Conservatism, Romanticism and Classicism

Conservatism elevates the living political tradition of a community, and in principle at least, it advocates slow, modest changes to any problematic laws or institutions. Its central instinct is encapsulated in the lovely generalization that it’s much easier to break a good thing than to build one. It works on the assumption that it is better to preserve and improve an imperfect but practicable reality, than to replace that reality with a perfect but untested dream. This is an ancient approach to politics, and in it there is much wisdom, much prudence, much shrewdness.

However, to me it seems clear that it is also inadequate. It cannot be satisfying for any serious thinker in itself. This is so because insofar as it has any content, it is purely relative.

I am not saying I reject conservatism. It appeals to me greatly, and I’d say that overall I embrace it as an approach to how we should think about society and societal changes. Still, by itself it is not enough.

Conservatism judges things by newness and oldness. That is the main relevant distinction that makes a person a conservative. A thing is approved if it managed to last for a while. This doesn’t give us any real vantage from which to judge whether a thing is good or evil, smart or silly, timely or timeless or irrelevant.

Conservatism at its best might help us recognize and even realize the best regime that can come into existence in a given time and place. It cannot by itself tell us about the best possible political arrangements in any time and place, and without such knowledge a conservative will never be able give any wise guidance beyond the most basic.

It seems that the question of what to believe and what positively we should be aiming for can be answered in two basic ways. We can either look to the past, or we can look for something not yet attempted in our society. And if we do look to the past, it seems to me, there are again two paths we can traverse: we can either seize on a past reality (a romanticism, for eg democratic Athens, republican Rome, monarchic medieval France), or it can be a past ideal (call this classicism, for lack of a better word). Both of these can be amenable to conservatism and attractive to conservatives, but the distinctions are necessary.

It is not enough to be a conservative. It’s a good start, but from there we must also choose some definite orientation, to a particular future vision or past ideal or time and place in history, toward which we desire to move the world closer. Otherwise we will have not much more than nonsense, as our political views.

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