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Conservatism Essay, Research Paper


By Noel O’Sullivan,1976

Ch. 1 Conservative Ideology: a Philosophy of Imperfection

 Conservatism, as an ideology, emerged in response to the French revolution and in opposition to the idea of the French revolutionaries that human reason and will were powerful enough to regenerate human nature by creating a completely new social order, constructed in accordance with the requirements of liberty, equality and fraternity. Conservatism, then, is characterized, in the first instance, by opposition to the idea of total or radical change, not by the absurd idea of opposition to change as such, or by any commitment to preserving all existing institutions. p. 9

 Term first used by Chateaubriand, after the revolution, when he gave the name Le Conservateur to a journal he issued to propagate the cause of a clerical and political Restoration in France. Thereafter name is rapidly adopted by many other groups opposed the progress of the Revolution. American Republicans and British Tory’s are calling themselves ‘conservatives’ by early 1830’s. p. 9-10

 Precursors to the attitude of the revolutionaries where: two centuries preceding Revolution see increasing tendency to abandon the traditional pessimism about the human condition reflected in the Christian myth of the Fall and in the idea of original sin. The new optimism emerging with the Renaissance is then bolstered by the growth of scientific knowledge and the world comes to be seen as intelligible to human reason (without the need for divine revelation) and responsive to human will once comprehended. The world now came to be regarded as a huge machine or watch which could in principle be dismantled and reassembled. The world is seen to be far more malleable than it had previously. Story of the Fall is gradually discarded as a means of explaining human suffering and in place of Adam Rousseau offers society as the source of human misery. Reform society and suffering will disappear, he argued. p. 10-11

 Such sentiment called for a statement of conservative principles. The incipient conservatives had to show that the world imposes limitations upon what either the individual or the state can hope to achieve. Conservative ideology, accordingly, may be defined as a philosophy of imperfection, committed to the idea of limits, and directed toward the defense of a limited style of politics. By a limited style of politics is meant one which has as its primary aim the preservation of the distinction between private and public life (or between the state and society). This distinction is threatened by the ideal of radical change ? which in practice has meant the constant extension of state power into every sphere of life, in the name of equality, social justice and welfare. p. 11-12

 ‘reform’ rather than ‘change’ preserves the essential good. p. 12

 Liberalism, which over the 19th century, came increasingly to value ‘progress’ and the ‘improvement’ (quotation marks in place in text) of mankind is thus distinguished from conservatism for ultimately such notions are incompatible with conservatism. John Stuart Mill made clear that progress or improvement might even mean interfering with the inner life of man – through social welfare programs, etc. p.13

 Positive assertion that “the idea upon which all conservative thought depends?is imperfection.” p.14

 Conservatism is distinguished from the radical right in that like the humanists of the French Revolution Nazism and fascism allow far more potency to the human will and accordingly present the world and social order as more malleable than is compatible with conservative ideology. p. 14

 The radical left also does not treat imperfection as inherent to the human condition but rather the product of a particular organization of society. “Marxism, then, is no exception to the generalization that all radical ideologies maintain that imperfection can be removed (in principle at least) from the human condition by radical social and political change.” p. 15-16

 The rejection of imperfection has found its way into all modern democratic ideology, in the seemingly innocuous guise of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. This correlation may be traced back to Rousseau’s insistence upon man’s natural innocence. Since man is naturally good the only acceptable restraint upon the human will is a self-imposed restraint for external ones must necessarily be incompatible with the freedom and majesty of creatures who are naturally good. In liberal democracies the rejection of imperfection is more familiar in the form of the ideal of self-imposed restraints as the condition for moral and political obligation than in the form of utopian dreams of a communist millennium or a thousand-year Reich. p. 16

 In the Social Contract Rousseau outlines the conditions in which one could justifiably “render obedience” (explanation p. 17 [of O'Sullivan]) yet concludes that no major European country has ever found such conditions and thus none of them could rightfully claim the obedience of their subjects. Rousseau’s view provides the basis of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which was later enshrined in the French Constitution of 1793, and has later been passed down in a variety of forms to all Western democratic ideologies. P. 17

- Conservatives see disastrous implications in the idea that only self imposed restrictions can create a duty of political obedience. Firstly, if the individual is bound only by his own will then only laws and institutions that which accurately reflect his wishes are politically and socially acceptable, and further, with whimsical change of ones wishes so to changes the set of institutions to which one pays respect. With a sea of individuals and their myriad and clashing values the ideal of the rejection of imperfection expressed through the doctrine of popular sovereignty gives anarchy. Secondly, the idea may lead in the opposite direction and be used to defend despotic government. For the ideal of self government (or popular sovereignty) shifts attention away from the exercise of power to its origin and thus a government may defend, without absurdity, any policy at all by merely claiming that it acted on behalf of the people. Finally, the idea leads to the rejection of institutions and authorities, not because they have been tried and are found wanting, but simply because they are not self-imposed. P.18-19

