Book Review: Gregorio Luri – Conservative Imagination

A book that might revive Spanish Conservatism

The industrial revolution and the ensuing democratic transformation have led many Westerners to believe that everything that is new must be automatically good, and being conservative (with small c) has become synonymous with being backward and stuck-in-the-mud. In left-wing intellectual circles, Marx’s deterministic understanding of history has reinforced even further the concept of unlimited and unstoppable progress both in political and technological terms.

In Britain, social conservatives are routinely dismissed as old fuddy-duddies on the brink of extinction, while Spanish conservatism – partly due to the so-called Black Legend –  is associated with the Inquisition, which is seen as the ultimate manifestation of Catholic intolerance and obscurantism. Due to the mythicised and over-politicised memory of the Spanish Civil War and to the controversial political legacy of the Franco régime, even modern Spanish conservatives are very often loath to embrace their own identity and prefer to call themselves liberal (or liberal-conservative if they must).

So it is quite refereshing to see that there are still proud conservatives in Spain who are well-versed in their own intellectual tradition and could not be farther from the caricaturistic image of Torquemada. One of them is Gregorio Luri, a prominent educator and philosopher, who has recently published a book entitled “Conservative Imagination” (La imaginación conservadora), in which he tries to refute the clichés that identify conservatism with backwardness. At the same time, Luri also outlines and reinterprets the key concepts of one of the most important Western political traditions, which, since the French Revolution, was not only able to survive but to be reborn more than once like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

The author does not seek to develop a comprehensive political theory, and his book cannot be considered an academic work in the traditional sense. “Conservative imagination” is rather a reflexive dialogue with great conservative thinkers, including the often forgotten and overlooked representatives of the Spanish conservative political and intellectual tradition.

Perhaps one of the most striking ideas of the book is the rejection of the widespread belief that conservatism is not an ideology in the strictest sense of the word. Luri admits, however, that conservative politics is always based on reality rather than utopias, but emphasizes that this political attitude is inseparable from certain philosophical concepts, namely politeia, man as a “political animal” and human nature.

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Politeia as a political community is the result of spontaneous and organic historical processes and centuries-long coexistence. Luri reminds us that although the boundaries of a politeia tend to coincide with state borders, this is not always the case, and there might be more politeias within a country, while at the same time state borders might divide a single historical-cultural community.

The Spanish philosopher’s understanding of human nature is closely related to the concept of politeia in which man acts as a “political animal”. Hence the conservative worldview clashes with ideological positivism that interprets the totality of human existence, including political and social phenomena, in the same way as natural sciences treat physical realities or the animal world.

The essence of the conservatism formulated by Gregorio Luri is the acceptance of the present. The reactionary – who is often wrongly identified with the conservative – rejects the present and thinks that the only acceptable way forward is returning to the past. The progressive wants to forget the past and cut off the roots that nurture the present, while he is willing to sacrifice “today” for the sake of an idealised “tomorrow”. By contrast, the conservative lives in his own age, and preserves all those historical identities, institutions and customs that serve the current interests and survival of the politeia, and reforms those that are no longer able to fulfill their mission, thus securing the future of the political community. As the author puts it: conservatism should be an evergreen tree, not afraid to drop its withered leaves, but always keeping its foliage.

Gregorio Luri is deeply rooted in the Spanish conservative tradition, which includes the great thinkers of the Salamanca School as well as modern statesmen and political theorists, but he is also familiar with Anglo-Saxon conservatism from Edmund Burke through Russel Kirk to Sir Roger Scruton. Weren’t he a Spaniard, we could call him an “Old Whig”. In a certain way, Luri’s “Conservative imagination” is tending an intellectual bridge between Hispano-Catholic and Anglo-Protestant conservatism, and hopefully the British public will not have to wait long for its English edition.

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