Our problems remain epistemological.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Imperfectability and the inevitability of reform

One of the principles of a conservative approach to politics & life is the idea of imperfectability. No perfect order exists this side of heaven, and all human endeavors have faults and failures. The late Russell Kirk expressed this concept well in his summary, Ten Conservative Principles:
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.
The conservative rejection of the idea of a perfect temporal order goes hand in hand with the conservative emphasis on reform. To be a conservative is to embrace the principle of reform, that institutions and policies must undergo rejuvenation when necessary to remain relevant in the fact of the relentless change that besets all things under the Sun. For this reason, ideologies that seek to freeze human government or society at a certain point are doomed to produced miserable failure, for the friction of change produces heat that melts away all attempts at stasis.

For a conservative, principle remains steady, but the application of principle varies from time and time, culture to culture, circumstance to circumstance. What works for one people in one era may not work for a different people in a different era. Imperfectability and the inevitability of change make provisional all human arrangements: the only constant is change. For the conservative, though, the type of change, the type of reform, makes all the difference. Change in continuity with the past, developmental change that preserves diversity, community and human flourishing is the conservative goal. Not the preservation or restoration of a Golden Age that never existed, but the continuing expansion of the human spirit to avoid what Kirk identified as the two-fold threat to civic order: violent discontent or fatal boredom.


Tim Kowal said...

"violent discontent or fatal boredom."

We're so there. Except only a few of us ever learned to fight for freedom because we were only good at enjoying it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"violent discontent or fatal boredom."

Why not both? I've always wondered if that's the problem with the Middle East. Nothing but sand and ugly women.