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James V. Schall, S. J.

THE ORIGINS OF CONSERVATIVE THOUGHT: THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION

"History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by
pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and
all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public.... These vices are
the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges,
liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some
specious appearance of a real good."

-- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.

Two dicta of conservative thought are: 1) Preserve what is worth saving, and 2) To
preserve anything worthwhile, some change is necessary. Christianity came into the
world as something new -- a new understanding about the inner life of the Deity (the
Trinity) and a new understanding about man, made manifest by the Incarnation of the
Second Person of this Trinity. "The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us" (John,
1:13). If the Deity itself embraced the human condition, with all its ills and
problems, man could not be all bad. Indeed, this fact became the ultimate foundation
of human dignity in Christian thought. All things remained, in their
essence, "good", as Genesis had taught, even while we must account for the obvious
presence of evil.


With regard to Israel, Christianity understood itself not to be a rejection of the
Law and the Prophets, but their fulfillment. The "New" Law did not abrogate the Ten
Commandments, the norms about how we should live. The spirit in which these
Commandments were to be observed was deepened with the doctrines of mercy,
forgiveness, love of enemies, and grace. These Commandments, when examined, covered
the main moral disorders likely in most human lives -- murder, adultery, lying,
stealing, envying, coveting. The violation of these Commandments filled the world
with the various disorders that have appeared in every age. Men have sought in vain
to replace this outline of correct living with other philosophies, ideologies, or
faiths, but these justifications, as Burke said, were really presented, on
examination, as partial goods that sought to overturn what was to be kept.


Christianity, moreover, though it generally accepted the state and property as
reasonable, was not a teaching about politics or economics, but about man's ultimate
purpose and destiny, on how to attain it and on an institution in which it was to be
achieved, the Church, not the state.. The teaching about politics and economics was
to be learned primarily from experience and from the philosophers. Aristotle, Plato,
Cicero, Athens and Rome, along with subsequent philosophers and states, were worthy
sources of practical wisdom, unless public life somehow interfered with a primary
duty to God. When Peter and John were commanded to cease preaching, they responded
with the ever-recurring counter question, "Do you think it better to obey God or
man?" (Acts, 4:19). This question alone always limits the state.

Peter and Paul were both presumably executed under one of Rome's worst Emperors,
Nero. Both apostles, however, advised Christians to be obedient to the Emperor, for
his power of the sword was given to chastise evil doers (Romans, 13:4, 1 Peter,
4:3). That is, Christians had to learn to distinguish between a tyrant and what a
good ruler was supposed to do. If the tyrant demanded something outside his
legitimate powers, they chose death rather than obey him.


Other New Testament brief comments on politics have, moreover, served to give
guidance to conservative thinking. The most famous passage in the Gospels about
politics has to do with tax collecting, that ever present sign of political
power. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are
God's" (Matthew, 22:22). This meant that religion did recognize that Caesar, the
political power, was legitimate for its own purposes, even reasonable taxation. But
it also meant that within the realm of politics itself, some things were not
Caesar's. Caesar could not, for reasons of state, forbid the preaching of the Good
News.


The subsequent history of man has been marked with all sorts of Caesars who claim
more than their due and sometimes with religious leaders who claim more than theirs.
Characteristic of conservative thought is the effort to preserve within its own
structure both what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. From the point of
view of religion, the most dangerous state is the one that is bound by no limits.
From the point of view of conservatism, the most dangerous religion is the one that
makes politics to be its most important interest.


The history of Christianity is surrounded by efforts to clarify and define in law
what things do belong to God and what to Caesar. This duality of legitimacy,
characteristic of conservative thought, sees a dynamism in the lack of power
concentration. Christ's discussion with Pilate at His trial graphically shows what
is at stake (John, 19:10-11). Pilate, as a provincial Roman governor, maintained
that he had the power of life and death. Christ's response was that he (Pilate)
would have no power unless it was given to him by Christ's Father. The manner in
which political power was seen to be both natural and coming from God in its essence
was one of the burdens of all Christian thought, particularly medieval thought, to
demonstrate. Modern conservative thought preserves both of these aspects in its
theoretical understanding of itself, both the authority of Pilate and its
transcendent limits..


Generally, two Christian theories with regard to the legitimacy of the state are
found, one from St. Augustine (d. 430) and one from Aristotle via St. Thomas
(d.1274). The Augustinian tradition argued that government was necessary because of
the Fall, because of original and actual sin. Therefore, we should not locate
perfection in any form of government. The Thomist position held that there would
have been government or rule even had man not sinned, that government was, as
Aristotle said, natural to man. St. Thomas held that both of these positions could
be reconciled because both were true in different ways. Some governmental
institution with coercive powers was needed because of the actual disorders
manifested in public stemming from man's own personal disorders. The second position
was that man was a political animal and needed to rule even himself by reasonable
argument and order. This background in conservative tradition has explained the
presence of both a political realism about what to expect of man, including his
sins, and a kind of hesitant optimism about the importance of human ideals and the
attraction of the good.


This Christian experience with government came generally to be argued under the
heading of natural law. Natural law was a term arising from Plato, Aristotle, and
the Stoics. Both Israel and Islam were religions of "the Law". Christianity used law
in a rather different way. Law was conceived by St. Thomas as an organizing
principle, an "ordination of reason", by which all orders of reality could be
distinguished with clarity. Thus, there was an eternal law, a natural law, a divine
law, a civil law, and even a law of sin or disorder (I-II, 90-97). The careful
elaboration of how these orders or laws related to one another was the way in which
the principles of diversity and unity found in Christian tradition came to be
intellectually understood.


All things had some proper mode of action or some law governing their normal
functioning. What was characteristic of Christian thought was the enormous variety
that was present within the same cosmic and human order. Hierarchy was not opposed
to the ordinary, but both were necessary. Unity of doctrine was not opposed to a
wide divergence in ways to live it. Eventually, this understanding gave rise to what
came to be known with Pius XI (d. 1937) as the principle of subsidiarity. This
principle simply means that all authority should remain at the lowest level
possible. Not all things were well governed from top downwards. Thus, there might be
an argument for the authority of a state or an empire, but there was also an
argument for lesser units that had their own autonomy and tradition. The legitimate
even at times chaotic variety within conservatism stems from this line of thought.


Thus, the main contributions of Christianity to conservatism are these: 1)
incorporating change into abiding truths and principles, 2) distinguishing between
God and Caesar as normal aspects of one civil society, 3) establishing the intrinsic
worth of the individual who is at the same time a member of larger groups, including
the Church, all of which are allowed a presence in society, 4) acknowledging that
hierarchy and subsidiarity are normal elements of a healthy society, and 5) working out theory of a natural law that sought to understand the various orders in which men were to live and that would also explain why experience and diversity were normal parts of the social order.