The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Caution and Change

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up” – Robert Frost

Lucius Carey, the 2nd Viscount Falkland, who died fighting for the House of Stuart in the English Civil War, once said “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” He made this remarkable statement in the context of a speech given in 1641. The previous December, the Puritans of London had presented the “Root and Branch” petition to Parliament which called for the abolition of the episcopal government of the Church of England. Out of the petition arose the Root and Branch Bill, which would have replaced the episcopacy with a presbyterian church government . The Bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. Lord Falkland’s speech, including the famous words quoted above, was given in response to the Root and Branch petition, and in defense of the Anglican bench of bishops.

When the radicals won the English Civil War they deposed and murdered King Charles I, placing Britain under the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and abolished the house of bishops. Puritan rule proved so disastrous that after Cromwell’s death, Parliament restored the episcopacy of the Church of England, its Prayer Book and its authorized Bible, and brought Charles II back from exile and placed him upon his father’s throne.

The English were lucky that they were able to undo the damage which the Puritans had done. There are other countries which have not been as fortunate. Their revolutions were so complete that the will and ability to go back was simply not present. In this we see the wisdom of Lord Falkland’s words. It is often far easier to make a change than to undo it once you have made it and found you didn’t like it. Therefore, we should exercise a great deal of caution before tampering with things, especially things that have been established for a long time and have the weight of precedent and prescription behind them.

There is a common saying which expresses this same truth that Lord Falkland stated 371 years ago. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Lord Falkland died fighting for his king and for the established episcopal Church of England. By the end of the 17th Century, those who supported the cause for which he fought and died, had organized themselves into the Tory Party, which in the 19th Century would be reorganized into the Conservative Party. While the party often seems to have moved far from the principles upon which it was founded, if asked for a quote that summarized the ideas of small-c, philosophical conservatism in a nutshell, Falkland’s remark about change would fit the bill nicely.

Liberals and progressives frequently misconstrue the conservative view of change in two ways.

The first is to say that we are blind supporters of the status quo who oppose all change. But Falkland’s maxim does not preclude all change, only unnecessary change. “Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation”, Russell Kirk wrote, in the sixth of his “canons of conservatism” (1).

The second is to say that once a change proposed by a liberal or progressive has been accomplished, we conservatives are forbidden by our own philosophy, to try and undo that change, because undoing the change is itself also a change. The word “reactionary” was originally a term of abuse coined by progressives and liberals to refer to someone who tried to undo the changes they had accomplished. “A true conservative”, the progressive claims “cannot be a reactionary”. That is nonsense, however. A large part of the reason the conservative recommendation of caution and prudence before changing something is sensible is because it is easier to make the change than to undo it if we find the change is for the worse. If that is the case, it makes no sense to take that same recommendation of caution and prudence as precluding all attempts to undo a change for the worse if it is possible so to do. Prudence, of course, should be exercised in deciding to undo a progressive change as much as it should be exercised before making the change in the first place. But conservative principles do not mean that once progressives have saddled us with an obnoxious change we must therefore consider ourselves to be forever stuck with it. A conservative can, and often should, be a reactionary.

This is all the more true because of the unfortunate fact that the wisdom of the caution and prudence counseled by conservatism, is very often best seen after the time to exercise it has passed, and an ill-conceived innovation has been made.

The period beginning with the end of the Second World War has been an era that has seen rapid and tremendous social changes in Western countries. By social changes, I mean changes to the ways we interact with other people and to the contextual framework of rules and institutions within which that interaction takes places. The social changes to which I refer are not changes to minor customs, manners, and rules. They are changes to fundamental patterns of behaviour. Indeed, the most radical changes have been to the most fundamental pattern of behaviour of all.

Human beings belong to one of two sexes, male and female. The physical union of the sexes is the means whereby the human species propagates itself. Since human beings are not immortal the propagation of the species is absolutely necessary for human survival. There is not much of a threat that the species will die out from people losing interest in sexual intercourse. The urge to seek out and form a union with someone of the other sex is one of the strongest instinctual drives hardwired into human beings. There is, however, a threat to ordered, civilized society that comes from the opposite direction, the threat that we will follow our urges wherever they may lead us.

The reason this is a threat should be obvious. The propagation of the species requires more than just sexual reproduction. Human children are not born with the ability to survive on their own. They cannot feed or clothe themselves at birth, they cannot find shelter, they cannot protect themselves if attacked. They need others to do these things for them and to train them to do these things for themselves. Furthermore, human children require more than just the basic training necessary for survival. They also need training in how to interact with and cooperate with other people in the society to which they belong.

Who are they supposed to get all of this from?

