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The Liberalism Of Traditionalists

Michael Davis says that Traditionalists of today ought to be like Liberals of old. Excerpt:

There’s a very, very tenuous balance that certain tradition-oriented thinkers have difficulty striking—the balance between preservation of the “permanent things” and accepting true progress when it’s needed. The militantly reform-minded Tory (though he was hardly a reactionary) used the motto, “Fear God, Honour the King” for his magazine The Porcupine. For Cobbett, Burke, and other traditional Liberals, honoring the King could come second only to the fear of God, and a God-fearing man of course would stick his neck out for those most in need. These Liberals, right or wrong, believed there to be a serious necessity to improve the lot of the working poor, the small farmers, and others who they saw to be wronged by the present situation in England. It was not, of course, an ideological madness that drove the Old Liberals, for there can be no ideological zeal that can compete with Radicalism. It was a patient, arduous commitment both to the traditional institutions of the British Isles with a recognition that all men—even the priests, even House of Lords, even the King—are only human. A particular quote from C.S. Lewis springs to mind:

I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.

That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen…patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that ‘all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. The authority of father and husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin), but because fathers and husbands are bad. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. Even the authority of man over beast has had to be interfered with because it is constantly abused.

This is the same Lewis who, in the only other important political comment he made, defended Monarchy against its attackers, claiming that a King or Queen is a necessary part of civilized society; a void which can’t be filled by simply putting the matter out of one’s mind; that will inevitably be filled by “millionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters”, and all the poisons of the soul. That’s the best of the Liberal spirit: possessing both the courage and the good sense to know what is eternally just and what is only transient—to know where the corruptible body ends and the incorruptible spirit begins.

Read the whole thing.  Davis goes on to differentiate Liberals from Progressives, and to explain his view that the old-fashioned English Liberals wouldn’t fit comfortably with either contemporary American liberals, or contemporary American conservatives. It has to do with their view of what society is, and what claims it has on the individual.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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