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Classical Liberalism and Conservatism

by Tony M.

This post is a continuation of discussions generated with our 10th anniversary offerings. We have had a tiny bit of a clash in prior threads about how conservatism relates to classical liberalism. Apparently, there is a fairly broad notion that conservatism as a movement springs out of classical liberalism, a view quite explicit in this article by Samuel Goldman; how it does so may be debated, whether as a subset of it, or some other phenomenon. At the same time, reactionary traditionalists use this notion as a whip with which to accuse conservatism of problematic commitments to political modernism. I think both the notion and the attack mode are basically mistaken, and hope to show why.

We can’t really explain classical liberalism without first discussing the historical use of “liberal”. The English word, of course, springs from the Latin ‘libero’, which in its simplest interpretation is ‘free’. But the concept did not start with the Romans, they borrowed it from the Greeks.

Long before it was an “ism”, the word ‘liberal’ was an adjective. It meant “free”, and (among other things) it was eventually used to form the name of the virtue of “liberality”:

Now virtuous actions are noble and done for the sake of the noble. Therefore the liberal man, like other virtuous men, will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly; for he will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving; and that too with pleasure or without pain; [Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics]

Hence, the liberal man knows how to “give freely”, but rightly.

The Greeks had an ethos about the man who was a full citizen: free, responsible, independent, capable of living the full life of a man, having a say in politics. As opposed to one who was a slave. We have kept this concept going in one form or another. In all of this usage, spanning 2000 years, the meaning of “free” was not solely that of “not slave nor indentured”, it was also “able to direct oneself to appropriate human ends” as opposed to “needing to be guided by another to reach fruition.” This is especially true in Aristotle’s virtue-based ethics, which was captured by Aquinas with a Christianizing modeling of “free” according to Christ’s dictum that “the truth shall make you free.” In this sense, not only is the free man free in the sense of capable of knowing the good and right action, through grace he is also freed from slavery to sin and is thus free to act properly on that knowledge, which results in living life well, according to God’s will and God-given human nature. Thus throughout the late medieval period into the Renaissance, the “liberal” life, far from being severed from godliness, was _explicitly_ ordered to God and to right living.

This was incorporated into the Greek and then Roman notion of the liberal arts: the primary arts necessary for the free man. I.e. the preliminary studies that prepare him for the mature life of reason, including philosophy (speculative wisdom) and statesmanship (the highest practical wisdom). These included grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These then became the core elements of what was understood to be a “liberal education”, the education suited to the free man. This education formed the academic foundation for all educated men right up to the modern era. Anyone who was an educated man had this training.

This sets the background for the use of “liberal” eventually turned into a political word. Before about 1760-ish, it had been used in the larger sense without a specific (narrow) political meaning.

The history of political concepts in Christendom before the modern era was a history of considerable development along with a few pendulum swings to and from various extremes. Broadly speaking: right from the get go, starting with Christ’s admonition “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s”, Christianity generally tended to divide authority between that of the state or the prince and that of the Church (and especially, in high medieval times, the Pope). (As an aside, this division was not necessarily true of ancient peoples: both the Egyptians and the Romans had a tendency to meld their kings with divinity, and this was by no means exceptional.) Granted the Christian distinction between political and church authority, there remained to be worked out the practical interworking of the two, and a theoretical basis for explaining that. As a result, there were along the way various attempts to state the nature and extent of political authority, so as to relate it to moral and religious obligations for Christians.

And this development took place not only in terms of general political theory, but also in terms of ‘natural rights’ – and just as early. Even as Thomas Aquinas put a positive stamp on a Christian view of natural law, jurists and commentators on the decretals were using terms like ‘natural right’, and were employing concepts of individual rights even if they did not use the term:

Individual rights were important to the canonists. They had to be protected. In the ordinary glosses to both the Decretum and the , the standard medieval commentaries on the texts, we can read that no one was to be deprived of his right except for grave cause. [p 57-58]

Rufinus (c. 1158) provided an explanation in which he developed the concept, using as a technical term “demonstrationes”, for behavior that was allowed but not required: i.e. an area of personal autonomy, where “nature does not command or forbid”. Thus, there was an existing and growing recognition of individual rights or liberties.

