It’s been almost 60 years since Michael Oakeshott published his seminal essay “On Being Conservative,” just three years after Russell Kirk’s equally seminal book The Conservative Mind first appeared. In the essay, Oakeshott famously laid out his theory that conservatism is “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition.”
The conservative disposition, Oakeshott argued, is characterized by two things. Firstly, it is a joyful affirmation of things as they are, of the existing order. The conservative mind has “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” What is esteemed by the conservative is “the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity.” Oakeshott writes:
To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy.
Roger Scruton adds greater specificity to the idea that the conservative disposition is rooted in the enjoyment of existing things, arguing in his work The Meaning of Conservatism that such a disposition is grounded in a primal attitude of piety toward the social order:
We are apt to think of children as having a responsibility towards their parents, a responsibility that in no way reflects any merely contractual right, but which is simply due to the parents as a recognition of the filial tie. This sense of obligation is not founded in justice—which is the sphere of free actions between beings who create their moral ties—but rather in respect, honour, or (as the Romans called it) piety. To neglect my parents in old age is not an act of injustice but an act of impiety. Impiety is the refusal to recognize as legitimate a demand that does not arise from consent or choice.
The conservative disposition originates in the subconscious recognition that the political bond is essentially an outgrowth of the familial bond. It is a “transcendent” bond arising “in the manner of the family tie” and therefore “outside the sphere of individual choice.” It is not a “social contract” entered into by a previously unconnected mass of free and autonomous individuals. It is a “transcendent” bond involving a sense of allegiance “transferred by the citizen from hearth and home to place, people and country.” The ancient Romans in fact had no distinct word for what we now call “patriotism” or love of country and society. The concept of pietas described a disposition that the virtuous had toward their parents, their country, and their gods. It included not merely the intellectual apprehension of duties toward these entities, but an affective sensibility in their regard. Pietas in its fullest sense was a well-ordered passion.
Secondly, Oakeshott argues, conservatism is “averse from change, which appears always, in the first place, as deprivation.” The conservative understands that change is inevitable—indeed change can be necessary and desirable precisely in order to conserve the things the conservative cares about—but even desirable change is appropriately confronted with a certain disposition of mourning. The conservative is aware that even positive change “generates not only the ‘improvement’ sought, but a new and complex situation of which this is only one of the components.” The sum total of the change “is always more extensive than the change designed; and the whole of what is entailed can neither be foreseen nor circumscribed.” Even positive change involves both loss and gain, and the loss of what is loved, even when it is suffered willingly for the sake of a greater gain, always involves mourning.
If Oakeshott is right, then the peculiar enemies of conservatism are not, as often alleged, socialism or liberalism per se. Many socialists, particularly during the early stages of modern socialist theory in the 19th century, were driven by an overriding concern to conserve traditional ways of life threatened by the turmoil of the industrial revolution, with its attendant social chaos and vast displacement of rural populations. Some theorists and statesmen also advanced socialist ideas precisely because they believed that permitting the laborer to take an equitable share of the capital he helped to create was, in the long-term, the only humane way to stave off the threat of a workers’ revolution that would overthrow the entire political order. Moreover, insofar as socialism is simply—as the Oxford Dictionary defines it—“the political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole,” then obviously it is wholly compatible with the conservative disposition wherever particular means of production are already communally owned and operated, or where the change involved in a movement toward communal ownership helps to stave off less desirable changes to the political order.
Similarly, although liberalism is incompatible with conservatism if by liberalism is meant the philosophical theory that the political bond originates in a “social contract” rather than in pietas—and that humans are not fundamentally political animals but only contract to live in society for their individual benefit—certain forms of political liberalism are nevertheless compatible with the conservative disposition. The conservative’s enjoyment of existing things extends to his enjoyment of his traditional liberties, which will be all the more jealously guarded precisely to the extent that political liberty is recognized to be what it is: the end result of a long historical process involving much blood, sweat and tears, and not a “natural” state to which humankind reverts whenever the political garden is left untended.
The real foes of conservatism are not socialism and liberalism, but the reactionary and innovating mentalities. Neither the reactionary nor the innovator share the joie de vivre of the conservative mind—its natural inclination to rejoice in and savor what is. They are restless and tormented if things are not in a state of perpetual flux, if “progress” is not being made either backward toward an imagined age of innocence, or forward toward an imagined age of future liberation. If nothing is changing, then nothing is happening. Reactionaries and innovators eschew what Oakeshott calls the conservative mind’s “cool and critical” attitude toward change, advocating instead a radical overhaul of society and its refashioning in the image of a golden age which is either imagined to have existed in the past or lusted after as a possible future.
Several indications, however, point to the fact that the “conservative” as described by Oakeshott, Kirk, Scruton, and others is in danger of becoming an extinct species, and that we are in fact living in the twilight age of conservatism.
Firstly, although the conservative political movement is alive and well, it is at best tenuously linked with what I have described here as conservatism, and more often is in outright opposition to it. Today all politics, including what passes for conservative politics, is almost completely given over to the thirst for innovation, and the conservative movement is increasingly characterized by a quaint mix of reactionary and innovating opinions and sentiments. Of particular note here is the bewitching of the modern conservative movement by the ideology of the market. For, in the final analysis, what is this ideology if not a vast scheme to upend existing institutions and completely remake society in the image of a free-market Brutopia in which the enjoyment of existing things will be ruthlessly suppressed in favor of devotion to the laws of never-ending “economic growth?” As Oakeshott points out, the activities and enterprises to which the genuinely conservative temperament finds itself most readily disposed are “activities where what is sought is present enjoyment and not profit, a reward, a prize or a result in addition to the experience itself.”
Secondly, there is the fact that many of the things that conservatives have traditionally been disposed to savor and rejoice in—the family, the nation state, the arts, religious institutions, local communities and their lovable idiosyncrasies—are now themselves in a process of disintegration. The conservative mind is not, as some contemporary moral psychologists have argued, simply a physiological state that occurs haphazardly as a natural variation in the brains of some members of the human species. It is a specific cultural product. As the conservative journalist Peter Hitchens has pointed out, genuinely “conservative politics and sentiments exist only in those unusual countries where contentment is—or rather was—a natural state of being.” Where existing things are not such as to be worth rejoicing in, there will simply be no conservatives rejoicing in them. Conservative pietas exists only where there is a social order worthy of invoking the sentiment of piety. Elsewhere, there may be reactionaries, or free market ideologues, or military juntas, or some kind of “right-wing” politics. But there will not be conservatism.
If genuine conservatism is to survive, then, it cannot succumb to the modern politics of misery that characterizes almost all political discourse today, including on the Right—a discourse that proceeds by presenting a list of bitter complaints about what is wrong with the world and then offering in response to its own grievances either a selfish assertion of “my rights,” or else a vision of a social utopia that is all the more depressing because everyone knows it is pure fantasy. This does not mean that we cannot be keenly aware of what is wrong with the world. But conservatism must rediscover a greater sense of what it is for and a sense of enjoyment for such things. It must recover the conviction articulated by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (who himself wrote during an age of flux and decline) that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and that “though the last lights off the black West went,” there still “lives the dearest freshness deep down things”—little “things” that are very much worth conserving amid the ruins. Misery may be infectious, but joy is more so.