G.K. Chesterton, who was far more likely to describe himself as a liberal than a conservative, has grown more and more important to conservative thinkers over the decades. And yet many of his writings show a commitment to rationalism, radicalism and abstract theory that seem counter to the spirit of conservatism. Take these famous lines from Saint Thomas Aquinas:
The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense. Yet it wants a word of explanation, because we have so long taken such matters in a very uncommon sense. For good or evil, Europe since the Reformation, and most especially England since the Reformation, has been in a peculiar sense the home of paradox. I mean in the very peculiar sense that paradox was at home, and that men were at home with it. The most familiar example is the English boasting that they are practical because they are not logical. To an ancient Greek or a Chinaman this would seem exactly like saying that London clerks excel in adding up their ledgers, because they are not accurate in their arithmetic. But the point is not that it is a paradox; it is that paradoxy has become orthodoxy; that men repose in a paradox as placidly as in a platitude. It is not that the practical man stands on his head, which may sometimes be a stimulating if startling gymnastic; it is that he rests on his head; and even sleeps on his head. This is an important point, because the use of paradox is to awaken the mind. Take a good paradox, like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities." It is amusing and therefore arresting; it has a fine air of defiance; it contains a real if romantic truth. It is all part of the fun that it is stated almost in the form of a contradiction in terms. But most people would agree that there would be considerable danger in basing the whole social system on the notion that necessaries are not necessary; as some have based the whole British Constitution on the notion that nonsense will always work out as common sense. Yet even here, it might be said that the invidious example has spread, and that the modern industrial system does really say, 'Give us luxuries like coal-tar soap, and we will dispense with necessities like corn".
Or take this quotation from What's Wrong with the World:
This definite ideal is a far more urgent and practical matter in our existing English trouble than any immediate plans or proposals. For the present chaos is due to a sort of general oblivion of all that men were originally aiming at. No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency, it also prevents any really practical compromise. [...] If our statesmen were visionaries something practical might be done. If we ask for something in the abstract we might get something in the concrete. As it is, it is not only impossible to get what one wants, but it is impossible to get any part of it, because nobody can mark it out plainly like a map. That clear and even hard quality that there was in the old bargaining has wholly vanished. We forget that the word "compromise" contains, among other things, the rigid and ringing word "promise." Moderation is not vague; it is as definite as perfection. The middle point is as fixed as the extreme point.
Compare this with the words of Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism:
But it must be remembered that argument is not the favourite pursuit of conservatives. Like all political beings, conservatives are for certain things: they are for them, not because they have arguments in their favour, but because they know them, live with them, and find their identity threatened (often they know not how) by the attempt to interfere with their operation. Their characteristic and most dangerous opponent is not the radical, who stands squarely against them, armed with myths and prejudices that match their own, but rather the reformer, who, acting always in a spirit of improvement, finds reason to change whatever he cannot find better reason to retain. It is from this spirit of improvement, the legacy of Victorian liberalism and social Darwinism, that modern socialists and modern liberals continue to derive their moral inspiration.
Personally, I incline towards Scruton here, and I have to admit that What's Wrong with the World is one of my least favourite of Chesterton's books. The whole work seems pregnant with the radicalism and abstract theorising that wreaked so much havoc on Europe in the twentieth century, and fuels the ongoing (and destructive) cultural revolution of our own time.
Chesterton brilliantly insisted that the human mind must choose between two things: a dogma and a prejudice. Perhaps we should add that we must choose between them in each instance. Dogma is indispensable; and the reactionary and partisan who forgets dogma in the heat of a controversy, such as those who support torture against terrorists or allow the free market to trample on the dignity of the individual, have surely lost their way.
But man cannot live on dogma alone. There are a thousand thousand decisions and instances where dogma does not dictate; and surely conservatives like Scruton are correct, and vindicated by experience, in insisting that (in those instances) tradition is usually a better guide than reason, that the actual and time-honoured should trump the abstract and utopian. And this is not only for the practical reason that our best-laid plans so often turn out to be disastrous, but also for the sake of tradition itself; to preserve the warp and weft of a way of life. The million cobwebs of customs that we sweep away when we "mark out plainly like a map" the society we desire, are often irreplaceable. "An extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis aller", often turns out to embody the best of all worlds; as Burke put it, the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.