Front Page Titles (by Subject) INTELLECTUAL CONSERVATISM. ( From The Saturday Review, 26 th April, 1856.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
Return to Title Page for The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
INTELLECTUAL CONSERVATISM. ( From “ The Saturday Review, ” 26 th April, 1856.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
At first sight it does not seem difficult to be a Conservative. The status quo is a plain creed—you have to discover nothing, and to invent nothing. Very heavy men have been able to say, Nolumus leges Angliæ mutari. Yet when the matter is more carefully looked at, we may see reason to change our opinion. Father Newman used to teach at Oxford that true opinions might become false because of the manner of holding them. He viewed—or seemed to view—truth as a succession of perpetual oscillations, like the negative and positive signs of an alternate series, in which you were constantly more or less denying or affirming the same proposition; and he deemed it certain that a person who unthinkingly rested at the beginning of the series, although he affirmed the truth, might really be farther from it than the thoughtful inquirer, some steps on, who actually denied it. The realisation—such was the creed in those days—which you gained in the process of inquiry, and which was on the point of bringing you to more effectual belief, was more than a compensation for the error of the momentary denial. And, whatever may be the inference from these severe metaphysics as to the mind of the inquirer himself, there is no doubt that, as to those around him, and among whom he desires to diffuse his belief, his power of so doing is directly proportioned to his realisation of what he holds, to his insight into its features and principles—to his mastery of it. The very plainness of the Conservative creed is here a difficulty. People in the country fancy they understand it. A rural dinner-party is rarely remarkable for adventurous conversation, but a good opinion-extractor will not have the least difficulty in eliciting from the average inhabitant—squire or rector—an admission that he knows why what is, ought to be; and if you try to show an oddness in anything, the sentiment of society will be against you.
If we look at the political party, the traces of the fact are evident. We do not speak of the leaders. The final cause of Mr. Disraeli is the “great Asian mystery” that is not yet revealed—his partiality for the Caucasian and ancient races has drawn him back to “the times before morality”. When a man is infinitely above having an opinion, it would be illogical to inquire how he holds that opinion. But take the average follower of this great man—any member of the plain and simple party which resisted Catholic Emancipation, which clove to Protection, which hates Maynooth, which could not understand Sir Robert Peel—of how few can even the most partial friend maintain that they really know what they are holding—that they have sounded the complicated depths of English society—that they understand the traditional maxims which they repeat—that they appreciate and comprehend the nice adjustment of the institutions which they would risk their lives to uphold. Their plain intellect seems unequal, their simple temperament seems opposed, to so elaborate an investigation. Does not the very fact of their being led by Mr. Disraeli at once evince that they do not themselves possess that full mastery of principles which is necessary for their argumentative exposition—that they scarcely appreciate the moral thoughtfulness which accompanies careful and rational conviction?
Looking back to the past fortunes and history of this great party, we observe two great sentiments or feelings which have in great part—sometimes worthily, and sometimes unworthily—supplied the place of intellectual conviction. The first is the old cavalier feeling of loyalty—the belief that all existence is a regium donum—that the very fact of doubt or inquiry is a misdeed—that the first duty of life is to accept that which is given, because of the king from whom it comes. Traces, few and faint, of this feeling may still be discerned among us, especially among those to whom a happy organisation gives a daily enjoyment. In old customs and ancient associations it would not be difficult to show the vestiges of this curious and often noble feeling. It can, however, at least in that form, be only looked on as a great thing of the past. When once the change in politics is made from the one heaven-appointed monarch to a divided, shifting, constitutional system, the romance of royalty passes away—we are governed by a cabinet, and who ever found sentiment for a managing Committee?
Another feeling of a different kind is that which animates what they call on the Continent the Party of Order. This is nothing more or less than fear. It finds expression in excellent sentences as to the safety of society, the protection of the “results of ages”; but when you analyse it, it simply comes to this,—that those who feel it dread that their shop, their house, their life—not so much their physical life as their whole mode and sources of existence—will be destroyed and cast away. The English Tory party, at the end of the last century, shared largely in this sentiment. The French Revolution terrified mankind all through the period which Arnold called “the misused trial-time of modern Europe”. The old cavalier feeling had been gradually melting down into a simple acquiescence in a comfortable existence. The whole life of the higher classes—as it remains to us in books, so agreeable that we can hardly blame what they describe—was a succession of careless enjoyments. They accepted that which was given them—and well they might accept it; for on few generations have the comforts of intellectual cultivation been bestowed in so large measure, and so unchecked by the cares and evils which, in most days, as in ours, that cultivation at once reveals. It is not necessary to say how the danger was speedily revealed. The “French volcano,” as Sir Archibald Alison always terms it, soon burst, and brought on, among other effects, Lord Eldon—the man who objected to volcanoes. He was the chief of the party of order at that time. The mass of the people lived in fear that any alteration—anything touching the crust of outward existence—might bring on an eruption. Lord Eldon told them it would bring on an eruption, but if they would keep him Chancellor there should be no eruption. He held up the Court of Chancery to mankind, and said, “While that moves slowly you are safe—accelerate it and you are lost”. No generation more closely observed the signs which were given them. The history of England for thirty years is the history of a craven maintenance of misunderstood institution. The consequence—the nearly fatal consequence—of this has been admitted by those most likely to form a contrary judgment. “A few more drops,” said the Quarterly Review, “of Eldonine, and we should have had the People’s Charter.” Nothing, indeed, could have been more likely to foster an all-destroying Radicalism than the consecutive omnipotence of the two most contemptible conservatisms—first, of the careless enjoyment which does not regard the evil of others—next, of a shrinking terror when the possible personal consequences of that evil are suddenly comprehended.
It would be very unjust to cast on any portion of the Conservatives of the present day any great share in either of these reproaches. A spirit of earnestness has gone out into society, which forbids the diffusion of reckless and selfish enjoyment. The high-minded pluck of the English gentleman detests the Conservatism of fear. But it yet can hardly be said that we possess a Conservatism of reflection—at least we do not possess it in the degree which we should. How few, even of those who are most anxious to claim the title, have a real mastery of the reasons, a real familiarity with the moral grounds—to say nothing of the political consequences—of the existing state of things! How few of the vaunted arguments which are paraded before minds already convinced would do in the face of an enemy—in the face of those who doubt! How little toleration is there for the refinements of necessary reasoning—for the complexities of political investigation! How strong a tendency to exact a narrow consistency of result, in place of a statesmanlike consideration of problems—a wise and patent weighing of facts. Nor is this a mere party misfortune. It is not because we deem our institutions perfect that we regret the defects of the Conservative party—our grounds are national. To a great extent, every Liberal is now a Conservative. That moral and intellectual state—that predominance of the politically intelligent—that gradual training of the politically unintelligent—that unity of order and freedom which it is the aim of Liberalism to produce, already exists. Yet our institutions are daily assailed by the “uneasy classes”—by the lovers of correct bureaucracy, all-involving democracy, and quickly striking despotism. In the face of questioning classes, every unthinking Conservative endangers what he defends—he is a vexation to the Liberal, and a misfortune to his country.