The best people to provide for and protect children when they are helpless, to train them to take care of themselves, and to raise them to be functioning members of society, are the people who brought them into the world in the first place, their father and their mother. Now that is clearly not always possible. Sometimes a child is orphaned, for example. There also needs to be the qualification that in saying that parents are the best people to raise their own children we do not mean parents by themselves. Obviously a father and mother, with the help and support of their own fathers and mothers and their siblings, is better than a father and mother by themselves, and it is better yet when the family has the further support of their friends and neighbors in the community in which they live. This qualification itself needs to be qualified, however. As valuable as the contribution of friends, neighbors and community may be, it is valuable as a support for parents in their role of child raising and not as a substitute for them. (2)

For this reason, human societies have traditionally imposed rules regarding sexual behaviour on their members. The exact details of the rules have varied from society to society but they all encourage the same basic pattern of behaviour in which a man and a woman marry each other and raise their children together, and they all discourage people from irresponsibly indulging their sexual appetites in a selfish pursuit of sensual gratification.

Surely if there is any area which requires long and hard serious thought and a high degree of caution and prudence before making any changes it is to this pattern of behaviour and to this set of rules. Yet the post-World War II era has seen change after radical change in just this area. These have not been merely cosmetic changes to the details of the rules either. The opposite of the message conveyed in the old rules is now being openly and actively proclaimed throughout society. The pattern of man and woman marry and raise their children together is now dismissed as antiquated and obsolete in many circles. Social restraints on sexual behaviour, even those not backed up by the force of law, are now widely considered to be intrusions into what is a “private” matter.

Those who defend these changes often do so on the grounds that technological advancements have rendered the old rules obsolete. (3) This argument is based upon a misunderstanding of why these rules were there in the first place. It is based upon the idea that the rules existed primarily to protect individuals from such consequences of sexual activity as unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease. Since the development of effective contraception, treatments and preventative technology for venereal disease has lessened the consequences of sexual activity, the need for the old rules has been largely eliminated.

This argument is not entirely wrong. The protection of individuals from harsh consequences to sexual behaviour was part of the purpose for the old rules. It was not the whole purpose, however, or even the primary purpose. The primary reason we had those rules was because it is in the best interests of an orderly, civilized, society that children be brought up, whenever possible, by a father and mother committed to each other and the raising of their children and that it is against the interests of society and civilization for people to allow their actions to be dominated by their instinctual appetites and drives. This reason for the old rules has not been diminished in the slightest by technological developments.

That civilization rests upon human beings controlling their animal instincts and passions rather than being controlled by them is an insight as old as civilization itself. Plato, in his Republic, wrote that the human soul included reason, will, and appetite and that in the rightly ordered soul the will would enforce the rule of reason over the appetites. The rightly ordered city, he further argued, would mirror this, being governed by the philosopher-kings, whose laws would be enforced by the guardians, over the workers. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, described virtues, i.e., positive character traits, as habits of consistently choosing the middle path between the extremes of self-indulgence on the one hand and excessive austerity on the other. The cultivation of virtue in a rightly-ordered society was how these philosophers of ancient Athens conceived civilization, the closest approximation of ideal justice attainable by men on earth. (4)

Human beings are capable of civilization because of those elements of our nature which set us apart from the other animals not those elements which we have in common with the other animals and depends upon the former being in control of our actions rather than the latter. While this means that the exercise of reason and will is necessary for civilization it does not mean that they are sufficient. The last century provided abundant evidence that reason and will can be used against society, civilization, and the good of mankind, as much as they can be used in support of these things. Something else then must be necessary as well.

Another ability human beings possess, in addition to reason and will, is the ability to learn from the experience of those who have gone before us, to add our own experience to that, and to pass this cumulative, collective, body of experience down to future generations. It is this ability which enables us to acquire and pass on the skill of making right decisions, of using our reason and will wisely and well.

In the Modern Age we came to place a very high value on one part of our cumulative body of experience and knowledge at the expense of other parts. Michael Oakeshott in his essay “Rationalism and Politics” wrote that “Every science, every art, every practical activity requiring skill of any sort, indeed every human activity whatsoever, involves knowledge”. (5) He then went on to say that “universally, this knowledge is of two sorts, both of which are always involved in any actual activity.” These he identified as technical and practical knowledge. (6) Technical knowledge is knowledge of techniques or methods, i.e. of systematic ways of achieving ends. Oakeshott wrote that technical knowledge is “susceptible of formulation in rules, principles, directions, maxims – comprehensively in propositions.” Practical knowledge is knowledge which cannot be so formulated but without which “the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible”.

According to Oakeshott:

Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge. The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge, and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. (7)

It is difficult to argue with Oakeshott’s contention that our concept of knowledge has been so truncated. (8) This sheds light on the matter which we have been considering in a number of different ways.

As we have seen, those who regard the social changes since World War II favourably, argue that modern technology has made the old rules obsolete by solving the problems which made those rules necessary. This is demonstrably false. Out of the sexual revolution came a demand for legal, easily obtainable, abortions, a demand which makes no sense if the development of effective contraception just before the sexual revolution, solved the problem of unwanted pregnancies. This claim, however, does point us to the real genesis of the revolution – faith in our unlimited ability to solve all our problems through the application of reason and science to the development of technology. Such faith could only have developed in an intellectual climate heavily influenced by the modern Rationalism of which Oakeshott wrote, which rejects all but technical knowledge. (9)

If we abandoned social rules and norms because of a misguided belief that our state of technological advancement has eliminated our need for them then the reverse side to this same coin is that we have abandoned these rules and norms because we no longer appreciate the wisdom contained in them. Moral wisdom is not technical knowledge. It is not concerned with the question of how to achieve our ends fastest, cheapest, and with the greatest ease. It is concerned with whether the ends we are seeking to achieve are right or wrong and whether the means we employ to achieve those ends are right or wrong. To someone who believes that technical knowledge is the only real knowledge, moral questions are unnecessary impediments to the achieving of goals. What does it matter that human embryos are brought into existence and made the subject of laboratory experiments if it allows us to achieve our end of preventing male pattern baldness? Such moral objections are standing in the way of our progress!

