Points of friction/Consolations of the Conservative


Consolations of the Conservative


THERE is a story of Hawthorne's which is little known, because it is too expansively dull to be read. It tells how the nations of the earth, convulsed by a mighty spasm of reform, rid themselves of the tools and symbols of all they held in abhorrence. Because they would have no more war, they destroyed the weapons of the world. Because they would have no more drunkenness, they destroyed its wines and spirits. Because they banned self-indulgence, they destroyed tobacco, tea, and coffee. Because they would have all men to be equal, they destroyed the insignia of rank, from the crown jewels of England to the medal of the Cincinnati. Wealth itself was not permitted to survive, lest the new order be as corrupt as was the old. Nothing was left but the human heart with its imperishable and inalienable qualities; and while it beats within the human breast, the world must still be moulded by its passions. "When Cain wished to slay his brother," murmured a cynic, watching the great guns trundled to the blaze, "he was at no loss for a weapon."

If belief in the perfectibility of man—and not of man only, but of governments—is the inspiration of liberalism, of radicalism, of the spirit that calls clamorously for change, and that has requisitioned the words reform and progression, sympathy with man and with his work, with the beautiful and imperfect things he has made of the chequered centuries, is the keynote of conservatism. The temperamental conservative is a type vulnerable to ridicule, yet not more innately ridiculous than his neighbours. He has been carelessly defined as a man who is cautious because he has a good income, and content because he is well placed; who is thick-headed because he lacks vision, and close-hearted because he is deaf to the moaning wind which is the cry of unhappy humanity asking justice from a world which has never known how to be just. Lecky, who had a neat hand at analysis, characterized the great conflicting parties in an axiom which pleased neither: "Stupidity in all its forms is Tory; folly in all its forms is Whig."

These things have been too often said to be quite worth the saying. Stupidity is not the prerogative of any one class or creed. It is Heaven's free gift to men of all kinds, and conditions, and civilizations. A practical man, said Disraeli, is one who perpetuates the blunders of his predecessor instead of striking out into blunders of his own. Temperamental conservatism is the dower (not to be coveted) of men in whom delight and doubt—I had almost said delight and despair—contend for mastery; whose enjoyment of colour, light, atmosphere, tradition, language and literature is balanced by chilling apprehensiveness; whose easily won pardon for the shameless revelations of an historic past brings with it no healing belief in the triumphant virtues of the future.

The conservative is not an idealist, any more than he is an optimist. Idealism has worn thin in these days of colossal violence and colossal cupidity. Perhaps it has always been a cloak for more crimes than even liberty sheltered under her holy name. The French Jacobins were pure idealists; but they translated the splendour of their aspirations, the nobility and amplitude of their great conception, into terms of commonplace official murder, which are all the more displeasing to look back upon because of the riot of sentimentalism and impiety which disfigured them. It is bad enough to be bad, but to be bad in bad taste is unpardonable. If we had resolutely severed the word "idealism" from the bloody chaos which is Russia, we should have understood more clearly, and have judged no less leniently, the seething ambitions of men who passionately desired, and desire, control. The elemental instinct of self-preservation is the first step to the equally elemental instinct of self-interest. Natural rights, about which we chatter freely, are not more equably preserved by denying them to one class of men than by denying them to another. They have been ill-protected under militarism and capitalism; and their subversion has been a sin crying out to Heaven for vengeance. They are not protected at all under any Soviet government so far known to report.

Nothing is easier than to make the world safe for democracy. Democracy is playing her own hand in the game. She has every intention and every opportunity to make the world safe for herself. But democracy may be divorced from freedom, and freedom is the breath of man's nostrils, the strength of his sinews, the sanction of his soul. It is as painful to be tyrannized over by a proletariat as by a tsar or by a corporation, and it is in a measure more disconcerting, because of the greater incohesion of the process. It is as revolting to be robbed by a reformer as by a trust. Oppressive taxation, which forced the great Revolution upon France; dishonest "deals," which have made a mockery of justice in the United States; ironic laws, framed for the convenient looting of the bourgeoisie in Russia;—there is as much idealism in one device as in the others. Sonorous phrases like "reconstruction of the world's psychology", and "creation of a new world-atmosphere," are mental sedatives, drug words, calculated to put to sleep any uneasy apprehensions. They may mean anything, and they do mean nothing, so that it is safe to go on repeating them. But a Bolshevist official was arrested in Petrograd in March, 1919, charged with embezzling fifteen million rubles. Not content with the excesses of the new régime, he must needs revert to the excesses of the old,—a discouraging study in evolution.

