The Conservative Soul

David Brooks reviews Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul.

Sullivan’s antidote to fundamentalism is the conservatism of doubt. “The defining characteristic of the conservative is that he knows what he doesn’t know,” Sullivan writes. “As humans we can merely sense the existence of a higher truth, a greater coherence than ourselves, but we cannot see it face to face,” he argues. So politics should be about acknowledging what we don’t know, and being cautious in what we think we can achieve.

His first great guide is Montaigne, who wrote, Sullivan notes, that God is incomprehensible and that everything we think we know about him is a projection of ourselves. We need to acknowledge that he and his truth are beyond our categories.

Sullivan’s next guide is Michael Oakeshott, the great British philosopher, who brilliantly exposed the limits of rationalism. As Sullivan says, “There is no way, Oakeshott argues, to generate a personal moral life from a book, a text, a theory. We live the way we have grown accustomed to live. Our morality is like a language we have learned and deploy in every new instant.”

Politics is not an effort to find solutions and realize ideals, in this view. It is merely an effort to find practical ways to preserve one’s balance in a complicated world. An Oakeshottian conservative will reject great crusades. He will not try to impose morality or base policy decisions on so-called eternal truths.

Of course neither would this kind of conservative write the Declaration of Independence.