In addition, there were quite clear instances of what we now call “basic human rights”:

A third example - one with the most immediate relevance to modern developments - was that of religious liberty, that is the right to choose whether or not to adhere to and practise a particular religion. Some of you, I know, will be astounded to hear that the medieval church and its canon law contained any mention of this basic human right, but this most definitely was the case. No one is to be brought to the Christian faith by force, proclaimed an ancient text incorporated into Gratian's Decretum, the first of the basic lawbooks of the medieval church. 28 No unwilling person is to be compelled to come to baptism, proclaimed a famous letter of Pope Clement III incorporated into the Decretals of Gregory IX, the second of those same lawbookS.29 Persuasion, not force, was to be the medium by which the faith of Christ was to be spread throughout the world. The point was decisively and repeatedly stated.

Thus individual freedoms did not wait until the modern period to make their appearance.

At the same time, the origin of political authority came to be addressed by various medieval authors, and while they all (at that time, at least) agreed that all authority is from God originally, they disputed how it got to certain men (i.e. the king, the emperor, the barons, etc). However, one common view was that this transpired through the action of men in general, that is, it was held generally that all men are ordered toward society and so they _must_have_ a government, but as to what sort and by whom, God (and human nature) left to the communities of men to work out themselves. As long as it was for the common good, a governmental form was permissible, but no one specific government came into being but by the decisions and actions of men in the making of it. Thus even as early as Augustine, in describing the authority of the Roman emperor, he said that it came about through the Romans (being unhappy with the chaos of years of civil war) chose to put the entirety of political authority into the emperor’s hands. St. Thomas implies the same sort of thing in “On Kingship”. It was not an exceptional point of view - though certain parties (including some popes, who claimed the authority to appoint kings) argued for other theses.

Now, one can accept this position and still debate on how it takes place. For example, it is possible to argue that like with the election of a Pope, where the choice takes place in the hands of men, but the authority itself is conveyed directly by God to the Pope, so also with the king or other government. Or, in the alternative, one can argue that God sets political authority in general in mankind itself, so that when they choose a government the authority passes from them to the governor. Likewise, there were various opinions among the scholastics and late medieval scholars about whether the action of seating a governor was of its nature a temporary or permanent act: if the people delegate their own authority to the governor, can they pick it back up again for good cause, or is it transferred without possibility of repeal?

Opposed to the relatively common view – that authority from God passes into the hands of the prince or governor by the intermediary action of men – there arose in late medieval years and the Renaissance a different theory, that of the divine right of kings: he got his authority directly from God. This spoke to the notion of the origin of the king’s power. This theory generally also went hand-in-hand with a strong, or even extreme form of theory on the extent of his power, i.e. that too was absolute. These ideas were being bandied about in the 1500s and 1600s, by men such as Martin Luther and James VI of Scotland (who became James 1 of England). Filmer’s Patriarcha is a particularly strident version.

Not surprisingly, these notions generated quite a kick-back. This took at least 2 forms: the rise of theories based on political authority originating in the whole community of men as such, and that such authority they choose to pass on to the government is what authority the government has. There was either no reference to such authority originating from God, or there is no moral constraint upon men as to transferring their power, and in particular from the point of view of the purpose of government, no definitive goals to which it must be directed. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau formulated these heartily humanist theories. The other push back was that from the natural law community of Catholicism that insisted that government and its authority arises from God as a matter of natural law because men by nature are obliged to form a community and thus a government. The inherent purpose of government is then given by natural law, as the common good, and is not decided by men’s choices in so placing authority. They also pushed back against the absolute extent of the power of the king, insisting on limits, including limits arising from individual rights but also arising from other sources (more on that in a minute.) Bellarmine is the pre-eminent example of the men arguing this at the time, and he argued quite explicitly against James VI’s book.

