re: Burke & Disraeli & Conservatism

by John O'Sullivan

May I just add a footnote to Yuval Levin’s very acute analysis of the Sam Tanenhaus article on the death of conservatism?

One of the problems of relying on Burke and Disraeli as guides to a genuine conservatism is that, as active politicians, writers, and speakers over several decades, they both said a great many things that, torn from context, can be made to contradict each other. And if it is not hard to make each of them contradict himself, it is child’s play to make them contradict each other.
As it happens, though, there are one or two quotations from both men that clearly represent their mature thought in simple form but in all its complexity. Let me suggest that this passage from Burke’s 1791 “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” is such a passage:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,—in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity,—in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption,—in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

A similar quotation from Disraeli’s 1867 speech on reform is this passage of the relationship between conservatism and change: “In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.”
In the context of current pollitics the Burke quotation supports Yuval’s contention that government should “should avoid undermining the foundations of future progress, which [are] political order, family stability, and social peace.” It is, in effect, an endorsement of conservative resistance in the ongoing culture wars. Disraeli’s remarks, again applied to current controversies, suggest that Americans should look to their own constitutional traditions in solving their problems. It is in effect an endorsement of conservative resistance to the thoughtless drift towards transnational governance and the erosion of democratic sovereignty. Sorry, a longer footnote than I expected.


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