Politics & Policy

Without Which Conservatism Is Stillborn

Culture is not something for which you can buy a ticket; it is cradle and crucible.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 19, 2005, issue of National Review.

Although some who use Conservatism as an implement may not think so, Conservatism broadly speaking stems from an impulse of far greater import than politics alone. And in this regard, perhaps the most fundamental division between conservatives and modern liberals is a belief or disbelief in an ordered universe, the splendor of which is an invitation to man to try for his justice and works to approximate the constancy and balance of natural laws, and for his reticence in the command and direction of others to be appropriate to his limited powers.

#ad#To believe instead in accident and disorder is to refuse the evidence of a universe that hangs together rather well, in favor of the primacy of man, and therefore the legitimacy of pure power. The implications of this philosophical and temperamental difference–divine purpose for the conservative bent of mind and random disorder for the liberal–play themselves out in every conceivable situation.

Locked in struggle with its opposite, each tendency is continually presented not only with primarily intellectual propositions, but with problems arising from nature, the development of society, and the advance of knowledge, and with combinations arising from the interaction of all. Given this unceasing stream of problems, one must react either by propounding a new thesis or by arguing in antithesis. In static and traditional societies, such as the Islamic world, where belief is more settled than not, the antithesis–not as a challenge to orthodoxy but as a block on change–enjoys every advantage. In the West, where the mainspring has been newly arising ideas and initiatives, the advantage is almost always with the new thesis, with the offering rather than with the recoiling.

William F. Buckley’s extraordinary strategical contribution to public life from mid-century onward has been that his energy and brilliance have allowed him and his collaborators to offer, while floating in a sea of liberal theses, not only a persistent flow of counterarguments but a sea of their own credible, viable, and intriguing propositions. Unlike many others, Buckley sensed that the doctrines of Liberalism had become sufficiently stale to allow a new tack. Their lethargy and recession would open wide avenues down which he would drive, and he did, when no one thought it safe to do so, even though, manifestly, it was…

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