Thursday, August 14, 2008

Children Of The Enlightenment

To set all this in a larger context a few words about Conservatism might be useful. It is often said that Conservatism is about maintaining the status quo or even a return to the past. This can be true but it misses the point. We are all children of the Enlightenment and all but the very few wish to erase the Enlightenment and forgo its benefits. Nevertheless, Conservatism arose as a response to what it saw as the excesses of the Enlightenment1. This sometimes results in it being saddled that unfortunate title “The Counter-Enlightenment”—something on the model of The Reformation and The Counter-Reformation.
Conservatism sees Libertarianism as a direct descendant of some of those excesses. While we often agree on a host of challenges from the Left, much of the time it for different reasons. In the last century, we generally have had friendly relations but sometimes we get impatient with each other.
It is said Conservatism has a “tragic” view of the human condition. That is to say that human nature is not malleable. The Left has a quasi-utopian impulse in which under the right “conditions” they believe man can and will change and a more perfect society will emerge. They believe that these visions of a more perfect society by themselves give them the mandate to command change—often in spite of the wishes of their own countrymen. This is highly dangerous and ultimately inhumane. As the 20th century well shows, the road to the “perfect society” is paved with the skulls of millions. As cruel as these “reformers” were, all believed reason and history were on their side.
It is said Conservatism is the politics of reflection, experience and prudence. Society simply doesn’t just happen as Liberals assume. They grow organically often taking considerable time. The Conservative “project” is not a perfect society but a more humane one. It is a task of preserving the hard won wisdom, nourish that in which men and women can flourish without destroying the “glue” that holds society together. Liberty, as great as it is, is simply not enough to bind a people to together. Seen in another way, Conservatives depend on the experience built across generations to preserve what has worked and discourage what has damaged actual human beings. This calls for judgment and caution. Men of good will may disagree. But we must remind ourselves that we are only fallible people. Like Jesus’ parable of the man contemplating the costs of building a tower, we must ask ourselves just how much “justice” we can afford.
Tradition is a much sounder foundation than 'metaphysical abstractions.' Tradition draws on the wisdom of many generations and the tests of time, while "reason" may be a mask for the preferences of one man, and at best represents only the untested wisdom of one generation. Any existing value or institution that has undergone the correcting influence of past experience and ought to be respected. Man is unable to understand the many ways in which inherited behaviors influence their thinking, so trying to judge society “objectively” is futile and potentially treacherous.
However, Conservatives do not reject change. As Burke wrote, "A State without the means of change is without the means of its Conservation2." But they insist that further change be organic, rather than revolutionary. An attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society, for the sake of some doctrine or theory, runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Burke advocates vigilance against the possibility of moral hazards. For Conservatives, human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster.
-Written by Crabby Apple Mike Lee
1 This is important to note. Conservatism—especially Anglo-American Conservatism—arose out of the Enlightenment rather than existing prior to the Enlightenment
2 Often quoted as saying “A government unable to change will soon be a government unable to govern.”
-A quick note from Charles: As I cannot disagree with most of what Mike say's here, I will not be posting a response. Stay tuned, Debators. And join in!

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