When Lord Hugh Cecil published his analysis of conservatism nine years ago, the British reviewers devoted a great deal of time to its consideration,—not so much because they cared for what the author had to say (though he said it thoughtfully and well), as because they had opinions of their own on the subject, and desired to give them utterance. Cecil's conception of temperamental, as apart from modern British political conservatism (which he dates from Pitt and Burke), affords the most interesting part of the volume; but the line of demarcation is a wavering one. That famous sentence of Burke's concerning innovations that are not necessarily reforms, "They shake the public security, they menace private enjoyment," shows the alliance between temperament and valuation. It was Burke's passionate delight in life's expression, rather than in life's adventure, that made him alive to its values. He was not averse to change: change is the law of the universe; but he changed in order to preserve. The constructive forces of the world persistently won his deference and support.

The intensely British desire to have a moral, and, if possible, a religious foundation for a political creed would command our deepest respect, were the human mind capable of accommodating its convictions to morality and religion, instead of accommodating morality and religion to its convictions. Cecil, a stern individualist, weighted with a heavy sense of personal responsibility, and disposed to distrust the kindly intervention of the State, finds, naturally enough, that Christianity is essentially individualistic. "There is not a line of the New Testament that can be quoted in favour of the enlargement of the function of the State beyond the elementary duty of maintaining order and suppressing crime."

The obvious retort to this would be that there is not a line in the New Testament which can be quoted in favour of the confinement of the function of the State to the elementary duty of maintaining order and suppressing crime. The counsel of Christ is a counsel of perfection, and a counsel of perfection is necessarily personal and intimate. What the world asks now are state reforms and social reforms,—in other words, the reformation of our neighbours. What the Gospel asks, and has always asked, is the reformation of ourselves,—a harassing and importunate demand. Mr. Chesterton spoke but the truth when he said that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and not tried.

Cecil's conclusions anent the unconcern of the Gospels with forms of government were, strangely enough, the points very ardently disputed by Bible-reading England. A critic in the "Contemporary Review" made the interesting statement that the political economy of the New Testament is radical and sound. He illustrated his argument with the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, pointing out that the master paid the men for the hours in which they had had no work. "In the higher economics," he said, "the State, as representing the community, is responsible for those who, through the State's malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance, are unable to obtain the work for which they wait."

But apart from the fact that the parable is meant to have a spiritual and not a material significance, there is nothing in the Gospel to indicate that the master considered that he owed the latecomers their day's wage. His comment upon his own action disclaims this assumption: "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" And it is worthy of note that the protest against his liberality comes, not from other vine-growers objecting to a precedent, but from the labourers who cannot be brought to see that an hour's work done by their neighbours may be worth as much as twelve hours' work done by themselves. Human nature has not altered perceptibly in the course of two thousand years.

Great Britain's experiment in doling out "unemployment pay" was based on expediency, and on the generous hypothesis that men and women, outside of the professional pauper class, would prefer work with wages to wages without work. A cartoon in "Punch" representing the Minister of Labour blandly and insinuatingly presenting a housemaid's uniform to an outraged "exmunitionette," who is the Government's contented pensioner, suggests some rift in this harmonious understanding. Progressives have branded temperamental conservatism as distrust of the unknown,—a mental attitude which is the antithesis of love of adventure. But distrust of the unknown is a thin and fleeting emotion compared with distrust of human nature, which is perfectly well known. To know it is not necessarily to quarrel with it. It is merely to take it into account.

