Since 2016 it’s become a cliché, for obvious reasons, that conservatism is in a state of crisis. Whether pundits are correct in tying that crisis to the electoral results of that year is not as important as the truth of the assertion, and truth it does seem to contain. Between liberal hegemony in the culture and populist victories in politics, conservatism’s future may well depend on reflective conservatives who will recover its principles.
Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk believed that many conservatives are instinctively conservative, preferring the imperfect known to the theoretically ideal.
Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver both used the phrase “reflective conservative” to distinguish between different temperaments of conservatives. They believed that many conservatives are instinctively conservative, preferring the imperfect known to the theoretically ideal. This is no criticism of these conservatives – indeed, this kind of sentiment forms the very foundation of conservatism. As Michael Oakeshott observed, to be conservative “is to prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, 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.”
But, for as necessary as this sentiment is, particularly during revolutionary times, Kirk and Weaver also believed that this instinctive conservatism was insufficient to push back against liberalism or to preserve the inheritances that conservatives revere. Instinctive conservatism needs to be reinforced – guided, even – by a reflective conservatism that seeks to discern the limitations of our fallen world, the proper principles of society, the fundamental nature of man, his proper ends and the means he may use to reach them, and all the other questions that give clarity to the endless struggle between permanence and change.
Kirk believed that “Everything worth conserving is menaced in our generation,” but that “Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair to what we still retain, will not suffice in this age.” Much less, we might add, will attempting to recreate the past. “A conservatism of instinct,” he concluded, “must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.”
Weaver said that the reflective conservative’s position is “a matter of conviction.” Reflective conservatives, he went on, “are convinced, with reference to certain concepts of good, with reference to certain means that should be taken toward realizing those concepts of good.” Weaver clearly identified himself as this kind of conservative, telling a group of young conservatives at Yale University:
We require this kind of reflective conservative to offer a continuous criticism of the ends and means urged on the public by the radicals, and to visualize the conservative alternative. Whether we as individuals incline to be eulogists of tradition or whether we delight in uncovering the laws and principles that illuminate the conservative path – we in this group are fated to be this reflective kind of conservative. We have to make our force felt in the area of debate, where we will disprove the absurd claim of liberals and radicals that all serious thinking is conducted on their side.
Kirk and Weaver have not been alone in urging reflection upon conservatives. The origin of the modern conservatism was, after all, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. More recently, John Kekes has affirmed that “natural conservatism must be transformed and made reflective,” adding helpfully that it is in times of turmoil that reflection is most needed.
The need for reflective conservatism is manifested in two ways in our current tumultuous times. First, the advance of liberalism and the broken promises of modernity have created a backlash against the left among people who self-consciously describe themselves as reactionaries. The term reactionary, of course, has almost no agreed-upon meaning (Weaver believed it to be a leftist corruption of the language), but the people who adopt the term today almost delight in framing their worldview as solely a rejection of all that is liberal and modern.
The problem with this view is that your position cannot be defined by what you disagree with without losing your compass (moral, political, or otherwise). Despite reactionaries’ alleged refusal to compromise, mere reaction leads to what Weaver called “middle-of-the-roadism” which he said “is not a political philosophy” but “rather the absence of a philosophy or an attempt to evade having a philosophy.” So while reactionaries disparage mainstream conservatism for acquiescing to the left, they themselves are often willing to adopt frameworks of liberalism (highly-centralized government power, for instance) in pursuance of their anti-liberal goals. But historically, wrote Weaver, great movements “have grown out of and have depended upon some self-consistent view of man and society. They have presented a program embodying clear principles, and people have gotten behind the movements because they wanted the principles to triumph.” If there is a principle in being a reactionary, beyond the belief that the present is bad, it is awfully hard to discern; and without principle it is impossible to understand what has gone wrong and what the right way to address it is.
A reflective conservative does not just ponder. But his reflections guide his actions, so that when he acts, he acts constructively, neither falling prey to demagogues nor putting undue faith in political processes.
The second way that the need for reflection is manifested is in the politicization of conservatism, in which conservative hopes are pinned on the outcomes of elections, legislative battles, and judicial appointments. And while a reflective conservative will not deny politics its place, he does not believe that the problems of society are primarily political or that they are susceptible to political remedies. So while appropriate action must be taken in the political realm, it must be oriented towards something more than victory; it must concern itself with securing the conditions in which man and society can thrive. And to do this, these conditions and the definition of thriving require reflection.
In both of these cases, reflection is not a substitute for action. A reflective conservative does not just ponder. But his reflections guide his actions, so that when he acts, he acts constructively, neither falling prey to demagogues nor putting undue faith in political processes.
Our volatile world needs conservatism to resolve its identity crisis, and toward this end the reflective conservative position is not only useful, it is necessary.