As their name indicates, conservatives wish to conserve. They wish to conserve the best that’s been said, written, thought, or done in the vast Western tradition. They know that wisdom is hard won, that it is formed in the crucible of life in a fallen world. They know that wisdom is hard to come by and is easily lost. They know that the wisdom of the ages deserves to be protected and enshrined, not ridiculed and passed off as the quaint legacy of an innocent and unenlightened past. To take a notion from philosopher Gordon H. Clark, conservatives know that even though today we know more science than our ancestors knew, we know less about the Word of God than they knew. Therein lies their wisdom and our blindness.
Conservatives know that, while change is easy, improvement is hard. They know that most changes are not improvement at all, but regression. They know that most political changes cause more problems than they fix.
Conservatives know that the institutions around us have evolved slowly over the centuries. Those institutions and their slow evolution embody a memory of difficulties from the past that have been overcome, even if long forgotten. If we changed those institutions too quickly or too recklessly, the problems they evolved to overcome would return with a vengeance. But, because we have forgotten many of those old difficulties, we do not know to expect them again or how to protect ourselves from them again now that we have jettisoned our ancestors’ institutional solutions. We change some things at our own great risk; things like marriage and health care, for example. We ought to invite those risks only slowly and after careful analysis, the very sorts of things we too often are loathe to perform. Due diligence is not our strong point. Lust for change is.
My point about the unforeseen dangers of change is not new. More than a hundred years ago, James A. Froude made it too: “Great social change is never unattended with misery,” he said (“Ireland Since the Union,” in Short Studies on Great Subjects, vol. 2, p. 544). In other words, if you want to cause misery, try to rid the world of it.
More than 250 years before Froude uttered his remarks, Erasmus made the same point. His life crest was a dolphin, symbolic of speed, curled around an anchor, symbolic of slowness and stability. To that emblem Erasmus attached his life motto: festina lente, or “make haste slowly.” That emblem he got from his printer, Aldus Manutius of Venice, and that slogan he got from the ancients, probably Aristophanes or else Caesars Augustus and Titus. It’s been around, then, for at least two millennia, which does not mean we’ve actually learned it. We haven’t.
If, after thousands of years, we have not learned to make haste slowly or that, while change is easy, improvement is very hard, then it makes you wonder if human beings are teachable. If they are, (A) reality will have its way with them and they will become undeceived, and (B) things eventually will turn out. If human beings are not teachable, (A) nothing will undeceive them and (B) nothing will turn out. In that case, we’ll keep on thinking that we can “fundamentally change America” and that it will all work out just fine.
Judging from history, I’m not optimistic.