Conservatism and the Southern Tradition

A review of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (All Points Books, 2018) by Sir Roger Scruton.

There is no such thing as conservatism, according to Sir Roger Scruton’s 155-page monograph, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. That is, there is no unified theory of conservatism because it is always localized to a time, a place, and a tradition. To say the word conservative means something different depending on who, and where, you are. But the philosophy of conservatism qua conservatism simply does not exist. By no means does that mean it’s empty, though.

Conservatism requires a modifier. There is Southern conservatism. There is British conservatism. There is even what you might call Yankee conservatism (see, e.g., the Salem Witch Trials). One might rightly say that there is a localized flavor of conservatism for every state and even every town, the objective of which is to preserve the native society, kinship, and ritual. Conservatism without a specific temporal and terrestrial provenance, though, is empty.

In Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Scruton surveys the intellectual foundations of conservative thought, from the pre-history of conservatism, to the birth of modern conservatism as written by Edmund Burke, to conservatism in continental Europe, and up to more modern currents of conservatism as expressed by thinkers like Russell Kirk. In a way, Scruton’s book might be thought of as a primer for reading Kirk’s classic The Conservative Mind.

Scruton provides an accessible yet thorough explanation of the constituent ideas of Burkean conservatism. He channels the intellectual spirit of Burke, to the point where their two voices are often indistinguishable throughout the book. The relevance of these ideas to a Southerner can hardly be overstated. The ideas of Southern conservatism and what we term the Southern Tradition are at bottom the same. Southern conservatism is inextricable from the soil in which it is rooted. It comes out of a specific place and it forms a distinct, if sometimes diverse, body of thought.

What is the basis of conservatism, then? The answer to this question, is that which holds us together as a community even when we are not united on all the issues of the day: because we are nevertheless united in our sharing of a pre-political loyalty. Conservatism is the manifestation of this pre-political loyalty. It is the trust, the heritage – and the collocational settlement – that has generated social cohesion. It is upon this loyalty that social order, and conservatism, is built.

There is no conservatism without a shared community, a shared history, a shared identity, and a shared land. Scruton explains:

[Conservatism] has been about our whole way of being, as heirs to a great civilization and a many-layered bequest of laws, institutions and high culture. For conservatives our law-governed society came into being because we have known who we are, and defined our identity not by our religion, our tribe or our race but by our country, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life that we share. And if there is another way of staying together in the world as it is today, I should be interested to hear of it.

The essence of conservatism is the common-sense understanding that it is easier to destroy than to build. This is true of a building just as it is true of a society. Our institutions contain intergenerational experience, carefully tended and developed by trial and error, the accumulation of which is wisdom. Large and small, they are the fabric and the infrastructure of our day-to-day lives: civil and governmental institutions, religion, the common law, manners, holidays, traditions, and even the way we remember our history. To remake basic societal structures each time we encounter a flaw would undermine the stock of utility that has been built up in them through accretion of group effort. It would be the ultimate in hubris to think we can discard any of these without suffering a catastrophic loss.

Because it is easier to build than to destroy, we must be cautious when making change. Change – even progress – may come, but it should be done to conserve that which we have. As Burke famously said, “we reform in order to conserve,” and such reform is occasioned in the interest of long-term community survival. Edmund Burke was a Whig, after all. He believed in progress, but he rejected revolution. Scruton explains that as conservatives “we adapt to change in the name of continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have.” That is, we must be modern in defense of the past, and creative in defense of tradition.

* * *

To be clear, conservatism as explained by Scruton is not the libertarian, free-market ideas of quisling conservatives who define conservativism simply as being “anti-Left,” as someone like George F. Will does. A conservative defines himself by what he stands for, not by what he stands against. These nominal conservatives are the reason, as Scruton says, in modern society “the only phobia permitted is that of which conservatives are a target.” These quasi-conservatives do not take their stand, or if they do, it is for capital for its own sake.

Markets have no virtues in-and-of themselves unless there is a community they serve. Real conservativism requires a belief in a transcendent order, as well as faith in custom, tradition, and culture. The economy expounded by free-market, open-border libertarians has little intrinsic value. Honest actors will “wish to reach deals openly” but those deals must be “backed up by the moral and legal strictures that issue from our shared sympathy,” says Scruton. Market libertarianism is not conservatism because libertarianism’s basic unit of value is the deal. Conservatism’s basic unit of value is the soul.

