Friday, May 16, 2008

What is Conservatism?   posted by Razib @ 5/16/2008 10:32:00 PM

Austin Bramwell, Who Are We?:
Whatever the difficulties of conservatism, surely one can improve upon the typical performance of those who take it upon themselves to explain it. In place of the conventional accounts, try this one: Conservatism is the defense of legitimacy wherever it happens to exist. "Legitimacy" here is defined in the empirical, Weberian sense: that is, an institution is legitimate if and only if the opinion has become widespread that it is right (for whatever reason or lack thereof) to obey it. The conservative, in short, cultivates obedience to existing institutions. This definition, I submit, has all the advantages of the conventional definitions, none of their defects, and some important advantages of its own.

To some extent I think one might make the case that Liberalism is the inverse of Bramwell's definition of Conservatism; what was Liberal in 1920 might be viewed as quite Illiberal today, and what is Liberal in 2008 may seem rather Illiberal in 2028. In any case, I would add that though I don't agree with Bramwell much of the time I'm always impressed with the breadth of his erudition and his good faith attempt to argue rather than scream. Unfortunately most political and social commentary is much closer to the level of morons like Kevin James. Even when one dodges the rank stupidity of someone like James the "punditry" on offer is generally grounded in the incestuous circle-jerk of CW as opposed to facts.

Back to Bramwell's point, if you read this blog regularly you know that I have an amateur interest in antiquity, particularly the period of the Roman Empire. Today we assume that Christianity and the Christian clergy are the Conservative party at prayer.1 But if you focus on the 4th and 5th centuries, when Christianity went from being a marginalized sect to the established Church of the Empire, you encounter the fact that the Christian religion was fundamentally one perceived as radical and deeply undermining the legitimacy of the ancients (who were pagans after all).2 In the late 4th century you have powerful pagans such as Symmachus making arguments defending tolerance and subsidy for the ancient faith based on reverence for the institutions and precedents of the past and the ancestors. Fundamentally deeply Conservative reasoning arguing for the legitimacy of what has become before. By the late 5th century the pagan historian Zosimus had become quite dyspeptic toward the new dispensation, bemoaning the fall of the older order and observing the decline of his civilization all around him due to the abandonment of the old gods (Zosimus flourished in the years following the Western Empire's fall). To a great extent Zosimus reminds me of modern Conservatives of a Christian bent, who seem pessimistic by constitution when observing the decline of Christendom and the repudiation of its truths.

Today I would suspect that post-Christian Liberals would not necessarily align themselves with radicals for change such as St. Ambrose or rationalist refuters of the relevance of the pagan past such as St. Jerome; rather, their sentiments might be with the pagans who were on the losing end of the march of history because of their current quarrels with Christianity. Similarly, of course Conservatives in the West who are Christian or Christian sympathetic would admire the pugnacity of St. Ambrose and other Church Fathers in overturning thousand year old traditions & customs. The axioms of Christianity made such a rejection of the past eminently rational. And yet if temperament was the guide toward affinity I do not think that this would hold. Church Fathers who admitted pagan learning into the canon offered reasons of utility, as such wisdom might be useful toward Christian ends. A convinced pagan would not have to make such an argument because the classical canon was simply part of the customary education of the non-Christian elite; it was received tradition which needed no reflective analysis and justification. In the 4th century Christian intellectuals dreamed of a new world transformed and shorn of the dead weight of the past with its irrational and unnecessary traditions. Nearly two thousand years later the shoe is on the other foot....

1 - Despite the emergence of Leftish Christian movements such as Christian Socialism or the Social Gospel, I think one can make a strong case that on the balance Christianity has been more associated with Conservatism than Liberalism since the French Revolution and the emergence of a modern politics.

2 - Obviously the influx of classically educated men such as St. Augustine and the Hellenic patina which accrued to the religion moderates this judgement.