Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?, Part 1

Obviously one cannot be dogmatic about what a particular political term means because there is always a certain amount of leeway that users of a language have in defining and redefining a word. Yet it is also true that users of a language do not have infinite leeway in redefining a term that has been in use for 200+ years, as has the term ‘conservativism.’ One typical manner of discovering the meaning in use of a term is by consulting a dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary or OED discovers an early use of the term conservatism in 1835. This makes sense because, although he apparently did not use the word, Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, gave definition to the term in his Reflections on the Revolution in France which was published in 1790.

As I have pointed out before, if one consults dictionaries to discover the meaning of ‘conservative’ we find the following definition in the OED:

Characterized by a tendency to preserve or keep intact or unchanged; preservative.
The maintenance of existing institutions political and ecclesiastical.
Characterized by caution or moderation.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines conservative as:

"PRESERVATIVE": tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions;
"TRADITIONAL": marked by moderation or caution; marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners".

Another way to discover the meaning in use of a term is to go back to a defining moment. The defining moment for the modern use of the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘conservatism’ was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution in 1790. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Burke captures a flavor of Burke’s conservatism. His view
implies deep respect for the historical process and the usages and social achievements built up over time. Therefore, social change is not merely possible but also inevitable and desirable. But the scope and the role of thought operating as a reforming instrument on society as a whole is limited. It should act under the promptings of specific tensions or specific possibilities, in close union with the detailed process of change, rather than in large speculative schemes involving extensive interference with the stable, habitual life of society. Also, it ought not to place excessive emphasis on some ends at the expense of others; in particular, it should not give rein to a moral idealism (as in the French Revolution) that sets itself in radical opposition to the existing order.
Thus a look at dictionary definitions and the thought of the founding father of modern political conservatism yields these emphases: 1) a tendency to preserve or keep intact existing institutions; 2) respect for concrete ‘historical’ process, i.e., those specific institutions that have been evolved through past history; a respect for tradition; 3) social change must occur carefully and be designed with moderation and prudence; 4) social change should be activated by specific felt needs rather than ‘large speculative schemes’ for reordering society.

In addition to consulting dictionaries and examining defining moments, another way of discovering what ‘conservative’ and ‘conservatism’ mean is by examining the writings of more recent authors who espouse similar views and hark back to writers like Burke as a model. Writers like this include Clinton Rossiter and his book, Conservatism in America, Peter Viereck and his book, Conservatism Revisited and Claes Ryn and his book, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire.

Here I am going to focus upon some of the themes found in America the Virtuous (2003, Transaction Publishers) that define Claes Ryn as a genuine contemporary American conservative.

One theme of authentic conservatism is expressed in this quote from Burke: "All men that are ruined, are ruined on the side of their natural propensities."

Conservatives recognize that humans are possessed of evil impulses that need to be controlled; they would emphasize the human propensity to selfishness, pride, a will to power, ruthlessness, willfulness, self-indulgence, arrogance and belligerence, as examples of the evil human impulses that require control. Control takes place through an ethical emphasis upon self-control as well as the restraints of traditional moral doctrines and institutions (Ryn, p 3). It is the recognition of these potentialities for evil that made conservatives recommend prudent, moderate social change and mistrust the ‘large speculative schemes’ of human reason that could so easily be a cloak for private ambition and will to power. It is not clear how one can deny this conservative observation; human impulses to power, self interest and self indulgence, ruthlessness, arrogance, pride and belligerence are difficult to deny.

[I will continue this catalog of conservative themes in future posts.]

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