>Conservatism as a philosophy holds that there are certain universal impulses that are natural to the human condition at all times and in all places. It therefore promotes civilization as providing the opportunity to enhance the good impulses while controlling and impeding the darker ones. Certain social norms have developed over the history of humanity which can give us clues to which forms of society allow us to best promote civilization, that is, those which allow us to live at our most human. This can be shown in the comparative study of governments throughout history that Adams wrote when attempting to mold and defend the Constitution during the founding of America, or the writings of Burke which protected England from the utopian and eventually tyrannical impulses of the French Revolution. It can also be shown in the failure of every attempt at founding a Utopian society throughout history, from Plato’s attempt to enact his ‘Republic’ in Sicily under Dionysuis II to Brooke Farm to the Soviet experiment, which quickly devolved into dictatorship and the cult of personality. As Fountleroy said: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary to not change.”
The belief that history has something to teach us is usually summed up as ‘morality’; that there are certain codes which we should obey to lead us toward happiness. As a fond student of etiquette I certainly see how societies have understood that there is no elegance, beauty, individuality, creativity, or even happiness without rules and restrictions. It is when there are no rules left to break that the most dull uniformity reigns (one reason, on the side, why I will never obey the ‘jeans and T-shirt’ sumptuary laws). We find those rules in the inherited lessons of society and our reasoned examination of their fitness. It is said that ‘Democracy means not discounting a man’s opinion because he happens to be your servant. Tradition means not discounting a man’s opinion because he happens to be your father.’ Paired reason and tradition (morality). Believe in only reason or only morality and you venture in to utopianism and then destructive extremism. This is the real message of conservatism and why it is the philosophy that is most truly applied to life, because its hopeful pragmatism is derived from an understanding of humanity itself.
I find that these universal truths are nicely summarized in Kipling’s ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’:
As I pass through my incarnations, in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations, to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers, I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision, and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud- nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch.
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch.
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which we started by loving our neighbor and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: The Wages of Sin is Death.”
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selective Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four –
And the Gods of Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began—
That the Dog returns to his vomit and the Sow returns to her mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wandering back to the fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!