Why are Conservatives Called Conservative?

A good friend recently asked me to address the question, “Why do conservatives call themselves conservative”. Below is a quick explainer of the title:

The origin of the word reflects that conservatives value the culture, knowledge and wisdom handed down to us from the past. If each generation had to reinvent all knowledge and culture, then our material and spiritual flourishing would be devastated. We all stand on the shoulders of Giants, whether we recognize it or not.

It is essential to preserve what has been handed down to us. This is one of the fundamental conservative insights. And it is rooted in the knowledge that our inheritance of knowledge, wisdom and culture will slowly drip away if it is neglected. It takes effort and attention to retain. No human is born with the accumulated knowledge of their ancestors. And without work, it disappears.

We must work to study the inheritance we receive from the past in order to understand it, respect it, preserve it and then finally to teach it. Without this it will slowly be lost. It doesn’t take much reading of old books or old authors to understand how much has already been lost through inattention to past wisdom leading to disrespect for it and then finally to a failure to teach it. C. S. Lewis observed that a greater percentage of Westerners had lost the ability to read the classical languages during his lifetime than during the fall of classical civilization itself. Conservatism takes its name from this understanding that nearly all we have and love is a gift handed down generationally, and that we must work to understand it in order to respect it, respect it in order to preserve it, and preserve it in order to teach it.

Intentional conservation of these gifts is critical to their survival, and to ours. Those fields where we have seen the most rapid advancement – the natural sciences, are precisely those where the accumulated knowledge from the past is valued and quickly passed on through focused, rigorous study so that it can be effectively built upon rather than constantly reinventing the wheel. Progressives respect a sliver of this idea of cherishing our inheritance from the past in their regard for the principle of Conservationism – the desire to preserve the integrity of nature that has been handed down to us. But they fail to see that conservationism is not enough. For all good things need the same care and attention to preserve.

Incidentally, this is why conservationism has always been a conservative value, stretching from Edmund Burke to Wendell Berry. Only modern republicanism disrespects conservation. But modern republicanism isn’t conservative. It is a form of nationalist, populist, pro-business progressivism. Progress is the contemporary myth and nearly all men today worship it. The difference between men is only what “tribe” they come from and therefore what they wish to progress toward. Contentment and faithfulness to a calling are anathema to nearly all. So nearly all are progressives.