Tradition and Conservatism


"Think of history as a giant, unpredictable pool game. Tradition is simply the pattern that exists at any given moment on the table. It is where you start from; it constrains what you can do; it commands attention and respect; and yet there is still enormous potential for change. A skilled player will immediately intuit imaginative ways to reorder the whole table; or to play it safe; or to just move it along. In Michael Oakeshott's words,

"A tradition is not something to which we must adhere; it is something which provides the starting point and the initiative for fresh enquiry. It is no use looking to it for finished conclusions, for settled answers to fixed questions because it is not a tradition of conclusions or even of questions, but of enquiry."

This is what time is; and it is the universe in which practical life has to occur. One thing leads to another; and every moment presents us with choices of how to act and what to do. Yes, there are constraints: the historically contingent pattern you are born into; the genetic lottery; the hazards of physical life. But in the end, practical life does not relent in offering every individual a constant array of choices, trivial and profound, that she has to make. Even not making a decision is a decision...

The conservative, unlike the fundamentalist or Marxist or any other adherent of a direction for time, simply observes that this is the way the world is. He will confront the fundamentalist with a puzzled look, and ask him how he knows for sure that something beyond contingency and choice is at work in human history, that some other force is directing human action and ends. He will enjoy pointing out the collapse of this great theory of history and that one. And in the meantime, he will simply make the choices he wants to make and live.

Laurence Olivier put the conservative temperament in this respect rather well when he said: 'I take a simple view of life: keep your eyes open and get on with it,'" - The Conservative Soul, Chapter Five.