Patrick O’Brian and Conservative Respect for "Tradition"
One of the central historical tenets of conservative thought is a respect for “tradition.” Russell Kirk said that conservatives believe that “[c]ustom, convention, and old prescription are checks upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.” But Kirk also said that “[s]ociety must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation.” Edmund Burke put it this way: “Change is inevitable, . . . [b]ut let change come as the consequence of a need generally felt, not inspired of fine-spun abstractions.”
Liberals portray conservatives as pure reactionaries who wish to put society into reverse. Nothing demonstrates this pernicious liberal tendency than the false “conservative war on women.” Conservatives strongly believe the country has gone way too far in inhibiting markets and allowing overweening bureaucratic regulation to clog the economic system (the EPA’s meddling regulation of carbon dioxide is a good example). Other conservatives believe that abortion-on-demand for the past 39 years has been a national tragedy and that the current efforts to redefine marriage will, if successful, knock another prop from beneath a tottering culture.
Yet I don’t know a single conservative who isn’t glad to have modern sanitation, hot water on demand, or antibiotics. But, in a variety of ways, we are leery of the “innovator’s lust for power”—particularly when the innovator is in the form of a government-run command and control society; we see it in grand utopian schemes like Obamacare. Ironically, conservatives aren’t afraid to change entitlements (it’s the liberals who are reactionary on that issue) or to make market-based changes that will improve American health care; but we oppose wild-eyed schemes that will bankrupt the nation or that are based on the premise that human nature is perfectible.
Love for tradition is central to my beliefs. I agree with Edmund Burke’s belief that it is essential that we link the generations together by paying fealty to the great traditions of the past (those that reflect the first principles of our culture), and by leaving a civilized, strong society as an inheritance to our children:
“By this unprincipled facility of changing the state often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there is floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than the flies of the summer.”
With that as background, let me point out a wonderful passage written by Patrick O’Brian. I noted in a post a few days ago that Peter Robinson has inspired me to re-read O’Brian’s Master and Commander novels featuring Jack Aubrey, the captain, and Stephen Maturin, the philosophical surgeon. I just finished the third novel, H.M.S. Surprise.
In that volume, O’Brian presents a wonderful scene that illustrates the conservative respect for tradition. Tom Pullings, a young naval officer and protégé of Jack Aubrey, is teaching a young midshipman the weights of different ships by pointing out and describing a group of India merchant ships then passing by their ship. Pullings calls them “twelve hundred ton ships” even as he says that some are as much as fifteen hundred tons. When the midshipman suggests that it would be simpler to call the fifteen hundred ton ships “fifteen hundred ton ships,” Pullings is aghast. Instead, he reaffirms the tradition of the British navy and its fight against unnecessary innovation:
“Simpler, maybe: but it would never do. You don’t want to be upsetting the old ways. Oh dear me, no. God’s my life, if the Captain was to hear you carrying on in that reckless Jacobin, democratical line, why, I dare say he would turn you adrift on a three-inch plank, with both your ears nailed down to it, to learn you bashfulness. . . . No, no: you don’t want to go arsing around with the old ways: the French did so, and look at the scrape it has gotten them into.”
Isn’t that a beautifully-written passage? But, more importantly, it teaches us why we can continue to live with “miles” and “yards” instead of “kilometers” and “meters,” and why British currency is charming because it eschews the metric system. [Note: I’m not a complete troglodyte—I understand why science uses the decimal system].
The old ways aren’t always the best, but they should never be replaced just because they are old and tried. The old ways are often best because they reflect a moral order and the wisdom of the ages. Yes, change is necessary, but history shows that to be effective, it must always be thoughtful and almost always incremental.
Respect for tradition and the rejection of revolutionary change and “transformational leaders” remain central to the conservative view of life. Your thoughts?