though it is nothing more than a series of guesses—is that Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians have wanted to preserve their respective cultures as well). But, within the Western Tradition (yes, capital W and capital T!), it’s worth remembering: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Cleanthes, Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, Paul, John, Perpetua, Ambrose, Augustine, King Alfred, Petrarch, Aquinas, Thomas More, Edmund Burke, George Washington, John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.L. Godkin, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, Willa Cather, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Flannery O’Connor, and others. Each of these persons carried the weight of all things before them, and they passed on to future generations what can only be regarded as transcendent and timeless truths.
Does this mean that all who have embraced the label conservatism over the last century or so are actually conservatives? Of course not. Conservatism, like all good terms, has been hijacked—sometimes by the demagogues, sometimes by the populists, sometimes by the nationalists, sometimes by the politicos, and sometimes simply by those who prostitute themselves to the public in order to make some cash.
Yet, conservatism, properly understood, remains. It is possible, and perhaps even probable, that true conservatism—as inherited from Socrates onward—is rarely understood and even more rarely put into practice in this world of sorrows. It’s also possible that ideologies such as populism and nationalism might simply overwhelm proper conservatism. Maybe, conservatism in 2022 or 2023 cannot compete with socialism or liberalism or corporatism. None of this negates conservatism. When Socrates died, he came at the end of classical Greece. When Cicero died, he came at the end of Republican Rome. When Thomas More died, he came at the end of the Renaissance. When C.S. Lewis died, if we’re to take his words at face value, he came as the last “Old Western Man.” Each, in his own way, did what he could—through logic and no-small amount of nostalgia—to preserve that which had recently been lost. If nothing else, each of these men stands as an exemplar, reminding us that we, too, must stand and proclaim, time and again, what is good, true, and beautiful, at least as our own small lights allow us to understand these things.
If conservatism is true, it is true for all times, all places, and all persons. It might take on a Christian character here, or a Jewish character there, or a Stoic character way over there, but it remains universally tied to certain humane principles, whatever its local manifestations. It is imagination, perhaps our highest faculty for knowing, that allows the conservative to stand not only within, but also simultaneously above, the moment.
One of conservatism’s greatest successes as well as one of the things that makes it impossible at times to implement is that it is based on humility, admitting that we don’t always perfectly comprehend the world. That is, it’s difficult to know how to apply to our specific situation, the universal principles. Of course, this humility is a critical recognition of our individuality. Imagine, if you will, a jury. Twelve persons watching the same trial, twelve persons seeking justice (a transcendent thing), but also twelve persons with twelve distinct viewpoints working as a community. And, if there’s a reasonable doubt within the group, innocence must be declared. I can think of no institution that better understands the complexities of the world than the jury. For all intents and purposes, it is an institution that, at its best, balances the universal and the particular.
There is an additional thing that makes conservatism both beautiful and frustrating. Unlike liberalism and socialism and corporatism, which are, by their nature, deeply utilitarian, conservatism is deeply poetic. It loves the gothic, the quirky, and the strange. Unlike liberalism and socialism and corporatism, it praises (true) differences and even celebrates them. Person A is talented at this, and Person B is talented at that. Each person brings his or her talents to the community, there to sharpen them as well as restrain our many flaws and arrogances.
So, what exactly do we want to conserve? This is a question that every person and every generation must ask. If we do it properly, we employ prudence (the ability to understand good and evil), justice (giving each person his due), temperance (the use of the created goods for the Good), and fortitude (perseverance), but we should do so through faith (the ability to see that which is unseen), through hope (the understanding that we each matter and that God makes nothing in vain), and, especially through love (to give of oneself to another). Does this translate into immediate solutions for the world? No, of course not. But, it allows us to see one another through the eyes of the divine, no matter how clouded our vision might be.
Conservatism remains, as it always must, whatever its critics might claim.