July 3, 2016


What Manner of Men are Conservatives? (Stephen Tonsor, 7/03/16, Intellectual Conservative)

If conservatives are finally to achieve the common agreement necessary to the establishment of both principle and party, they must reconcile themselves to the dialectic of freedom and authority and must capitalize on the values of their divided heritage. They can achieve this in no better way than through an exploration of the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and Lord Acton (1834-1902). Together, their lives spanned the nineteenth century, and together, they elaborated the soundest and most coherent modern body of conservative thought of which contemporary conservatives may avail themselves. They reconciled, in their lives and their thinking, authority and freedom; anticipated the modern world with all of its problems; and worked towards viable and optimistic solutions. They both stood near the center of power; they both mistrusted power and spoke repeatedly of its corrupting influence. Both were active in practical politics, but both were contemplative by nature, preferring the study of power to its exercise. Both were deeply religious men, but both stood near the edge of heresy. Both suspected the worst of human nature, but optimistically hoped for the best. Both were born to an aristocratic order which was in the process of dissolution, and both met the situation, not by reaction but rather by an attempt to understand and to assimilate themselves to the new social processes which were transforming Western society. Both were ethical thinkers of the highest order who would tolerate no concession of principle to practical politics. Both combined in their thought and in their lives such a devotion to both principle and freedom as ought to distinguish the contemporary conservative.

Not only singular personalities, but history itself by slow conjunction unites the opposites which men so often find in contradiction. Providence, which has its own purposes, disposes, and wise men conform themselves to a world whose ordering was only partially theirs. It is difficult, once man accepts the basic proposition of historical purpose, to couple with this acceptance the necessity of individual and collective action. It is all too easy to assume, as others in the past have, that faith and hope make an active charity unnecessary. But it is only through historical understanding, through action, and finally through faith in God's Providence that the reconciliation of opposites becomes possible. Lord Acton and De Tocqueville understood both the necessity of faith and hope and the necessity of immediate political action. Although both were pessimists about human nature, both were optimists largely because of their belief in an overriding Providence. Acton said, "Christ is risen on the world and fails not." Tocqueville wrote, "I cannot believe that the Creator made man to leave him in an endless struggle with the intellectual wretchedness that surrounds us. God destinies a calmer and a more certain future to the communities of Europe. I am ignorant of his designs, but I shall not cease to believe in them because I cannot fathom them, and I had rather mistrust my own capacity than his justice."

But both Acton and Tocqueville recognized that if it is difficult to accept the necessity of action and understanding within the framework of a world ordered by Providence, it has been, for the past two and a half centuries, even more difficult to accept the concept of Providence itself. The attack upon Providence and purpose has been the distinguishing characteristic of modern society, the abandonment of hope and of value its singular mark. Whether in Voltaire's Candide or in the anti-rational and anti-Providential works of the Marquis de Sade, the general conception of a creative Providence which establishes purpose and imposes meaning upon the events of history was denied by the eighteenth century. What has been described as the "revolt against the eighteenth century" was well under way before the eighteenth century was half over. It was only incidentally a revolt against reason, but reason, too, was forced to abdicate its sway, once purpose had been banished. The era of nihilism and the totally absurd begins with a doubt as to the nature and purposes of God in history.

Posted by at July 3, 2016 9:11 AM