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Essay:What is Conservatism? Is it useful?


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Conservative Politics
Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson: Revolt in Cairo (1810)
The first cogent expression of conservative ideas was Edmund Burke’s essay Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he claimed that revolutions lead to destruction, mass murder and new
upheavals. This painting depicts the Revolt of Cairo of 1798 against the French conquerors, led by
Napoleon. It is said that after the Muslims saw that the rebellion would not succeed, they begged
God for mercy, but Napoleon replied: “For God is too late – you started this and I will finish it.” It is
exactly this tendency of revolutionaries to think of themselves as godlike that conservatives dislike.
Conservative Politics
Conservatism is a unique way of looking at the world. Unlike liberalism,
socialism, communism and even, to an extent, Christian democracy, conservatism does not spring from a philosophical foundation. It is, rather, a response
– a project of resistance – against the ideas of radical reform and of total revolution sweeping the continent of Europe from the end of the 18th century.
But it is not a philosophical response, because it does not present the public
with a coherent framework, based on explicit principles and constructed by the
exercise of reason. Conservatism is notoriously difficult to explain in terms of reason and principle, let alone in terms of human rights or even – elementary logic.
This is why conservatives, as a rule, avoid philosophical discussions; and
only feel the need to explain themselves philosophically when ways of life,
which they hold dear, are placed in immediate danger. The first conservative,
Edmund Burke, was provoked into writing about conservatism by the 1789
revolution in France. Friedrich Hayek stepped into the battle of ideas when,
in the 1940s, state intervention into the economy moved in the direction of
socialist control, threatening freedom and initiative. Roger Scruton felt the
need to clarify conservative ideas, when confronted with the 1968 revolution
in France and its impact on the intellectual world of England. And Margaret
Thatcher was provoked to explain her principles when, taking over as Prime
Minister in 1979, she confronted a virtually bankrupt, socialistically-minded,
dependent and frightened British society.
Conservatism is a feeling – a certain sensitivity to the world and people.
Unlike socialists and liberals, conservatives do not believe that human
beings can be perfect if they attain more freedom. Conservatives see people
as full of deficiencies, being the product of the Original Sin.
People, conservatives believe, are weak, avaricious, corruptible, cruel and
selfish. If, on top of this, people were to come to believe in the infallibility of
their thoughts – which is something socialists and liberals appeal to – then
more than likely people would shed all restraints and begin doing terrible
things to each other. This is why, conservatives believe, people must live in
limitations; going beyond their limits would lead to catastrophe.
Where liberals, socialists, anarchists and communists talk about achieving
complete freedom, absolute rights and total independence, conservatives talk
about authority, the need to be modest and to respect the society and institutions we have inherited – because they embody the wisdom and toil of our
ancestors. Since we are not gods, there is no way that we can produce a better
society, out of our heads, than has been produced by the collective wisdom of
countless past generations. Modesty, not pride, is the right way to behave.
Politics: A Reader
This is why conservatives use terms that are very different from what we
see in the reformist and revolutionary theories. Conservatives talk of gratitude
(to our ancestors), loyalty (to family, community and nation), obligation (to
our fellow-humans). Unlike radicals and revolutionaries, conservatives do
not see themselves as engineers, who must destroy the old structures they
find in place, in order to build new and better ones. Conservatives see themselves as gardeners, who feel grateful for the garden they have inherited and
who try to preserve and improve it, but without the element of destruction.
The logical construction behind Conservatism is at times hard to disentangle. We can certainly say that Conservatism appeals to that part of every
human being that is scared or uninterested in change, because either it likes
the current state of affairs or is generally unadaptable. As the authors included
in this Section show us, the practitioners of Conservatism and neo-conservatism turned out to be able politicians, who are still capable of winning elections without the promises of socialist equality or liberal freedom. These same
practitioners also turned out to be extremely good with dealing with changes
and accordingly, the philosophical wing of Conservatism provides useful
insights into topics of current importance.
Such practical and theoretical achievements signify that Conservatism
does in fact possess a core doctrine about societies and a basic view of the
human existence, a core as meaningful as that of the liberals, the socialists,
the Christian-democrats.
Conservatism sees society and the individuals in it as organically related.
