Sunday, January 31, 2010

Human nature and ordered liberty

Russell Kirk [1918-1994] devoted himself to explaining the true meaning of conservatism at a time when to most people it just meant political opposition to FDR's New Deal. When, while in college, I read his The Conservative Mind it was my introduction to the history of Anglo/American conservative thought. He led me to Burke and many others — and I also read everything of Kirk's I could find. The Russell Kirk Center has placed online his essay, "Ten Conservative Principles." He begins by reminding us that conservatism is an attitude rather than an ideology and that consequently "the conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects." His lists of conservative principles developed over time. The ten points in this one were his final effort — from 1993. I've excerpted from three of them. The entire essay is found here.
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. [....]

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. [....]

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. Politically speaking, power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows. A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic. When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few. [....] [the essay]
The Kirk Center - Ten Conservative Principles by Russell Kirk