Economics and ethics have little in common. They meet in amity, only to part in coldness. Our preference for our own interests is essentially and vitally un-Christian. The competitive system is not a Christian system. But it lies at the root of civilisation; it has its noble as well as its ignoble side; it is the mainspring of both nationalism and internationalism; it is the force which supports governments, and the force which violently disrupts them. Men have risen above self-interest for life; nations, superbly for a time. The sense of shock which was induced by Germany's acute reversion to barbarism was deeper than the sense of danger induced by her vaulting ambitions. There is no such passionate feeling in life as that which is stirred by the right and duty of defence; and for more than four years the Allied nations defended the world from evils which the world fancied it had long outgrown. The duration of the war is the most miraculous part of the miraculous tale. A monotony of heroism, a monotony of sacrifice, transcends imagination.

Now it is over. Citizens of the United States walked knee-deep in newspapers for a joyous night to signify their satisfaction, and at once embarked on vivacious disputes over memorial arches, and statues, and monuments. The nations of Europe, with lighter pockets and heavier stakes, began to consider difficulties and to cultivate doubts. No one can fail to understand the destructive forces of the world, because they have given object-lessons on a large and lurid scale. But the constructive forces are on trial, with imposing chances of success or failure. They are still in the wordy stage, and now, as never before, the world is sick of words. "This is neither the time nor the place for superfluous phrases," said Clemenceau (ironically, one hopes), when he placed in the hands of Count von Brockdorff-Rantzau a peace treaty which some stony-hearted wag has informed us was precisely the length of "A Tale of Two Cities." The appalling discursiveness of the Versailles Conference has added to the confusion of the world; but fitted into the "Preamble" of the Covenant of the League of Nations are five little vocables, four of them monosyllabic, which embody the one arresting thought that dominates and authorizes the articles,—"Not to resort to war." These five words are the crux of the whole serious and sanguine scheme. They hold the hope of the weak, and the happiness of the insecure. They deny to the strong the pleasures—and the means—of coercion.

The rapid changes wrought by the twentieth century are less disconcerting to the temperamental conservative, who is proverbially slow, than movements which take time to be persuasive. For one thing, the vast spiral along which the world spins brings him face to face with new friends before he loses sight of the old. The revolutionary of yesterday is the reactionary of to-day, and the conservative finds himself hob-nobbing with men and women whom he had thought remote as the Poles.

Two interesting examples are Madame Catherine Breshkovskaya and Mr. Samuel Gompers. Time was, and not so many years ago, when both condoned violence—the violence of the Russian Nihilist, the violence of the American dynamiter—as a short road to justice. Their attitude was not unlike that of the first Southern lynchers: "We take the law into our own hands, because conditions are unbearable, and the State affords no adequate relief." But Madame Breshkovskaya has seen the forces she helped to set in motion sweeping in unanticipated and shattering currents. She has seen a new terrorism arise and wield the weapons of the old to crush man's sacred freedom. The peasants she loved have been beyond the reach of her help. The country for which she suffered thirty years of exile repudiated her. Radicals in Europe and in the United States mocked at her. The Grandmother of the Revolution has become a conservative old lady, concerned, as good grandmothers ought to be, with the welfare of little children, and pleading pitifully for order and education.

As for Mr. Gompers, his unswerving loyalty to the cause of the Allies, his unswerving rejection of Germany and all her works, will never be forgiven by pacifists, by the men and women who had no word of protest or of pity when Belgium was invaded, when the Lusitania was sunk, when towns were burned, civilians butchered, and girls deported; and who recovered their speech only to plead for the nation that had disregarded human sufferings and human rights. Mr. Gompers helped as much as any one man in the United States to win the war, and winning a war is very distasteful to those who do not want to fight. Therefore has he been relegated by international Socialists, who held hands for four years with Pan-German Socialists, to the ranks of the conservatives. When the "Nation," speaking ex cathedra, says, "The authority of the old machine-type of labour leader like Mr. Gompers is impaired beyond help or hope," we hear the echo of the voices which babbled about capitalism and profiteering in April, 1917. The Great War has made and unmade the friendships of the world. If the radicals propose it as a test, as a test the conservatives will accept it.

