Being only 19 years old, there’s not much of a political journey for me to present. However, I still have had one--one that did not begin with conservatism, and thus one I feel led to briefly mention. My interest in politics began with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Being from an area overflowing with Republicans, I was fascinated by Trump. I genuinely liked Trump and identified with the Republican Party, but I was no conservative. I was a staunch libertarian. I had come across some work from Milton Friedman, and his Capitalism and Freedom became my Bible. I was captivated by the philosophy of Locke, and in the American founding Thomas Jefferson and George Mason were intellectual heroes of mine. I had a deep hatred of the government, and I had almost created a fetish out of capitalism.
However, as I continued through high school, I grew tired of libertarianism. Capitalism didn’t seem to be enough. I began to shift leftwards in my thinking, but I remained a radical individualist. I began to think of myself more as a classical liberal. Although, I didn’t really know what that meant, I just knew it wasn’t in the “right-wing libertarian” sense with which most people associate the term. I had read The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine, and it greatly impacted me. My philosophy could be summed up by what is perhaps Paine’s most popular line in the book: “Independence is my happiness… my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
Heading into 2020, I continued becoming more liberal in my thinking. However, I didn’t anticipate the occurrence of events that would radically change my thinking, as they would shake me to the very core of my being.
Ensuing the death of George Floyd, I watched as the City of Minneapolis burned. I watched as rioters took over an entire police precinct and burned it to the ground. I watched as criminals freely looted businesses and ruined the lives of shop owners around the country. I watched as rioters destroyed buildings, defaced statues, and vandalized cities that were not theirs to damage. In that moment, something at the very depths of who I am was awakened. I didn’t know how to articulate it, though it is best described as a feeling or a sensibility. All I knew in that moment was that I was appalled by what was before my eyes and that I wanted no part of what those pompous radicals had to offer. In fact, I wanted the antithesis of what they had to offer.
All they put forth was a philosophy of resentment and self-righteousness, and I detested it.
I still couldn’t call myself a conservative, however, for that was simply going too far. Being a conservative isn’t cool, and it is in no way rational. So I thought, at least. Heading into my freshman year of college, I knew one thing from the period of unrest our country witnessed: while the way of life I loved in America took centuries (and really millennia when you consider our place in the Western tradition) to build, it could all be destroyed in a moment.
It really wasn’t until the end of 2020 (moving into 2021) that I started to think of myself as a conservative. It was because of the work of a remarkable intellectual giant: Sir Roger Scruton. I abhorred the Trumpian-populist movement I saw in the Republican Party that I had associated with Conservatism. Roger Scruton saved conservatism for me. I saw not only that the Trumpian-populism of the GOP was fundamentally at odds with conservatism but also that in conservatism one finds a rich, resolute philosophy.
When I first read Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, I was simply awestruck. In it, Scruton articulated the very feelings that had been awoken in me during the riots that summer. I had come to the book in ambivalence, expecting to perhaps agree with a few of his thoughts . I left having tasted a marvelous inheritance, having seen a wonderful tradition, and having been offered an invitation to a life suffused with beauty, custom, and delight; I could not help but accept.
Since, I have not looked back. I have been reading everything I can possibly get my hands on. I would not say I am now oriented towards any sense of enlightenment. Rather, I am perpetually being educated and humbled. I am filled with gratitude as I discover the vast and rich tradition that has built the world around me--the world I did nothing to deserve save being born into it, and thus one I am obligated to perpetuate to those who will be blessed to inherit it after me. I would like to briefly detail two tenets at the core of the conservative ethos that have profoundly impacted me, helped me better understand the world we share, and played an integral role in shaping my thinking as a conservative: the ideas of tradition and authority.
To begin with, I would like to highlight G.K. Chesterton’s masterful description of tradition in his book Orthodoxy:
Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
Chesterton is correct, tradition is about realizing that we are tethered to those who came before us and placed the civilization we enjoy in our hands. Thomas Jefferson famously remarked to James Madison that the “Earth belongs in usufruct to the living” who shouldn’t be bound by the dead hand of the past. James Madison responded brilliantly that “the improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them.” Madison was right in this disagreement, and Jefferson was disastrously wrong. It is easy to see that the U.S. Constitution was structured around Madison’s idea of government, not Jefferson’s, as is made clear when we turn to the Preamble of the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Constitution was made with future generations in mind because the founders understood a fundamental precept of political philosophy: As Edmund Burke detailed, the present is bound to both the past and the future, as all three can best be described as links in a social chain of giving and receiving. We also see this in the Federalist Papers. In No. 2, John Jay elegantly states:
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who… have nobly established general liberty and Independence.
The founders, specifically James Madison and Gouverneur Morris (the two men who contributed the most to the language and style of the U.S. Constitution), were keenly aware of the fallacious nature of Jefferson’s aforementioned statement, along with the nonsense Rousseau propagated from which such statements spring. Jefferson and the rest of Rousseau’s disciples hold that men are born free in a state of nature but are fettered by the traditions and customs of their progenitors. For them (and Marx to a certain degree), history is a struggle to become unencumbered from such burdens.
