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Concisely Conservative


In 1996, I wrote The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia [1], which bore the following subtitle: 200 of the Most Important Ideas, Individuals, Incitements, & Institutions That Have Shaped the Movement. Evoking Sesame Street, a friend quipped, “This book is brought to you by the letter ‘I’.”

Point taken, although a reviewer for the publishing magazine Booklist wrote that I “deserved an award for the most informative subtitle of the year.”

The encyclopedia tried to explain “abortion,” “Thomas Molnar,” and “Zeitgeist” – the first, the hundredth, and the last entries – and 197 others, and it was a good education for the author. [The definition of Zeitgeist, by the way, was: “Ger., ‘the spirit of the time’: See conservatism.” My, how times have changed!]

Interspersed throughout the book were five essays I commissioned from five distinguished scholars under the heading The Origins of Conservative Thought: “The Greco-Roman Influence” by Prof. Carnes Lord; “The Jewish Tradition” by Rabbi Jacob Neusner; “Reformation and Revolution” by Prof. Peter J. Stanlis; “The American Centuries” by Prof. Charles R. Kesler; and “The Christian Tradition” by James V. Schall, S.J.

It’s Fr. Schall’s contribution I want to discuss here.

His essay begins:

Two dicta of conservative thought are: (1) Preserve what is worth saving; and (2) To preserve anything worthwhile, some change is necessary. Christianity came into the world as something new – new understandings about the inner life of the Deity (the Trinity) and about Man, each made manifest by the Incarnation of the Second Person of this Trinity. . . . If the Deity itself embraced the human condition, with all its ills and problems, Man could not be all bad. . . . All things remained, in their essence, “good,” as Genesis had taught, even while we must account for the obvious presence of evil.
I remember reading that and thinking: Just so.

Fr. Schall makes the point that the Christian faith is meant to guide us in understanding our destiny and how to achieve it, which isn’t via political or economic theorizing and which comes via the Church not the state. This necessarily limits the state. And, writing of early Christianity (as under Nero), it is necessary to distinguish between tyrants and just rulers, and to acknowledge that if “the tyrant demanded something outside his legitimate powers, [Christians] chose death rather than obey him.”

      The Tribute Money by Peter Paul Rubens, 1617

We may say, Fr. Schall insists, that the subsequent history of Christianity is “surrounded by efforts to define in law what things do belong to God and what to Caesar.” Good sources for that come from some classical authors (Plato and Cicero, for instance), and two formative Christian writers: Augustine and Aquinas. And he gives a superb summary paragraph of their influence:

The Augustinian tradition argues that government was necessary because of the Fall, because of original sin and actual sin. Therefore, we should not locate perfection in any form of government. The Thomist position held that there would have been government or rule even had Man not sinned, that government was, as Aristotle said, natural to Man.
Saint Thomas argued that some coercive power is needed by government to deal with disorders, public and personal, and conservatism represents realism about the role of sin in life and, as Schall so aptly puts it, “a kind of hesitant optimism about the importance of human ideals and the attraction of the good.”

The best part of his short essay is his treatment of subsidiarity, which he introduces after a brief explanation of the various orders of law: eternal, natural, divine, civil, and “even a law of sin and disorder.” Thus, he writes:

there might be an argument for a state or an empire, but there was also an argument for lesser units that had their own autonomy and tradition. The legitimate, even at times chaotic, variety within conservatism stems from this line of thought.

Then in five points, Schall summarizes what conservatism owes to Christianity: (1) it allows for change even as it holds fast to “abiding truths and principles;” (2) it establishes the dynamic of God and Caesar as normative; (3) it acknowledges the worth of every individual, alone and in associations (such as the Church) – what Russell Kirk referred to as “the rich diversity of traditional life;” (4) it embraces both hierarchy and subsidiarity; and (5) it is the guiding ethical principle behind a cohesive conservative philosophy about the human condition and the institutions suitable to it.

Fr. Schall’s essay, along with those of the other four contributors, made my encyclopedia much, much better than it otherwise would have been, and (along with reading a number of his books) gave me a chance to experience Schall the teacher.

Two quotes from Henry Adams come to mind. “Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education,” and, although Adams knew this can cut two ways (bringing light or perpetuating darkness),  “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” James V. Schall, S.J. enlightens.

I’ve sometimes cringed to look back at what I wrote twenty or thirty years ago, because sometimes I lacked clarity. But I’ll stick with this from the encyclopedia’s afterword:

If every morning we awakened unable to follow a routine, we can only imagine how disconcerted and downcast we would be. Wed hardly be human. But because we are human, we are conservative about the things we love. We want them near us always; we want them as they are, although we acknowledge that part of the reality of things – people especially – is their becoming.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.