The successive revolutions which make the advance-guard of one movement the rear-guard of the next are as expeditious and as overwhelming in the field of art as in the fields of politics and sociology. In the spring of 1877 an exhibition of two hundred and forty pictures, the work of eighteen artists, was opened in the rue le Peletier, Paris. For some reason, never sufficiently explained, Parisians found in these canvases a source of infinite diversion. They went to the exhibition in a mood of obvious hilarity. They began to laugh while they were still in the street, they laughed as they climbed the stairs, they were convulsed with laughter when they looked at the pictures, they laughed every time they talked them over with their friends.

Now what were these mirth-provoking works of art? Not cubist diagrams, not geometrical charts of human anatomy, not reversible landscapes, not rainbow-tinted pigs. Such exhilarants lay in wait for another century and another generation. The pictures which so abundantly amused Paris in 1877 were painted by Claude Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir,—men of genius, who, having devised a new and brilliant technique, abandoned themselves with too little reserve to the veracities of impressionism. They were not doctrinaires. The peace they disturbed was only the peace of immobility. But they were drunk with new wine. Their strength lay in their courage and their candour; their weakness in the not unnatural assumption that they were expressing the finalities of art.

Defenders they had in plenty. No pioneer can escape from the hardship of vindication. Years before, Baudelaire had felt it incumbent upon himself, as a professional mutineer, to support the "fearless innovations" of Manet. Zola, always on the lookout for somebody to attack or to defend, was equally enthusiastic and equally choleric. Loud disputation rent the air while the world sped on its way, and lesser artists discovered, to their joy, what a facile thing it was to produce nerve-racking novelties. In 1892, John La Farge, wandering disconsolately through the exhibitions of Paris, wondered if there might not still be room for something simple in art.

Ever and always the reproach cast at the conservative is that he has been blind in the beginning to the beauty he has been eventually compelled to recognize; and ever and always he replies that, in the final issue, he is the guardian of all beauty. His are the imperishable standards, his is the love for a majestic past, his is the patience to wait until the wheat has been sorted from the chaff, and gathered into the granaries of the world. If he be hostile to the problematic, which is his weakness, he is passionately loyal to the tried and proven, which is his strength. He is as necessary to human sanity as the progressive is necessary to human hope.

Civilization and culture are very old and very beautiful. They imply refinement of humour, a disciplined taste, sensitiveness to noble impressions, and a wise acceptance of the laws of evidence. These things are not less valuable for being undervalued. "At the present time," says the most acute of American critics, Mr. Brownell, "it is quite generally imagined that we should gain rather than lose by having Raphael without the Church, and Rembrandt without the Bible." The same notion, less clearly defined, is prevalent concerning Milton and Dante. We had grown weary of large and compelling backgrounds until the Great War focussed our emotions. We are impatient still of large and compelling traditions. The tendency is to localization and analysis.

The new and facile experiments in verse, which have some notable exponents, are interesting and indecisive. Midway between the enthusiasm of the experimenters (which is not contagious) and the ribald gibes of the disaffected (which are not convincing) the conservative critic practises that watchful waiting, so safe in the world of art, so hazardous in the world of action. He cannot do as he has been bidden, and judge the novel product by its own standards, for that would be to exempt it from judgment. Nothing—not even a German—can be judged by his—or its—own standard. If there is to be any standard at all, it must be based on comparison. Keen thoughts and vivid words have their value, no matter in what form they are presented; but unless that form be poetical, the presentation is not poetry. There is a world of truth in Mr. Masters's brief and bitter lines:

"Beware of the man who rises to power
From one suspender."

It has the kind of sagacity which is embodied in the old adage, "You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," and it is as remote from the requirements of prosody.

The medium employed by Walt Whitman, at times rhythmic and cadenced, at times ungirt and sagging loosely, enabled him to write passages of sustained beauty, passages grandly conceived and felicitously rendered. It also permitted him a riotous and somewhat monotonous excess. Every word misused revenges itself forever upon a writer's reputation. The medium employed by the unshackled poets of today is capable of vivid and accurate imagery. It has aroused—or revealed—habits of observation. It paints pen-pictures cleverly. In the hands of French, British, and American experts, it shows sobriety, and a clear consciousness of purpose. But it is useless to deny that the inexpert find it perilously easy. The barriers which protect an ordinary four-lined stanza are not hard to scale; but they do exist, and they sometimes bring the versifier to a halt. Without them, nothing brings him to a halt, save the limits of the space allotted by grudging newspapers and periodicals.