Thus, in the 1600s and 1700s we find a wide warming up of political thinkers toward government that is limited in the extent of its powers and in part due to the recognition of individual rights. This was a “liberalizing” trend – compared to absolute monarchy, especially. But this general trend consisted really of two separate movements, one away from a godly orientation to political order, and the other keeping it and trying to restore it from the errors of divine right of kings theory and absolute monarchs, as well as to complete the earlier notions of political authority.

Another distinction can be made between the two sources of resistance to absolute monarchy. Later liberals have explained their position about rights so:

(i) Liberals have typically maintained that humans are naturally in ‘a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man’ (Locke, 1960 [1689]: 287). Mill too argued that ‘the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…’ (1963, vol. 21: 262). Recent liberal thinkers such as as Joel Feinberg (1984: 9), Stanley Benn (1988: 87) and John Rawls (2001: 44, 112) agree. This might be called the Fundamental Liberal Principle (Gaus, 1996: 162-166): freedom is normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would limit freedom, especially through coercive means.

But the conservative explanation for individual rights and the burden of proof is quite different: because men are ordained for community, the a priori assumption is in favor of freedom - when custom (i.e. the human community) has not already spoken. Against the Lockean “state of Perfect Freedom” conservatives point out that every human being is born into concrete relationships and communities: the family, to start with. No family member is “perfectly free” to ignore his parents and siblings’ needs and desires. Rather, men are “naturally in the state of relationships”, in that they already have social obligations to each other, and the perfect happiness of the good life lived whole and entire is – in perfect freedom – oriented in part to the satisfaction of those social goods, because doing so is fulfilling and satisfying to human nature. Thus when custom has already provided a rule, they are free to find fulfillment in complying with custom for the good of the community. Where custom has not spoken , and the good of the community is not definite and clearly against, THERE we have a presumption in favor of freedom of action.

It is for these reasons that in my definition of conservatism, society (#8) comes before any mention of freedom (#9). And why in #10, discussing freedom, the modifier is included as to matters that are “of a part of life that has not before been under government regulation”. Custom speaks to this: if as a matter of custom, men have decided for themselves individually what color shirt to wear to a wedding, the state cannot impose a NEW mandate to override that license, that freedom, just because it wants to. But just as much, if custom provides that brides wear white, the government cannot impose a new rule otherwise without establishing a strong enough reason that can overturn the good of custom: in both cases, the assumption is in favor of custom.

And it is why, in #18 and 19, I state the prior constraint of the obligations to family and other communities to the freedom of economic choices. The freedom of a man to invent a new buggy wheel, a new electric motor, a new app for I-phones, these are all freedoms within limits that obtain by recognizing obligations to various communities.

This is also why conservatives demand recognition for subsidiarity, and why given subsidiarity, freedom is a strong component of conservatism. When a matter comes to the attention of a higher community, such as the county, that had up to then traditionally been resolved at a lower level by the decisions of families and towns, the customary liberties of families and towns demands respect, and should be left intact if at all possible. Well, the same principle applies to individuals: if custom has not found it necessary to demand that men do X, then not being constrained by society as to X has the presumption, and overriding that custom bears the burden of proof. It takes not only a determination that “we could achieve a good by demanding X”, but also 2 more determinations alongside: that this good will offset both the specific detriments from upsetting the heretofore freedom about X; AND the general detriment from overturning custom, because it is a force for virtue.

So, what do we conclude about the relationship of “classical liberalism” and conservatism?

The issue is not a simple and easy for or against. The origins of the liberal trends that arose more forcefully in the early modern era – in response to excesses of absolutism – include concepts of liberal thought that are entirely connatural to conservatism, especially those that conform to the ‘liberal’ of ‘liberal education’ and those that ground individual rights in a hierarchical orientation of human goods to God. It also includes the press for the individual freedoms that had been known even in the medieval era, including freedom of religion, and the right to trial by jury. The entirely new strain of liberal thinking with the early moderns, that of severing political principles from explicit advertence to God and ordering within society, is quite in contrast to the conservatism of Bellarmine and his predecessors like Vitoria and Aquinas, and the two have little in common except an agreement, against the divine right of kings theory, that political authority passes through the hands of men in general before it reaches a government.