Rousseau states in the very first sentence of Chapter One of The Social Contract, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Rubbish. Born free? We don’t enter the world spontaneously with no attachments, in some social vacuum free from obligation. We enter into societies, through families, into a life with an abundance of traditions and customs. These habits, customs, and traditions build the social order on which we enter the world standing. We disregard that at our peril — ask the French or the Soviets.
The society we inherit is not ours to mindlessly do with as we so please. After all, we didn’t build it. We inherited it, and we should be grateful that we’ve been given something.
While I disagree with Samuel Pufendorf on many things, he was right when he described a man with no attachments as the worst creature one could imagine. In The Whole Duty of Man, According to the Law of Nature, Pufendorf beautifully states:
It must then follow that whatsoever Advantages accompany Human Life, are all owing to that mutual help Men afford one another. So that, next to Divine Providence, there is nothing in the world more beneficial to Mankind than Men themselves.
Pufendorf is right, we need each other — not in some esoteric and abstruse manner, but in a real sense. We need our families, our fellow countrymen, and just as importantly, our progenitors. Replace men with generations in the above excerpt from Pufendorf. Sure, it is not quite as eloquent, but the point remains.
As David Hume so brilliantly explained, we rely on customs of belief instead of some abstract conception of “reason.” Perhaps Hume went a tad too far in neglecting our ability to reason, but I must say I agree with Kant when he said Hume awakened him from a “dogmatic slumber.” Hume helped awaken me from the spell I had been placed under by the religion of reason and the cult of progress we’ve established in the West. We’ve built an idol of the self, one we perpetually worship as we lay down the customs and traditions of our forefathers on its altar. But this idol is merely a straw man. It does not exist in any real sense, and our ceaseless devotion to it is blinding us. We’ve been consumed by its allure. In his masterful essay Rationalism in Politics, Michael Oakeshott describes the very society we are witnessing today:
... a generation which thinks what it has discovered for itself is more important than what it has inherited, an age over-impressed with its own accomplishment and liable to those illusions of intellectual grandeur which are the characteristic lunacy of post-Renaissance Europe, an age never mentally at peace with itself because never reconciled with its past.
In becoming a conservative, I had to first be humbled. I had to see that the rich world around me wasn’t built by me. I had to realize the aggrandized idol I had built of myself and my own intellect was a false god. I had to understand that the civil order on which I stand was produced by long-standing institutions and customs like the church, the common law, the English language, our music, and our literature. As Oakeshott said, I now can understand where I am today because I am reconciling with my past. I’m reconciling with the Western canon, the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and the new Anglo-American tradition. I truly cannot articulate the rich meaning that has permeated my soul as a result of this. Perhaps, though, there is one last thing I can articulate: the idea of authority that is fundamental to the conservative philosophy.
While it is integral to the conservative ethos, authority is often a word with a negative connotation and is usually related to the idea of “power,” thanks to Marx. To be fair, Marx wasn’t necessarily wrong — in order for there to be authority, there must be power. To be clear, I’m talking about legitimate and established power, whereas Marx would foolishly say the ideas of legitimate and established power are simply figments of the bourgeoisie. In his book, The Meaning of Conservatism, Sir Roger Scruton explains the idea of legitimate power by contrasting the way we see the power of the police and the power of the mafia. We see the police in terms of legitimate power, yet the mafia are seen in terms of illegitimate, corrupt power.
Before getting into this idea of authority too deeply, I want to briefly discuss why I think it so deeply affected me. Other than being a core tenet of conservatism, the idea of authority impacted me because of the civil unrest I saw in 2020. The destruction and lawlessness I witnessed revealed a profound truth about human beings: We fundamentally detest any authority save our own. There is a deep, dark lust for power and an attraction for destruction abiding in all of us.
This desire is notably explored by Euripides in his magnum opus, The Bacchae. The god of insanity and madness, Dionysus, brings to light the wild, primitive side of the women who fall for him, known as the Bacchae. For those familiar with the tragic play, Pentheus believes that the women are partaking in sexual activities with Dionysus on the hillside. He was mistaken, as Freud was in his theory of sublimation. It is not all about sex, as Pentheus finds out when he spies on the women. They are ripping apart animals and eventually perceive him to be a lion and do the same to him. Pentheus discovers that it was all about the mad lust for power and this deep attraction to chaos.
This innate desire for power and destruction is nested in the view of man found in the Hebrew Bible. It is the story of man’s fall detailed in Genesis chapter three. After all, the serpent allures Eve with one line: "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods…”(v. 5).
This desire to be God dwells in all of us. In our pursuit to be God Himself, and to defy the ultimate authority we are under, we destroy paradise and usher in hell. After all, we didn’t know that in defying God we were striking a deal with the devil himself. We chose hell. But that’s the thing, the very seductive thing about it: we get to choose it — we get to play God. Milton explores this idea beautifully in Paradise Lost.
