But, what about that label, “conservative”? Well, let me explain—as I see it—what a conservative is NOT.Interesting, although that omnium gatherum of past intellectuals has some strange bedfellows, with some outright authoritarian monsters thrown in.
- A real conservative is not a loud, platinized, remade and plastically remolded talking head on Fox.
- A real conservative is not that guy on the radio who seems to hate everything and everyone.
My own tradition of conservatism—whether I live up to it or do it justice—is one that is, for all intents and purposes, humanist. I believe there is a line of continuity from Heraclitus to Socrates to Zeno to Cicero to Virgil to St. John to St. Augustine to the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, and the Beowulf poet, to Thomas Aquinas to Petrach to Thomas More to Edmund Burke. The last one hundred years saw a fierce and mighty revival of the humanist tradition, embracing and unifying (more or less) T.E. Hulme, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Willa Cather, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Unset, Nicholas Berdayeev, Sister Madeleva Wolff, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Flannery O’Connor, and Russell Kirk, to name a few.
- And, a real conservative never wants to bomb another people “back to the stone age.”
George Orwell, both shocked and impressed by the movement, noted in December 1943 that it was nothing more than neo-reactionary: a strange mix of traditionalism in poetry and literature, religious orthodoxy in ethics, and anarchy in politics and economics. I must admit, though I have never called myself a neo-reactionary, almost all those who Orwell reluctantly admired are certainly heroes of mine.
But as I see it, the conservative or humanist—or, the conservative humanist, if you will—only possesses one job and one duty, when all is said and done, and she or he performs it to the best of her or his ability: A conservative attempts to conserve what is most humane in all spheres of life: in economics, in education, in the military, in the culture, in faith, in business, in government, and in community. The conservative is, at the most fundamental level, a humanist, reminding each and every one of us what it means to be human.
My broader critique would be to say that humanism as I understand it —I also consider myself a humanist — requires belief in the possibility of making things better. I obviously do not think that all change is for the better, and I rather dislike change for its own sake. The cult of Revolution, meaning the radical overthrow of the whole social order and its replacement with something completely new, has proved to be one of the worst ideas ever. By all means, let us preserve what is best and most humane about the past. But if you believe in humanity, you must believe in our power to reason and experiment and find new ways of doing things that improve on the old. If you deny this — if you insist the people cannot be trusted to find their own way and must always be guided by tradition — do you really have any faith in humanity? Some of the thinkers on Birzer's list, such as St. Augustine and Leo Strauss, had no faith in the human mass; in fact if I compiled a list of people I consider anti-humanist thinkers they might both be on it. To me, humanism means believing that human reason is profoundly powerful. It may often go astray, but to dismiss its power is to dismiss the potential of the modern world, and that seems to me a grave mistake.