It is moral knowledge, however, and not technical knowledge, that civilization is built upon. It is more important to know how to live together and cooperate with other members of your community and society than it is to know the most efficient way of making a kitchen table. The ability to decide to do the right thing and to do so consistently so as to form a virtuous habit and build a moral character is more important than any conceivable marketable skill. This sort of knowledge cannot be formulated as a technique. It is to be found in the bank of accumulated human experience however. It can be acquired and it can be imparted to others. Moral upbringing in the home, from one’s father and mother, supported by one’s extended family, is the best way known to man of passing this kind of knowledge down. We could employ our reason and science for a million years and still not be able to improve upon it.

Perhaps then, we should have exercised a bit more prudence and caution before we introduced changes which threaten the stability of the family and the loss of the moral knowledge passed down through it.

(1)Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Seventh Revised Edition (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1953, 1986) p. 9. The sixth canon begins with the words “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress” and ends by saying “a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.”

(2) This qualification is necessary because there is a kind of pseudo-communitarianism today which uses this kind of language as a cloak for what is essentially the idea that the state should take over the responsibility of raising children, and delegate that responsibility back to parents as its closely supervised and easily replaceable deputies. This, for example, is what I understand US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to mean by “It takes a village”, the African proverb she borrowed for the title of her 1996 book.

(3) For a recent example of this kind of reasoning see Michael Lind’s article for the e-zine entitled “What Killed Social Conservatism?” : )

(4) The word civilization comes from the Latin word for city, which was the sovereign political society at that time. In Greek the title of Plato’s Republic is Politia which refers to the condition of living in a polis, i.e., a city-state. Aristotle’s Politics which is a continuation of his Nicomachean Ethics is Politika. This term means “things which concern a city” and is, of course, the root of our English politics, which originally meant “the art of statecraft” before it degenerated to its current, less noble, meaning.

(5) Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, (London: Metheun & Co., 1962), p. 7. The essay “Rationalism in Politics”, which was originally published in the Cambridge Journal in 1947, is the first essay in this book and the only essay from it which I will be quoting in this essay.

(6) This does not mean that all human knowledge can be classified as either “technical” or “practical”. He was only talking about knowledge that is required for doing things.

(7) Ibid., p. 11. The bold indicates italics in the original. The previous quotations about technical and practical knowledge come from pages 10 and 8 respectively.

(8) Consider the way the meaning of the word “science”, which our language borrowed from the Latin word for “knowledge” has changed. Originally “science” encompassed all forms of knowledge, the way the German equivalent Wissenschaft does. Today, it is limited in meaning to empirically acquired knowledge of the material world. The relationship between this and what Oakeshott was talking about is this: empirical science is primarily the means for improving technique. The explosion of empirical science in recent centuries has been driven by the search for the optimal technique for achieving our ends – the optimal technique being the one which has the best overall balance in speed, cost, ease and efficiency.

(9) There may be significance to the fact that these changes have all taken place since World War II. Historian John Lukacs maintains that we are living at the end of the Modern Age. Others maintain that the age which began with the Renaissance has already come to an end. The event that I have seen most often identified as the end of the Modern Age, by those who maintain it has already passed is World War II. “Post-modernists” usually maintain that the Modern Age ended in failure, that the calamitous events which marked its close brought about disillusionment with its ideals and a new skepticism towards all meta-narratives (theories that purport to be able to explain everything). John Lukacs, on the other hand, argues that forces which have shaped and driven the Modern Age have been victorious. He argues, for example, that liberalism is a spent force because it has accomplished all of its goals. Whatever one makes of all of this, if the rationalism that Oakeshott described as “the most remarkable fashion of post-Renaissance Europe” is a denial of all knowledge but the technical, then that Rationalism would appear to have triumphed around the time of World War II. For despite the fact that the conflict ended with the supreme demonstration of how the application of reason and science to the development of technique can be used to accomplish previously unimaginable evil this did not prevent the spread immediately thereafter of faith in technology.


  1. Spot on, Gerry.

    Indeed, I believe one who truly holds to conservative ideals, and has any degree of moral courage, must necessarily be, today, a reactionary. When you're headed over a cliff, going backwards, away from the cliff, is the only sensible course of action.

    Any 'conservative' who today ISN'T a reactionary, I consider a gutless coward, frankly. This is a time when men of superior understanding must stand together, against the world.

  2. Thank you Will. I wholeheartedly agree.