In a certain sense, this organical relatedness also includes the existing institutions, morals and culture of the society, which shape the interactions between
individuals and has been shaped by the interactions of the past generations.
From here springs the general scepticism that Conservatives hold about the
abilities of social reformers to understand human nature better than human
nature (embodied in the institutions and culture of the previous generations)
understands itself.
For a long time, conservatives looked simply stupid, as compared to their
competitors on the political and philosophical scene. They seemed to stand
against “progress”, science and rational government for no apparent reason, out of sheer obstinacy. Today, as we try to make sense of the rubble left
behind by the grandiose social and political experiments of the believers in
revolution, science and the rational management of human affairs – today we
re-evaluate and appreciate conservative ideas.
The great projects of creating completely new societies have all failed,
Conservative Politics
having brought truly primitive misery to the nations involved. This is why we
now appreciate the conservatives’ warnings that no revolution can achieve
more than it destroys, because no revolutionary can understand fully the
workings of society and of the human individual. The negative effects of centralization have made us appreciate the emphasis which conservatives place
on the small-scale – the family, the local community. The self-destruction of
whole societies, since the closing decades of the 20th century, have encouraged us to heed the conservative warning that only nations – and loyalty to
nations – can produce stable and affluent democracies. The manifest failure
of the project to create a new “European nation” on the basis of the European
Union has demonstrated the importance of the loyalty that people feel to
their nation – the same loyalty that the conservatives have always valued as
a fundamental social good.
And, finally, the effects, which we now feel, of the destruction of the environment have made us rediscover the conservative warnings that the environment is the place we live in – and that in destroying it, we destroy ourselves.
All of this brings new meaning to loyalty, obligation, modesty, decency,
national belonging. We find it increasingly necessary to follow the conservative lead and: instead of social contract, think in terms of trusteeship; instead
of solidarity, think of friendship; instead of rights, think also of obligations;
and to combine the right to freedom with the duty of loyalty and gratitude.
None of this means that conservatives are incapable of truly new, revolutionary thoughts. The most revolutionary thought of the 21st century, for
example, may turn out to be something written by Edmund Burke in 1790:
that the social contract is not only between the now-living people. It is a pact
– a relation of trust – between the dead, the living and the yet unborn. Within
this pact, we do not have the right to destroy our environment in order to satisfy our current needs – firstly, because this is not what our ancestors toiled
for; and, secondly, because the unborn, our children’s children, have the right
to inherit from us a place worth living in.
Liberalism, anarchism and socialism were tornadoes of liberation, social
experiment, strife and conflict. Conservatives, conversely, offer the vision of
a softer, less turbulent, slower, less prideful and more human-sized world.
The time may have come for us to avail ourselves of this project; to become
modest rather than proud, loyal rather than independent, and protective of
the rights of future generations rather than demanding yet more money to buy
yet more things we do not really need.
Edmund Burke
Sir Joshua Reynolds: Portrait of Edmund Burk (1767 – 1769)
While still a teenager, Burke published an influential treatise on the philosophy of aesthetics. About
the time of this portrait, Reynolds asked Burke whether he would be willing to become further involved in publishing on aesthetics, but the by-then middle-aged politician refused. He replied that
he was no longer capable of dealing with abstract philosophy. As a consequence of this conversation, Reynolds painted Burke in the most unsaturated and earthly colours on the palette, in order to
bring out the down-to-earth attitude, for which conservative thought is notable.
Edmund Burke (12 January, 1729 – 9 July, 1797) was a British, statesman,
author, orator, political philosopher and active politician, who served for
many years in the House of Commons as a member of the Whig party.
He supported the cause of the American Revolutionaries, writing that they
were descendent from the English and, therefore, treasured liberty above all;
Edmund Burke
and could not be defeated by force. A decade and a half later, he initially
welcomed the French Revolution, seeing it as a struggle of freedom against
oppression. Within a few months, however, even before the Terror, Burke
came to the conclusion that instead of liberation, what was happening in
France was the disintegration of social life and the transformation of people
into “monsters”.
