Though less poetic than Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet has as much right to be considered a “father of post-war conservatism” as does his Michiganian ally—especially given the timing of his eleven tenets of conservatism. Indeed, his ideas about society and the social relations of man are thoughtful and inspiring.
Though conservatism arose as a reaction against the French Revolution, limped along in the nineteenth century, and came of age in the twentieth century, it had to rest on some previous standard, especially given its argument that the greatest human laboratory is human history. That model rested in the realities and the idealization of the Middle Ages.
For men such as Burke and Bonald, the French Revolution was but the culmination of historical process of social atomization that reaches back to the beginning of such doctrines as nominalism, religious dissent, scientific rationalism, into the destruction of those groups, institutions, and intellectual certainties which had been basic in the Middle Ages. In a significant sense, modern conservatism goes back to medieval society for its inspiration and for models against which to assess the modern world. Conservative criticisms of capitalism and political centralization were of a piece with denunciations of individualism, secularism, and egalitarianism. In all these historical forces, the conservatives could see, not individual emancipation and creative release, but mounting alienation and insecurity, the inevitable products of dislocation in man’s traditional associative ties.
And just exactly what is conservatism? As already noted, Robert Nisbet offered eleven principles or tenets.
First, the conservative must deal directly with the very “nature of society.” Society is legitimate and constituted, never created. No two men came together and said through a social contract, let us construct society. They do that within society all of the time, but they do not do this at the beginning of all society. Rather, society “is an organic entity, with internal laws of development and with infinitely subtle personal and institutional relationships.” The individual will cannot create society, but it can pervert and distort it, mocking its very being.
Second, Nisbet claimed, conservatives understand that society is superior to the individual, in the sense that the individual cannot be understood except within the realm of the relational. The abstract individual does not exist, nor ever can exist. Instead, the person—that is, the individual in relationship—does.
Third, Nisbet believed, following from the first two points, conservatives recognized that the “irreducible unit of society is and must be itself a manifestation of society, a relationship, something that is social.”
Fourth is the recognition that all things within the social are interrelated and interdependent. No one thing can happen within the larger social framework that does not affect and change all other things within the social framework. Isolation, generally, is not an option of a functioning society.
Fifth, Nisbet continued, is the realization that individual persons have specific and definitive needs and wants. One cannot—without irreparable damage—neglect the most human things, whatever our rationality might claim about such needs and wants.
Sixth, echoing Aristotle’s assertion that nothing in nature is in vain and God’s assertion that each person is made in imago dei. “Every person, every custom, every institution, serves some basic need in human life or contributes some indispensable service to the existence of other institutions and customs,” Nisbet wrote.
Seventh, it is not enough to recognize that large societies are made from smaller associations. Instead, the larger society must recognize, cultivate, and hone such smaller associations. As such, Nisbet believed, societies must reflect what Edmund Burke so eloquently argued at the end of his magisterial Reflections on the Revolution in France.
We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.
Eighth, a true conservative must recognize the realities of social existence, that humans have strange and varied wants and needs, and that social cohesion can easily break apart because of individual egos and struggles for mysterious things. In essence, though Nisbet was not Christian, he demanded that realism recognized sin as a primary fact of existence. It did not celebrate it, but it also did not ignore it.
Ninth, and deeply related to the eighth point, the real conservative insists “upon the indispensable value of the sacred, nonrational, nonutilitarian elements of human existence.” After all, he continued, no reasonable person believes that man can “live by reason alone.”
Tenth, Nisbet cautioned, the true conservative recognizes that individual excellences force us properly to understand that inequality is essential as a part of human relations. One person’s excellences, by definition, make that person extraordinary, at least in some practice or art. Sin makes us equal in our faults, but excellences make us brilliant in some varied aspect(s) of our lives. From this inequality and the consequent hierarchies and statuses that result, men can truly progress from infancy (of the person and the species) to the adulthood.
Finally, but critically vital, the conservative never allows power (the presumption of power as well as the assumption of power) to replace authority. “Far from being an artificial thing, a necessary evil at best, as the liberals had argued, authority is the substance of every form of relationship. Authority does not degrade; it reinforces,” Nisbet claimed, offering only his most initial glimpses on a subject that would shape much of his future professional life. “It is force that degrades, the kind of force that must ensue when the normal authorities are dissolved.”
Though less poetic than Kirk, Robert Nisbet has as much right to be considered a “father of post-war conservatism” as does his Michiganian ally—especially given the timing of his eleven tenets of conservatism. His points, to be sure, are thoughtful and inspiring.
This essay is the second of two in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Robert Nisbet’s 11 Tenets of Conservatism” series. The first can be read here.
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The featured image is Shipyard Society (1916) by George Bellows (1882–1925) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.