A Conservative Narrative

As the old year wanes, let us not dwell on its disappointments.  Let us celebrate the New Year and hope for a swift recovery in the economy.

Let us wish our liberal friends well, their new Congress and our new President Barack Obama. 

OK, good.  Now let's go back inside and gather round the hot stove.   Let us spin a tale of conservative renewal.

In the Old Days men lived by unreflective tradition, The Way of the gods and the ancestors.  There was a good reason for such rigid conservatism.  Life was close to subsistence; errors were punishable by death.

But then came modernity, the French Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  No longer would mankind live by the superstition of tradition; now humans would advance by the light of reason.  In Germany, land of poets and thinkers, they had another idea, and invented an expressive Romanticism of emotion and instinct.  "Tear down theory, poetic systems... No more rules, no more models... Genius conjures up rather than learns..." Well, it was a Frenchman who said that.  But you get the idea.

Some people thought all this was overwrought.  The cult of reason had led to an age of "sophisters, economists, and calculators," complained Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Think about what was being lost, he warned.

All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life... are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason... On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings... laws are to be supported only by their terrors... In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.

OK, so Burke made a tiny mistake.  It turned out that the gallows wouldn't be at the end of every vista.  It would be the guillotine, the firing squad, the gas chamber, or just plain old famine.  But how could he know?  The guillotine wasn't invented until 1791, one year after he published his Reflections.

It was also rather obtuse of Burke to suggest the plundering and piratical warrior lords of medieval and Reformation Europe had ever made "power gentle, and obedience liberal."  But he inseminated the modern conservative movement, a dream of a world founded on self-conscious tradition.  It was not a mindless return to The Way but a practical search for a balance between reason and tradition, between hard experience and an optimistic faith.

The need for balance became obvious when the militant cults of reason and Romanticism combined in the 20th century into a murdering cocktail.  Romantic revolutionaries, conjuring geniuses like Lenin, Hitler, and Mao, arose to implement the rational program of communism and realize the gallows vista -- just as Burke had prophesied in the interregnum between the fall of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror.

How do you make power gentle, yet defend against enemies foreign and domestic?  How do you harmonize interests,  encouraging generosity , limiting greed, and dissipating the force of explosive secular creeds?

Conservative thinkers have returned again and again to these themes, and conservative practitioners have labored long and hard to bring them to reality. Yet, for the past century the conservative movement has mostly struggled against a totalizing liberal tide.  Was there a problem?  Then increased government power was the answer.  Were economic interests in discord?  Then differences between businessmen and workers could be exploited for political gain.  Were people even mildly unresponsive to the will of the elite?  Then laws must be passed to criminalize harmless delinquencies in smoking, drinking, and eating. 

The conservative vision is simple: a small government and a large people, a government limited by an in-depth defense against power, and a people empowered to perform the worthy day-to-day tasks for a society that lives by service not power, and compassion not mechanism. 

Conservative compassion is needed for good reason.  The movement of the progressive societies is from status to contract, as Sir Henry Maine wrote.  Yet contract is not enough.  The best contract in the world cannot anticipate all the possible scenarios that may occur in a business relationship.  Therefore something more than the dry words of a contract is needed.  It was Shakespeare's amateur lawyer Portia in The Merchant of Venice who taught us what this something more must be.  Never mind your pound of flesh.  Practice mercy, that falleth like the gentle rain from heaven.

But our liberal friends hanker after power. They believe in reactionary status, not progressive contract, in government compulsion, not voluntary association.  As Rahm Emanuel has said:  "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."  Not when there's government power to be had.

And mercy?  Certainly not for Bush, Cheney, the "Christianists," businessmen, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his roadtothemiddleclass.com and usgovernmentspending.comHis Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.
As the old year wanes, let us not dwell on its disappointments.  Let us celebrate the New Year and hope for a swift recovery in the economy.

Let us wish our liberal friends well, their new Congress and our new President Barack Obama. 

OK, good.  Now let's go back inside and gather round the hot stove.   Let us spin a tale of conservative renewal.

In the Old Days men lived by unreflective tradition, The Way of the gods and the ancestors.  There was a good reason for such rigid conservatism.  Life was close to subsistence; errors were punishable by death.

But then came modernity, the French Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  No longer would mankind live by the superstition of tradition; now humans would advance by the light of reason.  In Germany, land of poets and thinkers, they had another idea, and invented an expressive Romanticism of emotion and instinct.  "Tear down theory, poetic systems... No more rules, no more models... Genius conjures up rather than learns..." Well, it was a Frenchman who said that.  But you get the idea.

Some people thought all this was overwrought.  The cult of reason had led to an age of "sophisters, economists, and calculators," complained Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Think about what was being lost, he warned.

All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life... are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason... On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings... laws are to be supported only by their terrors... In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.

OK, so Burke made a tiny mistake.  It turned out that the gallows wouldn't be at the end of every vista.  It would be the guillotine, the firing squad, the gas chamber, or just plain old famine.  But how could he know?  The guillotine wasn't invented until 1791, one year after he published his Reflections.

It was also rather obtuse of Burke to suggest the plundering and piratical warrior lords of medieval and Reformation Europe had ever made "power gentle, and obedience liberal."  But he inseminated the modern conservative movement, a dream of a world founded on self-conscious tradition.  It was not a mindless return to The Way but a practical search for a balance between reason and tradition, between hard experience and an optimistic faith.

The need for balance became obvious when the militant cults of reason and Romanticism combined in the 20th century into a murdering cocktail.  Romantic revolutionaries, conjuring geniuses like Lenin, Hitler, and Mao, arose to implement the rational program of communism and realize the gallows vista -- just as Burke had prophesied in the interregnum between the fall of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror.

How do you make power gentle, yet defend against enemies foreign and domestic?  How do you harmonize interests,  encouraging generosity , limiting greed, and dissipating the force of explosive secular creeds?

Conservative thinkers have returned again and again to these themes, and conservative practitioners have labored long and hard to bring them to reality. Yet, for the past century the conservative movement has mostly struggled against a totalizing liberal tide.  Was there a problem?  Then increased government power was the answer.  Were economic interests in discord?  Then differences between businessmen and workers could be exploited for political gain.  Were people even mildly unresponsive to the will of the elite?  Then laws must be passed to criminalize harmless delinquencies in smoking, drinking, and eating. 

The conservative vision is simple: a small government and a large people, a government limited by an in-depth defense against power, and a people empowered to perform the worthy day-to-day tasks for a society that lives by service not power, and compassion not mechanism. 

Conservative compassion is needed for good reason.  The movement of the progressive societies is from status to contract, as Sir Henry Maine wrote.  Yet contract is not enough.  The best contract in the world cannot anticipate all the possible scenarios that may occur in a business relationship.  Therefore something more than the dry words of a contract is needed.  It was Shakespeare's amateur lawyer Portia in The Merchant of Venice who taught us what this something more must be.  Never mind your pound of flesh.  Practice mercy, that falleth like the gentle rain from heaven.

But our liberal friends hanker after power. They believe in reactionary status, not progressive contract, in government compulsion, not voluntary association.  As Rahm Emanuel has said:  "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."  Not when there's government power to be had.

And mercy?  Certainly not for Bush, Cheney, the "Christianists," businessmen, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his roadtothemiddleclass.com and usgovernmentspending.comHis Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.