The Conservative Disposition | Henk Brunink
I have always been struck by the absence of conservative “theorists.” The left has its abundance of thinkers, so much so that they are often accused of having more intellectuals than intellect itself. Left-wing radicals absorb their principles from the writings of Marx, Marcuse, Chomsky, and a herd of others. Yet, where are the conservative intellectuals? Sure, we have Edmund Burke, Thomas Sowell, James Burnham, and of course, Sir Roger Scruton. But it is distinctly challenging to name any conservative thinker whose ideas are the catalyst behind contemporary conservative movements. Why is that? The answer may lie in the work of one such philosopher: Michael Oakeshott.
Oakeshott, writing in the mid-twentieth century, provides us with the characterisation that being conservative is a general disposition rather than an ideology, be that political or otherwise. Being conservative is not a doctrine but a mindset – a weltanschauung. And there lies the principal difference between left and right (insofar these terms are still, or have ever been, applicable). Conservatism lacks theorists because it cannot, like leftist ideology, be reduced to mere theory. It does not live in the world of abstractions; it lives in reality, the reality of everyday life. It is empiricist as opposed to idealist. To be conservative is not to philosophise; it is to act. And it is, according to Oakeshott, to act in a specific way.
Our dispositions only make themselves known through action. Therefore, a conservative disposition results in conservative action. It begins, writes Oakeshott, with “the acknowledgement of a gift or an inheritance from the past.” A conservative grows attached to what he has on the basis of its familiarity and is therefore aware of what he stands to lose. This, Oakeshott warns us, must not be confused with sentimentality. Change is unavoidable, but the new can be assimilated into the framework of the existing without the latter becoming unrecognisable. It can come without uprooting the fundamental underlying identity. The English were the English before the steam train, and they are still the English after the steam train. Improvement and innovation are building on foundations that already exist instead of tearing them down. Change must serve the community, not the community change and it must always be implemented prudently. As Oakeshott writes: “The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.”
This is precisely because of the conservative’s love of what he has; it has served him well because he cares for it and it, in turn, cares for him. The routines become tradition and the traditions routine. To make tradition one needs not to theorise, only to do something over and over again because he sees that it works and that he likes it. It is the very experience of living everyday life that makes him understand that Sir Roger Scruton’s maxim, namely that things are easy to tear down but hard to build up, is true. From seeing the failures all around him, he realises the preciousness of a functioning tradition – functioning because it evolved through routine – and wants to preserve it. He wants to hand it down to the next generation the way he received it from the previous. He knows it is not his right to break it, rather, it is his duty to pass it on. He has grown attached to it in a tangible way, in a way he could never be attached to simple abstractions.
To be conservative, then,” Oakeshott tells us, “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise.” The conservative disposition is one of rootedness. It is attachment to the known, to the familiar. And more importantly, this attachment is voluntary, because he sees the benefits of living with it, and the deprivations of living without it.
It is therefore that the conservative, while not wholly inimical to it, is apprehensive towards change. The way of living from which he derives his identity is ever under threat. Oakeshott writes of change that it “can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, whose attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection.” He describes, in a sense, the modern progressive cosmopolitan nomad, who has no attachment to anything tangible, only to conceptual and hypothetical notions. The conservative, on the other hand, knows his conduct stems from the established traditions refined over generations to fit specific needs. He is attached to his community and his identity because he knows how brittle they are, and he knows it is his task – as is everyone’s – to uphold the contract between the living, the dead and those who are yet to be born. It is not the hate of the novel that makes him defend his way of life, but a love of the existing.
Such a disposition does not need to be justified or rationalised through abstract theory or dogma-inducing quotes from men who never even looked outside their own heads, let alone their ivory tower. Its truth can simply be observed by opening one’s eyes and looking around. It does not come from the aether, grabbed from the sky by a heroic intellectual who took it upon himself to translate it into the language of the great unwashed. It is not laid out by a guru-philosopher who, like an apparatchik, professes to know the cure to mankind’s ailments while sitting behind his desk. No, it comes up from the ground itself, from the people who act in accordance with it in their lives, and thus reinforce its truth every day. It is particular, not universal. It is individual, not collective. It is evolved, not imposed. It is bottom-up, not top-down.
Conservatism is not a political doctrine; it is a way of life.