Conservatism is a formal understanding of man. By understanding, I mean a verifiable truth, and by formal, I refer to a distinguishable methodology which permeated the celebrated thoughts of classical antiquity and scholastic medievalism. Conversely, Liberalism is an ideology for man. This is not to say that Conservatism is without its own prescriptions, but only that the principle by which the prescriptions operate come to us in the present day, by means of repeated observations and experiences. The application of Liberalism attempts to place man according to its own predeterminations. Therefore, the principles of Conservatism and Liberalism differ respectively as the Laws of Nature differ from the Freudian Theory of the Unconscious.

The cornerstone of all conservative thought is that man is a creation of a supreme and divine Creator. A firm commitment to an objective truth which animates the soul of man and gives him purpose; the symbiotic mutualism of the dignified individual and the quest for community felt by all members of humanity; and the understanding of jurisprudence which is nothing less than the continuing symphony composed by our Medieval forebears—these are the elements of the Conservative equation, and the ones which require our attention and commitment.

The acceptance of a divine authority gives man dignity amidst temporal authority. Man does not need temporal authority because of his baseness as Liberalism suggests. Instead, man needs authority precisely because his dignity comes from his share in the divine love of his Creator. Authority then guides the response of man as he searches for creative and compelling ways to respond to this Divine Love. Authority does not squash, inhibit, or incapacitate the spontaneous response to the radical love of God any more than a firescreen extinguishes household fires; rather, both temporal authority and firescreens exist to prevent the warmth of this action and reaction from overtaking the entire home. Man is then guided by the Law of Love to use his freedom (what the ancients called Free Will) to live as he ought (what we presently call Liberty). Such legitimate authority allows man to avoid the centrifugal force of Nihilism and Relativism, and escape the dark hole of a life without purpose or hope. In this way, the civil authority is tasked with allowing, but never ensuring, all men to work out their own sanctification in fear and trembling. The authority and order sought by Russell Kirk need only provide safe passage along the road; they should never undertake the task of providing transportation. The State may holistically understand the divine gift of Liberty and Order through the lens of Free Will, avoiding the slavery of the prison cell; it should see Free Will from the divine gift of Liberty, preventing the denigration of society into the brutality of the mob and the license of the jungle.

The commitment of each person to the One who gave him life is given a voice through his creative passions. The State then can rightly be seen as a creation of man, a consequence of his pre-existing associations, and a device made for his own benefit. The State consequently exists for the specific reasons it was given by men, and it is neither inherently good nor is it a necessary evil. Government is but another association of man with the unique task of governing without ruling. Operation of the State is then good provided it operates within its legal and moral parameters. Functioning outside the established parameters then is immoral, not because of the invincibility of the individual, but because such actions are a usurpation of the consent of the individual who has already assigned legitimate authority to a pre-existing association which retains the given prerogative despite the burglary of the State. A conservative society is one flourishing with diverse associations, each one springing up with life and vibrancy from the cultivated soil of virtue—the ethos of civilization. Each association uniquely promoting virtue undoubtedly lifts men from the trough of Individualism, and also fulfills the need of every man to feel purpose in his own life and to be wanted in the lives of others. Robert Nisbet observed in his magnum opus, The Quest for Community:

[Communitarian philosophy] does not deny the role of the individual, nor the reality of personal differences. It is assuredly not to accept the argument of crude social determinism—which asserts that creative works of individuals are but the reflection of group interests and group demands. It merely insists on the fundamental fact that the perspectives and incentives of the free [and] creative mind arise [from] communities of purpose. [An individual] may alter, reshape, or give these communities an intensity or design that no one else has ever given them, but [he cannot seriously and meaningfully operate in the sterilized environment of isolation].

Conservative insistence upon the theory of Homo Associatum is but a corollary of the understanding of man, specifically as it relates to his origin. It requires the operative principle of Subsidiarity where local initiative and authority play the most important roles in the life of the person. At no level is the polis charged with the task of management, but of leadership. It is up to the freely chosen associations of man to manage social goals of charity, education, or law. The theory of Associative Man is crucial to a united society and the dignity of every single person because it alone protects the social fabric from the shearing that would surely come (and has come) from the arbitrary exercise of power born of a State not checked by the plethora of associations. Gary Wills then rightly observed that a government which seeks to render to everyone what it deems is due was correctly given two attributes: a blindfold and a sword.

