New Life from Old Books

Portrait of John Selden (1584-1654), an English jurist and a scholar of England's ancient laws and constitution, and of Jewish law.

“Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three”

So jokes the poet Philip Larkin at the start of “Annus Mirabilis.” Conservatives can often be guilty of a similar short-sightedness regarding their own tradition. After all, it has been tempting for many to trace the birth of conservatism to November 1st, 1790. It was on this landmark date that Edmund Burke released his sobering Reflections on the Revolution in France to a Europe intoxicated by radical fervour.

Yoram Hazony is here to remind us that, while Burke is a central figure, Anglo-American conservatism has deeper roots. Conservatism, rather like sex, was not invented whole cloth in a single moment of modernity. Because a straight line can be drawn from the fearsome upheaval of the late 18th century and the first use of ‘conservative’ as a political term in the 1830s, it is sometimes assumed that conservatism rose from the ashes of the French Revolution. But, as Hazony explains, it would mean viewing history “in a peculiar and distorted way” to see men like Burke, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton “as having founded the tradition they were defending.”

What of this tradition? Hazony takes us through the lives and times of three remarkable intellects who, although they could never have created it, certainly shaped the tradition of Anglo-American conservatism as it was handed down to Burke and the Founding Fathers. These titanic figures, in chronological order, are John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, and John Selden. He then charts the history of the way conservatism, rooted in an ancestral religion and love of a particular place, has had to battle with liberalism, Marxism, and other rival philosophies which take their cues from universal reason. Burke’s brush with French Jacobins is only one such episode. Hazony relates the many others while also alerting conservatives to the special dangers of our own time, especially the recrudescence of Marxism in the form of identity politics. This is an audacious undertaking, not least for the reader. But the thoroughness of the arguments and crystalline quality of the prose carry us along blissfully from beginning to end.

Hazony sees that under the Western world’s post-war obsession with liberalism, several generations have now lost contact with Judeo-Christian ethics, national identity, and the profound sense of purpose which both foster. Hence the need, outlined in the subtitle, for a “rediscovery”—a re-immersion in the history, philosophy, and practice of conservatism. For Christian and unbelieving conservatives, Hazony’s book is particularly informative because the work is deeply schooled by the rabbinic tradition, and it is therefore the perfect guide to reacquaint us with the Jewish contributions to Western philosophy. That titanic figure of Anglo-American conservatism, Sir Winston Churchill, was a proud philo-semite, crediting Judaism with inventing a “system of ethics” worth “the fruits of all wisdom and learning put together.” Hazony stresses the fact that this has been, and remains, perfectly true. It has informed the tradition of Anglo-American conservatism right down to its historical roots, beginning with Fortescue.

Portrait of Sir John Fortescue (ca. 1394-ca. 1480) by William Faithorne, from Fortescutus Illustratus (1663) by Edward Waterhouse.

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in the 15th century, John Fortescue’s main priority was to maintain the limits on arbitrary power that the English constitution had traditionally imposed as a matter of custom. Fortescue called this “political and royal government,” by which he meant, as Hazony says, that “the powers of the English king are limited by the traditional laws of the English nation in the same way—as Fortescue emphasizes—that the powers of the Jewish king in the Mosaic constitution in Deuteronomy are limited by the traditional laws of the Israelite nation.” This distinguished the English system of law from those which prevailed on the continent in France and the Holy Roman Empire. As Hazony explains, these were “governed by Roman law, and therefore by the maxim that ‘what pleases the prince has the force of law,’ thus allowing absolute government.”

Later Whigs flattered themselves with the idea that this tradition began with the eviction of King James II from the British Isles in 1688, laying the groundwork for a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and Protestant succession. But here, even before the Reformation, we have the firmly Catholic Fortescue defending the same idea of a law-governed kingdom. This, much more than the anti-Catholic bigotry represented by 1688, became central to the tradition of Anglo-American conservatism, as it developed to inform Burke as well as the American Federalists. Even before Magna Carta, throughout English history there had been a strong understanding that the Crown is not above the law, although particular monarchs have been better (Henry VII) or worse (John I) at getting around this consensus. Hazony is therefore correct to regard 1688 as less a revolution than a restoration: “What came to be called the Glorious Revolution was glorious precisely because it reaffirmed the traditional English constitution.” However, it is not completely true to say, as Hazony then adds, that 1688 “protected the English nation from renewed attacks on ‘their religion, rights and liberties.’” In fact, the whole episode was enabled by a spasm of anti-Catholic feeling. James II proved himself a clumsy political operator when he prorogued Parliament in 1685, but he had only done so because MPs refused his demand to extend religious toleration to Catholics and Nonconformists. These Christians, far from profiting from the Glorious Revolution, were instead denied their “rights and liberties” by the same Whig-run Parliament that 1688 had empowered.

