OK, folks. I’m back on course. I hope you’re all safe, sheltering in place, avoiding hugs, and keeping well.
As I explained a few inches down the page, I’m reading Russell Kirk’s interesting but interminable The Conservative Mind, and blogging as I go. Parts of the book were kind of a shock to me, though a salutary one.
One thing you learn in reading this book this that it’s not a canard to say that conservatives are against Democracy. To the contrary, early conservatives (like Edmund Burke, particular hero of this book), considered Democracy a positive threat to a decent social order. The American Founders generally shared that view. When we say “We are not a democracy, we’re a republic,” it’s true – or was.
Kirk lays that principle down, early in the book, in a list of conservative principles. Here are his words:
[Conservatives hold a ] Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservative often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.
This idea in itself was not a surprise to me – I talk about the same thing in my work with Lutheran Free Church history. But I’ve approached it from the other side. I’ve often told listeners and readers that the Norwegian Lutheran pietists who founded my church body were liberals in their time. That the primary difference between liberals and conservatives in those days was their different ideas about the place of the common people in society. Conservatives wanted hierarchy and ancient privileges preserved. Liberals wanted the common people to participate ever more fully in all public life. Hence universal education, leading to broader voting rights.
To the early conservatives, this was all disastrous. The breakdown of the social classes must inevitably lead to the debasement of moral life. There would be no more great, highly educated men to emulate – everything would be debased to a common level of undistinguished mediocrity.
I don’t think we’re meant to take all the early conservatives’ ideas seriously – they mostly distrusted the abolition of slavery, for instance (wanting it to be delayed and happen naturally). For my own part, I can’t help being proud of the achievements of (limited) democracy in America – Abraham Lincoln, as I’ve often said, was a walking reproach to the class-conscious old conservatives.
On the other hand, the horrors those old conservatives predicted seem to be coming upon us at last.
Possibly the American experiment was a fragile flower, one that bloomed briefly in a specialized environment in a blessed time and place, never to be seen again.
But I hope not.