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14 March 2020

The Philosophical Foundations of Conservatism

 

 

A Book Review*

 

The term conservatism appears with an increasing frequency in the European political rhetoric and media discourse; and this is equally true of the public life of those nations with or without conservative parties.

But the term is often used incorrectly. It is not enough that sometimes speakers mix up conservative with reactionary, or with liberal, for that matter. It is more important that people ascribe ideas to conservatives, which have nothing to do with the glorious history of conservatism, which dates back to the year following the outbreak of the French Revolution, to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. It is therefore not only useful, but also necessary to shed light on and clean up the issue of the philosophical foundations of conservatism. This has been done recently by the Hungarian researcher, Ferenc Hörcher, in his book A Political Philosophy of Conservatism, which has the following, pertinent and emblematic subtitle: Prudence, Moderation and Tradition.

Hörcher invites his readers to have a look at the history of Western philosophy from an unusual perspective: his narrative starts out from the cardinal virtues of the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition, and regards justice only as one value among the others, including courage, moderation and most of all, prudence (practical wisdom – prudentia). And it is exactly this fact that provides the foundation of the book: the narrative leads the readers from the ancient Greek thinkers to Gadamer, Ricoeur and Oakeshott. We learn the great classical authors’ views of prudence: Aristotle (together with Socrates and Plato), Cicero, Saint Augustine and St Thomas of Aquinas are interpreted from this perspective. This is followed by an introduction to the Italian Renaissance, and finally to modernity, where the topic of prudence becomes a key to the interpretation of the concept of conservatism. The Hungarian researcher underlines the importance of the connections between the history of political thought and political philosophy here. If the first part of the book is concerned with the conceptual history of prudence, the second part focuses on the connection between practical wisdom and political conservatism. After all, it is necessary to overarch the walls which separate politics from the virtues, and which were raised by the separation of ethics (and morality) from politics.

We can sum up the foundational insight of the book in the following way: politics needs to be guided – before justice – by the virtue of prudence. And although unquestionably justice remains central in the European tradition, it has to give over its most favoured position to another of the four virtues, as it happens, to prudence, in this paradigm.

Hörcher collects all the requirements for a particular political action to be the right one, both on the level of the individual and on that of the community. This last aspect is specifically emphasised, in harmony with the norms of a conservative approach. The concept of the community is indeed crucial for conservatism, as Ferdinand Tönnies has spelt it out in his famous work, Community and Society, in which he proposed the conceptual distinction between community and society.

We have shown above that structurally the book is divided into two parts, of which the first introduces historically the concept of prudence, as it was understood by the ancients, in the Christian tradition, in the Renaissance, and finally in early modern and modern philosophy – this last one distinguished from late modernity. Hörcher calls his approach Aristotelian in the sense that it stresses the importance of the ancient Greek philosopher in the tradition of European political thought. This history was born in ancient Greece, strengthened by Cicero and St Augustine in Rome, in order to arrive with the help of Aquinas and the Florentine humanists to medieval Christian Europe. The pilgrimage continues after the Reformation, meeting in modernity the ideas of Gadamer and Ricoeur, finally confronting Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss.

The great, but diverse ideas of these authors are united by the conviction that right political action requires the leading role of the virtue of prudence. And although the above ideas were born in rather different historical periods, they share a number of points. This overlap within the different phases of the tradition of the concept of prudentia enables the author to summarise the historical analysis of the concept and after that, to address the question how conservative philosophy relates to particular individual and communal values, and how it connects to politics.

One can summarise the political philosophy presented in the book as a “via media between the ideal world of the Rawlsian utopia of a rather deep moral intrusion into the world of politics, and the amoral attitude of political realism, from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Carl Schmitt and Raymond Geuss”.

