"The instinct of the conservative, as Lord Hailsham observes, is to enjoy life as he finds it, not to mold society nearer to his heart’s desire; nor does he think of practical politics as the end and aim of being. Family life, church, literature, good talk, good dinners, sometimes good hunting—these things please him far more than parliamentary intrigue or journalistic controversy."
Only a bias that is friendly to the evils of this age, only a prepossession in favour of our materialistic, mechanical, unscrupulous and supinely irresponsible civilisation of “Progress,” could so distort the facts as to make Charles I appear as the felon, and the ignoble band of grasping, bigoted and filthy-minded Puritans as the just accusers, in this historical trial and tragedy.”
“The Grand Rebellion, or the so-called Civil War of the seventeenth century, was as much the first struggle between the new, vulgar spirit of the nation and the old, declining better taste of the nation as it was a contest between Puritan and High Churchman, or of King and Commons. I submit that it was on the battlefields of Edgehill, Marston Moor and Naseby that trade first advanced in open hostility against tradition, quantity against quality, capitalistic industry against agriculture and the old industry of the Guilds, vulgarity against taste, machinery against craftsmanship, grey and mournful Puritanism against cheerful and ruddy Paganism—in fact, plebeian democracy against aristocracy."
From Right Minds : What sets conservatives apart from authoritarians and fascists? By SAMUEL GOLDMAN
Yet the counterrevolutionaries were not simply authoritarians. Unlike Hobbes, to whom it was a matter of indifference who ruled so long as someone did so, Burke and his disciples were deeply concerned with the character of the wielders of power. This was not simply a matter of natural endowments, although the conservatives did observe reasonably enough that men are not born equal in strength, intelligence, or other capacities. Instead, the classical conservatives insisted that only certain persons are in a position to develop the skills and habits that fit them for rule, not for their personal enjoyment, but rather to secure the common good that is available only when men acknowledge the distinctions that God and nature have established.http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/right-minds/
No one should be mocked or oppressed because of the way he earns his living, Burke insists. Yet he echoes Aristotle’s argument against political participation by tradesmen when he insists that “the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.”
The content of the relevant distinctions, however, is a point of difference between the conservative tradition as it developed in the English-speaking world and on the Continent. Although it was fundamentally anti-egalitarian, the former took its bearing from the ideal of the gentleman, who did not necessarily bear a title of nobility and was most at home on his rural estate. For Burke, the possession and care of landed property had a central role in cultivating the virtues necessary to rule others well. As the reference to an “entailed inheritance” suggests, Burke saw the management of an estate and its tenants as the basic model of harmonious social relations. On the other hand, those who earn their living from rapid exchange can hardly resist habits of short-term thinking, deference to the whims of customers, and the less than frank speech necessary to succeed in business.
Even a successful merchant, then, could not make himself into a gentleman. He might, however, hope to be successful enough that his grandsons would be. The assumption that social mobility is possible, although never frequent or easy, inclined English-style conservatism to the idea of a powerful but permeable aristocracy. Burke’s own rise from obscure man of letters to the ideologue of the establishment testifies to the plausibility of this assumption.
But “the spirit of the gentleman,” as Burke called it, did not exist in the same way on the Continent, partly because European titles passed to all of a nobleman’s sons rather than only to the eldest. In its place, Bonald, Maistre, and German counterparts like Friedrich Gentz deferred to the nobility of the sword. The natural rulers, as they saw them, were not a class of squires periodically refreshed by talented outsiders. They were the titled commanders of armies.
Continental conservatives generally acknowledged the necessity of a class of civil servants to administer the state. But they rejected the Aristotelian principle that participation in politics is an important component of virtue, in favor of a military monasticism that alienated the elite from the society that it was supposed to lead. Among the reasons that Burke’s conservatism supported his commitment to parliamentary government, by contrast, was that he saw politics as a fit occupation for a gentleman. Indeed, one of Burke’s central criticisms of the French Revolution is that its subversion of all civil authority made military dictatorship inevitable—an outcome for which he had no sympathy whatsoever.
