“Conservatism Simply Is.”

Mar 25 2013 @ 12:28pm


Sean Lowe, the most recent star of The Bachelor, is an outspoken “born-again virgin.” Scott Galupo scoffs at the idea and makes a broader philosophical point:

In a 1974 appendix to his study Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Ideology, [Peter] Viereck wrote that classical conservatism, of the mostly British but also French variety, is “an inarticulate state of mind and not at all an ideology. Liberalism argues; conservatism simply is.” Once conservatism becomes conscious of itself—becomes aware that it is a thing set apart—it changes irrevocably; it becomes another species of rationalism. Viereck was writing in a sociopolitical context, in which classical conservatives recoil from Rights of Man universalism and other logical abstractions. But the observation applies just as well, I think, to traditional values in modern Western societies.

That couples should abstain from sex until marriage used to be more than an imperative; it was a norm, a widely-shared expectation of behavior. Today it is a value—inculcated and professed as against the more lax standards of the mainstream. It is joined to a narrative about honor and degradation. It is an argument, rather than something that simply is.

This no more presages the disappearance of the practice of abstaining from sex until marriage than it does the disappearance of any other rational, self-conscious ethical or political blueprint. It does, however, mean that its adherents must realize they are tending to something inorganic and exposed to a “torrent of change,” like Chesterton’s white post. It means they must become radical and set apart.

The inarticulate tendency in conservatism is what led John Stuart Mill to say the following:

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.

Of course, I think that’s a misunderstanding. The inability to articulate the value of something you have come to love or do is, to my mind, part of its value. Some things in life are ineffable and to explain them almost a violation of their essence. Most of these lie in the practical arena. How does a master chef explain exactly how he makes a dish with his singular skill, developed for years? How do those who are doing beautiful things with scooters answer when you ask them how they became so good at it, and why they keep at it? How do I explain why the cutting down of a small copse of trees near my childhood home traumatized me – because of what it did to my little universe of boyish escape?

There are reasons we can come up with. But they don’t capture the lived experience and never can. And it is precisely when you explain it that you undermine it. As soon as you call the town you have always lived in a “community”, it no longer is one. This is the Tao of conservatism. If conservatism were to be properly represented by a religion, it would be the opposite of fundamentalist Christianity. It would be Taoism. As Wiki notes,

The right libertarian economist Murray Rothbard suggested that Laozi was the first libertarian, likening Laozi’s ideas on government to F.A. Hayek’s theory of spontaneous order. James A. Dorn agreed, writing that Laozi, like many 18th century liberals, “argued that minimizing the role of government and letting individuals develop spontaneously would best achieve social and economic harmony.” Similarly, the Cato Institute’s David Boaz includes passages from the Daodejing in his 1997 book The Libertarian Reader. Philosopher Roderick Long, however, argues that libertarian themes in Taoist thought are actually borrowed from earlier Confucian writers.

Thomas Merton wrote: “I simply like Chuang Tzu because he is what he is and I feel no need to justify this liking to myself or anyone else.”

But no conservative thinker was as steeped in Taoism as Michael Oakeshott. If I were to pick one story that describes the essence of conservatism, it would be this one:

Duke Huan was in his hall reading a book. The wheelwright P’ien, who was in the yard below chiseling a wheel, laid down his mallet and chisel, stepped up into the hall, and said to Duke Huan,

“This book Your Grace is reading may I venture to ask whose words are in it?”

“The words of the sages,” said the duke.

“Are the sages still alive?”

“Dead long ago,” said the duke.

“In that case, what you are reading there is nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old!”

“Since when does a wheelwright have permission to comment on the books I read?” said Duke Huan. “If you have some explanation, well and good.  If not, it’s your life!”

Wheelwright P’ien said,

“I look at it from the point of view of my own work. When I chisel a wheel, if the blows of the mallet are too gentle, the chisel slides and won’t take hold. But if they’re too hard, it bites in and won’t budge. Not too gentle, not too hard you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind. You can’t put it into words, and yet there’s a knack to it somehow. I can’t teach [explain] it to my son, and he can’t learn it from me. So I’ve gone along for seventy years and at my age I’m still chiseling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So what you are reading there must be nothing but chaff and dregs of the men of old.”

But when it’s gone, it’s gone. Every attempt to replicate it rationally misses the point. If you can grasp that point – and it is often better grasped by those not schooled in the supremacy of reason – you have captured the essence of conservatism, properly understood.