Friday, November 23, 2012

Pre-Enlightenment Conservatism

Conservatism in its modern form is a relatively recent phenomenon, generally attributed to Edmund  Burke.  But conservatism in the sense of upholding the status quo of power is presumably as old as status quos of power that require upholding.  But older forms of conservatism -- what I can pre-Enlightenment conservatism -- have certain traits that are really not viable in any modern society.

Pre-Enlightenment conservatism assumes a social order decreed by God:

This is what I mean by politics or policy as theology.  Such an outlook treats any challenge to God's ordained social order as a challenge to God Himself.  The danger of such an outlook to democratic politics, or any sort of normal politics, should be obviousl

Pre-Enlightenment conservatism calls for social stasis:

As we say in twelve-step organizations, progress, not perfection. Indeed, progress and perfection are essentially incompatible.  Consider: progress means improvement; perfection means there is no room for improvement.  To anyone who believes that a certain social order is decreed by God, that social order is presumably not perfect because it is made up of flawed and sinful individuals.  But if all people followed their proper roles, has God intended, then such a society is as perfect as anything that can be achieved in this sinful world, and any change in the social order will necessarily be for the worse.  The most anyone intent on improving society can do is denounce people's individual sins and call on them to live up to the proper (social) roles God intended for them.  But any sort of reform -- not just in an attempt to improve society, but even to adjust to changing conditions -- is degeneration and, indeed, blasphemy.

Pre-Enlightenment conservatism can be conservative, reactionary, revolutionary, and perhaps even reformist, but never liberal or progressive:

An important qualification is in order here.  Pre-Enlightenment conservatives are all conservative in the sense of believing that there is a certain social order that must be conserved against all change.  But they are not necessarily conservative in the sense of believing that that order is the social order as it exists today.  Certainly a pre-Enlightenment conservative can be conservative in the sense of defending the current status quo of power, and than any flaws are simply the result of individual sin.  Conservatives of this type are most likely to arise when the current social order is being challenged, in order to uphold it against challenges.  Alternately, pre-Enlightenment conservatism may be reactionary, seeking to return to a social order of the (recent and remembered) past.  From this perspective, the true, proper social order ordained by God existed until recently, and present-day society is acting in defiance of it.  This type of conservatism is most likely to occur when society has undergone recent, disruptive changes and many people long for a recent past before the changes happened.  But sometimes pre-Enlightenment conservatism takes a more radical view -- perhaps reformist, perhaps revolutionary, perhaps even millenarian.  Such a viewpoint sees society as radically out of synch with the social order that God intended, and in need of major changes to bring it into conformity with God's will.

What pre-Enlightenment conservative can never be is liberal or progressive because these are ideologies that embrace continual change and improvement.  

To offer a concrete example, let me express gratitude to Albion's Seed for its description of the Puritans as excellent examples of reformist-to-revolutionary pre-Enlightenment conservatives.  The Puritans certainly offered many radical challenges to the contemporary English social order. They challenged primogeniture (the rule that all family land goes to the oldest son), entailment (limiting land to a particular family), escheat (the rule that if the owner of land dies without an heir, all land reverts to his feudal lord) and various taxes and burdens on inheritance.  They called the English family into question, permitting divorce if the conditions of a marriage were not kept, forbidding husbands from beating their wives, and protecting wives, children, servants and slaves from the "unnatural severity" of the head of household.  They challenged the authority of the king and nobility, built a society with no hereditary aristocracy, and built a government in New England in which authority rested on election by the people.  In England, what began as a movement seeking reforms to "purify" the church and state ended up becoming a revolution which overthrew the monarchy and beheaded the King for treason almost 150 years before the French made such things fashionable.

Yet the Puritans were also pre-Enlightenment conservatives in the sense that they believed that there was only one right social order, ordained by God, and that once a proper Christian commonwealth was established any change was degeneration and deviation from God's will.  "New," "novelty" and "innovation" were all used as perjoratives, to indicate falling from the Truth.  "Change of any sort seemed to be cultural disintegration."*  If the Puritans were not conservative about contemporary England, they were conservative in believing in perfection, not progress, that God intended one social order and only one, and that no changes were to be tolerated.

By contrast, the Royalists who colonized Virginia were conservative to reactionary pre-Enlightenment conservatives.  Initially, they were conservative conservatives, seeking to uphold the status quo in contemporary England from Puritan challenge.  When the Puritans seized power in England, Royalists migrated in large numbers to Virginia, now as reactionary conservatives, seeking to re-create the social order as it had existed in England before the Puritans came to power.  Either way, they, too, saw "new," "novelty," "innovation" and "modern" as perjoratives and any change as disastrous.

It was in the late 17th Century that the early stirrings of the Enlightenment began and a radical new ideology arose -- the ideology of classical liberalism.   This bold new ideology denied that God intended any particular social order.  God gave people individual rights, no more.  The social order was no more than a set of institutions rationally created by the people to safeguard their individual rights.  If at some future time, the people decided that other institutions or a different social order would safeguard their rights better, they were free to make changes, or even to overthrow the whole system.  This new ideology of classical liberalism was brought to America by Quakers in the later 17th Century.  It was adopted by the Virginia Royalists.  It was widely held on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 18th Century.  It was the ideology of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

Classical liberalism was also the ideology of the French Revolution, where it proved to be capable of dangerous excesses.  When all social institutions are regarded as optional, as artificial constructs that can be cast aside when they are no longer rationally seen as useful, it turned out that serious social breakdown and upheaval can ensue when someone takes this ideology too seriously.  It was in response to this danger that modern conservatism arose.  Modern conservatism was a reaction against classical liberalism, but also influenced by it.

It will be the subject of my next post.

*Albion's Seed, page 56.

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