Despite their disagreement about who the natural rulers were, Burke and his European counterparts agreed about how this rule was to be exercised. In both cases, power was to be constrained by the complex structure of relationships that make up a whole society. A father might be the authority in his own home, but he owed obedience to the local lord of the manor. The lord might rule his estate, but not in defiance of the king. And the king had to be prepared to account for himself before God for his stewardship of these relationships, which are not of his making or subject to his will.
Burke’s insistence that good government is always limited government is well known. But Maistre, who has the reputation of a crazed absolutist, insisted on the same principle. Elaborating his theory of sovereignty, Maistre explains that while sovereignty must, in certain senses, be absolute, it should never be arbitrary or exercised outside its proper sphere. Although the king’s will must not be challenged, “Religion, laws, customs, opinion, and class and corporate privileges restrain the sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power…”
The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.
In The Reactionary Mind, Robin tries to efface this distinction by quoting Maistre’s arguments that the restoration of the king would require the participation of the people. But he ignores Maistre’s insistence that the restored order be monarchical—and indeed that the crown continue in the line of succession that had been interrupted when Louis XVI was executed. The template for the populist dictatorship that Robin associates with conservatism was not the Bourbon Restoration. As Burke foresaw, it was the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom even Maistre opposed.
The French Revolution was not the first revolution in human or even European history. Mobs had ruled the streets before; princes had often enough been deposed. Yet Burke insisted that that the Revolution was “the most astonishing thing that has hitherto happened in the world.” What was so astonishing about it?
Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society. According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.
The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.
This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians… . But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”
All political philosophy boils down to two basic ideas about human nature – the utopian vision and the tragic vision.
All political philosophy boils down to two basic ideas about human nature – the utopian vision and the tragic vision. Either man is a perfectible animal and we can build a society free of inequality, injustice, poverty and discrimination, or these grand dreams will always fail because of man’s failings. The first idea inspired the Jacobins and Bolsheviks; the latter has informed the views of conservatives from Edmund Burke to Roger Scruton.
Arguably the greatest political philosopher of his era, Scruton’s misfortune is to have lived during a time when, despite the evident failures of Communism, the masses have embraced the utopian vision like never before. As a youth he witnessed the 1968 student revolution in Paris which, although superficially a failure, has been so fantastically successful in imparting utopian ideas throughout the political-media class that deviation from its principles is socially unacceptable and in some cases a “hate crime”. For, as Professor Scruton points out, secular ideologies can be just as intolerant of heretics as any religion; indeed, the religious, believing in salvation in the next life, are less prone to believing in utopian ideas about this one.
Utopian ideas are doomed to fail because, as Scruton points out in his new book, The Uses of Pessimism, they hail from “unscrupulous optimism”, the subject of this book. Optimists are political thinkers who “ignore or despise the findings of experience and common sense. The millions dead or enslaved do not refute utopia, but merely give proof of the evil machinations that have stood in its way.”
The utopian fallacy is just one of several that form the basis of modern Left-wing thinking. Among the others is the “born-free fallacy”, based on Rousseau’s idea that without social constraints we are all free, when in fact there can be no freedom without obedience.
There is also the “zero-sum fallacy”, which states that someone is poor and unhappy because someone else is rich and happy. And the “best-case fallacy”, the line of optimistic utopian thinking which chooses to ignore the likely outcome of a policy in favour of the intended outcome; among the many examples are the liberalisation of divorce and abortion laws, which led to more abandoned children and domestic abuse – the complete opposite of what was promised…
The utopian vision is also behind that other modern grand illusion, mass immigration.
As Scruton notes: “Since the 1960s western countries have adopted policies in the matter of immigration that no person schooled in the elementary truths of pessimism would have endorsed. Anybody who has studied the fate of empires, and the difficulties of establishing territorial jurisdiction over communities that differ in religion, language and marital customs, knows that the task is all but impossible, and threatens constantly to break down in fragmentation, tribalism or civil war.”