The best and most succinct summation I could find of traditionalist conservative views is found in Russell Kirk's book, The Conservative Mind. In the introduction to this book, Kirk lays out what may be called the Six Canons of Conservatism, a series of six short statements explaining the core of traditionalist conservative ideology. By focusing on these six canons, I aim to refute the fallacies of conservatism, explain why conservative leads to negative consequences, and illustrate what liberals can learn by taking conservative ideology seriously.
In this blog post, I begin by critiquing the first of Russell Kirk's six canons of conservatism. Subsequent blog posts in series will be devoted to refuting the other five canons.
Russell Kirk identifies the first canon of conservatism as follows:
Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. ‘Every Tory is a realist,’ says Keith Feiling: ‘he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom.’ True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.
Conservative rhetorical strategy often uses complex, flowery, and high-flown rhetoric to mask the nature of the real world and intimidate potential ideological opponents. To make Russell Kirk's first canon of conservatism less intimidating to the reader, I will critique the canon one sentence at a time.
Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.
The references to "transcendent order" and "natural law" are typical of secular conservatives who want to appeal to a higher supernatural authority, but who personally don't have much comfort with "God talk" themselves. Belief in God doesn't necessarily make somebody a conservative, but what kind of God do conservatives believe in? If Kirk is correct, then conservatives not only believe in God (or some other similarly "transcendent" being), but they assume that God has a role in establishing "law" and "order" over the world. (In this view, the conservative God becomes akin to a sheriff of the cosmos.) The order created by God does not merely influence humanity on the level of individual conscience, but "rules society as well as conscience."
But if God rules society, how do we know who should rule on God's behalf? In the history of all the major world religions, God moves farther and farther away from the people who worship him. In Judaism, Yahweh has always been distant, and the Messiah is yet to come. In Christianity, Jesus was crucified, rose from the dead, then ascended into heaven in the 1st century AD. In Islam, Muhammad ascended into heaven in the 7th century AD. Believers guide themselves according to the Talmud, the Bible, or the Koran, but in many situations, believers cannot agree on the basic question, "What does God want?" And if God is not issuing any clarifications about his desires, then the potential for demagogues claiming to speak on God's behalf becomes much too great.
Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
What does it mean to say that all political problems are religious problems? The previous sentence emphasizes that God creates order in the universe. If all political problems are religious problems, then challenges to the political order must be viewed as challenges to the order created by God. According to this version of conservatism, anyone who challenges any aspect of the current political order is not merely impractical or wrongheaded, but evil for committing disobedience against God.
By linking the political order with the supernatural order created by God, conservatives promote both dualism and demonization. Eventually, conservatives begin to believe that they are on the side of the angels, and everybody else is in league with the devil. (For some conservatives, this belief is metaphorical rather than literal, but the consequences are often the same.)
One consequence of this dualistic view of humanity is an increased level of violence in society. According to the sociologist Gary Jensen, in the article Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates Among Nations, nations with high percentages of people who adhere to dualistic religious beliefs have higher rates of homicide than nations where the population has more non-dualistic beliefs. To be specific, if a nation had a high percentage of people who believed strongly in the existence of both God and the Devil, then the nation also tended to have a high rate of homicide. By contrast, societies with non-dualistic religious beliefs (i.e., nations with a high percentage of people believing in God, but only weak belief in the devil) had low homicide rates. By characterizing political problems as religious problems, conservatives thereby encourage people to go out hunting for metaphorical devils and demons, thus making it more acceptable to settle political problems through violence.
In addition, Kirk's canon of conservatism suggests that conservatives have a problem reconciling the existence of a God-ordained social order with the presence of evil in the world. If God is intimately involved with how our society structures its political order, then why is there so much evil in the world? Doesn't the existence of evil imply that the world that God created is "disordered" rather than "ordered," as the conservatives believe it to be? Perhaps God left the political sphere of humanity in disorder on purpose, just to test how humans would exercise their free will on the political system. If that is the case, then conservatism will lead to nothing more than the demonization and persecution of people for violating order where no order exists. We know conservatives accept the existence of evil, because otherwise they would not have such a dualistic conception of the world. But if evil is all around us, how can we be so sure that there is order? And even if we had no doubt that God has created an order for us, how can we be so sure how God wants us to punish those who violate it?