In practice, those counted together in classical period of liberalism were allies, those who were really modern liberals from the start (rejecting politics resting on God), those who were conservative of prior medieval and scholastic theory, and the great common mass of mankind who did not clearly and coherently discern between the two, but who knew darn well that it didn’t make sense that a government come along and upset everything they had known in the past of individual liberties because of a new theory of monarchy or any other new-fangled notion. Therefore, insofar as “classical liberalism” might be the name for a DISTINCT new movement of political thought in the early modern era, it certainly did not include conservatism properly understood. Insofar as it was an UMBRELLA term for all those allies in the early modern period who agreed on at least some individual liberties in practice if not in theory, it can include conservatism.

Those who accuse conservatism as such of picking and choosing what they like of liberalism (i.e. “individual rights”) but not the whole enchilada, are tilting at the wrong windmill.

Comments (9)

The entirely new strain of liberal thinking with the early moderns, that of severing political principles from explicit advertence to God and ordering within society, is quite in contrast to the conservatism of Bellarmine and his predecessors like Vitoria and Aquinas...

Very good summary. When I think of classical liberalism it is the early modern strain I'm thinking of. I certainly wasn't thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas. I guess the question is when conservatives talk of classical liberalism, which strain are they referring to?

Urban, I believe that most people, including conservatives, are thinking of the period of the late 1600s and the 1700s for "classical liberalism". The question is, are they thinking generically of "all those people who opposed the excesses of absolute monarchy and upheld individual liberties", or are they thinking of "specifically those people who in the late 1600s and 1700s who invented new theories of politics that unhinged individual rights from a hierarchy of goods that imply man is inherently a social animal"?

If a person wants to use the former for "classical liberalism", he shouldn't go about saying that conservatism is an offshoot of classical liberalism. If a person wants to use the latter, he shouldn't go around saying that conservatism is in any way connected with classical liberalism. In NEITHER case is conservatism a dependency of classical liberalism, nor did it arise with or later than classical liberalism.

This post takes me back twenty-some years to a time when I used to argue with some of my less classically liberal friends. At the time I was very literal-minded. I used to balk at phrases like "man is inherently a social animal" or "the family is the smallest unit of society," because I took them literally. I took them to mean that, for example, the individual would not have any meaning or value, or would literally be deprived of humanity, if he were separated from society or if he had no family. Similarly with "the family is the smallest unit of society"--I would counterexample it by pointing out that we *ought* to have laws that protect individuals against their families. Had Islam been more in the forefront then, I would have brought up honor killings as an example. An honor killing is wrong and should be punished even if carried out by the head of a family against a "lower" member of that family; hence, the family is not the smallest unit of society that shd. be recognized in law. Similarly, even in the highly unlikely event that a child were raised by wolves, he would still be a real human being with real human worth. Hence, man is not *inherently* a social animal.

I tend to think now that my interlocutors didn't mean something quite so literal as I took them to mean. :-)

It seems odd to me that you would think the _literal_ meaning of "man is inherently a social" somehow conflicts with the notion that a man raised by wolves has real human worth. Perhaps you are taking "inherently" to mean "essentially" and taking "essentially" to mean what it is understood to mean in 20th c. analytic philosophy, so that "man is essentially a biped" means "necessarily, every man actually has two legs". But I don't know why you would think that the only possible literal meaning for "inherently".

In an Aristotelian context, the fact that some men suffer the defect of not having two legs, far from disconfirming, actually confirms the claim that man is inherently bipedal. If having two legs were not of the essence of man, the lack of two legs would not be a defect in a man any more than in a fish. In the same way, a perfectly literal reading of the statement that man is inherently social is "It is of the Aristotelian-essence of man that he be social." I venture to suggest that this is closer to how non-philosophers use terms like "inherently". In this, Aristotelian philosophy shows its character as a refined version of common sense.

Nevertheless, it is quite true that "man is a social animal" can be used in an extreme or distorted manner. The communists and national socialists did that.

So, man is a social animal, in a sense at least somewhat similar to wolves or lions: any wolf or lion can leave one pack and join another. He is individual enough and complete enough to be real full wolf or lion - able to start a new pack or pride with one other.

