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friedrich hayekThose of us who belong to The Imaginative Conservative community spend a great deal of time lamenting the all-pervasive influence of ideologies, systems, and abstractions in this modern and post-modern vale of tears. We distrust them and those who advocate them, knowingly or unknowingly, and we presume they indicate a certain amount of undue pride, that first and most terrible sin. We might go so far as to state that our despising of unearned and presumed reason is quite reasonable.

Generally, we turn to men such as Kirk and Peter Stanlis. As Kirk wrote so eloquently in his 1954 book, A Program for Conservatives (later revised as Prospects for Conservatives and available from Imaginative Conservative Books)

The conservative knows that he, personally, has no monopoly of virtue or of wisdom; he knows that the problems of men are infinitely variable; and he knows that any valuable reform in society is accomplished only through the willing cooperation of many minds and many hands, working in their particular fields.

The tradition of such skepticism regarding the over use of reason and reliance upon rationality exists, however, at a rather deep level in the entirety of the western tradition and, especially, in the modern West. One only has to recall Socrates and his statement—as he understood the Oracle of Delphi—that his wisdom came from knowing that he knows nothing.

Nowhere do we see it so strongly as we do in the so-called “enlightenment” of Scotland in the 18th century. As the enlightenment figures of France took reason to an absurd level (even worshipping it as a goddess during the disastrous revolution) and of England wanted to see of what “use” reason and everything under the sun could be, the Scottish understood its follies. One of the best defenders of the limits of reason was none other than the father of modern economics, Adam Smith. In his revised edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote:

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

As serious scholars such as Jim Otteson and others have shown, this revision came almost certainly from the influence and friendship of Edmund Burke, and Smith’s assessment of the follies of the revolutionaries in France.

Following in the tradition of Smith and the members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Nobel-prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek offered some of the best and most reasonable criticisms of reason in a variety of his own works in the twentieth century: especially in his famous 1945 academic article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” and in two of his best books, The Counter-Revolution of Science and The Constitution of Liberty. In the 1945 article, criticizing some of the assumptions of Josef Schumpeter, Hayek wrote:

“There is something fundamentally wrong with an approach which habitually disregards an essential part of the phenomena with which we have to deal: the unavoidable imperfection of man’s knowledge and the consequent need for a process by which knowledge is constantly communicated and acquired.”

He developed this idea at much greater length over the next fifteen years of his life, and especially worth quoting at length from 1960’s Constitution of Liberty.

Sounding very much like T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson, two of his contemporaries, Hayek wrote:

In a sense it is true, of course, that man has made his civilization. It is the product of his actions or, rather, of the action of a few hundred generations. This does not mean, however, that civilization is the product of human design, or even that man knows what its functioning or continued existence depends upon.

Or, Hayek’s very Burkean take on the growth of the Roman republic:

Cicero quotes Cato as saying that the Roman constitution was superior to that of other states because it “was based upon the genius, not of one man, but of many: it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men. For, said he, there never has lived a man possessed of so great a genius that nothing could escape him, nor could the combined powers of all men living at one time possibly make all the necessary provisions for the future without the aid of actual experience and the test of time.”

The best things, for Smith, Burke, and Hayek arise from the discovery process, a process that might very well take generations and generations but almost certainly is not the product of one person or one group of thinkers.  And, the same was true for Socrates, Stanlis, Kirk, Eliot, Elliott.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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  1. Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he can pick up when feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors.

    Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

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