Modern-day libertarians and liberals alike would have us believe that Enlightenment-style natural rights, derived from so-called pure reason, are the fount from which a society may be fashioned. John Locke spoke of these fundamental rights as being life, liberty, and property. These rights were ostensibly declared in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and our Declaration of Independence.

The problem with natural rights as expressed by social-contract theorists like Locke and Rousseau is that they treat man’s creation of human institutions as transactional. They claim that free men in a state of nature have negotiated the terms of their society like it were an actual contract. By this understanding, the contract could be ripped up at any time and rebuilt from the foundation. This hyper-rationality is absurdly mathematical in its application of abstract reason to politics and human society, says Scruton. It’s a hallucination. Rarely if ever have men made such agreements. There was no state of nature, least not one that human experience can know or understand.

Rights do not come prior to society. Rather, society and its inherited traditions are that out of which rights and governments grow. This assertion may sound foreign to the student of liberal philosophy. But to a conservative, rights reflect a preexisting national character and tradition, which may vary among peoples and nations. Society is organic, not a machine. As M.E. Bradford has explained, the existence of a constitution is something worked out by a people with a specific history whose existence is a priori to any discussion of their constitution.

Natural rights are nonsense on stilts, as Jeremy Bentham said. Conservatism is functional, not aspirational, and it is the customary utility of rights and obligations – not abstract reason – which is the justification for them. Scruton expounds on this, telling us that without our inherited institutions, our freedoms are meaningless:

For the conservative, human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions that contain within them a precious inheritance of wisdom, without which the exercise of freedom is as likely to destroy human rights and entitlements as to enhance them.

By this understanding, proclamations of liberty may be the child of custom and tradition, but they are not a realization of God’s grants, at least not in the sense that they can be separated from tradition. Rights are the inherited expression of a preexisting political order – not the instant karma of Enlightenment insight.

Society is a trusteeship, not an arm’s length contract. It is, Burke reminds us, an association between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Each generation has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of those for whose benefit he has been entrusted. There is “a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil but ours to safeguard.” Social traditions exist “because they enable a society to reproduce itself.” If you destroy them heedlessly, you remove the guarantee offered by one generation to the next.

* * *

The American Revolution, as understood by Scruton, Burke, and the Founding Fathers, was the just not the insistence of Americans’ rights – it was the insistence of their rights as Englishmen. The Founders did not seek to create a new order, they sought to retain the rights they believed were due them under English law and tradition. Burke supported the American Revolution, writing that its purpose was “not to acquire absolute speculative liberty, but to keep what they had under the English constitution.” The American Constitution was thus an attempt to capture that legal tradition within four corners to protect against another attempt at what was the real revolutionary act – the theft of their rights by Parliament and the Crown.

The American Constitution was a restoration of the rights of Englishmen hewn from the most essential principles of the British Constitutional tradition. Burke said he could only find that America wanted “a security to its ancient condition.” The American Revolution was another flavor of the English Glorious Revolution in which traditional rights were restored to the populace.

Burke recognized that our Constitution was a natural fit for the national character of Americans. This order, under, eventually, the Constitution, had developed organically from the existing societal order. The Revolution was relatively neat and procedural, led by lawyers, planters, and merchants, all men who had little interest in upending the colonial social structure.

There had been wisdom in the trial and error of the American founding. The Articles of Confederation were scrapped (technically, seceded from), state constitutions were rewritten, and an intense period of attempting to create an American version of the English rights that had been received through the generations. The Bill of Rights itself was named after the original Bill of Rights enacted after the Glorious Revolution, in which another king had overstepped his bounds. The father of our Bill of Rights might be James Madison, but its grandfathers might rightly be the English Parliament of 1689.

