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Gratitude Is at the Heart of Conservatism

Image by Jocelyn Maloney via Unsplash. Image by Jocelyn Maloney via Unsplash.

A little-known fact is that gratitude is at the heart of conservatism. Here is a brief excerpt from Yuval Levin's illuminative essay "The Roots of a Reforming Conservatism."

Conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but prone to excess and to sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This elevated yet gloomy conception of man, deeply informed by the peculiar, paradoxical wisdom of the West’s great religions, sets conservatives apart from libertarians and progressives alike, and sits at the core of most conservative thinking about society and politics.

It leads, to begin with, to low expectations of human affairs and away from utopianism. In the modern history of the West, conservatism has often manifested itself as an anti-utopian creed, unwilling to believe that timeless human problems could be permanently resolved by some novel insight, clever system, or transformational leader. The most profound and basic human problems recur in every generation because they are intrinsic to the human person—a function of our permanent incongruities and limitations that must be acknowledged, counterbalanced, mitigated, or accommodated but that can never really go away. No social organization of any sort can permanently overcome these problems, because the human being can be understood only as an individual and personal creature, albeit a fundamentally social one. Moral progress must ultimately be achieved through the transformation of individual souls rather than made for them by society as a whole.

The fact that these limits are inherent in humanity also leaves most conservatives persuaded that the experiences of different generations will not be fundamentally different from one another—or, as some have put it, that human nature has no history. Regardless of how much intellectual and material progress any society may make, every new child entering that society will still join it with essentially the same native equipment as any other child born in any other place at any other time. A failure to initiate the next generation of children into the ways of civilization would not only delay or derail innovation but also put into question the very continuity of that civilization. This is why conservatives rarely imagine that our society is on the verge of utopia and frequently (perhaps too frequently) imagine it is on the verge of a breakdown. And it is a crucial reason why conservatives care so deeply about culture.

The sense of man’s fallen nature often leaves conservatives with low expectations. But it is precisely because of those low expectations that we tend to be far more thankful for success in society than we are outraged by failure.

Progressives have much higher expectations. They are more open to the possibility of the perfectibility of man, and they tend to think they have a formula for it, so the persistence of failure infuriates them. When conservatives are outraged, it is generally at seeing something valuable lost; progressives are more commonly outraged at the obduracy of the status quo.

An appreciation of and a gratitude for what works in society, and an inclination to address our failures by building on what works rather than starting over, give conservatives a high regard for long-standing social institutions—those that have been valued by generations of people dealing with the same kinds of basic human problems we now face. It is a key reason why conservatives are traditionalists, inclined to be protective of established ways.

Those customs and institutions that have stood the test of time (which is really a recurring trial-and-error process, generation after generation) are likely to be best adapted to help us address eternal human challenges and meet enduring human needs, and therefore to enable genuine progress. They are likely to possess more knowledge than we can readily perceive and than any collection of technical experts, however capable, can have. A great deal of society’s wisdom is contained in the structure of such customs and institutions—and so is conveyed not just as knowledge but also as practice.

You can read Levin's complete essay here.


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