21 September 2023
By dr Adi Schlebusch
One of the central distinctions between Conservatives and Liberals identified by conservative scholars such as the Dutch philosopher Bart-Jan Spruyt and the American philosopher John Kekes is the fact that Liberals view evil as effectively resulting from inadequate socio-political arrangements, whereas the idea of sin or human imperfection lies at the heart of how Conservatives interact with the world around them.1 As Roger Scruton also rightly points out, rationalism’s optimistic view of human nature effectuates not only the atomization of the individual, but also denies the very reality of social knowledge—the kind of knowledge embodied in common law, manners, and custom, perpetuated because of the value they have for a particular people in a particular place.2 Doing away with these conveyors of social knowledge and relations atomizes the individual by removing the intermediaries between himself and the state, and effectively creates a fertile soil for the rise of absolutism.3
Yet, essential to the core of conservatism is what Rushdoony so aptly articulates as the proper relationship between the One and the Many, or the Universal and the Particular. In his famous work, A Case for Conservatism, John Kekes points out that in contrast to both universalists and particularists, conservatives believe that
there is a universal and objective standard that can be appealed to when evaluating all values ... but there [are also] secondary values—the particular traditional forms in which primary values are interpreted in some context ... particular societies also go beyond general moral requirements by developing and maintaining a framework of traditions that safeguards both the primary and secondary values recognized in that context.4
A conservative framework therefore necessitates a negative concept of law such as found in the Decalogue. As Rushdoony explains:
[A] negative concept of law ensures liberty: except for in the prohibited areas, all of man’s life is beyond the law, and the law is of necessity indifferent to it. If the commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal,” it means that the law can only govern theft: it cannot govern or control honestly acquired property. When the law prohibits blasphemy and false witness, it guarantees that all other forms of speech have their liberty. The negativity of the law is the preservation of the positive life and freedom of man.5
This particularist notion which conservative philosophers call “going beyond general moral requirements” and theonomist philosophers refer to as a “life beyond the law” finds its roots in the medieval political philosophy of Manegold of Lautenbach (1030—1103). In his famous tract Ad Geberhardum Liber published in 1085 as a response to the excommunication of the German emperor Henry IV by Pope Gregory VII, he considers the issue of kingship, tyranny, and resistance under the heading Quod rex non sit nomen nature, sed vocabulum officii. Here Manegold maintains that although honor is certainly due to the office of king, kingship, like ecclesiastical powers is only the name of an office. When the person appointed to a specific office is put out of office, he is no longer what he was, and the honor due to the office is not to be paid to him. Whoever pays him the reverence due to his lost office is actually a transgressor rather than the keeper of the laws; furthermore if he, while in office commands that which is against the will of God, he is by no means to be obeyed, but rather resisted. The same apostle that bade all to obey the authorities, chose rather to die than yield to Nero, thus teaching us by his example that when we cannot obey both God and the secular power when they are at odds: we should obey God rather than men.
Manegold’s emphasis on the powers of rulers as being attached to their respective political offices and not to their persons, resounded through the history of political thought. Some of his ideas surfaced in the Lutheran struggle against tyranny. The German Reformer Justus Menius (1499—1558) distinguished between lawful self-defense and the legitimate exercise of political power by political rulers. His views together with the those of Manegold and other Medieval authors shaped the contents of the Magdeburg Confession (1550). By the time the Confession was drafted, Nicolaus von Amsdorff and other Lutheran pastors had linked the duty to resist tyrannical rulers to the idea of office – thereby drafting the outlines of a doctrine that served as a platform for resisting rulers exceeding the limits of their political authority.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, is Manegold’s emphasis on the authority of every sphere of society as being intrinsically connected to a particular office, which heavily influenced not only the Reformation, but gave rise to the idea of the Constitutional Republic, in which every sphere of society (state, church, family, club, neighborhood, city, etc.) is recognized as existing not in a hierarchical, but horizontal relationship to one another and with each having its own domain of liberty and its own offices. This of course means that the state is heavily restricted in terms of its legal domain, which differs radically from the Aristotelian notion of the state as an ethical institution aimed at the cultivation of virtue. This rejection of the Aristotelian vision of course logically flows from texts such as Hebrews 11:6, to which the Westminster Confession also appeals when it teaches in its 26th chapter that "works done by unregenerate men, for the matter of them they may be things which God commands ... cannot please God."
Thus, in terms of historical Protestant civil ethics, the state's role is limited to the legal protection of the rights of the other social spheres. It is of course within this rich historical and political-philosophical context, that Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law as a work of civil ethics, as well as Kekes monumental work in defense of conservatism needs to be understood. Over against the tyrannical universalist tendencies of Marxism and the anarchist individualist tendencies of Liberalism, paleoconservatives and theonomists maintain a balance between the two by recognizing the many cultural, genetic, linguistic differences as rooted in the one divinely ordained social order and as reflecting the will the Eternal One and Many: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Three Persons in one Godhead. And ultimately therefore, Rushdoony notes, “the nature of all earthly relationships is derived from the triune God.”6
But what does this principle of the One-and-the-Many or Unity-in-Diversity imply in practice? As the British-American design theorist Christopher Alexander (1936—2022) explains:
[U]nless the present-day great nations have their power greatly decentralized, the beautiful and differentiated languages, cultures, customs, and ways of life of the earth’s people, vital to the health of the planet, will vanish. In short, we believe that independent regions are the natural receptacles for language, culture, customs, economy, and laws and that each region should be separate and independent enough to maintain the strength and vigor of each culture.7
Indeed, the cultural strength and vigor particular to every people-group ought to be cherished, cultivated and preserved as nothing less than benefactions of the almighty Creator and Father of lights, the sole Source of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).
1. Spruyt, B.J. 2003. Tot lof van het conservatisme. Amsterdam: Balans, p. 33; Kekes, J. 1998. A Case for Conservatism. London: Cornell University Press, p. 82.
2. Scruton, R. 2002. The Meaning of Conservatism. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, p. 31-32.
3. Baudet, T. and Visser, M. 2012. “Introduction,” in Revolutionair verval en conservatieve vooruitgang in die achttiende en negentiende eeuw. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, p. 8.
4. Kekes, Conservatism, p. 34-35, 59.
5. Rushdoony, R.J. The Institutes of Biblical Law. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, p. 101-102.
6. Ibid., p. 340.
7. Alexander, C. 1977. “Independent Regions,” in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 13.