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The particular genius of conservatism

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The U.S. Constitution is a work of both the historical experience of the Founding Fathers and of the eminently Protestant culture to which they belonged. It is probably futile to try to understand the legal meaning of the Constitution without first grasping its historical and cultural significance.

In the Federalist Papers, John Jay makes an unequivocal defense of this common understanding among the Framers: that the nascent republic was blessed because its citizens shared the same language, religion, and ancestries.

In the age of multiculturalism, to say such words is a heresy. But this does not make them less true.

Even among many on the modern American right, the idea that culture and historical contingency must be taken into account when trying to interpret documents or events is often underestimated in favor of a universalist interpretations that are somehow “beyond” culture.

Wherever it arises as a political movement, conservatism tends to be a reaction in favor of the defense of what is particular, unique, special, and inimitable, because these are the things that must be preserved. This reaction is almost always against a power that seeks homogenization, and sameness, which aims to make all people equally indistinct from each other. No matter whether this power is exercised by the tyranny of a despot, by the will of a king, or by the laws of a democratically elected Congress, the conservative always strives to ensure, to use Samuel Johnson’s words, that the tyranny of the treatises never overcomes common sense as the compass of politics.

The first radical expression of contempt for particularism came with the Jacobinism which emerged during the French Revolution. This armed doctrine intended to destroy all that existed and to rebuild the world according to what the Jacobins supposed to be reason. It is therefore unsurprising that the critics of Jacobinism and its legacy appealed to national history and cultures as a counterpoint to revolutionary universalism.  The English parliamentary tradition was thus seen by Edmund Burke as a shield against the seduction of the simple and wrong answers proposed by followers of the various Continental Enlightenment movements. So did all the conservatives (Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, Juan Donoso Cortez and German Romantics) and the classical liberals (Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville) after him.

This doesn’t mean that universal things don’t exist.  Conservatives and classical liberals have always understood that the culture and history of a particular people exist in tension with the universality of human experience, human nature, and human reason. The doctrine of natural law, for example, exposed by Catholic philosophers such as Michel Villey, John Finnis and Javier Hervada espouse a very different idea of law than that of modern philosophy of human rights. They also recognize the particularities of the different political associations as fundamental for the good application of law. That means that natural law, as they understand it, is not a set of ideas that are far-off from social reality, but it is both universally true and also very attentive to the particular. As one would expect, Burke holds a very similar position.

It is also the case, that many Enlightenment thinkers underscored the importance of grounding political institutions within local cultures. In The Spirit of Laws, Baron de Montesquieu made this point as did. In his History of England, David Hume refutes the historical progressivism of Whig liberalism in favor of a realistic interpretation of English history. Furthermore, as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb states, the sociology of virtue developed by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, helped shape the thought of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and the U.S. Founding Fathers.

It was from the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that so much of today’s intellectual class inherited the simplistic interpretation of human nature, the tendency to interpret all opposition to their ideas in Manichean terms, and the belief, to use Johnson’s words once again, “that it is possible to rule the world by following books” in spite of practical experience. It is an outlook that also reflects what Lionel Trilling called “moral imagination,” – the ability to understand the world in all its complexity.

It was on the basis of such considerations on the imperatives of imagination that Trilling wrote his distinguished study about what he understood to be the dominant American ideology, The Liberal Imagination (1950). Progressivism, Trilling realized, was the sole intellectual tradition in the United States shaping the political and intellectual interpretation of the world.  Even though there were conservative sentiments among the people, there was no continuous history of conservative ideas under debate among the intellectual class whatsoever. One of the first things Trilling noticed was the “schematic rigidity of moral reactions”, and the absence of honesty towards the” variety and ambiguity of human experience”. While conservatives like Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold were able to turn into words the wealthy human experience, Progressivism tended to reduce everything to a grotesque caricature.

History seems to prove consistently that contempt toward particularism is the fastest route to chaos. During the ten months of the Terror, the French revolution killed more than the Catholic Inquisition in the three preceding centuries. Communism, another child of secularist universalism, has provoked three of the four major genocides in human history (China’s Great Leap Forward, Red Hunger in Ukraine, and Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia). The Nazi concentration camps, the other major genocide, were the result of experiments of another revolutionary political doctrine that sought to rebuild the world.

The recent failure of liberal internationalism to create liberal democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan and the resurgence of nationalism in the Western world shows that proposals for social engineering tend to fail even in the short run. The idea that liberal democracy is a commodity automatically fit to export would be strange to the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers. It is hard to believe that the political institutions created for an Anglo-Saxon largely Protestant republic, suspicious of every efforts to centralize power, falls within the modern definition of liberal democracy.

Jay’s remark or President George Washington’s Farewell address are pieces of profound wisdom and reflect great insight into the nature of human political existence. They are proof of how fortunate it was for the nascent America to be governed by a talented and historically conscious group of men. When so many of America’s intellectual class and ruling elite decided to give in to the temptation of universalism, from the Progressive Era to the Iraq War and Obamacare,  the fundamental freedoms, so valued by the Protestants who founded this country, began to be destroyed.

The modern descendants of Rousseau have not yet given up on trying to destroy everything that is different, particular and special. I do not think they will succeed. But until the fetish of sameness is relegated to the rubble that it has done so much to create, the West will continue to sail in murky, unsettled waters.

Photo credit: The Second Continental Congress voting independence. Source: WikiCommons.

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Silvio Simonetti Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.

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