Professor Donald Livingston says that American independence was declared from inherited rights, and that it is not possible to create a new society purely on contract principles. Livingston explains:

The Declaration [of Independence], then, is not about an aggregate of atomistic Lockean individuals uniting to secure their individual self-interest, but historically pre-existing political societies, each seeking to establish (out of its desired sovereignty) legal protection for what it considers a valuable way of life. But what about the abstract proposition that “all men are created equal?” It is just that: an abstraction. Without a moral and religious tradition to interpret it – with all its contingency and particularity – it is entirely empty and cannot serve to guide any conduct whatsoever.

The American Revolution was a conservative revolution, one in which we reformed in order to conserve our cultural inheritance, not a revolution based on what Livingston has called the “philosophical superstition of natural rights.” The declaration that all men are created equal is not (as Lincoln claimed) a statement of universal rights, it meant that all men in the existing political community – those who shared a history, culture, and territory – were equal under the law.

The French Revolution stood in stark contrast to the American Revolution, however. Scruton, channeling Burke, explains that the French Revolution was destined for failure because it was premised solely on abstract Enlightenment rights, without reference to French society or traditions.

The French Revolution started from an ideal, from an abstraction. Its leaders were a “literary cabal” consumed with the abstract at the expense of the practical. The French Revolution was an attempt to create a new society from whole cloth by using ideas that previously had little or no presence among the French people. Like the Soviets, the French tore down fundamental institutions like the church, started from scratch, and tried unnaturally to force the existing society’s nature to conform to ideas previously unknown.

The French revolutionaries rejected all that which conservatism consists – practicality, the everyday, and the familiar. They dishonored the dead, they stole from the unborn, and showed contempt for the gifts that had been given to them. This resulted in, as Scruton explains, the “systematic destruction of the stock of social capital.” The French discarded their society and political birthright, and both they and their progeny paid a price for it, falling under control of a dictator, Napoleon.

As Burke pithily remarked, “the doctrine of the rights of man, was never preached any where without mischief.” The example has repeatedly been proven true throughout history, repeating itself as recently as the Communist revolution in 1917 and up through the riots of the Summer of 2020. The absurdity of most revolutions is that they see society as a means to a future society, rather than an end in itself. The revolutionaries are at war with the people they set out to govern.

* * *

Scruton touches on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, the progenitor of the Southern tradition. Scruton – who has no dog in the endless fight over whether Jefferson is the originator of radical leftism or Southern conservatism – comes down firmly in favor of the latter. Jefferson is important, says Scruton, because of his belief that though there are valid human rights, “the form of government must be tailored to the conditions of a given society, not dictated by the logic of abstract ideas.” Jefferson considered himself a philosopher, but he believed that the common law was a better guide to defining rights than philosophy alone.

At least as important is Jefferson’s critique of centralization of political power and his corresponding belief in localized sovereignty. Jefferson is representative of the enduring divide in American politics, says Scruton, between the “defence of an agrarian civilization” against the collectivist state represented by market forces. Scruton thus sides with those of us who understand, as Clyde Wilson has said, “the Jeffersonian stance was the more conservative because it more truly in kept with the facts of human nature and the particular conditions of America.”

Though Scruton’s examination of Jefferson is brief, more can be said about Jefferson’s conservatism using his framework. Agrarianism and decentralization were two sides of the same coin to Jefferson, and they continue to be fundamental principles to Southern conservatives. These two principles developed organically in the American colonies. Though they had inherited the English common law tradition, the colonies, and then the states, were unique by virtue of their geography. Vast expanses of land on which to settle led to the tandem developments of agriculture and decentralized government. This decentralization was clearly different than the English system of unitary government with a center of power in London. To Americans, decentralization was innate to their experience, and thus formed one of the fundamental Jeffersonian (and American) political values.

Scruton says that conservatism comes from experience, and in America, the experience of agrarian decentralization is that conservatism. Jefferson wrote that the Constitution would have an effective system of checks and balances so long as, in addition to the three branches of the general government balancing each other, state power also provided a check on the general government. “The limited powers of the federal government and jealousy of the subordinate governments afford a security which exists in no other instance,” Jefferson said, which would protect. Consolidation of power, on the other hand, would destroy the traditions unique to the former colonies.