An etching (ca. 1657) of Richard Hooker (1554-1600) by Wenceslaus Hollar.

But stepping back a century before the Glorious Revolution, we have Richard Hooker, an English theologian who, like Fortescue before him, also left his mark on the conservative tradition. Hazony stresses Hooker’s respect for the law and his steadfast opposition to the fanaticism of late 16th century Puritans. Their agitation for a radical overhaul, he thought, risked undermining the cultural cohesion and popular affection which give all laws their legitimacy. As Hooker writes in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “When the people see things suddenly discarded, annulled, and rejected that long custom had made into matters of second nature, they are bewildered, and begin to doubt whether anything is in itself naturally good or evil… Thus, whenever we change any law, in the eyes of the people it cannot help but impair and weaken the force that makes all laws effectual.” In the interests of stability, therefore, legal changes should be made modestly and always with due regard for the preservation of the society in which they apply.

Hooker was not unique in thinking this. He very likely borrowed the idea from Aristotle’s Politics, where the point is made with considerable clarity: “The law has no other source of strength through which to secure obedience apart from habit. But habit can be created only by the passage of time; and a readiness to change from existing to new and different laws will accordingly tend to weaken the general power of law.” Burke, too, would express similar concerns about the bewildering effects of revolutionary upheaval. But while Burke directed this ire at the French Jacobins, Hooker did so at English Puritans, who seemed intent on applying a blowtorch to all that the country had inherited. Hazony explains how Hooker’s profound disagreement with the Puritans was rooted in epistemology: “Protestant radicals [Puritans] believed that by their understanding of nature and revelation, they had attained certain knowledge of God’s will, which applies in all times and places. Hooker, on the other hand, remained deeply skeptical as to what human beings can know with certainty. He excoriated those who believed that they had put their finger on the ‘cause of all the world’s ills’ and had ‘a comprehensive solution to all these problems.’”

It is here that the conservative disposition in favour of ‘historical empiricism’ becomes relevant. The idea is central to the book, and Hazony seems to view John Selden, one of England’s finest legal minds of the 17th century, as its most eloquent defender. In essence, historical empiricism maintains that practical experience is a superior guide to political life than the abstract, universal theories of ‘progressive’ innovators. However, given our short lifespans, as individuals we can only experience so much at first hand. For this reason, it becomes necessary for us to live vicariously through the accumulated experience of our ancestors. In fact, we cannot help doing so, since the main features of any society are an expression of its past. Residues of the wisdom conferred by that historical experience are therefore written into every aspect of our inheritance, from our moral customs to our constitutional set-up. Better to trust in these established forms than to run away with the preposterous conceit that we, with our limited intellects, can reorder the world from first principles. Only by availing ourselves of this transmitted wisdom, wrote Selden, can we “accumulate years to us, as if we had lived even from the beginning of time.”

We might be inclined to believe that the modern West is blissfully downstream from such archaic concerns, but one of the strengths of Hazony’s book is the way it reveals that these conflicts are not dead. The wars of our ancestors sent out shockwaves which so often reverberate in the present. History is at the heart of the ongoing three-front war between national conservatives, classical liberals, and woke neo-Marxists.

One of Hazony’s aims is to remind us that liberals and conservatives, while they teamed up against Communism to win the Cold War, do not share a political project. “Enlightenment liberalism,” Hazony argues, “is bereft of any interest in conserving anything. It is devoted entirely to freedom, and in particular to freedom from the past.” The distinction has become more obvious in the decades since 1991, such that Hazony indicts liberalism for eroding national loyalty and the common good: 

Liberal society is one in which everyone is free to pursue happiness, but the most obvious things that must be done to ensure that a family, community, or nation remains functional and whole have become optional. Thus, men are free to abandon their wives, leaving them to raise their children alone. Children are free to abandon their parents in old age. Business enterprises are free to abandon their employees and relocate their jobs to foreign lands. Communities are free to teach a condescending disdain for their forefathers in the schools. The mentally ill are free to roam the streets, abusing alcohol and narcotics without appropriate care.

To oppose liberalism is not necessarily to be against property rights, freedom of speech, and religious liberty. However, it is to say that these are not, as the liberal claims, abstract rights universally recognised by all rational minds. They are rather ‘customary’ goods, grounded in the Anglo-American tradition as it has evolved over time. (Of course, Hazony would be the first to accept that other countries with different histories would be well-advised adopting such basic freedoms—although, given the importance of national sovereignty to conservatives, they should not be bombed by the Pentagon into doing so.)

