What do we mean by ‘conservative’? If it is to be more than just a “boo” word, then it surely means people who are in favour of conserving things. This makes it more a sentiment than an ideology. One sceptical of change, with an attachment and loyalty to already existing social patterns and structures. The intensity of scepticism, and of the attachment and loyalty, may vary but the general contours of conservatism are clear enough.
Which means conservatism is very much a matter of context. There is a huge difference between being a Soviet conservative c.1990, a conservative Muslim or an Anglosphere conservative; let alone the difference between being a continental European conservative in 1750, 1850 or 1950. A contemporary American conservative would be a raging (even radical) liberal across many contemporary societies, let alone past ones.
A conservative traditionally defends and resists. Defends what exists and resists attempts to seriously change it. Which leads to Hayek’s famous criticism of conservatism, that it lacks a vision of the future, that conservatives were doomed to being pulled along in an overall direction set by others.
But this is a peculiarly Western and modern criticism: the notion that society has a dynamic, a direction of change, is not one that would have occurred to most people in most times. It points to the fundamental dilemma of Western conservatism: that Western civilisation is, by far, the most dynamic of human civilisations. So, what does it mean to be a conservative in a civilisation whose most defining characteristic is its dynamism? What is seeking to conserve, what is one being conservative about?
The squabbling alliance
The dynamism of Western civilisation has deep roots. What became Western civilisation began in the squabbling alliance of Church and (mostly Germanic) warlords after the ruin of the Western Roman Empire. It rests on the triad of the preserved or rediscovered leavings of Graeco-Roman civilisation—the Classical heritage with which Western civilisation constantly re-engages; most dramatically in the Carolingian Renaissance, the Renaissance of the C12th, “The” Renaissance, and the Enlightenment—the Judaeo-Christian tradition of monotheist revelation and Germanic cultural notions, ultimately derived from the steppe origins of the Indo-Europeans, of contractual individualism (arising out of such cultural patterns as oath-bound warriors, patrons and clients bound in protection-and-service relations, binding rituals, common sagas, display and hospitality feasts, and guest-host connections).
Trying to make do in the ruins of a collapsed Empire and fading civilisation, Church and warlords experimented and adapted, creating a very new institutional framework. Latin Christendom was not a particularly inventive civilisation, in the technological sense. Genuine European inventions prior to c.1500 may well be restricted to the Archimedean screw, distilling and the camshaft/gearshaft. But they were highly adaptive; adopting and adapting any vaguely useful technique or technology that came their way.
Where they shone was creating and re-creating institutions: modern Western societies have far more institutional heritage from the medieval period than from the Classical. To take a simple example, bonds are an invention of Latin Christendom—specifically, the Serene Republic of Venice in 1171. The notion that the thousand years of medieval Europe was all a stagnant “Dark Age” is a profound nonsense: that one can look at the frozen, soaring motion of the cathedrals—the tallest human structures between the Great Pyramid and modern skyscrapers—and imagine this was a stagnant society is a case of not seeing what is in front of you.
Western civilisation is the transformational civilisation. Latin Christendom transformed the world twice over. It created global history by, for the first time, connecting all the continents to each other so that (albeit erratically and slowly) all parts of the globe became aware of each other. In the words of Adam Smith:
The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.The profound cognitive shocks involved to Latin Christendom from what its adventurers, explorers, merchants and missionaries discovered helped spark the Scientific Revolution and turn Latin Christendom into Western Civilisation. It then transformed the world again, with the Industrial Revolution. It is not only a profoundly dynamic civilisation, it is one of increasing dynamism. So what does Western conservatism rest on?
The conservative dilemma
This history of dynamism means that the Western conservative dilemma is pervasive. For example, conservatives are typically concerned about protecting family life. But Western civilisation—due to the strong formal rights and obligations of the Classical heritage; Germanic notions of oath and other relations which can equal (or even trump) kin connections; and the Church’s highly restrictive consanguinity rules (at one stage, people could not marry anyone they shared great, great, great, great grandparents with: this made so many marriages notionally incestuous that the Lateran Council reduced it to sharing great, grandparents in Canon 50)—is the least family-and-kin oriented, the most formal-connection upholding, of civilisations; a major factor in its dynamism.
That Edmund Burke has become a conservative icon expresses nicely this dilemma of dynamism. For Burke was not a Tory, he was a Whig. Indeed, it is not clear in what sense he is a conservative. He (albeit somewhat reluctantly) supported the American Revolution; his impeachment of Warren Hastings was a manifested critique of exploitive imperialism; as a Whig, his was the politics of consent and social contract, not the Tory politics of tradition and order. Adam Smith commented that Edmund Burke was:
the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between usand Adam Smith is very much a figure in the classical liberal tradition.
[Read the rest at Skepticlawer. Also cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.]