Yet brevity is the soul of song, no less than the soul of wit. Those lovely lyrics, swift as the note of a bird on the wing, imperishable as a jewel, haunting as unforgotten melody, are the fruits of artifice no less than of inspiration. In eight short lines, Landor gave "Rose Aylmer" to an entranced and forever listening world. There is magic in the art that made those eight lines final. A writer of what has been cynically called "socialized poetry" would have spent the night of "memories and sighs" in probing and specifying his emotions.

The conservative's inheritance from the radical's lightly rejected yesterdays gives him ground to stand on, and a simplified point of view. In that very engaging volume, "The Education of Henry Adams," the autobiographer tells us in one breath how much he desires change, and, in the next, how much he resents it. He would like to upset an already upset world, but he would also like to keep the Pope in the Vatican, and the Queen in Windsor Castle. He feels that by right he should have been a Marxist, but the last thing he wants to see is a transformed Europe. The bewildered reader might be pardoned for losing himself in this labyrinth of uncertainties, were it not for an enlightening paragraph in which the author expresses unqualified amazement at Motley's keen enjoyment of London society.

"The men of whom Motley must have been thinking were such as he might meet at Lord Houghton's breakfasts: Grote, Jowett, Milman, or Froude; Browning, Matthew Arnold, or Swinburne; Bishop Wilberforce, Venables, or Hayward; or perhaps Gladstone, Robert Lowe, or Lord Granville.… Within the narrow limits of this class the American Legation was fairly at home; possibly a score of houses, all liberal and all literary, but perfect only in the eyes of a Harvard College historian. They could teach little worth knowing, for their tastes were antiquated, and their knowledge was ignorance to the next generation. What was altogether fatal for future purpose, they were only English."

Apart from the delightful conception of the author of "Culture and Anarchy," and the author of "Atalanta in Calydon," as "only English," the pleasure the conservative reader takes in this peremptory estimate is the pleasure of possession. To him belongs the ignorance of Jowett and Grote, to him the obsoleteness of Browning. From every one of these discarded luminaries some light falls on his path. In fact, a flash of blinding light was vouchsafed to Mr. Adams, when he and Swinburne were guests in the house of Monckton Milnes. Swinburne was passionately praising the god of his idolatry, Victor Hugo; and the young American, who knew little and cared less about French poetry, ventured in a half-hearted fashion to assert the counter-claims of Alfred de Musset. Swinburne listened impatiently, and brushed aside the comparison with a trenchant word: "De Musset did not sustain himself on the wing."

If a bit of flawless criticism from an expert's lips be not educational, then there is nothing to be taught or learned in the world. Of the making of books there is no end; but now as ever the talker strikes the light, now as ever conversation is the appointed medium of intelligence and taste.

It is well that the past yields some solace to the temperamental conservative, for the present is his only on terms he cannot easily fulfil. His reasonable doubts and his unreasonable prejudices block the path of contentment. He is powerless to believe a thing because it is an eminently desirable thing to believe. He is powerless to deny the existence of facts he does not like. He is powerless to credit new systems with finality. The sanguine assurance that men and nations can be legislated into goodness, that pressure from without is equivalent to a moral change within, needs a strong backing of inexperience. "The will," says Francis Thompson, "is the lynch-pin of the faculties." We stand or fall by its strength or its infirmity. Where there is no temptation, there is no virtue. Parental legislation for the benefit of the weak leaves them as weak as ever, and denies to the strong the birthright of independence, the hard, resistant manliness with which they work out their salvation. They may go to heaven in leading-strings, but they cannot conquer Apollyon on the way.

