“a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Edmund Burke
The past teaches for the future, and society, like life itself, must learn from its experience and carry this knowledge forward. Society must both honor its past and adapt for its future. In times of dramatic change, social movements arise, and, like the French Revolution, can advocate radical rejection of the past. The French revolutionaries sought wholesale reconfiguration of all elements of society.
[they] “completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army, their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures” Edmund Burke
The ensuing chaos and tragedy provoked a philosophy of counter-revolution, most notably from Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, a philosophy that we call conservatism, today.
Joseph de Maistre opposed what he called ‘rational’ government, government directed by seemingly reasoning elites, those who say they know best for the rest of us, using the cover of majority rule. Government of ‘reason’, he argued, would lean towards abstract and impossible-to-achieve utopia, and lead to human evil, in its quest for efficiency and to please the whims of the majority. He advocated for a heirarchical authority, in the form of a religious constitutional monarchy. Only allegiance to values held outside the minds of men – including the king – values held in protection by the rights of property, indeed values held with irrational commitment to time-honored tradition, he believed, could rule over time without corruption against the everyday interests of the majority. de Maistre was a privileged aristocrat. He has been vehemently derided, and even credited with creating fascism, but he was not surprised by the Reign of Terror.
Edmund Burke, an Irishman in England, was initially supportive of the French Revolution, but also came to denounce its abstract, metaphysical extremism, its extreme rejection of the past. Democracy can be excessive. He found that a common heritage was best supported with property rights, and by due process of common law, and that change for the future was best cultivated with education, commerce, and free trade. He argued against taxing the American colony, and warned of the inherent dictatorial expansionism of the French revolutionaries. He was not surprised by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
de Maistre and Burke have support in history. Authoritarian regimes that maintain tradition – Japan, Germany, Spain, Chile, South Korea – have been able to progress to democratic systems. Totalitarian regimes which severely reject their past – Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba – have not.
“A conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop‘” William F. Buckley, Jr.
Conservatism is evolution, not revolution.