Commentary Magazine


The Essential Modesty of Conservatism

In his recent column, George Will said of Newt Gingrich: “There is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything.” Will went on to write that Gingrich “believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how. Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society’s complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against the hubristic volatility that Gingrich exemplifies.”

Whether or not one believes Will’s description applies to Gingrich, there is something quite important in Will’s characterization of conservatism.

My colleague Yuval Levin, in his dissertation comparing Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine (“The Great Law of Change”), points out that Burke believed in the complexity of human nature and the limits of human reason. He warned of the dangers of relying simply on speculative theories and mistaking politics for metaphysics. And he insisted on the importance of learning from circumstances, from the concrete and particular in human life. Burke wrote that government is “a practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind” – not “to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians.” The danger facing statesmen, he warned, is when they view self-government “as if it were an abstract question concerning metaphysical liberty and necessity and not a matter of moral prudence and natural feeling.” This created in Burke an “essential moderation,” according to Levin, a modesty in our capacity to understand the patterns of human nature and the actions of human beings. There is no unified field theory that explains everything.

This doesn’t mean Burke didn’t believe enduring principles should guide our politics; it simply means Burke believed the practical application of those principles in human affairs is difficult and often imprecise, that we have to rely on the accumulated wisdom of those who came before us, that even the wisest among us has an imperfect and incomplete understanding of things, and that radicals can become “blind disciples of their own particular presumption.”

One sometimes gets the sense those of us who claim the title of conservative embrace what Aristotle, the great master of reason, called a “species of delusive geometrical accuracy” in moral arguments and politics, in predicting the effects of political actions on human behavior. We forget, more often than we should, that finding the right balance between order and freedom is a precarious undertaking. Which brings us back to Burke, who confessed to a friend, “Every political question I have ever known has had so much of the pro and con in it that nothing but the success could decide which proposition was to have been adopted.”

The students of Burke are reminding us of the wisdom of Burke. We could do worse than to listen to them.