As part of an online reading group I’ve joined we’re starting out by reading the essay ‘Ten Conservative Principles’ by Russell Kirk which you can read for yourself online here. It’s fairly lengthy but the essay opens with a rather illuminating statement:

Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata.

Ten Conservative Principles by Russell Kirk

Which in this sense can be understood that a conservative in Britain today will be different from one of the 1800s who in turn will be different from a contemporary Conservative in China, Kenya, Italy, or Argentina. The ten principles in question are also listed out below below:

  1. First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
  2. Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
  3. Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
  4. Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
  5. Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.
  6. Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.
  7. Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
  8. Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
  9. Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
  10. Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.

From this my initial thought is that this definition of conservatism seems to be a subset of the liberal worldview. I could be glib and call this ‘slow progressivism’ or as David Cameron put it “conservative means are the best way to achieve progressive aims”. It is liberal in that sense that it makes no claims, argues that it is without ideology, and advocates for a voluntary society. This seem to fit what TS Eliot calls a liberal society:

For it [liberalism] is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point.

T.S Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society

This release of energy by Conservativism might be a slow and gentle one compared to those hoped for by openly Liberal parties but it doesn’t not seem possible to generate new energy. In fact it arguably prides itself on this. Conservatism in this sense is defined by its starting point, it’s past, and in this sense is downstream of Eliot’s definition of liberalism. The obvious issue I see with this is that of regression. By this I mean that a conservative today would be a progressive of a hundred years ago, the conservative of a hundred years ago would be a progressive of two hundred years ago and so on. What constitutes being worthy of conservation is a moving target. George Monbiot, in his book advocating for rewinding shows the problem with this kind of thinking amongst ecologists:

There is a name, coined by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, for this forgetting: ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’. The people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal. When fish or other animals or plants are depleted, campaigners and scientists might call for them to be restored to the numbers that existed in their youth: their own ecological baseline. But they often appear to be unaware that what they considered normal when they were children was in fact a state of extreme depletion. In the uplands of Britain, naturalists and conservationists bemoan the conversion of heather into rough grassland, or of rough grassland into fertilized pasture, and call for the ecosystems they remember to be restored – but only to the state they knew.

George Monbiot, Feral: Chapter 6. Rewilding the Desert p69

The link between environmental and social ecology is a neglected one but Roger Scruton is an example of one notable conservative who correctly saw the link between the two. Yet it is not enough to resist change, a positive vision of what the future might look like is required.

The most radical claim, however, seems to be smuggled within point eight of ten because who can conceive of a society that openly espoused itself to be voluntary? Maybe certain visions of America but England certainly wasn’t, not until the latter half of the 19th century. Can France be called voluntary with it’s muscular vision of lacite? This vision of conservatism by Russell Kirk is, to me, closely aligned with Thatcher’s Neo-Liberal understanding of Conservativism, something shared by Roger Scruton. As one recent commentator wrote:

Even the late Sir Roger Scruton’s worldview represented an uneasy marriage between Thatcherite capitalism and the last vestiges of the world that came before it. It didn’t ever quite perceive that the Thatcher revolution was too successful: by kicking away the last props of the pre-capitalist order that underwrote the traditional conservative worldview, it killed off that which it proclaimed to love. 

Aris Roussinos, The rot at the heart of Westminster

That last sentence is the rub with this vision of conservatism. It has no specific love, an individual might have voluntary loves but family, for example, is not a voluntary matter. People wouldn’t die for conservatism, but nearly anything people would die for I’d argue has an involuntary component to it.

As a Christian no matter what culture I occupy it I weigh it against my faith. That doesn’t mean a culture that is hostile to it needs to be utterly dispensed with. An example of this might be the Indian Christian Mystic who Sadhu Sundar Singh who left his Anglican Seminary partly after being asked to do things like dress in Anglican vestments and sing in English. Indian Culture and Christianity (even Anglican Christianity) should be reconcilable in a manner by which one doesn’t supplant the other but uplifts and redeems it. Yet that requires us to be determined by a hoped for direction, even if we seek to steer clear of utopian destinations, not just our point of origin. 

I may seem critical in this but there are many things I think praise worthy. I find little to dispute in Kirk’s ‘first table’ of principles but in the second he does seem to show his hand to the fact that he is wedded to a liberal and capitalist vision of society. Something I think creates space to allow the second table to undermine the first. Personally I am sympathetic to point seven about property and personal freedom but I do not see that as an unmitigated right or good partly because historically things like the commons (geographic, spiritual and cultural) have played a vital and key role in holding communities together.

The key issue with Kirk, from my perspective here, is that it seems devoid of telos or ends. Yes the first point uphold a moral order and a consistent pattern to human nature but this seems aligned, in point eight, to personal autonomy. The best interest of a child has been used in the current age by the state to split apart families when the wishes of the parent clash, do we see nothing wrong with upholding forms of community that are voluntary or conditional? We need the possessive, mediating, structures, to ensure liberty but that liberty emerges out of interdependence, not despite it and what Kirk outlines sets the stage for a clash between ascribed and achieved identities, to me atleast. When it comes to rights or goods Simone Weil had it better, that it is our obligations that help us access this moral order outlined in point one, not our rights:

The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: The Needs of the Soul. p18

Kirk I think is close to something worthy but, if I am reading him right, I sense certain contradictions in his thinking that fatally undercut the cause he seeks to defend. Without being willing to be defined by a destination, over and against a point of origin, he’s just a quiet liberal. As CS Lewis said, ‘Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.