The well-meant despotism of the reformer accomplishes some glittering results, but it arrests the slow progress of civilization, which cannot afford to be despotic. Mr. Bagehot, whose cynicism held the wisdom of restraint, maintained that the "cake of custom" should be stiff enough to make change of any kind difficult, but never so stiff as to make it impossible. The progress achieved under these conditions would be, he thought, both durable and endurable. "Without a long-accumulated and inherited tendency to discourage originality, society would never have gained the cohesion requisite for effecting common action against its external foes." Deference to usage is a uniting and sustaining bond. Nations which reject it are apt to get off the track, and have to get back, or be put back, with difficulty and disaster. They do not afford desirable dwelling-places for thoughtful human beings, but they give notable lessons to humanity. Innovations to which we are not committed are illuminating things.

If the principles of conservatism are based on firm supports, on a recognition of values, a sense of measure and proportion, a due regard for order,—its prejudices are indefensible. The wise conservative does not attempt to defend them; he only clings to them more lovingly under attack. He recognizes triumphant science in the telephone and the talking machine, and his wish to escape these benefactions is but a humble confession of unworthiness. He would be glad if scientists, hitherto occupied with preserving and disseminating sound, would turn their attention to suppressing it, would collect noise as an ashman collects rubbish, and dump it in some lonely place, thus preserving the sanity of the world. He agrees with Mr. Edward Martin (who bears the hall-mark of the caste) that periodicals run primarily for advertisers, and secondarily for readers, are worthy of regard, and that only the tyranny of habit makes him revolt from so nice an adjustment of interests. Why, after all, should he balk at pursuing a story, or an article on "Ballads and Folk-Songs of the Letts," between columns of well-illustrated advertisements? Why should he refuse to leap from chasm to chasm, from the intimacies of underwear to electrical substitutes for all the arts of living? There is no hardship involved in the chase, and the trail is carefully blazed. Yet the chances are that he abandons the Letts, reminding himself morosely that three years ago he was but dimly aware of their existence; and their "rich vein of traditional imagery," to say nothing of their early edition of Luther's catechism, fades from his intellectual horizon.

If we are too stiff to adjust ourselves to changed conditions, we are bound to play a losing game. Yet the moral element in taste survives all change, and denies to us a ready acquiescence in innovations whose only merit is their practicality. Through the reeling years of war, the standard set by taste remained a test of civilization. In these formidable years of peace, racked by anxieties and shadowed by disillusions (Franklin's ironic witticism concerning the blessedness of peace-makers was never more applicable than to-day), the austerity of taste preserves our self-respect. We are under no individual obligation to add to the wealth of nations. It is sometimes a pleasant duty to resist the pervasive pressure of the business world.

Political conservatism may be a lost cause in modern democracy; but temperamental conservatism dates from the birth of man's reasoning powers, and will survive the clamour and chaos of revolutions. It may rechristen its political platform, but the animating spirit will be unchanged. As a matter of fact, great conservatives have always been found in the liberal ranks, and Tory Cassandras, who called themselves radicals, have prophesied with dismal exactitude. It was a clear-eyed, clear-voiced Socialist who, eight years before the war, warned British Socialists that they would do well to sound the temper of German Socialists before agitating for a reduction of the British navy. M. Paul Deschanel says of the French that they have revolutionary imaginations and conservative temperaments. An English critic has used nearly the same terms in defining the elemental principles of civilization,—conservatism of technique and spiritual restlessness. It is the fate of man to do his own thinking, and thinking is subversive of content; but a sane regard for equilibrium is his inheritance from the travail of centuries. He sees far who looks both ways. He journeys far who treads a known track.

Resistance, which is the function of conservatism, is essential to orderly advance. It is a force in the social and political, as well as in the natural order. A party of progress, a party of stability,—call them by what names we please,—they will play their rôles to the end. The hopefulness of the reformer (Savonarola's bonfire of vanities is an historic precedent for Hawthorne's allegory) is balanced by the patience of the conservative, which has survived the disappointments of time, and is not yet exhausted. He at least knows that "the chief parts of human doom and duty are eternal," and that the things which can change are not the things essential to the support of his soul. We stand at the door of a new day, and are sanguine or affrighted according to our temperaments; but this day shall be transient as the days which have preceded it, and, like its predecessors, shall plead for understanding and pardon before the bar of history.