Why History Matters: A Response to “Conservatives and History”

In “Conservatives and History:  Does it Matter, I Mean Really?,” Joe argues that conservatives need a standard of judgment to discern between good and evil or universality and its opposite in history.  Since history does not supply this standard of evaluation, the conservative must turn to something other than tradition or custom.  Consequently, history is not as important as conservatives claim.  This short essay will argue that since the standard for discerning universality is found in history, conservatives are justified in revering the past.

Conservative political philosophy argues that human consciousness and experience is inextricably and irreversibly confined within historical parameters.  In other words, human existence is fundamentally historical.  Consequently, there is no Archimedean point outside of history which provides individuals, groups, or whole societies with a clinical or objective view of human existence.  All relevant and authoritative standards for human action originate and exist within history.  Thus, conservatism denies the existence of an ahistorical standard of judgment such as Strauss’s natural right or the enlightenment’s idea of abstract rationality.  As a result, conservatives display great respect and deference toward history.

Since all human existence is historical, conservatism contends that history is the sole horizon or realm in which human beings encounter the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Universality is manifested concretely and intelligibly in the best of tradition, custom, and precedent produced through human action over time.  Stated differently, universality requires particularity or historicity for existence and particularity or history requires universality for eternal meaning.  Since the universal is known only through the particular, history is the venue where individuals acquire a sense of justice, goodness, and morality.  Individuals develop and form an understanding of universality through encountering and interacting with the achievements of civilized society.  As a result, human beings owe their moral and ethical sense to history.  Thus, history provides a standard of judgment for discerning between what is good and what is evil in human experience.  For this reason, conservatives elevate history to a privileged status.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke argues that individuals should rely upon the wisdom of the “bank and capital of nations” rather than upon their “private stock of reason.”  Burke also contends that the statesman should look to “permanent” rather than “transient” things.  In The Unadjusted Man, Peter Viereck argues that the unadjusted man conforms to the “archetypes” of the ages rather than to the “stereotypes” of the present age.  The point that both Burke and Viereck are making is that which is recurring, enduring, and consistent throughout the history of human civilization serves as a reasonably reliable, although certainly not infallible, guide to discerning or differentiating between that which is universal and that which is not.  Individuals and civilizations owe much of their ability to discern between good and evil to the foundation laid by past generations.  As a result, both Burke and Viereck affirm the paramount importance of history.

Conservatives reject the idea that an absolute, final, complete, and comprehensive standard of judgment is available to human beings.  Since the universal is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for excellent human action, and since human beings are finite, the good, the true, and the beautiful are never fully manifested or actualized in human experience.  By starting with the foundation erected by past generations, individuals can struggle toward an improved articulation of universality within political society.  However, concrete manifestations of the good, the true, and the beautiful are always incomplete and can always be improved upon by subsequent human efforts.  As a result, it is impossible to construct an infallible or perfect standard for judging history which serves as a guide for future human action.  This is the point that informs Burke’s argument that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”  Since political society is an imperfect and incomplete articulation of universality, Burke argues that society can always discover and implement superior manifestations of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  However, improvement of political society is not initiated through an appeal to abstract standards divorced from concrete historical experience.  Instead, individual reformers carefully mitigate the worst of their past and creatively rearticulate and enhance the best of their traditions.  Since custom and precedent provide the best guide available to individuals, Burke displays great appreciation for history.

In summary, due to the inescapable historicity of human experience and the finitude of human understanding of universality, history is a perpetual struggle for the more complete, yet never final, articulation of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Individuals attempting to creatively improve on past manifestations of universality ultimately must rely upon history as the only available guide for future action.  Consequently, philosophical conservatism affirms the indispensable nature of concrete human experience or history.

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7 thoughts on “Why History Matters: A Response to “Conservatives and History”

  1. joeptak

    I’m working on a post right now; I’ll try to incorporate your post into it. For the time being, and I ask this of you, Ben and everyone else: how does the “historicist” conservative who is a Christian reconcile the claim of the historicity of human experience with the belief in the Incarnation? It would seem that the “foundations” of Christianity are based on an entity that is outside of history; yet this is a radical historicism that would risk denying that central event and tenet of the Christian faiths.

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