Prudence and the Future of Conservatism

Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author, most recently, of A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). E-mail: acraiutu@indiana.edu


The public sphere is awash today with articles and books proclaiming the crisis of liberal democracy. Some lament the twilight of democracy, others comment on the failure of liberalism as a political and cultural project. Almost all of them have something to say about the slow erosion of democratic norms and warn against the rise of new forms of authoritarianism around the globe. Whether or not one agrees with their diagnoses, it is virtually impossible to ignore that liberal democracy is in retreat across the world. The optimism we all felt when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 seems a thing of the distant past.

According to a 2019 Freedom House report, the main agents of democratic decline (or retreat) are “antiliberal populist movements of the far right” which “damage democracies internally through their dismissive attitude toward core civil and political rights,” and thereby weaken the cause of democracy around the world. Populism, a notoriously complex concept, is commonly associated with the hard right but can also be found on the left. Either way, there are currently many populist movements around the world that point to a new “revolt of the masses.”

Where this revolt might take us is anyone’s guess. Yet history can teach us a few important lessons in this regard. As Edmund Fawcett points out in his recently published Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2020), the historical record shows that when conservatives support liberal democracy, its institutions tend to function well, and social peace prevails. When they withdraw their support, democracy is weakened and collapses. “To survive, let alone flourish,” Fawcett writes, “liberal democracy needs the right’s support.”

This is even more important today when the political scene in the U.S. and around the world is dominated by the right. Which way will conservatism go in the near future? Will it continue to support liberal democratic norms and institutions, or will it try to replace them with something new, in the populist-authoritarian mold? Will conservativism honor and rely on one of its cardinal virtues, prudence, or will it abandon it altogether in favor of arguably manlier virtues?

These are no longer purely academic questions in the aftermath of the tragic events of January 6, 2021, when a mob incited by the 45th U.S. President invaded the Capitol and defiled the most sacred place of American democracy. There were many victims that fell prey to the new barbarians’ invasion in Washington on that day, and one of them was prudence. When Donald Trump told his supporters “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” he meant, of course, that the true patriots in their attempt to “stop the steal” should dismiss prudence for boldness.  Being “strong” and determined in this sense is the very opposite of the prudence Burke once praised as the standard and regulator of all other virtues.

Prudence was also ignored when the Donald Trump cynically told his Vice-President, who was reluctant to ignore the Constitution, “You can be a patriot or a pussy.” The choice could not have been clearer. If you want to be a loser, you may embrace prudence. But if you want to win, you must be unwavering, and even reckless, in the pursuit of your goals.

Such cynicism should not have come as a surprise to any observer of contemporary American politics. Prudence and civility have been two of the many victims of the warfare type of politics that has dominated our political arena in the last decade. In a world ruled by ruthless litmus and purity tests meant to screen out the impure ones, the virtue that Burke thought to be “the god of this lower world” has virtually no place. Can prudence then still be a lodestar for conservatism today? And how can a conservatism, all too ready to discard prudence, still find enough resources to support liberal democracy?

The task of rethinking and understanding conservatism is therefore urgent in our age of extremes. But this is arguably easier said than done. For conservatism, as Roger Scruton once wrote, “is characteristically inarticulate, unwilling to translate itself into formulae or maxims, loath to state its purpose or declare its view.” It would, indeed, be inaccurate to reduce it to the desire to conserve, as it would be wrong to view all conservatives as belonging to the party of reaction. The desire to conserve is not incompatible with reform and change if the latter does not imply a total departure from tradition.

Unlike liberalism, Fawcett argues, conservatism lacks a clear canon and has never had a Declaration of Independence or Decalogue. Conservatism comes in different shapes and colors and is a surprisingly diverse tradition that includes friends and critics of modernity alike. He notes that “the conservative story involves moderates and radicals, centrists and extremists, the economically minded and the ethically minded, excluders and includers, dividers and uniters.” Conservative appeals to tradition and custom may take both temperate and radical forms, depending on circumstances and on how various aims are held and acted on. Some conservative agendas allow for compromise and moderation while others incline to zealotry and immoderation. To make things even more complicated, some thinkers such as Hume, Burke, Hayek, or Oakeshott, are sometimes seen as belonging to the liberal canon, but they are also often included in the conservative camp.

Fawcett recommends that we interpret conservatism as a practice of politics that involves three related things: a complex history, various participants in the practice, and a specific outlook that guides the conservative practice. Conservatism thus appears as much more than a mere positional ideology that can be dismissed as a party of reaction. Conservatives praise prudence and acknowledge human imperfection, the limits of individual reason, and the importance of customs and habits. They defend the centrality of tradition and custom and emphasize the organic character of society. Conservatives criticize the use of abstractions in politics and express skepticism toward large-scale attempts at social engineering. While some versions of conservatism insist that there is a necessary link between conservatism and religious beliefs, others are more skeptical on this point.

It was Burke who enshrined prudence into the Pantheon of conservatism. He believed that in most political questions, there is always a middle that must be carefully sought and prudently followed. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve were his standard of a stateman.  Prudence is needed to apply constitutional principles, to avoid both simplicity and over-sophistication, and to evaluate consequences. “A stateman,” Burke wrote, “never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment, he may ruin his country forever.”

