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Traditionalist conservatism, also referred to as classical conservatism, traditional conservatism or traditionalism, is a political and social philosophy emphasizing the need for the principles of a transcendent moral order, manifested through certain natural laws to which society ought to conform in a prudent manner. Traditionalist conservatism is based on the political philosophies of Aristotle and Edmund Burke. Traditionalists emphasize the bonds of social order and the defense of ancestral institutions over what it considers excessive individualism.
Traditionalist conservatism places a strong emphasis on the notions of custom, convention, and tradition. Theoretical reason is derided and is considered against practical reason. The state is also seen as a communal enterprise with spiritual and organic qualities. Traditionalists believe that any change is not the result of intentional reasoned thought but flows naturally out of the traditions of the community. Leadership, authority and hierarchy are seen as natural products. Traditionalism developed throughout 18th-century Europe, particularly as a response to the disorder of the English Civil War and the radicalism of the French Revolution. In the middle of the 20th century, traditionalist conservatism started to organize itself in earnest as an intellectual and political force.
A number of traditionalist conservatives embrace high church Christianity (e.g. T. S. Eliot, an Anglo-Catholic; Russell Kirk, a Roman Catholic). Another traditionalist who has stated his faith tradition publicly is Caleb Stegall, an evangelical Protestant. A number of conservative mainline Protestants are also traditionalist conservatives, such as Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton, and some traditionalists are Jewish, such as the late Will Herberg, Irving Louis Horowitz, Mordecai Roshwald and Paul Gottfried.
As the name suggests, traditionalists believe that tradition and custom guide man and his worldview. Each generation inherits the experience and culture of its ancestors and through convention and precedent man is able to pass it down to his descendants. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, often regarded as the father of modern conservatism: "The individual is foolish, but the species is wise".
It has been stated that this conservatism appeals instead to living tradition rather than abstract reasoning in politics. Some have contrasted the pragmatic conservatism with a rational conservatism, which maintains that a community with a hierarchy of authority is most conducive to human well-being. Back to pragmatic conservatism, "tradition represents for conservatives a continuum enmeshing the individual and social, and is immune to reasoned critique" according to Kekes.
Traditionalist conservatives believe that human society is essentially hierarchical (i.e. it always involves various interdependent inequalities, degrees and classes and that political structures that recognize this fact prove the most just, thriving and generally beneficial). Hierarchy allows for the preservation of the whole community simultaneously, instead of protecting one part at the expense of the others.
The countryside and the values of rural life are highly prized (sometimes even being romanticized as in pastoral poetry). The principles of agrarianism (i.e. preserving the small family farm, open land, the conservation of natural resource and stewardship of the land) are central to a traditionalist's understanding of rural life.
Traditionalists defend classical Western civilization and value an education informed by the texts of the Roman and Medieval eras. Similarly, traditionalists are classicists who revere high culture in all of its manifestations (e.g. literature, music, architecture, art and Theatre).
Unlike nationalists who esteem the role of the state or nation over the local or regional community, traditionalists hold up patriotism as a key principle, defined as a sense of attachment to one's homeland. Traditionalist conservatives think that loyalty to a locality or region is more central than any commitment to a larger political entity. Traditionalists also welcome the value of subsidiarity and the intimacy of one's community, preferring the civil society of Burke's "little platoons" over the expanded state. Alternately, nationalism leads to jingoism and views the state as abstract from the local community and family structure rather than as an outgrowth of these local realities.
Traditionalist conservatism began with the thought of Anglo-Irish Whig statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, whose political principles were rooted in moral natural law and the Western tradition. Burke believed in prescriptive rights and that those rights were "God-given". He defended what he referred to as "ordered liberty" (best reflected in the unwritten law of the British constitutional monarchy). He also advocated for those transcendent values that found support in such institutions as the church, the family and the state. He was a fierce critic of the principles behind the French Revolution and in 1790 his observations on its excesses and radicalism were collected in Reflections on the Revolution in France. In Reflections, Burke called for the constitutional enactment of specific, concrete rights and warned that abstract rights could be easily abused to justify tyranny. American social critic and historian Russell Kirk wrote: "The Reflections burns with all the wrath and anguish of a prophet who saw the traditions of Christendom and the fabric of civil society dissolving before his eyes".
Burke's influence extended to later thinkers and writers, both in his native Britain and in continental Europe. Among those influenced by his thought were the English Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, Scottish Romantic author Sir Walter Scott, as well as the counter-revolutionary writers, the French François-René de Chateaubriand and Louis de Bonald and the Savoyard Joseph de Maistre. In the United States, the Federalist Party and its leaders, such as President John Adams and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, best represented Burke's legacy.
Edmund Burke describes conservatism as an "approach to human affairs which mistrusts both a priori reasoning and revolution, preferring to put its trust in experience and in the gradual improvement of tried and tested arrangements".
Burke's traditionalist conservatism found its fiercest defenders in three cultural conservatives and critics of material progress, namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle and John Henry Newman.