Hörcher’s A Political Philosophy of Conservatism gives an abstract description of how one should act in politics, the best way, in a clever manner. In the meantime, he circumscribes the concept of conservative republicanism. What is the secret of the right political action? The author claims: “to keep the tradition alive, political education is needed”. Then he adds that we have to keep in mind the examples of the past, in order to choose the right action in the present, and to have a vision about the future’s orientation. Hörcher poses the catchy question, which has been examined by a number of major conservative thinkers of the past, including Nisbet, Kirk and others: is conservatism an ideology or is it not? To handle the question first of all we have to investigate and understand the main features of conservatism. In this sense Hörcher’s book is a valuable piece added to the huge and magnificent mosaic, which helps to map the philosophical roots of conservatism, determined by prudence, as well as by a moderate attitude in politics, and by tradition.

Hörcher adds here a summary of the foundations of the political philosophy of prudence as he understands the term. It explicates the individual’s power potential, which plays a substantive role in the growth of a particular virtue and in the attitude and character of the political agent. Individual virtues – together with a well-developed character – constitute the basis, which secures the rise of a virtuous political agent, who is ready to place prudence into the centre of his actions, but the agent is in need of further help to defend his values, like moderation and self-control. One should also add to individual virtues, which are not enough in themselves, the virtues of the community, among them the tradition of the rule of law and political culture. The foundation of the community has to be penetrated by that common sense, the starting point of which is an institutional order of politics, which safeguards against moral corruption. In this sense, a conservatism which adores tradition and therefore wants to strengthen it, will be crucial for the flourishing human communities, and though customs and traditions represent only a slice of a wider context, they are nevertheless decisive elements. All political communities are saturated by a political culture, which is nothing else but the organic unity of customs and views of life. And therefore, in order to sustain our constitutional order, we have to initiate the future generations into our political culture. In order to support that process of initiation, a pedagogical programme is needed, based on the Ciceronian idea of decorum and the concept of Bildung, in short, on the Aristotelian and Ciceronian tradition.

But there is another reason, why the book by Hörcher is important, useful and appropriate to raise reflections in a wider circle about the present state of European conservatism. In Western Europe a conversation is staged about the place of conservative thinking in a prejudiced society, in a moment when in France, Italy and partly in Germany the so-called nationalist powers gain a growing influence.

In this discourse Hungary and in particular the personality of Orbán is discussed with great interest, and although Hungarian political events feature often in the Western media, this cannot be stated about the relevant events of the cultural and academic life of the country, including political science. And this is also true, even if we take it in a wider sense, about the Visegrád cooperation. Mainstream media focuses on the surface events of Central and Eastern Europe, leaving out of the picture the deeper reasons and the intellectual developments of these nations which exercise a major impact upon the political. It is not accidental, for example, that Ferenc Hörcher teaches at one of the most important higher educational institutions of Hungary, of which we have hardly heard, while it seems to be crucial from the perspective of the rebirth of the Hungarian conservative tradition, which can be connected to such representative thinkers like Thomas Molnar, John Kekes, Aurél Kolnai, or from an earlier generation, Ferenc and István Széchenyi, or Aurél and József Dessewffy.

To conclude, Professor Hörcher is accurate as far as his sources are concerned, correct in his analysis. His important book gives a clue to the Hungarian conservative tradition, which is, naturally, not a mono drama, but has a cohesion in accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Hungarian people. A similarly valuable initiative is the journal Kommentár, edited by the young intellectual, Márton Békés, and there are further important institutions, like Századvég the Institute of the 21st Century, directed by Mária Schmidt, who also conducts important academic work. Hungarian conservatism, in other words, is a cultural motivating force, which has as its aim not only the elaboration of ideas, but also an involvement in political life, and to become the voice of typically conservative values like the defence of identity, the prominent role of the family, the Christian roots of European culture. How far prudentia, the virtue of practical wisdom is present in the activity of the governments of the Visegrád countries, is not our task to decide. But it would be crucial for the decision-makers of the Western countries as well, to take it on board and practice it. If they did so, their politics would not be characterised by the search for short-term consensus, but rather by the elaboration of long-term perspectives.

* Ferenc Hörcher, A Political Philosophy of Conservatism. Prudence, Moderation and Tradition. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

 


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