- French revolution sees the rejection of God for not being self-imposed. P. 20

- Immanuel Kant agrees with Rousseau that man could only be bound by self-imposed restraints. Kant asserts that “no prince has contributed one iota to the perfection of mankind, to inner happiness, to the worth of humanity.” He writes further that men require “the authority, not of governments, but of conscience within us?” p. 20

- Regarding how conservative thinkers defend the idea of man as an imperfect, dependent and limited creature incapable of regeneration there are three schools.

- The first school characterized by the thought of Burke, de Maistre, and Bonald holds that change disrupts the original perfection of the creation of God. For Burke, the English Constitution of 1688, provided a formal set of values that most closely conformed to the divine plan, or “the natural order” of the universe, as he put it, and thus afforded a yardstick by reference to which judgment could be passed on proposals for change. (p.22-23)

- The second school of thought is characterized by the search for limits upon man’s will being directed toward the discovery of laws of development and change in history itself. It is a search for a relative principle of order, in contrast with the absolute one pursued by the first school. This form of conservative thought is most evident in the German school of romantic conservatism, but also played a role in the thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle. This school, drawing its inspiration from a philosophy of history (as with Marxism) stresses the fact that people are confronted by an extremely limited range of possible ways of changing the social and political order which they find in any particular historical period. “This conservative application depended, in particular, upon maintaining that the existing order is a more complete and more profoundly rational expression of the human spirit than any deliberately contrived social order could ever be.” “?stressing the superiority of the work of nature and time over ‘artificial’ human creations?” “Time or history, in other words, was now made the true locus of rationality, instead of the wild visions of revolutionary reformers.” Maybe there’s room for some “wild visions” – you know a bottle of Wolf Blass and maybe a little something else – eh, Dunk? P. 23-25

- The third and last school is marked by skepticism about the possibility of chaining down the will either by invoking the existence of a divine plan to which man must conform, or else by discerning some underlying pattern and meaning in history. This third theory of imperfection (although less easily defined) rests in the idea that “the world precludes the fulfillment of men’s loftiest dreams and projects because not all the goods that they desire are compatible with one another.” “In its simplest form the new doctrine consists of the proposition that liberty is indivisible. The idea behind this seems to be that men forget that they must take the rough with the smooth, and assume too readily that they can have the smooth by itself. ‘The smooth’, in this context, means limited government, individual liberty, and a pluralist social order, whilst ‘the rough’ is identified with the hardships and inequalities associated with a capitalist economic system. The proposition that liberty is indivisible may therefore be translated into the assertion that too much state intervention in social and economic life is incompatible with a liberal-democratic political order, and will end by creating totalitarianism.” The most novel feature of this new formulation is the stress laid on the connection between the economic and political organization of society. P. 26-27

- The third school’s characteristic argument is that the pursuit of perfection in politics means the destruction of liberty. This is founded more on common experience and prudence than upon theology or upon the metaphysical significance of history. P. 28

-As soon as particular thinkers are considered it becomes evident that few are easily slotted into one or other of the three schools of thought, as in many cases thought involves arguments drawn from more than one of them. Indeed, since World War one the different characteristics of conservative thought have been much less apparent. Conservatives everywhere have come to recognize a common external enemy in the Soviet Union and a common internal enemy in the rise to power of organized labour and the growth of state intervention. This uniformity of concern make it possible to deal with 20th century conservative thought in supra-national terms which would be inappropriate when considering the divergent lines of its development during the nineteenth century. P. 28-29

- Prior to this century conservative thought and energies centred around defense of the state in confronting the threat of destruction, in the name of liberty, of all authority, of law, of property, of personal security, and of liberty itself. In the present century liberalism has been replaced by socialism as the principle threat to conservative values. Thus, the danger now comes not from excess individual power but state power. In response some conservatives have reversed their traditional support for authority and have thrown their weight behind the cause of individual liberty, and thus resemble the classical liberals (although crucial differences remain). Even if many conservatives had not actively supported this centuries move in a semi-socialist direction (which they have), it could still be argued that the dominant pattern of social change has been in an increasingly corporatist direction, so that the conservatives would in any event have been compelled to come to terms with many semi-socialist facts of life. P. 30

- In conclusion of this first chapter O’Sullivan iterates what has been his underlying point which is “that a conservative political commitment is just as capable of being defended in the light of a philosophical view of the nature of man, of society, and of the world as is a liberal or a socialist one.”


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