‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

07 April 2011

‘Mediaeval Toryism’: Anglo-Canadian Conservatism and Its Mediaeval Sensibilities

A long time ago, when I entertained thoughts of pursuing a doctoral programme in political philosophy, my aim was to examine the roots of a species of British Toryism that were exemplified by Benjamin Disraeli and his Young England colleagues, and that were echoed, to a significant degree, by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

Many of the tenets of this Toryism — known in some quarters, with more or less accuracy, as ‘One Nation Toryism’ or ‘wet’ Toryism or ‘progressive conservatism’ — owe their origins to a mediaeval sensibility of organic obligation and reciprocal responsibilities that grew up in the fertile soil of feudal society. To acknowledge this debt to the Middle Ages, I termed my particular approach ‘Mediaeval Toryism’.

One correspondent to whom I broached the viability of my thesis pointed out the anachronistic nature of my appellation: there being no ‘Tories’ cognisant of that description in that period. Upon reflexion, revisions were made and, given the particular ‘Victorian’ nature of the time frame I wished to explore, a working dichotomy was established between ‘Disraelian Toryism’ and ‘Peelite Conservatism’, the former taking its exemplars from the ‘communal’ Middle Ages, the latter from the ‘individualistic’ Enlightenment period. Over time, as my reading became more comprehensive and analytical, the Victorian backdrop became less prominent and a new nomenclature reflected that shift in emphasis: ‘Organic Toryism’.

My focus was on the tried-and-true, and revolved around the familiar themes of the individual, civil society, and the State — each with the aim of realising the Common Good. For me, the State was a far more amenable (and less odious) character in the triad. Catholic Social Teaching was an additional avenue to discover feudal impulses (along with their religious and ethical underpinning) in modern political thought and action.

In the new year I re-read Joseph Rickaby’s slim volume on mediaeval thought, Scholasticism, and my desire to limn conservatism’s antecedents was rekindled. I resolved to see if I could bring a fresh perspective to the reigning orthodoxy, or at least challenge the prevailing zeitgeist.

In many ways the political beliefs of Disraeli and Macdonald still influence my approach, but mediaeval philosophy comes more to the fore, whether in the form of individuation, or personalism, or natural law. Likewise, political economy has assumed a larger role in my thinking — thanks to the Austrian School of Economics — with what is called the market economy or ‘the free economy’ being no longer restricted to an Enlightenment foundation. Instead, many of the themes often credited to the study of economics originating with Adam Smith can trace their provenance at least to the Late Middle Ages (if not before), attaining their apogee in the scholastic economic treatises of the School of Salamanca.

The original Disraeli and Macdonald template also adheres with respect to politics proper, observable in the development of constitutionalism (as understood, for instance, in the CST principles of ‘subsidiarity’ and ‘solidarity’). The British North America Act, 1867 is a fine example of Anglo-Canadian conservatism at work. In contrast, the Enlightenment liberal (or libertarian) values which serve so well as opposites to this mediaeval mindset find their best expression in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, so an element of American political theory will also have a role to play.

While the State no longer assumes as prominent a part in my thesis — due to the influence of public choice economics or the theory of ‘government failure’ — it has come to resemble not the laisser-faire State of classical liberalism but what I consider the pis-aller State: intervening in affairs of personal independence only as a ‘last resort’.

Thus outlined, this is quite an all-encompassing topic, too broad to do it justice. As such, much narrowing of the field is necessary. My hope is to focus on specific questions and to write about them for The Organic Tory and, with luck, for publication in journals and periodicals, seeing what ideas will develop both during the writing process and in relation to public reaction.

Much of the research will overlap with this blog’s regular themes of organic Toryism, although it will have the dimension of a concerted effort to link aspects of Anglo-Canadian conservatism to a patrimony located in the Middle Ages. And so, to distinguish this added feature — with apologies to scholarly pendants! — essays in this bent will be labelled ‘Mediaeval Toryism’.


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1 comment:

Graham Sproule said...

Very interesting! I too think that the medieval influence on toryism is often lost as many assume the classical liberalism of embraced by many 'tories' originated in the Englightenment forgetting schools like Salamanca. I look forward to reading excerpts here from any piece you write on your studies of 'Medieval Toryism'.