Society, Reverence, and the ‘True Natural Aristocracy’

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Edmund Burke, “Society, Reverence, and the ‘True Natural Aristocracy’”

Edmund Burke is generally regarded as the founding father of traditional (or classical) conservatism. His book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is the most famous and influential conservative text ever written. In the first part of this reading, taken from the Reflections, Burke sets forth the basis for his wholesale opposition to the French Revolution. This opposition is ultimately connected to Burke’s views of human nature, his understanding of the purpose of government, and his notion of freedom. As this reading makes clear, Burke had a negative view of human nature, believing that people are often driven by their narrow and selfish passions, which are strong, rather than their reason, which is weak. This meant that making people completely free to refashion their government on the basis of human reason, as the French Revolutionaries aimed to do, was a very dangerous political experiment. Freedom could be good, but it had to be channeled, and the negative passions frequently “thwarted” by the superior power of government. Burke also differed from the Revolutionaries in understanding people not as isolated individuals, or little atoms with no connection, but rather as necessarily and organically connected to one another like the parts of a complex body; society was an intricate, interdependent entity with a common purpose. Burke acknowledges that, like all organic bodies, political societies will inevitably change. However, he believed that the scale of such change ought to be small: large-scale changes are unpredictable, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences. He argues that gradual, piecemeal and well-calculated “reform” guided by past historical precedent— which shows a preference or a “prejudice” in favor of the tried and true—is very different from dangerous, untried political “innovation.” Finally, as Burke makes clear in the conclusion of this reading, taken from his An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, any such reform within a democracy ought to be guided by a specially cultivated group of elite representatives with the skills and abilities to understand the likely consequences of the policies adopted. Burke calls this group the “natural aristocracy.”

Joseph de Maistre, “Conservatism as Reaction”

This reading, by a French nobleman deeply hostile to the French Revolution, is one of the best- known statements of an extreme brand of “reactionary” conservatism. “Reactionary” refers to one who wants to return an earlier form of society or government, and this is precisely what de Maistre sought—a return to the “Old Regime” in France that predated the Revolution. De Maistre understood the French revolution as an attack on the king and church, and argued that without these two institutions the masses would have nothing to respect and revere, and would be left to rely on their own weak reason, with predictably disastrous results. He rejected the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, which he thought wildly overestimated the capacities of human reason, and vastly underestimated the necessity of a powerful king, aristocracy, and church for creating sufficient political order to goven an inherently passionate, self-interested, and often immoral populace.

Michael Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative”

In this essay, the 20th century political philosopher Michael Oakeshott considers the temperament and mindset of those who call themselves conservatives. Oakeshott does not speak directly about specific political policies but, rather, indirectly and allusively about the sorts of political choices that would necessarily emerge if government were conducted by people holding conservative beliefs and dispositions. However, unlike many traditional conservatives, Oakeshott argues that political conservatism actually has very little to do with religion: “What makes a conservative intelligible in politics is nothing to do with a natural law or religion”; rather, it is “the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief..that governing is a specific and limited activity” (p. 151). In this regard, Oakeshott says a politics governed by those of a conservative disposition would “delight in what is present rather than what was or may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past” (p. 146).

Russell Kirk, “Ten Conservative Principles”

Russell Kirk was a public intellectual who helped to popularize traditional conservatism in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century. In this reading, he (like Oakeshott) argues that conservatism is not an “ideology,” understood as a systematic set of core beliefs that shape an individual’s thought and action, but rather a “state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil order” (p. 155). He then goes on to make a list of ten “articles of faith” that he believes are widely shared by traditionalist American conservatives. Kirk points out that these classical conservative beliefs are deeply indebted to the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke.

Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion”

Irving Kristol (1920-2009) was one of the chief architects of “neoconservatism,” a variant of conservative ideology that became particularly influential during the George W. Bush presidency, largely owing to the influence of one of its leading lights, Vice President Dick Cheney. Many neo-conservatives, like Kristol himself, started out as “welfare liberals,” before eventually becoming disenchanted with that political ideology. On Kristol’s view, as set forth in this reading, the “neoconservative persuasion” is a uniquely American set of beliefs marked most prominently by three features. First the “neocons” are interested in large tax cuts to stimulate economic growth, even if this runs the risk of high budgetary deficits. Second, the neoconservatives do not fear government or the use of the state nearly to the extent that libertarians and individualist conservatives do. This is especially true as pertains to moral matters, as they are deeply concerned with what they see as the debasement and decline of the culture through popular entertainment; hence, they are likely to try to use the resources of the state to try to stem the tide of cultural decline. Third, and most influentially, neoconservatives have always advocated a robust and aggressive American foreign policy as a means of defending what they understand as in the national interest of the United States. Initially, this took the form of staunch anticommunism. More recently, neoconservatives were the leading intellectual architects of the “War on Terror,” and of the war in Iraq.

W. James Antle III, “The Conservative Crack-Up”

In this reading, Antle, himself a conservative, discusses the tensions within conservatism as a political ideology in America. He points out that after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” American conservatism was largely a “fusion” of libertarianism (with its commitment to laissez faire capitalism), and classical or traditionalist conservatism. The two groups largely agreed on capitalism. However, as Antle points out, the real basis for the possible “crack-up” of the conservative coalition can be found in two problem areas. The first is a fundamental disagreement about the extent to which government should be able to regulate or restrict individual behavior in the name of a particular moral vision of the good life. Neoconservatives and traditionalist conservatives agree that it should, whereas libertarians within the broad-based or “fusionist” conservative movement are deeply troubled by such policies. The second area of disagreement is over the scale of what some have called the “national security state.” This includes both America’s willingness to wage war abroad, as in Iraq, and the creation of such massive internal agencies for monitoring American liberty in the wake of the “War on Terror” as the Department of Homeland Security. In general, neoconservatives support these policies, traditionalist conservatives are skeptical about them, and libertarians are ardently opposed to them.

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