Conservatism; or, the Conservation of Civil Society Through Paradox and Irony

“Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither, in my opinion, is safe.”

—Edmund Burke (1729-97), Irish political philosopher, British-Whig politician and statesman who often is regarded as the father of modern conservatism.

No consensus exists that defines conservatism, though most of the Anglo-American world will insist it to be an ideology that includes a school of economics. What can be stated though is the importance of the field of academia known as semantics — the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. There are of course copious branches to this particular linguistic genre, among which are formal semantics, or the studies of the logical aspects of meaning, such as sense, reference, implication and logical form; lexical semantics, which studies word meanings and word relations; and conceptual semantics, which studies the cognitive structure of meaning. And if we account for in America the rising number of immigrants arriving daily not to mention the varieties of colloquial idiosyncrasies that are the ingredients to our melting pot, then the very bedrock of America according to French settler J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur in his 1782 serial, Letters from an American Farmer, must define it.

De Crevecoeur defines the American as “… this new man,” in Letter III, “… who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.” Furthermore, “Americans are the western pilgrims” embracing “being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater.” Hence the reference to America by De Crevecoeur as home to “individuals of all races… melted into a new race of man” is a subtle, poignant tribute to the leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop who, aboard his vessel Arbella as it approached the harbor, wrote in his sermon titled “A Modell” that,

“Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘the Lord make it likely that of New England.’ For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.

Furthermore, Winthrop’s invocation for his 1630 landing near present-day Boston should be noted by all as understanding the bedrock of the foundation of these new western pilgrims’ house; that,

Therefore lett us choose life
that wee, and our seede
may liue, by obeyeing His
voyce and cleaveing to Him,
for Hee is our life and
our prosperity.

We must conclude that our lives and prosperity are granted only by the grace of God. If, as Edmund Burke observed, “The wisdom of our ancestors” provides us the shoulders of giants for us to understand the present, the “… unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” should apply his conviction that “… he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living,” nor “… derive from your pleasure…  from the law and the Constitution.” Rather, the wise, just leaders are bound to “a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable.” Therefore each congressman and senator owe their constituents “… not his industry only, but his judgment” lest he prove unethical and unfit to serve as a man who “betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. In juxtaposing the natural law behind irony coinciding with the truth, the Danish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) penned in his Upbuilding Discourses (1843-44) that “You wanted God’s ideas about what was best for you to coincide with your ideas, but you also wanted him to be the almighty Creator of heaven and earth so that he could properly fulfill your wish. And yet, if he were to share your ideas, he would cease to be the almighty Father.”

Sir Isaac Newton concluded in Law III of his Laws of Conservation and Energy that “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.” Therefore conservatism is the adherence, wrote Russell Kirk, “to custom, convention, and continuity” which permeate the spices of life and “the principle of variety.” But he also noted how “We must all obey the great law of change,” given “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation,” even as “Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.” And a civil society that is free can ill-afford a house divided at its foundation.  (Matthew 12:25; 7:24).

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