A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs.
Here's where Russell Kirk gets into the conservative rhetorical strategy of using intimidating high culture literary allusions (a strategy mastered by William F. Buckley) to scare off potential ideological opponents. The reference to "what Coleridge called Understanding" is a reference to Aids to Reflection, an 1839 philosophical work by the 19th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this work, Coleridge distinguishes between two modes of thought he calls "the Reason" and "the Understanding." Coleridge defined the Understanding as "faculty judging by the senses". In other words, the Understanding refers to the human ability to think and learn by gathering information through the five senses. But if that's how Coleridge defines Understanding, how did he define Reason? According to Coleridge, the Reason is rooted in "eternal truth", while the Understanding is "a mere conclusion from a generalization of a great number of facts." As an example of an "eternal truth," Coleridge cited
the assurance which you have that the two sides of any triangle are greater than the third. This demonstrated of one triangle is seen to be eternally true of all imaginable triangles. This is the truth perceived at once by the reason, wholly independently of experience. It is and must ever be so, multiply and vary the shapes and sizes of triangles as you may.
At this point, Coleridge and Kirk's distinction between the Reason and the Understanding can get hazy. Evidently, the conservative upholds "the Reason," which is rooted in "eternal truth," whereas the liberal upholds a more limited, "narrowly rational" Understanding. But is "eternal truth" merely limited to logical truisms (such as geometrical laws about triangles), or is "eternal truth" something more religious and metaphysical?
Clearly, human beings engage in many different modes of thinking and reasoning. Humans do not limit themselves to "the Understanding" that their five senses can give them. Humans must also deal with abstract concepts and beliefs and hopes and ideals and figments of their imagination, which you can view as proof of the existence of a higher metaphysical "Reason" if you like. On the other hand, the existence of a metaphysical force of "Reason" as part of human thought holds no implications for how society should be designed or ordered. You can have abstract logical laws of mathematics and science that humans can't see, but that doesn't mean that God has mathematical or scientific laws for designing how society should be ordered. Narrow rationality might not satisfy all of humanity's needs, but conservatives trying to implement a nonexistent Godly order on earth won't accomplish that goal either.
‘Every Tory is a realist,’ says Keith Feiling: ‘he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom.’
Conservatives correctly understand that humanity's capacity for reasoning is finite and limited, but that does not mean that those limitations should be celebrated. (It is in this respect that conservatism can fall down a slippery slope into the celebration of willful ignorance.) Yes, there may be "great forces in heaven and earth" that humans cannot understand, but that does not mean those forces should be treated equally. Even if we assume "great forces in heaven" cannot be understood by humanity, we cannot make the same assumption about "great forces" here on Earth.
As Freud argued in Civilization and Its Discontents, the process of civilization is a process where humanity uses its collective brainpower to extend the reach of its five senses. We use the microscope and the telescope to see where the naked eye cannot. We use the microphone and the tape recorder to hear what the human ear cannot. We use the computer to transcend the storage capacity limitations of our own brains. Don't celebrate humanity's limitations for placing humanity closer to God. Celebrate the ability of humanity to find new limitations to transcend. Yes, there are "great forces" on Earth, but that does not mean we shouldn't try to understand them.
True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.
What does Russell Kirk mean by a "community of souls"? According to Kirk's statement of Ten Conservative Principles from his book, The Politics of Prudence, "the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls." The obvious objection here is that Kirk's comparison of society to a "community of souls" or a "spiritual corporation" has theocratic overtones that threaten the exercise of religious freedom, but additional objections also remain. If it is the purpose of politics to "apprehend" God's justice, how can we do any "apprehending" if we are supposed to assume that man's reason is unable to comprehend the "great forces of heaven and earth"?
It is here that the core beliefs of conservatism run into major epistemological problems. On the one hand, human beings must "apprehend" the God-ordained design for society. Yet somehow on the other hand, human beings are too dumb as a species to understand either the universe or its Creator. Unless, that is, some people are more able to comprehend "the great forces of heaven and earth" than others. It is the consequences of this belief that I will examine later in this blog series.