According to traditionalist scholar Peter Viereck, Coleridge and his associate and fellow poet William Wordsworth began as supporters of the French Revolution and the radical utopianism it spawned. However, by 1798 their collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads, had rejected the Enlightenment thesis of reason over faith and tradition. Coleridge's later writings, including Lay Sermons (1816), Biographia Literaria (1817) and Aids to Reflection (1825), justified traditional conservative positions on hierarchy and organic society, criticism of materialism and the merchant class and the need for "inner growth" that is rooted in a traditional and religious culture. Coleridge was a firm believer in social institutions and a harsh critic of Jeremy Bentham and his utilitarian philosophy.
Writer, historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle was also an early traditionalist thinker, defending medieval notions such as aristocracy, hierarchy, organic society and class unity over socialism and the "cash nexus" of laissez-faire capitalism. According to Carlyle, the "cash nexus" was when social relationships were merely reduced to economic gain. A champion of the poor, Carlyle believed that the fabric of British society was being threatened by mobs, plutocrats, anarchists, communists, socialists, liberals and others who wanted to exploit them and perpetuate class resentment. A devotee of Germanic culture and Romanticism, Carlyle is most known for his writings Sartor Resartus (1833-1834) and Past and Present (1843).
In the mid-19th century, the Church of England experienced a "catholic revival" in the form of the Oxford Movement, a religious movement designed to restore the Catholic nature of Anglicanism. Led by John Keble, Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman, the Tractarians (so called for the publication of their Tracts for the Times) condemned religious liberalism while defending "dogma, ritual, poetry, [and] tradition". Like Coleridge and Carlyle, Newman (who became a Roman Catholic in 1845, and was eventually created a Cardinal, and a canonized saint) and the Tractarians were critical of material progress, or the notion that wealth, prosperity and economic gain were the sum of human existence.
Matthew Arnold, a poet and cultural critic, is best known for his poetry and literary, social and religious criticism. His book Culture and Anarchy (1869) took on the middle-class Victorian values of the day (Arnold viewed middle class tastes in literature as "philistinism") and argued for a return to the classical literature of the past. Arnold also viewed with skepticism the plutocratic grasping in socioeconomic affairs which Coleridge, Carlyle and the Oxford Movement criticized. Arnold vigorously attacked Liberal Party, and its Nonconformist base. He ridiculed William Ewart Gladstone and Liberal efforts to disestablish the Anglican Church in Ireland, establish a Catholic university there, permit burial services to dissenters in Church of England cemeteries, demand temperance, and ignore the need to improve the middle class members rather than impose their unreasonable beliefs on society. Liberal education was essential, and by that Arnold meant a close reading and attachment to the cultural classics, coupled with critical reflection. He feared anarchy--the fragmentation of life into isolated facts that caused by dangerous educational panaceas that emerged from materialistic and utilitarian philosophies. He was appalled at the shamelessness of the sensationalistic new journalism of the sort he witnessed on his tour the United States in 1888. He prophesied, "if one were searching for the best means to efface and kill in a whole nation the discipline of self-respect, the feeling for what is elevated, he could do no better than take the American newspapers."
One of the themes that traditionalist conservatives have consistently reiterated has been the theme that industrial capitalism is as questionable as the classical liberalism which spawned it. Carrying on in this tradition was cultural and artistic critic John Ruskin, a medievalist who called himself a "Christian socialist" and cared much for standards in culture, the arts and society. For Ruskin (as with all the 19th-century cultural conservatives), the Industrial Revolution had fomented dislocation, rootlessness and the mass urbanization of the poor. In his art criticism, he wrote The Stones of Venice (1851-1853), which took on the Classical tradition while defending Gothic art and architecture. His other works included The Seven Lamps of Architecture and Unto This Last (1860).
In politics, the ideas of Burke, Coleridge, Carlyle, Newman and other traditionalist conservatives were distilled into the policies and philosophy of former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli in his younger years was an opponent of middle class capitalism and the industrial policies that were promoted by the "Manchester liberals" (the Reform Bill and the Corn Laws). Seeking a way to alleviate the suffering of the urban poor in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Disraeli sought out to unify the nation by way of "one-nation conservatism", where a coalition of aristocrats and the common working man would unite to stave off the influences of the liberal middle class. This new coalition would serve as a way to work with the enfranchised masses while grounding them in "ancient conservative traditions". Disraeli's ideas (including his criticism of utilitarianism) found fruit in the "Young England" movement and in writings such as Vindication of the English Constitution (1835), The Radical Tory (1837) and his "social novels" Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845). A few years later, his one-nation conservatism found new life in the "Tory democracy" of Lord Randolph Churchill and in the early 21st century in the "progressive conservatism" of the Red Tory thesis of British philosopher Phillip Blond.
