What is the philosophy of conservatism all about? Of course, conservatism is about conserving – it is, after all in the name (!) This observation is normally subsequently followed by the salient question of ‘what should we conserve and why’? Conservatives and conservatism needs to answer this salient question. Thus, various sets of criteria and a single criterion have been put forward. For example, the ‘good’, or ‘what works’ are bandied about the shop. These two criteria throw up questions of their own. Are there rival accounts of the ‘good’ existing within a single body politic, if so how do we choose?
How do we measure ‘what works’ and what is acceptable to be classed as working? The key question that needs to be asked to enable us to find a suitable creation could be: what is of value to us? Or in other words: what do we love? I would like to put forward a criterion of love, that conservatism ought to be conserving what we love. Why? Because we love it, of course!
Before I move on, let me briefly define what I mean by love. In his book, the Four Loves, C.S. Lewis refers to the four ancient Greco-Christian categories of loves, which are affection (storge), friendship (philia), romantic or passionate love (eros), and charity (agape). Therefore, the criterion of love I have put forward encompasses the aforementioned four loves and shall be put to the coal face, as it were, by simply using the term love in this article.
Ah! This is all well and good, you might be thinking! What tosh! This sounds a bit hippy to me (60’s ‘free love’ and all that!), not very conservative at all. Well, my riposte would be this; Russell Kirk the late American conservative theorist argued that conservatives believe that the object of life is fundamentally about love and we ought to aspire toward the triumph of love. I, for one, agree with the dear chap. Let me demonstrate my point some more.
Conservatism as a body of thought can be interpreted as an embracement of concrete traditions, social institutions and practices that we love. Be that, the tradition of a pint of ale at the local pub or a family gathering for a Sunday luncheon. If we don’t love them, why conserve them? Why keep the practice going? In other words, the love of what has been achieved and then bequeathed to us from our ancestors and what we wish to pass on to our dependents from, for example national dress (think: Jacob Rees-Mogg MP).
Let’s take the family unit for example. Conservatism embraces and places value in the institution of the family. Indeed, the family is a way of passing on traditions, folklore, ways of doing things, teaching the value of self-discipline, and can place checks and balances on the individual. Furthermore, Hegel argued that our identity is formed in the family unit and then in the wider civil society. At the very heart of family life is love.
Moreover, love is especially vital to the conservative environmental movement, as Sir Roger Scruton argues that the foundation of this movement is the love of beauty. This love of beauty is manifested in the ideal British agrarian lifestyle. Moreover, Sir Roger, in his book titled Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet, coined the term Oikophilia or “the love of home” and argued that settlement and stewardship is at the heart of conservative philosophy. Consequently, I would suggest that love is at the beating heart of conservatism.
Let’s pick up on the love of home. As we know, an Englishman’s home is his castle. An element of conservative thought is home ownership or in other words property rights. We aim to make our homes beautiful, and therefore we make our neighbourhood beautiful as well, a place where we love to live. Hence, the conservation of beautiful architecture, be it a Neo-Gothic-style Cathedral or Georgian architecture of the city of Bath, is all about love. The love of beauty, the love of one’s God, the love of ones’ heritage.
In addition, love can be found in other areas in the body of thought that is called Conservatism. Let’s take public affections. Edmund Burke, in his book titled Reflections on the Revolution in France also referred to love, and I quote;
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.
In line with Burke’s body of thought, Sir Roger argues that the binding principle of society, “is not contract but something more akin to love”. Again, there you have it; Conservatism’s underlying notion of society is love. Not a mere contract, as put forward by Rousseau amongst others. Man is not “born free and everywhere in chains”, man by nature is a political animal, bound by his identity to the family and to his city.
We are born into a network of relationships and obligations, which we did not choose, however these relationships and the ensuing obligations are based on love. Moreover, De Maistre, also rejected the social contract conception, as he put it (I paraphrase) creatures with the institutions necessary to form such a thing will already be in society and hence have no such need for it.
The same can be said about the love of one’s Country, her history, her traditions, our shared memories. Thus, the love of all these aforementioned areas, pops out the concept of public service. This can be demonstrated by a snippet of a speech by a British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) in 1936;
“Let us dedicate ourselves … to the service of our fellows, a service in widening circles, service to the home, service to our neighbourhood, to our county, our province, to our country, to the Empire, and to the world. No mere service of our lips, service of our lives…”.
Burke’s thinking is present in this quotation, ‘the little platoons’, the series by which we proceed toward the love of our country and to mankind in the round.
These are the reasons why I concur with the late Russell Kirk on the need to aim towards the triumph of love. Now, I will withdraw on this note: Love is at the heart of conservatism.