Conservatives also have a tremendous treasure in the law books housed in the great libraries of Europe. This heritage is not exclusively Anglo-Saxon. It is shared with and enriched by other jurists such as Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, and Cicero. Medieval man delivered to modern man much of the precedent given them by the Code of Justinian so that religion and law cannot seriously be considered separately; they imply one another. For this reason alone are laws considered just, being undamaged by the poor judgments of individual practitioners. Jurisprudence then exists as something permanent in essence but malleable in its rites across time and space. It would be entirely misleading to separate “social” from “legal” or “religious” concerns as they represent the same central concern of fallen man. James Madison emphasized this point well enough when he penned the line “if men were angels” in Federalist 51. Knowledge that the temporal and spiritual jurisdictions are but two edges of the same sword led William Blackstone to declare, “Law is the embodiment of the moral sentiment of the people,” insisting the Common Law of England is grounded upon the law of reason and the law of God. This is blatantly obvious in the text of the Magna Carta where the “liberties granted to English subjects in perpetuity come at the prompting of God for the health of all souls.”

A word should be said about the American experience with jurisprudence as it relates to Constitutional Law. Conservatives often cite the idea of “American Exceptionalism,” noting how special we as a people are relative to all other societies. This is the wrong approach to a truism, so it often echoes the blustering excesses of nationalism and jingoism. The American Constitution is not special because it is a product of the American people. It is special because anything like it is highly unlikely to appear again in the history of man as it enshrines the ideas of Christendom by appropriating federal power without assigning national prescriptions. Correct interpretation of this legal document then draws upon the framework granted to us through our inheritance. The final conclusion is then obvious: The text itself has meaning so that its accidents may change without altering its essence. Factual evidence of Supreme Court opinions support and solidify the “Textualist” understanding as the most consistent, orthodox, and prevailing view of the Court until the advent of the Warren Court. Until the new belief of a ‘living’ Constitution, the Supreme Court demonstrated the greatest range of flexibility by permitting a free society to invent its own course in the pursuit of virtue. It is only most recently that the Court has seen its role as a dogmatic agency whereby the tail wags the dog. The most recent assertion of Liberals for a “living” Constitution errs because it reduces the Constitution from a set of legal statutes to an embodiment of sentiments. This error whereby a simple majority of the court can invent its own jurisprudence ex cathedra is exacerbated by a Pollyannaish view of mankind. This sentiment is certainly not demonstrated by the carriers of Western Tradition to our shores as they went to great lengths in the text to codify, delegate, appropriate, enumerate the parameters, and divide the powers of the federal government while also placing some parameters on the state governments. Furthermore, the notion of a “living” Constitution has no legitimacy as a theory because it is merely a rejection of “Textualism” without providing supporting proof for its own existence. The liberal concept of a “living” Constitution has single-handedly destroyed the basis of a written Constitution since it is without its own criteria or basis to guide and develop legitimate jurisprudence. The prevailing attitude of Confirmation hearings bear out this point—where the Senate no longer respects the Supreme Court to conduct itself in the work of jurists, but acts as pollsters conducting a national plebiscite over the meaning of the Constitution. This is not the practice of law the West long ago enshrined in its great halls and places of sanctuary through men such as St. Thomas More.

Conservatism as a synopsis of thought is the Burkean idea of “reason operating effectively in its own right because it moves within the context of a healthy tradition.” Conservatism as a methodology may also be called mere obedience to the Divine Will revealed through its proper channels. Such methodology guides us as a tender mother in our private lives, and it enlightens us as a sagacious grandfather in social action. Those who seek the free life and those who seek the good life need not be at war. Such bifurcation among the defenders of the good and moral life is seemingly a result of extremist bickering about the two sides of the same coin. One cannot separate a transcendent moral order from Liberty on account of its benefactor anymore than one can remove Free Will from Liberty on account of the love the same benefactor has for mankind. The holding of Liberty and Freedom as synonymous ruins the simple yet elegant theory of Conservatism. They have need for one another as man needs air, but this necessity does not make them synonymous. This confusion of terms has largely caused great quarreling and exponential splintering among men of the West.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email