In times of chaos, it’s profoundly necessary to remember those who have come before us and the innumerable sacrifices they made. Each of these great men, whatever his individual faults, sought to live according to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. They preserved, and they conserved.
As a way of perceiving and a habit of thought, conservatism has with certainty existed since the publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in May, 1953. Prior to that, one may historically trace it back with equal certainty to the 1890s, when anti-progressives such as Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More began to rail intelligently and soulfully against the racism, the experimentation, and the modernism of their day. In his brilliant follow-ups to The Conservative Mind—both in book and article form—Kirk began to argue that men such as Aristotle and Cicero were conservatives. Defining conservatism as a means by which we conserve the inheritance of our fathers and mothers, Kirk is absolutely correct. Following the lead of Edmund Burke, Kirk took this definition a step farther, noting that the true conservative must prudently judge all that he inherits, wisely choosing either to leave a thing as it is, to destroy a thing and prevent its transmission to the next generation, or, most commonly, to reform a thing, giving it new life while shaving away its ills.
And not just Aristotle and Cicero should be in this list. Given the definition as one conserving and honing—through prudence and temperance—the past, one can certainly add Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Cleanthes, Virgil, Livy, Tacitus, St. John, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Petrarch, Dante, and Thomas More to this noble lineage. Each, in his own way, shaped the past, molded it, and lovingly preserved it through art and through intellect. Each, absent of dominating ego, spoke to the past as well as to the present and thus to the future. Each saw himself as a moment with a continuing time frame, a brief expression and manifestation of eternity.
When the greatest crisis of the eighteenth century—the French Revolution—emerged, the man who had channeled all of these greats, Burke, fought with all of his being against the introduction of the “armed doctrine” into the world. Burke believed in the future, just not the future of the ideologue. He wanted his future to be based on gratitude for one’s ancestors, but he also sagely demanded prudence in judging their decisions, knowing that men possess both morality and its absence and knowing as well that ego often clouds wisdom. Overtime, the species—as blatantly demonstrated in language as well as in common law—was wise, but the individual suspect.
Yet, we—in 2020—live in an age of radicalism, progressivism, and populism. The active (and the loud and loutish) among us want to destroy rather than to build; they want conflagration, not reformation; they seek conformity, not excellence. They seek not to honor our mothers and fathers, but to dismiss them as obstacles to some utopian-esque future. They cry for justice, but they rip apart. They cry for equality, but they dismiss with disdain. Their face is the face of bitterness, not the face of the Infinite.
What then does our conservatism mean in 2020? What does it mean as statues tumble, as injustice reigns, and as anger seethes? What does it mean when our leaders seek not the common good, but mob-ish acceptance? What does it mean when our children are indoctrinated with racialism and collectivism rather than individualism and personalism?
At its essence, conservatism has not changed over the years. While the debates may be about a variety of things, the meaning of conservatism lies in understanding that, taken as a whole, our ancestors are not utter fools. The past for the conservative must remain the great laboratory of human experience, human knowledge, and human wisdom. The past is our depository of strength, our trust fund of morality. Now, more than ever, we must preserve what has come before us. Every statue torn down by the violent is a terrorist attack on our very civilization and our very strength as a people. Like the unsung heroes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451—the men and women who memorize each book burned by its society—we must remember and preserve our statues, our museums, and our cultural storehouses—even if only in our own minds and souls. Like those around the immortal Cato the Younger, we must become living embodiments of the virtues.
Socrates died at the hands of a mob. Cicero died at the hands of a tyrant. Thomas More died at the hands of a friend. Yet, by each of his actions, each assured his own fame and the fame of that which he had sought to protect—the ethics, the morality, and the community of the past. Imagine if Socrates had simply vanished or if he fled from Athens. Imagine if Cicero sought refuge in North Africa. Imagine if Thomas More had fled to the safety of France. While each man would still be remembered, he would not be praised as a martyr, as the embodiment of his beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses. When Socrates accepted the hemlock, could he have possibly known that some Kansan-turned-Michiganian would write of his exploits and his heroism in a land across the Atlantic?
In times of chaos, it’s absolutely and fundamentally and profoundly necessary to remember those who have come before us and to remember the innumerable sacrifices they made. Socrates, Cicero, and Thomas More each made themselves a living statue, never to be fully toppled, whatever the mob might desire. Each reminds us that there are things in this world worth fighting for, worth living for, and worth dying for. Each of these great men, whatever his individual faults, sought to live according to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. They preserved, and they conserved.
So, I’m more than okay with Russell Kirk calling Aristotle and Cicero conservatives. They were. And what they fought for in their own lives remains the standards by which we too should fight… against our own version of mobs, tyrants, and “friends.” The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. These things never waver. They remain as pure in 2020 as they did in 1953 or 499 BC, whatever the violent may say.
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.
The featured image is Architect’s Dream (1840) by Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.