As a conservative I understand the need for a persisting social order. Thomas Hobbes (alongside other social contract theorists like Rousseau) basically repeats the serpent’s line in Leviathan where he states there can be “no obligation on any man which arises not from some act of his own.” This is ultimately what I would like to briefly refute here in the rest of this piece: the idea that we fall subject to no authority save that which we agree to.
In Book III, Chapter IV of The Politics, Aristotle describes to us that the “virtue of a good man” is one who is “free but governed” and that the “good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to rule and be ruled.” I must say I agree. But what exactly does this mean for us? Well, I believe it means that we must understand the obvious nonsense of the social contract theory offered by Rousseau and Hobbes and see that in order for there to even be a possibility for a free social contract, there must be a social order.
Scruton, in The Meaning of Conservatism, further explores why social order must preexist social contracts, it is due to the fact that the very notion of individuals committing themselves, through a promise, cannot arise without it. According to Scruton, we have already presupposed the existence of shared institutions and a concept of human freedom “which could hardly have their origin in the very practice of contract which they serve to make possible.” This is ultimately rooted in Hume’s critique of the social contract in Of the Original Contract.
Earlier we turned to the difference in our perception of the police and the mafia to understand legitimate power. Fundamentally, if we want to understand the idea of established power, we must look to the family. A child is the product of his parent’s will. The ideas and beliefs of the parent will shape it as it grows and develops. Providing good guidance and care is the inexorable obligation of the parent to the child. In this developmental process is the idea of established power: the child does not consent to its parents’ power, rather the parents demand the child to obey them from the moment it is born. In order for the parents to love and nurture the child, there must be established power. How else would a child recognize its parent apart from the other adults that surround it without established power? As Scruton details, only in recognizing this established and objective power its parents have over it can a child come to recognize the autonomy of its parents who give love freely and to whom they owe love in return.
Scruton described familial relations not in the sense of justice but in the sense of piety. To do something like neglecting your parents in their old age isn’t an act of injustice, it’s one of impiety. Much to our peril, we have forgotten what it means to live a pious life. Principally, it means recognizing the existence of authority and legitimate demands to which you did not consent. It means recognizing the obligations we have to respect authority and seeing the bond of society as transcendent. The state must possess power in order to hold any type of authority over us; thus, we are obligated to submit to its claims so long as they are clothed in constitution and the rule of law. Otherwise, these claims are void of any force because we simply ignore them, and the order of our country so near to the conservative heart is rendered dead at the hands of anarchy.
As Montesquieu states in Book V of The Spirit of the Laws, “At our coming into the world, we contract an immense debt to our country, which we can never discharge.”
The love and obligation we have towards our country is like the love and obligation that Cordelia has for her father in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Instead of turning to flatter her father like her sisters did, Cordelia tells Lear that she loves him simply because he is her father. He raised her, and he loved her. Thus, she is obliged to do the same.
We are born, as Montesquieu said, into a country to whom we owe a debt from which we can never pardon ourselves. Not because our country is grand, not because it is great, but simply because it is our country. We are indebted simply because we came into the world and were handed something instead of nothing. Does this mean our country will always be in the right? No, of course not. Does it mean the traditions we inherit will always be good? No, of course not. Does preserving the way of life we’ve been given mean never changing it? No, of course not. I agree with Burke, the founding father of conservatism: A country without the means to change is without the means to preserve itself. The conservative sensibility suggests, however, that we should approach change with humility, gratitude, and prudence.
I want to finish this idea of authority with a rather long quote from Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism, so indulge me for just one more moment:
Conservatives believe in the power of the state as necessary to the state’s authority, and will seek to establish and enforce that power in the face of every influence that opposes it. However, their desire is to see power standing not naked in the forum of politics, but clothed in constitution, operating always through an adequate system of law, so that its movement seems never barbarous or oppressive, but always controlled and inevitable, an expression of the civilized vitality through which loyalty is inspired. The constitution, therefore, and the institutions which sustain it, will always lie at the heart of conservative thinking.
When I was watching as those radical American Bacchae were destroying the very social order on which they were standing, I knew deep down there was a need for authority and power to keep the social order we have been blessed with alive. To preserve and perpetuate that inheritance means having the power and authority of the state clothed in constitution and the rule of law. This authority is one we submit to, not one we consent to in the form of a contract. Think back to the family — we did not consent to being born into our families. It is not the product of a contract we signed with them. The same can be said for our country and its customs and traditions.
This, at the end of the day, is why I am a conservative. I watched as the very country I loved was threatened by the uncontrollable passions of men. I saw that we do not get to choose, generally, whether we submit to something, but to what we submit ourselves. Will it be to the authority of our own passions and the innate desire we all share to play God, or will it be to the authority of the constitution of society and state? I chose the latter. Since, my life has been pervaded with meaning as I have discovered the traditions of the country to which I owe my allegiance and submission.//
Did I make an impression? Did I leave anything out? Voice your opinion by sending a letter to the editor or submitting a counter-point as an article on our Contact page! I look forward to hearing what you have to say. Let's make political discourse civil again.