To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
As for politics, well, it all seemed reasonable enough. When the Conservatives got in anywhere, [Judge] Pepperleigh laughed and enjoyed it, simply because it does one good to see a straight, fine, honest fight where the best man wins. When a Liberal got in, it made him mad, and he said so,--not, mind you; from any political bias, for his office forbid it,--but simply because one can't bear to see the country go absolutely to the devil.
There are six canons of conservative thought: 1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. "Every Tory is a realist," says Keith Feiling: "he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom." True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls. 2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls "Logicalism" in society. This prejudice has been called "the conservatism of enjoyment"--a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot "the proper source of an animated Conservatism." 3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society." With reason, conservatives have been called "the party of order." If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.5) Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power. 6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.
What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and heknows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And heapprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, tostruggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that "they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.
Conservatives and those on the right are usually willing to settle for thinking themselves correct on political issues; those on the left have always needed to feel not so much that they are correct but that they are also good. Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, sentimental, foolish, a dope; disagree with someone one the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, cold-hearted, a sellout, evil-in league with the devil, he might say, if he didn't think religious terminology too coarse for our secular age. To this day one will hear of people who fell for Communism in a big way let off the hook because they were sincere; if one's heart is in the right place, nothing else matters, even if one's naive opinions made it easier for tyrants to murder millions.
Gore Vidal, for instance, once languidly told me that one should never miss a chance either to have sex or to appear on television. My efforts to live up to this maxim have mainly resulted in my passing many unglamorous hours on off-peak cable TV. It was actually Vidal's great foe William F. Buckley who launched my part-time television career, by inviting me on to Firing Line when I was still quite young, and giving me one of the American Right's less towering intellects as my foil. The response to the show made my day, and then my week. Yet almost every time I go to a TV studio, I feel faintly guilty. This is pre-eminently the 'soft' world of dream and illusion and 'perception': it has only a surrogate relationship to the 'hard' world of printed words and written-down concepts to which I've tried to dedicate my life, and that surrogate relationship, while it, too, may be 'verbal,' consists of being glib rather than fluent, fast rather than quick, sharp rather than pointed. It means reveling in the fact that I have a meretricious, want-it-both-ways side. My only excuse is to say that at least I do not pretend that this is not so.