Saturday, November 14, 2009

"A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve..."

Edmund Burke defined a statesman as someone with "a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve...." Dale Ahlquist uses Chesterton to explain that sensible reformers avoid a cavalier attitude toward discarding custom and tradition:
History shows that reform is a thing that is indeed needed from time to time. And usually it is botched up every time it is needed.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
So, the problem with the reformers is that they so often want to do away with things they don't understand. They apparently regard their lack of understanding as proof that the thing is not needed. It does not occur to them that the tradition they are trying to destroy may have been put into place for a very good reason. Chesterton says, "A tradition is generally a truth", and, "Common sense often comes to us in the form of a tradition." The successful reforms in history have occurred when people reconnected with their roots and where they recovered their lost traditions. It is not the tradition that has gone wrong; it is we who have gone wrong. [The sources for the Chesterton quotations can be found here along with the rest of the article.]
Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: Recovering The Lost Art of Common Sense