His opposition to the French Revolution turned him into the leading figure
within the conservative faction of the Whig party, which he called the “Old
Whigs”, in opposition to the pro-French-Revolution “New Whigs”, led by
Charles James Fox. By the end of 1790 Burke published his best-remembered
text, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he set out the classic
conservative objections to revolution (while still thinking of himself as predominantly a liberal).
Greatly respected throughout the 19th century, Burke’s reputation sank
during the opening decades of the 20th, as new revolutionary and totalitarian
ideas were sweeping through Europe. Since the demise of communism and
the Soviet Union, however, Burke has enjoyed rising fame and admiration,
as his thoughts help make sense of the collapse of the great socio-political
experiments of the 20th century.
The passages which follow are from Reflections, as found on: http://www.
On history
History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the
world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy,
ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake
the public with the same
“Troublous storms that toss
The private state, and render life unsweet.”
Revolutions do not cure human vices
These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You
would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the
mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did,
you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast.
As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in
Conservative Politics
Pierre Antoine de Machy: An Execution (1793)
De Machy specialised in painting the ruins of Paris during and after the French Revolution. In this
painting, he depicts a public execution, with a crowd cheering the proceedings. His way of hinting
that the people have lost their humanity and reason is the little white dog (at the near centre) which
is also “cheering” the execution. Violence has brought human beings down to the level of animals.
great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments,
national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil
by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of
state, nor of the Gospel,—no interpreters of law, no general officers, no
public councils. You might change the names: the things in some shape
must remain.
Political revolutions bring illusory gains
Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names,—to the causes
of evil, which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they
act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will
be wise historically, a fool in practice.
Edmund Burke
Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts, and the
same modes of mischief… Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its
appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigor of a
juvenile activity. It walks abroad, it continues its ravages, whilst you are
gibbeting the carcass or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourselves with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of
It is thus with all those who, attending only to the shell and husk of
history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty,
whilst, under color of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties,
they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.
Human rights are not absolutes, but a practical compromise
The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically
The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but
not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are
their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of
good,—in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil.
Political reason is a computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally, and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.
No theory of government can be superior to practical experience
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or
reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught
a priori.
Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate,
but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its
remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects
it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausi-
Conservative Politics
ble schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful
and lamentable conclusions.
… The science of government being, therefore, so practical in itself,
and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole
life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which
has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of
society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns
of approved utility before his eyes.
Preservation and improvement is better than destruction
There is something else than the mere alternative of absolute destruction
or unreformed existence. Spartam nactus es; hanc exorna (Cicero: “You
inherit Sparta, rise up to it”). This is, in my opinion, a rule of profound
sense, and ought never to depart from the mind of an honest reformer.
I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that
pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte
blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases. A man full
of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always
considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his
A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together,
would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the
conception, perilous in the execution.
Those who attempt to level never equalize
Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level never equalize. In all societies
consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be
uppermost. The levellers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things: they load the edifice of society by setting up in the
air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground. The
associations of tailors and carpenters, of which the republic (of Paris, for
instance) is composed, cannot be equal to the situation into which, by
the worst of usurpations, an usurpation on the prerogatives of Nature,
you attempt to force them.
Edmund Burke
The proper role of the state
It is one of the finest problems in legislation, and what has often engaged
my thoughts whilst I followed that profession, “What the State ought
to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to
leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual discretion.”
Nothing, certainly, can be laid down on the subject that will not
admit of exceptions, many permanent, some occasional. But the clearest
line of distinction which I could draw… was this: That the State ought
to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State,
namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their
existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly
public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to
the public prosperity… Statesmen who know themselves will… proceed only in this… steadily, vigilantly, severely, courageously: whatever
remains will, in a manner, provide for itself. But as they descend from
the state to a province, from a province to a parish, and from a parish
to a private house, they go on accelerated in their fall. They cannot do
the lower duty; and, in proportion as they try it, they will certainly fail
in the higher.
They ought to know the different departments of things; what belongs
to laws, and what manners alone can regulate. To these, great politicians
may give a leaning, but they cannot give a law.
Freedom is not a project for the future, but an inheritance of
the past
You will observe, that, from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it
has been the uniform policy of our Constitution to claim and assert our
liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers,
and to be transmitted to our posterity,—as an estate specially belonging
to the people of this kingdom, without …
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