Are conservatives really just classical liberals? Michael Davis considers the possibility that traditionalist icons like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton may actually be liberal, and cites this passage from Lewis’s “Membership”:
I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.
Lewis promotes the latter. He criticizes theocracy “not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us.” In this context, democracy is justifiable on prudential grounds, not absolute ones. Lewis does not argue from a foundational position for democratic authority, but instead that the conditions of human nature are suited for it.
However, Lewis also sees that goodness and truth really exist. The problem, articulated by Aristotle, has been how to translate this moral realism into practical action either by law or by everyday behavior. The rational gap between natural law and human action has left a necessary reliance on prudence.
The mistake would be attributing this to a type of liberalism. At its core, liberalism sees an absolute, not a pragmatic, good in individual freedom. Lewis conversely finds democratic power to be a practical check on what would most likely become tyrannical government. As he shows in his essay “Democratic Education,” his view of human nature is certainly not democratic:
Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.
As Lewis writes in “Membership,” society’s end is not merely a swarm of free acting individuals—it is the cultivation of virtue. A degree of personal autonomy is essential to that goal, and in this way, Lewis employs liberal political theories, but he does so for conservative reasons. His politics concentrate on human nature, and viewing human nature as hierarchical, he thinks hierarchy should also check freedom, as he says in “Myth Became Fact”:
But how if, by [abolishing the English monarch], you leave out the one element in our state which matters most? How if the monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship—loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendor, ceremony, continuity—still trickle down to irrigate the dust bowl of modern economic statecraft?
Even though Chesterton classifies himself as a liberal, as Davis says, he defines liberty in a way that really means virtue. Through one of his characters in The Yellow Bird, he writes:
First and foremost, surely, it’s the power of a thing to be itself. In some ways the yellow bird was free in the cage. It was free to be alone. It was free to sing. In the forest its feathers would be torn to pieces and its voice choked forever. Then I began to think that being oneself, which is liberty, is itself limitation. We are limited by our brains and bodies; and if we break out, we cease to be ourselves, and, perhaps, to be anything.
The limitations are not only physical, but also moral. Even then, conservatism enters to say that our understanding of what we ought to do is not a purely abstract endeavor; it is guided by commonsense and tradition.
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