Taking inspiration from Burke, in The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk turned prudence into one of the six pillars of conservative thought. He agreed with Burke that prudence is the real test of a statesman who seeks to advance society’s renewal. If conservatism offers a “driver’s manual of prudent maxims about governing well,” conservatives must still apply judgment to decide when to rely on custom, what kind of tradition they want to preserve or repair, and so on. The “rules-of-prudence approach” implies judgment, and political judgment is a notoriously complex concept, as Ferenc Hörcher argues in A Political Philosophy of Conservatism: Prudence, Moderation, and Tradition (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).

A learned and spirited defense of prudence that draws on an eclectic array of sources from history, philosophy, and political theory, his book offers a rich reconsideration of an ancient virtue that should remain central to any form of conservatism.

I should like to focus here on three conclusions of Hörcher’s book that may be relevant to our present concerns about the future of conservatism and liberal democracy in our post-truth world. The first one is that prudence, much like moderation, is a difficult virtue for courageous minds indispensable to the smooth functioning of our open society. The uniqueness of prudence derives from the fact that it is neither a science nor an art. It is a practical disposition that allows us to calculate risks and probabilities and figure out which battles to fight and which ones to avoid. Prudence teaches us what are the lesser evils and how to live with them both in private and in public. As Hörcher argues, maturity and attention to reality are necessary conditions for acquiring the virtue of prudence, and this explains why timing (kairos) remains a key to success in politics. Prudent political actors deal with contingent and particular things and thus seek to make the right choices at the right moment, while lacking perfect knowledge and certainty. As such, prudence depends on experience and memory; it requires intuition and foresight but also a degree of humility and moderation.

A second important conclusion is that we must distinguish between true prudence, that seeks the honorable more than the useful, and mere cleverness or astuteness, that takes account only of short-term interests and ambitions. Prudence operates like a form of self-restraint that allows us to keep our excesses under control. On this view, virtue and character are central to prudence: one cannot be virtuous without being prudent, nor prudent without being virtuous. Yet, it is not enough to be virtuous by adhering to moral rules and general principles. We also need judgment to find our compass, leaving ample room for discretion and foresight. Prudence itself involves (at least) three phases—deliberation, judgment, and decision—for which there is no abstract algorithm. Hörcher is right to point out that prudence is always accompanied by other concepts and virtues such as propriety, due measure, fitness, decorum, proportion, and wise moderation. This calls for a specific kind of knowledge, one that combines both tacit and practical knowledge.

Finally, A Political Philosophy of Conservatism invites us to reflect on the close relationship between balance, civility, trimming, moderation, and compromise. They all represent essential prerequisites of civilized life, without which no free society can flourish. The virtues of prudence and moderation offer resources for managing social and political conflicts by seeking a modus vivendi between different passions and interests. Manners and culture play a key role in this regard, along with (civic) education. Without a wisely designed education policy, valuable customs and traditions and past experiences cannot be transferred to future generations.

For an American reader, Hörcher’s sophisticated defense of prudence and moderation seeking to revive reflection on the future of conservatism may sound like a lofty agenda, far from the messy reality on the ground. In the U.S., the Republican Party that claims to represent the principles of conservatism has all but abandoned prudence lately. With few notable exceptions, it has uncritically embraced a narcissistic demagogue who has consistently displayed little or no respect for truth and facts and encouraged an obscene cult of personality. Trump’s repeated false claims and constant attacks on the media and his political opponents have done serious damage to the reputation of a venerable party. His legacy of reckless behavior risks jeopardizing an entire tradition of thought that once embraced a prudent approach to government. It would indeed be hard to imagine something more imprudent (and undemocratic) than a public insurrection instigated by the U.S. President to prevent the certification of the results of free and fair elections by the democratically elected representatives.

A reckoning with what made possible the tragic events of January 6 is now underway. If it remains in the shadow of Donald Trump, the future of American conservatism will be shaky and uncertain. As long as most of the Republicans agree with Marjorie Taylor Greene’s statement that “The Party is his,” there is little hope for a return to sane conservative principles. This should concern all of us, liberals and conservatives alike. Truth in politics is most often, in the words of J.S. Mill, “a question of reconciling and combining of opposites.” Hence, a healthy political life needs both “a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform.”

For all the daunting challenges that lie ahead, it would be wrong to think of conservatism as incapable of renewal. But conservatives will have to be clear in their minds as to what are the jewels in the crown of virtues that constitute the conservative tradition. Prudence occupies a central place in this regard. Conservatives should not accept any caricature of conservative principles that distorts their nature and minimizes their contribution to the maintenance of our civilization.

We can only empathize with a wise economist, Wilhelm Röpke, who made the following remark about his fellow German intellectuals in Weimar Germany. “Rarely in history has a group of people been so busy helping to saw off the branch on which they sit,” he said in a lecture given in early February 1933, barely a week after Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor. Liberal democracy, Röpke reminded his audience, is far from perfect but it created the free and open society that many tend to take for granted. It brought with it a level of freedom and prosperity unparalleled in human history. It should not be replaced with an authoritarian system that promises a quick and illusory fix to the country’s complex problems.

To reject the values and principles of liberal democracy, especially in our present hour of crisis, as some conservatives may be tempted to do, would amount to sawing off the very branch upon which we all sit. Any responsible party of order or stability will have to embrace again the cardinal virtues of prudence and moderation that have been abandoned by conservatives in search of quick success and flashy headlines. The very future of our representative institutions and democratic way of life depends on that.

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