Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863

Yet another post from Canaan Suitt:

“What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” – Abraham Lincoln

Conservatism is obstructive to the pursuit of truth and harmful to the wellbeing of society when the old ways of thinking and doing things are erroneous. Conversely, Liberalism, which we may say is in essence trying the new and untried against the old and tried, is dangerous when it is merely a desire to push against tradition for its own sake, without the guidance of reason. Both may be dangerous, and for the same reason: namely, both may eschew truth for something else–tradition for the one, “liberation” for the other.

It doesn’t seem to me that the ideas we call liberal would be called liberal if they had come first. Conversely, it doesn’t seem to me that those ideas that come along and challenge the established ideas can be called conservative. Of course, established and new ideas could be called liberal and conservative, respectively, if, like Humpty Dumpty, we could call things what we please. But using the established meaning of the words, it seems to me that conservative is conservative because it comes first in time and development and liberal is liberal because it comes subsequently. Now, probably both conservatives and liberals would take umbrage at this reduction of their respective ideologies to a matter of chronology. Conservatives may counter by saying that their ideas and values are in accordance with absolute truth, regardless of what newfangled ideas may come. Liberals may give an argument not unlike the conservatives’ in that it gives their position legitimacy by according their views with the truth (in throwing off the falsehoods of tradition).

This image was found here. I like the image... not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.
This image was found here. I like the image… not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.

As I began by saying, so now I reiterate that the relationship between conservatism or liberalism and truth is precarious. To clarify, I am talking about conservatism and liberalism in a political context. Now if conservatism were defined and used to mean–what I don’t think it really means–accordance with absolute truth, then I would unwaveringly call myself a conservative. For, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.” Liberalism, because conservatism and liberalism are opposites, would mean the open mind that Lewis condemns–would be forsaking the foundation that gives meaning to anything. But traditionalism–adherence to the old and tried–is not synonymous with adherence to truth, period. Conservatism means going along with the old and tried politically, which may be good and may not. In the context of Lincoln’s speech quoted above, it is very good, because by it he means adhering to the Constitution and being devoted to the perpetuity of union. Liberalism, politically, as doing the new and untried, may be good and it may be destructive. A liberal mindset or idea may in fact greatly improve upon the conservative way of doing things. I think of the great contribution of those “liberals” Erasmus and Luther, or those liberal measures called the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. On the other hand, rebellion against the old and tried merely because it is old and tried is no good reason to be a liberal. The standard against which both conservatism and liberalism have to be tried is truth itself.

This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.
This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.

I myself think Plato’s approach (see The Republic I) is the best one – to be guided by reason and the ever-pressing desire to understand and act upon the truth. I am not very concerned with labels–it seems to me that most labels are applied in hindsight by posterity or in the present by the opponents of a certain way of thinking–I am concerned with knowing the truth (“as God gives us to see the right,” as Lincoln said elsewhere and applying it to society. If this means that at times I seem conservative to those who may observe me, well, that’s fine. And so it is if I may be liberal.

This sort of person, who is not concerned for labels or movements or systematized political stances, the person whom I’ll call “The Sojourner,” will unsettle conservatives and liberals alike. On some issues, conservatives will applaud the Sojourner; on others, liberals will approve him. Both will be disturbed on many other points. Both sides will see him as an anomaly–an unstable conglomeration of diametrically opposed ideologies. Neither will welcome him entirely. “He’s delusional, you know. That chameleonic fellow thinks he can support our pro-life stuff while supporting the legalization of homosexual marriage!” Or, in a meeting room on the other side of the Capitol, “What’s he trying to do–get a bigger constituency? Everyone knows you can’t support these damn imperialistic programs and align yourself with our green initiatives! It’s just a load of BS.” For his part, the Sojourner knows the world is more complex than his friends seek to make it. In his thoughtful quest for the right, he is mostly alone (except in the company of books and rarely met like-minded people), but he knows solitariness is necessarily a part of the quest.

3 thoughts on “Conservatism vs. Liberalism

  1. The liberals (taken as a collective whole, which is a huge error) inevitably argue that the newer ideas are better because they grow out of the older ones, meaning they are inherently improvements on those older ideas.

    Of course, this isn’t really a good view on things. Rather, say that liberalism exchanges the known, with known advantages and faults, for the experimental, which typically has not been tested at all, or at least hasn’t been tested much, or else it would be conservative and not liberal. It would be wonderful to have some kind of laboratory where we could experiment with these ideas and see the effects they have before applying them to the real world, but unfortunately, the only laboratory we have for politics and culture IS the real world.

    As a result, we’re stuck being blind mice, either huddling in the corner we know and hoping the cat doesn’t come back too soon, or venturing blindly out and hoping we’re going somewhere safer rather than more dangerous.

  2. “…the Sojourner knows the world is more complex than his friends seek to make it. In his thoughtful quest for the right, he is mostly alone…”

    A Christian Sojourner should recognize complexity, but still have an authoritative Source (God and his written Word) to turn to for many answers. Not all things are answered there, but most of life’s big questions certainly are.

  3. Thank you, Rob and Colin both, for your responses. Your comments express the two sides of my thinking that I hope were well represented in the article. I affirm what you say, Rob, that the Bible is ultimately authoritative and holds the answers for the Sojourner. I also agree with Colin regarding the uncertainty and struggle of applying the truth in a political context. My position is that neither political party encapsulates or can perpetrate the Kingdom of God, and that it’s incumbent upon Christians to be carefully and thoughtfully involved in politics, eschewing easy answers and political agendas, which is at times dishearteningly difficult and lonesome. In other words, theological orthodoxy (derived from the Word of God) produces in me ferocious political skepticism.

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