“Conservatism Is Formless Like Water”

Andrew Sullivan has found a fascinating meditation on the nature of conservatism. I reprint the parts Andrew quoted below, with the links that the author inexplicably omitted.

“Conservatism is “formless” like water: it takes the shape of its conditions, but always remains the same. This is why Russell Kirk calls conservatism the “negation of ideology” in The Politics of Prudence. It is precisely the formlessness of conservatism which gives it its vitality. Left alone, the spirit of conservatism is essentially what T.S. Eliot calls the “stillness between two waves of the sea” in “Little Gidding” of his Four Quartets. Conservatism is both like water and the stillness between the waves — the waves are not the water acting, but being acted upon; stillness is the default state of conservatism:

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always —

A condition of complete simplicity

Like the Greek concept of kairos — acting in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right momentthis sort of waiting is simply careful conservatism. Conservatism is responsive, reactionary, reserved. Conservatism waits. Perhaps this is why conservatism is most needed in the modern age of mobility. Being careful, and above all patient is crucial to doing something right. Realizing that one does not know the best way of doing anything guarantees not that one will find the best way, but that one might not find the worst way. The same principle applies to knowledge: conservatism (hopefully) does not pretend to know the definitive way, but rather professes the virtue of ignorance with the quiet hope of finding knowledge.”

Seriously: I think it’s always dangerous to write something like “conservatism is formless like water”: it invites responses like: well, I think that conservatism is more like motor oil, or peanut butter. If one must compare conservatism to water, it would be a good idea to acknowledge that water is not always benign. (Think of the fisherman whose boat founders in the North Atlantic, the lobster thrown into the pot, the child lost in the freezing rain.)

It would also be a good idea either to describe, explicitly, ideal conservatism or to acknowledge, in some way, that actual existing conservatives do not always fit your description. When I think of Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich, stillness and patience are not the adjectives that leap to mind.

And it’s worth asking whether this is a remotely plausible description even of ideal conservatism. Conservatism has not had much to do with the patient preservation of anything for several decades. Writing as though it has — as though such acts of monumental hubris as the Iraq war never happened — is like writing about Catholicism as though its record stopped with the early church fathers, and did not include the Inquisition.

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