The German author Friedrich Goethe once wrote, “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times.” This is really only a restatement of what King Solomon wrote thousands of years earlier: “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Both these men understood that ignoring ancient wisdom simply because it is “old” is as foolish as following modern wisdom simply because it is “new.”
Conservatives are often portrayed as dry-as-dust traditionalists. In some cases this stereotype may be accurate, but for the most part conservatives aren’t willing to abandon the “old way” for the “new way.” In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton—a progressive in the early 20th century—had this to say regarding conservatism:
All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
Thinking that he had caught conservatives in their own rhetoric, Chesterton was trying to show that last year’s conservatism is not equipped to handle this year’s problems. And this is quite true. In fact, if Chesterton had read Goethe—who had written 100 years before him—he may not have been so quick to label conservatism as being the belief that “leaving things alone leaves them as they are.” Goethe’s quotation above is not the whole sentence, which I will now reveal. Goethe’s entire thought was this: “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times, but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly till they take firm root in our personal experience.” That is, Goethe is saying that old ideas do indeed apply to modern times, but they require a bit of translation work before application. In other words, Goethe would agree that white posts need constant painting to remain white. But this is not an argument for progressivism; it is actually consistently-applied conservatism.
Chesterton’s conservatism is akin to the family that always cut their Thanksgiving turkey in half before baking it. After observing this for years, one inquisitive youngster asked why they always did it this way. None of the adults had an answer. Finally, the great-grandmother was asked if perhaps she knew why the traditional bird was always baked in halves in separate pans. She replied that she didn’t know why they were doing it, but she had to do it decades ago when she would host the annual meal because she didn’t have a big enough pan. Her practical cooking technique had become a family tradition that the grand and great-grandchildren were copying without ever asking why. This is not conservatism; this is unthinking traditionalism.
Goethe’s advice to think about wisdom until it takes root in personal experience is the proper antidote to rote tradition. Modern conservatives should not be concerning themselves with doing things the old way, but with asking why the old ways were done at all. It will be shown eventually that the method had a reason and the reason had a purpose, and this is where 21st century conservatives should be focusing their attention.