There is an unfortunate stereotype of the conservative as curmudgeon. In the popular mind he is either a pick up driving redneck “clinging to his religion and guns” or a somewhat snobbish, bookish and button downed Anglophile. Whether he has stepped out of Duck Dynasty or Downton Abbey, he is a disapproving and disgruntled pessimist–known more for what he is against than what he is for.
If there be any such conservatives reading this column let them, at the beginning of this year, turn over a new leaf. Let them make a resolution that is no less than a revolution, for I have two wise dictums that I wish to recommend. These resolutions may not help you lose twenty pounds, give up your favorite vice, or start being nice, but they will turn your life upside down and put you on the path to being not only an imaginative but a positive conservative.
The first is a quip I discovered while studying theology at Oxford University. The author is F.D. Maurice. Frederick Denison Maurice, born in 1805 to a Unitarian minister, went up to Cambridge and was eventually ordained for ministry in the Church of England. Maurice was known as one of the first Christian socialists. He was an avid intellectual, activist, and writer, and while some loved him dearly, others did not. Someone said listening to him preach was like “eating pea soup with a fork” while others complained that his thought, like his character, was convoluted, complicated, and cramped. Nevertheless, out of his liberal cast of mind comes a quotable quote if ever there was one. It is, “A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.”
This delicious tidbit intrigued me as I sat poring over my books in an Oxford garret. I had been brought up in a conservative Protestant home, and while the faith of my fathers was fervent, it was also suspicious of anything “worldly, liberal, and Catholic.” We were right and everyone else was wrong. The sectarian suspicion of everything other gave us a certain negativity. Often we were not sure what we believed, but we were certain what we did not believe. Our doctrines were determined by denial and our principles by protest. We knew what we were against, and when in opposition we were at our strongest and best.
Maurice’s dictum stood that worldview on its head. If one was to affirm rather than deny, then one was looking first for all that was good about an idea, a tradition, or a proposition rather than immediately looking for what was wrong. The paradigm shifted. Suspicion became suspect. The perspective became positive. Maurice’s idea did not mean that the critical faculty was abnegated. There was no reason to become a dreamy, naive nincompoop–blithely floating along on a rosy cloud of positive feelings. It just meant that one viewed the world with an open eyed appetite for goodness, truth and beauty rather than a squinty eyed fear of being taken in.
With this positive perspective came a fresh appreciation that when God created the world he affirmed it by saying, “That is good!” not “That is awful.” To be sure the wonderful world had become weird and wicked. In the words of the poet priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “All is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil, and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” Eden has weeds and the sons and daughters of Eve are soiled with sin. However, Hopkins insists, “For all this nature is never spent, there lives the dearest, freshness, deep down things.”
Maurice the liberal taught me to affirm and not deny, and this positive perspective is not alien to the truly conservative mindset, for the imaginative conservative regards the great panoply of history and the trajectory of tradition with a creative and affirmative approach. The true conservative affirms all that is good from the past, rejecting what is twisted and false, in order to construct peace in the present and a future that flourishes.
The second mental revolution comes from another Englishman—the gentle poet priest Thomas Traherne. A contemporary of seventeenth century metaphysical poets Henry Vaughan and George Herbert, Traherne asks in his Centuries of Meditations, “Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? …prize all things according to their value.” Here was a complementary thought to the affirmative attitude of Maurice. All things must be affirmed according to their value.
Prize things according to their value: no more and no less. The positive conservative therefore discerns and weighs the value (not necessarily the price) of all things in order to prize it accordingly. Suddenly snobbery flees away and vulgarity vanishes. One can love all things, but according to their worth. I love hot dogs and hors d’oeuvres. One at the ball game and one at the ball. I can love both grand opera and soap opera. They each have their worth: Grand opera is timeless musical drama. Soap opera is as ephemeral as bubbles. So I prize them accordingly.
If I affirm all things according to their worth I do with each as is fitting. Think of it! To take the thought to a radical extreme, we even love trash according to its worth: its worth is nothing and its destiny is to be destroyed. Therefore when I throw the trash away I am affirming its true worth.
The principles apply to all things and turn the curmudgeonly conservative into a positive conservative. With these two principles we launch into a new year with zeal to affirm and not deny—to see what is good rather than what is bad, and to prize all things according to their worth. Without being sappy one seeks all that is beautiful, good, and true and, like a connoisseur or a salvage merchant, winkles out what is beautiful, good, and true while discarding what is ugly, wicked, and false.
With such a transformation the curmudgeonly conservative will become a positive conservative and with only a little time and effort may even find himself to be a joyful conservative.
Books in the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.