The Case for Conservatism image

The Case for Conservatism

Roger Scruton's Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition is a short, clear and beautifully written exposition of conservatism. (Matt Hosier will raise his eyebrows at an opening sentence like that; he has assured me for years that I will switch from left to right at age 40, and I've only got two more months of being 39.) Scruton presents us with conservatism as a philosophy, rather than as a political affiliation (let alone modern party) or intuitive preference (caution, deference to authority, or whatever), although it clearly can overlap with both and often does; and he does so by tracing its evolution through the Greeks, the English and Scottish Enlightenments, the American and French revolutions, the French and German Enlightenments, cultural conservatism in the nineteenth century, and the response to socialism, until he reaches the present day. His summary of conservatism now is a marvellous condensation of a lot of big ideas, and makes a compelling case for one of them:

Modern conservatism began as a defence of tradition against the calls for popular sovereignty; it became an appeal on behalf of religion and high culture against the materialist doctrine of progress, before joining forces with the classical liberals against socialism. In its most recent attempt to define itself it has become the champion of Western civilisation against its enemies, and against two of those enemies in particular: political correctness (notably its constraints on freedom of expression and its emphasis in everything on Western guilt) and religious extremism, especially the militant Islamism promoted by the Wahhabi-Salafi sects. In all these transformations something has remained the same, namely the conviction that good things are more easily destroyed than created, and the determination to hold on to those good things in the face of politically engineered change. (p. 127, emphasis added)

Obviously the devil is in the detail here—what qualify as “good things” is not exactly uncontroversial—but the instinct Scruton refers to is surely a good one. It reminds me of Chesterton’s classic parable of the gas-lamp, in Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good - ” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is knocked down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.


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