The Conservative Search for Identity - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Conservative Search for Identity

The following is an excerpt from Stephen J. Tonsor’s excellent essay, collected along with several others by the likes of Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and F. A. Hayek into the volume What Is Conservatism?

Writing with all the Romantic appreciation of the dialectic of opposites and polarities, Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman and the Romantics expressed eloquently and frequently the profound observation that the essence of life is polarity, opposition, contradiction, and that these, when integrated, harmonized, synthesized, their warring forces harnessed by the sovereign personality, institution, or society, enrich and energize the larger context of which they are a part.

However, the organic union of opposites is not today a central intellectual concern. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” wrote W. B. Yeats. The stern necessities of an age of ideology demand conformity, and, locked in his preconceptions, the Liberal intellectual is impotent to do more than mourn the passing of an age in which variety and the dialectic of opposites produced a rich and dynamic society. He desires movement but refuses to pay the price for movement; he desires nonconformity and creativity but refuses to tolerate the divergences of viewpoint and the frequent eccentricity which are the price of nonconformity. He wishes creativity but is uncomfortable with the messiness of failed experiments and failed lives which creativity produces. For the organic reconciliation of opposites, which is the measure of a healthy society, he has substituted the myth of “pluralism,” the dream of a multitude of mutually exclusive and hostile social units and individuals which coexist, but which fail either to stimulate to action or to enrich the common group. It is a classical age but like all classical periods it is both static and weary. It would be false to assume that, unlike Liberal thought, conservative thought has avoided the spirit of the age and that it is broader, more inclusive, more dynamic and creative than the doctrinaire Liberalism which is its counterpart. The blunt truth is that most conservatives do not know what manner of men they are; they have no clear conception of the society they wish to create, have no organic relationship either to the present or the past, hold no grand design, entertain no enduring principles, and are responsible to no whole and healthy vision either of man or society. Their discourse consists of the platitudes of political criticism, and, however salutary and necessary this may be, it is neither a substitute for principle nor a guide for action.

The tendency of conservatism is to disintegration, for the centrifugal forces are much greater in it than in contemporary Liberalism. Liberalism is a body of coherent doctrine, deductively derived from a set of central propositions, while conservatism is a synthesis of contradictory principles, the principle of authority and the principle of freedom. These principles are ever held in precarious balance by individuals and by societies; the resolution of their forces is never final; their synthesis is never complete. The drive which they impart to society is in a measure the product of their instability.

If conservatives are finally to achieve the common agreement necessary to the establishment of both principle and party, they must reconcile themselves to the dialectic of freedom and authority and must capitalize on the values of their divided heritage. They can achieve this in no better way than through an exploration of the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) and Lord Acton (1834–1902). Together their lives spanned the nineteenth century, and together they elaborated the soundest and most coherent modern body of conservative thought of which contemporary conservatives may avail themselves. They reconciled, in their lives and their thinking, authority and freedom; anticipated the modern world with all of its problems; and worked towards viable and optimistic solutions. They both stood near the center of power; they both mistrusted power and spoke repeatedly of its corrupting influence. Both were active in practical politics, but both were contemplative by nature, preferring the study of power to its exercise. Both were deeply religious men, but both stood near the edge of heresy. Both suspected the worst of human nature, but optimistically hoped for the best. Both were born to an aristocratic order which was in the process of dissolution, and both met the situation, not by reaction but rather by an attempt to understand and to assimilate themselves to the new social processes which were transforming Western society. Both were ethical thinkers of the highest order who would tolerate no concession of principle to practical politics. Both combined in their thought and in their lives such a devotion to both principle and freedom as ought to distinguish the contemporary conservative.

Not only singular personalities, but history itself by slow conjunction unites the opposites which men so often find in contradiction. Providence, which has its own purposes, disposes, and wise men conform themselves to a world whose ordering was only partially theirs. It is difficult, once man accepts the basic proposition of historical purpose, to couple with this acceptance the necessity of individual and collective action. It is all too easy to assume, as others in the past have, that faith and hope make an active charity unnecessary. But it is only through historical understanding, through action, and finally through faith in God’s Providence that the reconciliation of opposites becomes possible. Lord Acton and De Tocqueville understood both the necessity of faith and hope and the necessity of immediate political action. Although both were pessimists about human nature, both were optimists largely because of their belief in an overriding Providence. Acton said, “Christ is risen on the world and fails not.” Tocqueville wrote, “I cannot believe that the Creator made man to leave him in an endless struggle with the intellectual wretchedness that surrounds us. God destines a calmer and a more certain future to the communities of Europe. I am ignorant of his designs, but I shall not cease to believe in them because I cannot fathom them, and I had rather mistrust my own capacity than his justice.”

But both Acton and Tocqueville recognized that if it is difficult to accept the necessity of action and understanding within the framework of a world ordered by Providence, it has been, for the past two and a half centuries, even more difficult to accept the concept of Providence itself. The attack upon Providence and purpose has been the distinguishing characteristic of modern society, the abandonment of hope and of value its singular mark. Whether in Voltaire’s Candide or in the anti-rational and anti-Providential works of the Marquis de Sade, the general conception of a creative Providence which establishes purpose and imposes meaning upon the events of history was denied by the eighteenth century. What has been described as the “revolt against the eighteenth century” was well under way before the eighteenth century was half over. It was only incidentally a revolt against reason, but reason, too, was forced to abdicate its sway, once purpose had been banished. The era of nihilism and the totally absurd begins with a doubt as to the nature and purposes of God in history. The nineteenth-century attempts at the restoration of order, the restoration of value, the restoration of purpose, all revolved around the central problem of restoring meaning to history. Even Marxism is an attempt to restore purpose, to restore ends, to restore values to history. That it restores these to history without restoring Providence is the most telling reason for its failure. It is difficult enough to reconcile God’s ways to man as they reveal themselves in the ambiguities, failures, and dilemmas of history; it is impossible to justify the course of dialectical materialism as it reveals itself in its subhuman and antihuman processes.

In order to escape from absurdity man must move into the realm of order, value, purpose, and belief.

Stephen Tonsor was Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Michigan. He was the author of Tradition and Reform in Education (Open Court, 1974) and published essays and reviews in such publications as Victorian Studies, Journal of Modern History, The Catholic Historical Review, and The Review of Politics.

Complement with the ISI quiz: Which Conservative Thinker Are You?, Stanton Evans on the conservative case for freedom, and Yuval Levin on the roots of a reforming conservatism

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