But liberalism acts like a parasite on the achievements of conservative cultures, borrowing principles that it likes from the Anglo-American tradition, such as the need to constrain executive power and guarantee individual freedoms. The problem, however, is that, like Hooker’s Puritan opponents, liberalism regards these values as universal, as fruits of pure reason, and therefore applicable to all of mankind at all times and in all circumstances. Accordingly, writes Hazony, liberalism detaches them from “the broader conservative tradition out of which they arose.” Because liberals, with Hobbes and Locke, think of societies as founded by contract, they tend to look for superfluous aspects, or clauses, within the social order that should be removed on the grounds that they are involuntary, accidental, or arbitrary. Meanwhile, the conservative appreciates that national communities are not merely made by consent. They take their root from sentiments with a much closer resemblance to love than to choice: they command, rather than simply request, our loyalty. We should therefore not treat our country like an outdated, dispensable treaty, but as an organism that will perish altogether if stripped of the vital organs—the ancestral religion and the unity fostered by patriotic feeling—upon which its survival and strength depend.

Crucially, Hazony contends that liberalism, by overlooking this, becomes a gateway drug to Marx’s more insidious creed. The dance between liberalism and Marxism, he explains, goes something like this:

  1. Liberals declare that henceforth all will be free and equal, emphasizing that reason (not tradition) will determine the content of each individual’s rights.
  2. Marxists, exercising reason, point to many genuine instances of unfreedom and inequality in society, decrying them as oppression and demanding new rights.
  3. Liberals, embarrassed by the presence of unfreedom and inequality after having declared that all would be free and equal, adopt some of the Marxists’ demands for new rights.
  4. Return to step 1 above and repeat.

This is a very real problem. By glorifying its ideals as the fruit of pure reason, liberalism inculcates a suspicious attitude to tradition (regarded as too messy compared to rational axioms) among its followers. The Marxist shares this suspicion and simply goes one step further in demanding a further restructuring—in Marx’s analysis, the coming Communist rebellion was baked into the historical logic of the French Revolution before it—to purge liberal society of its remaining injustices. Freedom and equality must be forced to live up practically to their theoretical promise. The conservative is more able than the liberal to fight back with the insistence that abstract theory, from which liberalism draws its values, is a dreadful guide to arranging the political life of human beings as they really are. Societies are not made in a momentary fit of abstract genius, but evolve over time. As such, there are no instances of freedom and equality in practice that are not also customary, inherited goods, shaped by history and therefore at best an approximation of the purity of these principles in theory. But conservatives are content to preserve these bestowed gifts in their necessarily imperfect form, rather than risk the kind of wasteful, ferocious revolution that a fanatical emphasis on purity would demand. Meanwhile, the liberal “insistence,” writes Hazony, “on ‘freedom from inherited tradition’ provides little or no defense—and indeed, opens the door for precisely the kinds of arguments and tactics that Marxists use against them.” 

My only request—and probably a churlish one at that, given the comprehensive nature of Hazony’s focus—would be to ask for a little more explanation of why so many liberals, historically and today, have been such formidable critics of the Marxist creed. Hazony persuasively describes a conceptual space in which, implausible as it may seem, Karl Marx could be said to lead John Locke in a deadly waltz. But why do Marxists and liberals not always make such excellent dance partners? A liberal like Lord Acton or Friedrich Hayek would run rings around the typical Marxist. Today, the same is true of many liberal public figures, from Bari Weiss to Sam Harris. Perhaps these liberals, facing down the Marxist challenge, rely on some small reserves of conservatism in their intellectual tanks without noticing it.

The book closes with some reflections on how to lead a conservative life, aimed at young people who are increasingly torn between high-powered careers and family life, between watching Netflix in a stylish, empty apartment and taking up an integral role in transmitting culture and values to the next generation. Hazony addresses these chapters, in language that seems almost self-deprecating, to individuals who are “considering taking up a conservative life.” What follows, though, is not a dull set of rules, but a highly personal hymn to the adventure of finding love and raising children. It could only be improved by adding one of G.K. Chesterton’s best witticisms: “Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.”

It is Hazony’s emphasis on the practice of a conservative life that should give us hope. A pessimistic distrust of all change is core to the conservative mentality, but to live in this way would only condemn us to a perpetual state of inertia. As Hazony lists the virtues of a life committed to preserving the values that served our forebears so well, it becomes easier to glimpse the possible edge that conservatives have over their liberal and Marxist critics. We might call it the power of fecundity. Hazony himself has nine children. Reading the final chapters of Conservatism: A Rediscovery, I found myself entertaining the hope that perhaps enough of these little platoons, as they ‘wexe and multiplye,’ will grow into a big battalion with the critical mass to reclaim our culture.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.

Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery will be released in the UK on Thursday, August 25th.