Whigs and Tories?

***I posted this over at Collected Miscellany but thought it was worth posting here as well. If like books and ideas you should be checking in regularly over at my new site.

Interesting dichotomy laid out in this book review in the current issue of National Review (sub. req.). In her review of Michael Know Beran’s Jefferson’s Demons : Portrait of a Restless Mind, Sarah A. Bramwell lays out Beran’s thesis:

Beran begins by identifying two human types, the ?Whig? and the ?Tory.? Broadly speaking, the Whig stands for modernity and the Tory for pre-modernity. ?In the Whig view,? Beran writes, ?people must take their politics, and even their religion and their private morality, much as they take their other household goods ? by going to the marketplace and seeing what is on sale and at what price.? The Tory, on the other hand, ?pursues always his ideal of a society in which man?s different endeavors ? the long extent of his works and loves ? can be made to form a coherent whole. [He] is an exile . . . from the delicious intimacies of old Christendom.?
In Beran?s view, these two spirits ? Whig and Tory ? are alive in all of us who inhabit the modern world, but most especially in Jefferson. The Whig embodies the self-made man: the skeptic, the self-sufficient individualist. To him, the ties of family and inherited authority are so many fetters from which man must be delivered. The Tory, by contrast, recognizes obligations ? to family, church, God, country ? that he himself does not choose. He remains attached to these loyalties, taking comfort in what he has not himself created, and resists the modern Whig world, in which, amid an ?infinity of choice? and a ?superabundance of creeds . . . the modern man must find his way.?

Obviously, all such explanations are a stretch and there are always outliers and exceptions. But I must say I find this dichotomy fascinating. It seems to me that modern conservatism is in many ways torn along these lines as well. The libertarian side is certainly on the Whig side and the paleoconservatives are certainly on the Tory side. The average conservative is in the middle, finding a sort of default libertarian view a healthy brake on government excess but not willing to abandon completely the more traditionalist viewpoint. They are also torn when their Tory leaders seem to get bogged down in government and when the dominant tradition seems a liberal one. Pragmatism and radicalism pull in each direction.

Like most dichotomies, it is likely that perfect match is not desirable. Rather life involves a tension between the two; the golden mean if you will. If we only had one side or the other it would be too easy to get off track. We need the countervailing force to give us balance. A totally rationalistic and materialistic world view is not desirable (witness the disastrous attempts of communism) but neither is a completely mystical one (witness much of fundamentalist Islam). This is not revolutionary thought but it stuck me as true nonetheless.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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1 Comment

  • I have to say that for me fundamentalism has nothing to do with mysticism. Fundamentalists are ideologues. They accept a set of beliefs and then spend endless hours rationalizing those beliefs. They attack others rights to rationalize alternative beliefs. Mysticism is a different animal. Mystics claim that the center of reality lies beyond our ability to describe it. They do not deny reason, but point out that reason alone cannot led humans to the awareness of that one reality.

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