“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana
It’s easy to ridicule conservatives as stuck in the past, of being afraid of change, so wedded to the way things were that they cannot conceive of things as they might be. That is a caricature.
We all fear change, and the conservative’s understanding that the world must be dealt with as it is rather than as we would wish it leaves little room for sentimentally clinging to the archaic, the outmoded or the just plain stupid. In particular, when it becomes clear that a mistake has been made, the conservative approach is to insist on change to prevent further harm.
The idea at the heart of modern conservatism is continuity. Each of us is a part of a cultural continuum stretching back to ancient Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Culture is an extension of human nature, which is, for all practical purposes, continuous and highly resistant to change. Even as the world continuously changes around us, man’s response is, practically, always the same.
This is why the great works of literature and religion speak to us so profoundly. No one need explain to us why Judas betrayed Jesus, or why Pontius Pilate condemned a man he knew to be innocent, or why Peter denied him — 2000 years and 100 generations later, we understand intuitively.
Judas, Pilate and Peter are still among us, and as they betrayed, condemned and denied, they (we) will do so again, repeatedly, to the end of time. To a conservative, to think otherwise is the definition of naïveté. (And, as Peter showed, forgiveness and redemption are just as much a part of humanity as the dark side.)
This view accounts for Santayana’s famous dictum. History is human nature writ large. To understand how people act in the here and now, and how they will act in the future, one must know the record of the past. Therefore a study of history is essential for any man who seeks to know how to conduct himself successfully in the world.
It also accounts for the conservative’s jaundiced view of revolution. Revolution is a break with the past, a fracturing of the continuum, and thus to be undertaken only in the direst necessity.
Russell Kirk, one of the fathers of modern conservatism, has argued that the American War for Independence was not a revolution at all, but a reaction to Great Britain’s attempt to more closely control colonies it had long left to their own devices.
In his view, the colonies merely wanted to maintain their customary self-governance. It was only after their pleas failed that they made the agonizing (and far from unanimous) choice for independence.
The record certainly supports the conservative’s position. The French Revolution, for example, overthrew a regime that richly deserved its fate — but the revolutionaries went too far. It wasn’t long before they resorted to the guillotine, for, as they realized and said themselves, reason required terror to overcome the resistance of a society reluctant to embrace their revolution. They ignited more than 20 years of war, and when all was said and done, after millions had rotted to dust on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, the nations of Europe were controlled by the same aristocracies that had ruled them for centuries.
The Communist revolutions of the 20th century ended no better. In Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, in each the result was essentially the same — untold dead and broken nations that only began to recover when they rediscovered the cultures they had attempted to destroy. As The Who sang in the 1970s, “Meet the new boss — same as the old boss.” Whether they meant that as a lament over the failure of their generation’s revolution or as an expression of the futility of revolution in general, they were right.
Change is often necessary but always uncertain, and always leaves damage in its wake. If a change is to last, and to minimize the price that must be paid, it must occur naturally, in an evolutionary, not revolutionary, fashion. Change for change’s sake, for nothing more than a passing fad or fancy, or moving too rapidly, or moving in a direction contrary to the dictates of human nature (and, thus, culture), risks disaster. If change must come, it will come, but it must come at a pace, and in a way, that people can accept and reconcile.
Which brings to mind a saying sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill: “A man who is not a liberal at 20 has no heart. A man who is not a conservative at 40 has no head.”
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.