He is not a social animal in a manner similar to ants or bees, though. A worker bee, or a soldier ant, cannot become the lead bee or ant of a new hive or colony. A worker bee's whole life entirely pertains to the success of that specific hive, the success of the hive and its queen is the only measure of success of the worker bee in it (the hive would sacrifice all the bees except the queen, if necessary for the survival of the queen), and and it cannot leave the hive to join another.

On a higher plane, man has an end that he does not achieve in direct connection with his earthly society: union with God. He will achieve this end by reference to his own individual choices and actions, sometimes even in despite of the behavior of his town or state (cf. the martyrs). A good state will not drag a man into heaven against his will, and a bad state cannot drag a man to hell without his consenting sins.

(Yet it is still true that heaven is a society, consisting first of 3 Persons, and then of all those who love those Persons with a pure love. Importantly, one of the goods which we will enjoy in heaven is the friendship of those who are like us in love of God, even if they are very unlike us in their earthly society's culture. That we will not only enjoy union with God, but also enjoy each other in that friendship is another indicator of our social nature.)

I think Christopher has nailed the sense in which I was taking "inherently."

Tony is also right, though, that I was concerned about a failure to ward off the danger of collectivism. Good use of bees vs. wolves.

I also appreciate the point about martyrs. Some paleoconservatives and others who view themselves as being against classical liberalism place such a high value upon tradition that one wonders how they deal with the fact that, wherever Christian missionaries have gone, they have been shaking up the religious traditions of the country. And Jesus called upon men to be willing to "hate" their parents for his sake, in order to save their individual souls. This makes Christianity *in one sense* one of the most individualistic religions in the world.

Yes, humans are an odd sort of creature. On the one hand, our nature entails a physical dimension that puts us squarely in this physical world, our lives are lives of doing physical things with physical consequences. On the other hand, we are pilgrims here, and our ultimate goal is not this life but another. Though whether we come to that end is found precisely in how we act in this life. We are strange things, bestriding two worlds.

they have been shaking up the religious traditions of the country. And Jesus called upon men to be willing to "hate" their parents for his sake, in order to save their individual souls. This makes Christianity *in one sense* one of the most individualistic religions in the world.

Right. There are some reactionary traditionalists who are so bound to tradition that they would object to Christianity being introduced to a Chinese or Japanese society, on the grounds that it will (if successful) seriously alter that society and its deeply set customs and traditions in which it peacefully coheres. It will upset the social order that obtains.

Such a view is certainly different from that of principled conservatism, for the principles involved entail a definite hierarchy of human goods, with God at the top. It is not enough to say "well, the Japanese society had a hierarchy of goods, too." The question is, does that hierarchy correctly order the human goods? And given that human nature is the same throughout all humanity, there can only be one FULLY correct hierarchy of goods in the main essentials. Christianity correctly identifies natural human virtues as subordinate to the virtues of faith, hope, and love of God, and correctly identifies the sources of moral evil in original sin and its fruit in personal sins. Any society that fails to harbor the implied order of these notions must be a defective society, and is therefore capable of a better order. Hence it is always possible for a non-Christian culture to become a better culture by getting rid of its defects and becoming correctly ordered to the one true God. It remains true that any true society can be Christian in its own special way, so that a Christian Japanese society would be very unlike a French Christian society, for any true society has a great many goods worth keeping even as its defects are corrected. (Aztec and Phoenician human sacrifice "societies" need not apply.)

This was a great article. I have been wondering about the differences between conservatism and Classical Liberalism. The main difference that is usually emphasized is how Classic Libs want the size of government to be large while Conservative want it to be small.

I like this analysis better.

Yeah, that's definitely not accurate! In fact, someone who identifies himself as a "classical liberal" is more likely to have libertarian sympathies, a la Hayek, whereas someone who identifies himself strongly as "conservative but not a classical liberal" is more likely to favor laws in areas such as vice (e.g., outlawing pornography and prostitution, which I think is fine) and even (in more extreme cases) direct establishment of religion (which I don't think is fine).

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