Three questions from “I don’t know”: Conversation with John Riley and Gary Schoepfel

Today Classical Pursuits talks with friends of many years John Riley and Gary Schoepfel, who are leading our upcoming seminar Understanding Conservatism: The Search for Shared Beliefs. All affiliations welcome! Our agenda is simple: working together toward true understanding. In John and Gary’s view, this will make us more patient, compassionate stewards of our culture and democracy regardless of our political persuasion. Reserve your spot and sign up here.

Melanie Blake: The seminar begins with the work of David Hume (1711–1776), but I know you both have many years of experience reading ancient Greek texts on political philosophy. Do you think “[conservatism] is an ancient attitude, or one that developed only in response to Enlightenment rationality and its political products, liberalism and socialism?”

John Riley: If you look at the Republic, it is pretty hard to tease out clearly conservative principles. Plato’s ideas about authority and the characteristics of a well-run state are subtle and complex enough that anyone left or right can find support for their political inclinations. When you examine a work like Crito, you will see Socrates possesses the temperament of a conservative, willing to accept censure and even death rather than foment insurrection. In Crito and many other texts, Plato through Socrates does the “conservative work” of critiquing the current social order, setting an example for the anti-Enlightenment thinkers to follow. Beyond this, however, I do not see ancient Greek political philosophy as falling in one ideological camp or another.

MB: You note that throughout history “conservatives have condemned what they earlier praised, or lauded what they earlier loathed.” Do you see these shifts as particular to conservatism? Why would this be?

JR: One does not have to look further than Thomas Jefferson to discover that—when it comes to being philosophically inconsistent—both sides are paragons of consistency! Still, I would answer this question “yes.” Conservatism has made many more profound shifts in its thinking over the centuries than either liberalism or socialism. However, conservatives do not need to be embarrassed by this. One reason for their inconsistency lies in what they see as their central purpose. [National Review founder William F.] Buckley said the conservative “…stands athwart history yelling ‘stop’ at a time when no one else is inclined to do so…” Times change dramatically, so when the conservative calls for us to wait, or go slower, or stop, or be careful, he will be doing it based on an entirely different set of circumstances.

MB: Gary, I think it would be fair to say that you don’t adhere to conservatism as a political or ideological philosophy, and are comfortable with your position. What do you hope to gain from close reading and discussion of the seminar texts?

GS: Oh, my goodness, no! I’m not at all comfortable with my position. Over the last several years, I’ve not attended a dinner party where the conversation didn’t, at some point, turn to politics. Listening carefully, it’s soon apparent that most folks are political experts. And an expert, in my view, is someone who is just THREE questions away from “I don’t know.” And I include myself here. That is precisely what stirs my interest in this seminar.

Most political thought is built on some fundamental belief about human nature. I’m a card-carrying humanist. And so my hope is to spend a bit of quality time in discussion with a group of thoughtful folks who want to understand — understand, not just know about — the foundational ideas and beliefs about conservative thought. This can’t but help me better understand more about myself and our perplexing species.

MB: John, you encourage potential participants “keep in mind that so often the opposite of conservative is not liberal … but radical.” Would you say a bit more about what you mean?

JR: I do not see liberal as the polar opposite of conservative since there is much the two schools of thought have in common. It’s as if the two sides are afraid to admit they believe in many of the same things (just not always at the same time and perhaps not for the same reasons). Conservatives and liberals both should be suspicious of unchecked, concentrated power, value individual liberty and freedom of choice, respect the rule of law, etc. “True” conservatives have often been extremely sensitive to the radicalization of societies, whether it is the French Reign of Terror or the rise of Fascism. Opposition to radicalism goes much deeper than policy differences conservatives may have with liberals…or at least, it did at one time.

MB: As I prepared the questions, I was surprised by the consistent historical conflict between freedom and conservatism. Scruton writes that for conservatives, “the value of individual liberty is not absolute, but stands subject to…the authority of established government.” In contemporary American society, an absolutist sense of individual freedom seems to be a major value of conservative thought. Is this a change in conservatism, shifting ideas about what freedom is, or maybe a bit of both?

JR: Hard to name a bigger change in conservatism than the one you describe here. Seventy-five years ago the idea that we could be patriotic without making any personal sacrifice to our country would have been a foreign concept to a traditionalist. But the continued rise of laissez-faire economics, the decline of geopolitical adversaries and the expansion of civil liberties mean that people have been granted a great amount of discretion over their own lives. The idea of maximizing individual freedom and prosperity has always been part of the American Dream and is comfortably situated within conservative thought, but pursuing it to the exclusion of any meaningful allegiance to established government is a significant transformation.

Thank you, Gary and John. We are very much looking forward to what promises to be a spirited discussion. The seminar is open for registration; there is still ample time to sign up. I can say from experience that a seminar with John and Gary is always a superlative thing.

Citations are from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Image credit: Kevin Smith on Flickr.

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