In the early 20th century, traditionalist conservatism found its defenders through the efforts of Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and other proponents of the socioeconomic system they advocated: distributism. Originating in the papal encyclical Rerum novarum, distributism employed the concept of subsidiarity as a "third way" solution to the twin evils of socialism and capitalism. It favors local economies, small business, the agrarian way of life and craftsmen and artists. In such books as Belloc's The Servile State (1912), Economics for Helen (1924) and An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936) and Chesterton's The Outline of Sanity (1926), traditional communities that echoed those found in the Middle Ages were advocated and big business and big government condemned. In the United States, distributist ideas were embraced by the journalist Herbert Agar, Catholic activist Dorothy Day and through the influence of the German-born British economist E. F. Schumacher and were comparable to the work of Wilhelm Roepke.
T. S. Eliot was a champion of the Western tradition and orthodox Christian culture. Eliot was a political reactionary who used modernist literary means for traditionalist ends. His After Strange Gods (1934) and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) align with the grand tradition of Christian humanism extending back to Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Educated by Irving Babbitt and George Santayana at Harvard University, Eliot was friends with Allen Tate and Russell Kirk.
Praised by T. S. Eliot as the most powerful intellectual influence in Britain, historian Christopher Dawson is a key figure in 20th-century traditionalism. Central to his work was the idea that religion was at the heart of every culture, especially Western culture and his writings, including The Age of Gods (1928), Religion and Culture (1948) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950), reflected this view. A contributor to Eliot's Criterion, Dawson believed that after World War II, religion and culture were central to rebuilding the West in the wake of fascism and the rise of communism.
British philosopher Roger Scruton was a self-described traditionalist conservative. Known for writing on such topics as foreign policy, animal rights, arts and culture and philosophy, one of his most noted books is The Meaning of Conservatism (1980). Scruton was affiliated with the Center for European Renewal, the Trinity Forum, the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote for such publications as Modern Age, National Review, The American Spectator, The New Criterion and City Journal.
Recently British philosopher Phillip Blond has risen to prominence as an exponent of traditionalist philosophy, more specifically progressive conservatism, or Red Toryism. In Blond's view, Red Toryism would combine civic communitarianism with localism and traditional values as a way to revitalize British conservatism and British society. He has formed a think tank, ResPublica.
The oldest traditionalist conservative publication in the United Kingdom is The Salisbury Review, which was founded by British philosopher Roger Scruton. The Salisbury Reviews current managing editor is Merrie Cave.
Within the British Conservative Party there is a faction of traditionalist MPs which formed in 2005 who are collectively known as the Cornerstone Group. The Cornerstone Group stands for traditional values and represents "faith, flag, and family". Prominent members include Edward Leigh and John Henry Hayes.
The Edmund Burke Foundation is an educational foundation based out of the Netherlands which is traditionalist and is modeled after the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Originally a think tank, it was founded by such traditionalists as scholar Andreas Kinneging and journalist Bart Jan Spruyt. It is affiliated with The Center for European Renewal.
In 2007, a number of leading traditionalist scholars from Europe as well as representatives of the Edmund Burke Foundation and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute created the Center for European Renewal, which is designed to be the European version of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Other traditionalist organizations include the Trinity Forum, Ellis Sandoz's Eric Voegelin Institute and the Eric Voegelin Society, the New Centurion Program of the Conservative Institute, the T. S. Eliot Society, the Malcolm Muggeridge Society and the Free Enterprise Institute's Center for the American Idea. A major funder of traditionalist programs, especially the Russell Kirk Center, is the Wilbur Foundation.
Literary traditionalists are often linked with political conservatives and the right-wing while contrasted with experimental works and the avant-garde, which in turn are often linked with progressives and the left-wing. Postmodern writer and literary theorist John Barth, said: "I confess to missing, in apprentice seminars in the later 1970s and the 1980s, that lively Make-It-New spirit of the Buffalo Sixties. A roomful of young traditionalists can be as depressing as a roomful of young Republicans".
There are numerous literary figures featured in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind (1953), including James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, W. H. Mallock, Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. In Kirk's The Conservative Reader (1982), the writings of Rudyard Kipling and Phyllis McGinley are featured as examples of literary traditionalism. Kirk was also known himself as a writer of supernatural and suspense fiction with a distinct Gothic flair. Novels such as Old House of Fear, A Creature of the Twilight and Lord of the Hollow Dark and short stories such as "Lex Talionis", "Lost Lake", "Beyond the Stumps", "Ex Tenebris" and "Fate's Purse" gained praise from fiction writers such as Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L'Engle. Kirk was also good friends with many literary figures of the 20th century, namely T. S. Eliot, Roy Campbell, Wyndham Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L'Engle and Flannery O'Connor, most of whom could be labeled traditionalist in their poetry or fiction.
Many treat it as a standpoint that is sceptical of abstract reasoning in politics, and that appeals instead to living tradition, allowing for the possibility of limited political reform. On this view, conservatism is neither dogmatic reaction, nor the right-wing radicalism of Margaret Thatcher or contemporary American "neo-conservatives". Other commentators, however, contrast this "pragmatic conservatism" with a universalist "rational conservatism" that is not sceptical of reason, and that regards a community with a hierarchy of authority as most conducive to human well-being
Conservatism's "organic" social vision is inherently sceptical of the state, and puts faith instead in the family, private property and religion
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