To understand Jefferson’s conservatism, one need only look at his aspirations for American society. His dream for America was an agrarian nation, stitched together from independent homesteads, populated by yeoman farmers, which came together to form communities built into states. It would be an America where “towns and institutions [would be] built according to civilized principles,” says Scruton. The largest unit of government, with very limited exceptions, was the state. It was a community of communities, not (as he Jefferson wrote to Madison) crowded metropolises where “people get piled upon one another … and got to eating one another.”

To Jefferson, each state possessed unique cultural characteristics – its settlement patterns, geography, and even the ethos and the myths that made one, for instance, a Virginian. There was no template that could be imposed equally on New England and the Lowcountry. A polity need not contain values that must be transcribed so universally as to fit a continental nation. That would be laughable, for it was no great leap to conclude that there may also be rights and duties possessed by inhabitants of one state that would not exist for neighbors of another across the river.

Jefferson believed in tradition. He knew that inculcation of virtue – the mores and traditions of his culture – would “render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.” Such words never came from the mouth of Robespierre, who thundered that “virtue without terror is impotent.” Jefferson thus had a fundamentally conservative conception of society that derived from his own history, language, religion, and society.

Though Jefferson sometimes wrote and spoke like a natural-rights theorist, he lived and dreamed like a conservative. His dreams were not of a future that had broken radically from the past, but of a future that grew naturally out of its past. On his mountain, Monticello, Jefferson was a farmer, a father, a grandfather, a neighbor, a community leader, an educator, a philanthropist, and a philosopher. He believed in a stable society. What mattered most fundamentally to Jefferson, more even than the conjuring of rights by enlightened philosophers, was his way of life.

Indeed, Jefferson, like Burke, believed a form of aristocracy to be vital. Jefferson wrote that aristocracy arose organically among men, and that it is necessary for a functioning culture:

The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?

These same thoughts were set to paper twenty-two years earlier by none other than Edmund Burke. Burke wrote that when men act with virtue, pursue honor and duty, and tend to the affairs of society, “these are the circumstances of men that form what I should call a natural aristocracy, without which there is no nation.”

It should come as no surprise that though Jefferson and Burke took different routes, they had arrived at the same destination.

* * *

The epitaph on Karl Marx’s tombstone in Highgate Cemetery, London famously says that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Scruton’s life activity (he passed away in January 2020) stands for much the opposite principle. The point of philosophy, to him, was to protect the heritage that had been handed down through generations. He was no armchair philosopher, though, because he understood that defense of one’s heritage must often be active. Scruton was an anti-communist whose works were handed out in samizdat form through the Eastern Bloc, and for this he was arrested in Prague during one of his many lectures against totalitarianism and in favor of republican conservatism. Scruton met with Czech and Polish dissidents in dark, crowded apartments – they were professors, poets, and other such thought-criminals. They were, as Scruton has written, “a battered remnant.”

What Scruton said about meeting with Eastern Bloc dissidents might apply equally to what he would have felt if attending a gathering of Southerner conservatives:

I felt toward these people an immediate affinity. Nothing was of such importance for them as the survival of their national culture. Deprived of material and professional advancement, their days were filed with a forced meditation on their country and its past, and on the great Question of [] History that has preoccupied [them] since the movement for national revival in the nineteenth century. They were forbidden to publish; the authorities had concealed their existence from the world, and had resolved to remove their traces from the book of history. Hence the dissidents were acutely conscious of the value of memory. Their lives were an exercise in what Plato called anamnesis: the bringing to consciousness of forgotten things.

As with those dissidents, symbols of Southern nationhood have been purged from the national landscape by consolidationist bureaucrats and quangos. The American political climate is openly hostile to Southern conservatives, banishing our own battered remnant to the dark corners of the culture.

But Southern memory yet endures. The people of the South, like the Hebrews of old, are defined by the stories they tell about how their people came to be. Their stories are still told, even if one must sometimes look harder to find them. There is yet hope so long as those stories continue to be told.

Hope without action is just a daydream, though. Scruton concludes with words that Southern conservatives would be wise to heed. He says that to offer toleration to those gripped by animosity to your way of life “is to open the door to your own destruction.” We must “rediscover what we are and what we stand for,” and having discovered it, “be prepared to fight for it.” That is, says Scruton, the conservative message.

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