Is conservatism basically a form of what G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) once called “orthodoxy”? Or is it something different?
According to Jerry Muller, a secular Jew and conservative thinker, the answer to this question has important ramifications. In his anthology on conservatism, he argues that if the two are the same then conservatism is wholly irrelevant to politics in our pluralistic and largely secular age. Muller values conservatism in the realm of society and politics, but he believes that orthodoxy is only relevant in the realm of religion. Even if conservatism and orthodoxy reach the same or similar conclusions, they have distinct and independent ways of reasoning. To Muller, this is not an arbitrary distinction but a fundamental one.
As an agnostic conservative, Muller would seek to put some distance between conservatism and orthodoxy. However, he seems allergic to the association between the two. In fact, if orthodoxy is the same as conservatism, Muller is prepared to abandon conservatism entirely. He argues that what makes conservatism and orthodoxy different is that conservatism opposes liberalism and progressivism on the grounds of enlightened principles using reason, rather than pointing to some transcendent truth like orthodoxy does.
But the English writer and philosopher, G.K. Chesterton would have disagreed. His view was that conservatism and orthodoxy are deeply intertwined. In fact, based on Chesterton’s writings, conservatism is only relevant by virtue of its ties to orthodoxy.
In his influential work aptly entitled Orthodoxy, Chesterton collapses the two terms and makes no real effort to distinguish them. To Chesterton, both conservatism and orthodoxy point to, and correspond with, metaphysical truths, though orthodoxy does so in a more complete way. He uses both labels to describe his own position and sees them as complementary. Chesterton also strongly criticizes the overreliance on reason, rationality, and “enlightened” principles—a further point of difference between him and Muller.
Though it may be easy to dismiss this disagreement as a simple difference in the authors’ worldviews and religious beliefs, the question of the relationship between conservatism and orthodoxy has important ramifications in society today.
In his anthology, Muller notes several marks of conservatism, which he describes as a constellation of themes and attitudes. He acknowledges that these are not universally true of conservatives, nor are they the only traits, but they represent the majority. Four traits of conservatism include: acknowledgement of human imperfection, epistemological modesty, reliance on institutions, and esteem for customs, habit and prejudice.
In comparing these four points with what Chesterton thought about orthodoxy, large areas of commonality emerge. First, Muller identifies that, at the foundation of the conservative attitude, there is the acknowledgement of human imperfection and the limits of human knowledge. Muller defends this point with a secular argument based on biology and psychology.
But Chesterton also has a profound understanding of human fallibility. In fact, this understanding of man’s fallen nature influences much of Chesterton’s writings about orthodoxy. While Muller’s observation about the imperfection of humans is correct, orthodoxy supplies (for Chesterson, at least) the explanation that secular conservatism misses, which is that humans are fallible because of sin. It is difficult to find an author whose claims support this conservative understanding of human imperfection as soundly as Chesterton, and he does so by pointing to orthodox belief about sin.
On the point of epistemological modesty, Muller writes that a trademark of conservativism is the acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge. We are fallible beings who learn and make decisions based on our faulty observations. Muller writes that our limited ability to understand the complexities of society must constrain all plans to change and innovate within institutions.
But Chesterton claims this type of humility as a mark of orthodoxy.In a critique of the modern perversion of humility, Chesterton writes that “a man was always meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert, himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.”
Muller’s third mark of the conservative is his attitude towards Institutions. While progressives and liberals often chafe at the constraints placed upon individuals by institutions, conservatives believe that humans flourish within boundaries, and the constraints of institutions guide the proper ordering of goods and passions.
But Chesterton showed that this was an orthodox understanding of human nature before it was a conservative one. Chesterton would have agreed with Muller, and other great conservatives like Edmund Burke, that institutions are essential for human flourishing. However, he believed that true flourishing occurs not in man-made institutions but in the institution that was established by Jesus, the Church. The conservative attitude towards institutions is most appropriate and evident when oriented towards the Church.
This convergence between conservative attitudes and the orthodox attitude towards the Church extends to Muller’s fourth point: the conservative esteem of customs, habits, and prejudice. Muller writes that conservatives value the social norms, moral rules, and duties that are imparted on individuals through institutions. These norms guide the actions of people towards acceptable and good behavior when individuals do not have the time or the energy to devote to evaluating each action.
The customs, habits, and principles that are valued by conservatives also pervade orthodoxy. In fact, orthodoxy includes a profound understanding of duties, rituals, and habituated virtues. The teachings of the church and orthodoxy are aimed at guiding humans towards heaven.
What to make of the convergence between Muller’s “conservatism” and Chesterton’s “orthodoxy”? Definitionally, they are obviously not the same, but it appears that orthodoxy is the logical completion of conservatism. For Chesterton, conservatism means conserving what is true, good, and beautiful; and orthodoxy is the acknowledgement that all those things come from God. Though Chesterton has a high view of conservatism, it seems that conservatism is orthodoxy with an essential component missing, or rather, orthodoxy is the full manifestation of conservatism. Of course, agnostic, atheist, and non-Christian conservatives exist, especially in a pluralistic society like the United States. Therefore, conservatism is often a kind of compromise that allows the orthodox to associate with likeminded people without agreeing on the ultimate end.