What is the philosophy of conservatism all about? What is the history of the idea? Do you fancy a frolic? Yes? Let’s go then! It is argued that conservatism as a body of thought dates from the Anglo-Irish Whig parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729–97), a fine man if I do say so myself, and the French diplomat Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) in reaction to the beastly and bloody revolution in France (1789), which produce the invention of the guillotine (you can make your mind up on that invention (!)). Hence, Burke’s book titled Reflections on the Revolution in France is a touchstone in conservative thinking, where he outlined the value of traditional institutions and practices, such as the Church and the family unit, which the horrid Revolution desired to over through. Furthermore, Sir Roger Scruton argues that traditions are a source of disseminating information and tacit knowledge through the ages and bring ‘the past into a present aim’, hence they are a way of solving issues that arise whilst living in a community. Sir Roger is drawing from Burke here, when he discusses the pulling down of institutions and the culling of traditions as one of the main arguments against the revolution and why it turned violent (Burke foresaw the bloodshed).
As for the term ‘conservative’, it was introduced after 1815 by supporters of the newly restored Bourbon monarchy in France, such authors as the diplomat Vicomte de Chateaubriand. Consequently, in 1830, the British politician and writer John Wilson Croker (1780-1857) used the term to describe the British Tory Party. Of course, the word has it roots in Latin ‘conservativus’ from the verb ‘conservare’ meaning to conserve. At any rate, enough of that linguistic malarkey for now.
Yet, conservative thought dates back beyond Burke and de Maistre and draws on thinkers of many epochs including the Antiquity, and perhaps even beyond this. For example, conservative thought draws on Plato’s thoughts (c428-348 BC) on the complexity and the danger of human nature. In other words, Plato understood that human nature could not be reduced or simplified or boiled down to simple slogans or one dimensional doctrines. Rather, humans are not faultless and have the capacity to do evil deeds as well as good. This can be seen again in David Hume’s (1711-1776) work, for example, writing “some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and the serpent”. This quotation has taken us to the heart of conservative thought; that is, my good friend, human nature is flawed, as it were. Christian conservatives would use the term Original Sin or in more colloquial terms “nobody is perfect and we cannot become perfect” to describe this view of human nature. Consequently, this leads to the outright rejection of the progressive view of humankind and society (hear, hear). That is, humans are perfect or if they are not the state can mould them to be.
Thus, conservatives look to traditional political and cultural institutions to limit humans’ destructive instincts, such as smashing up a lamp, or something like that. These institutions are the family, the Church, and schools, and they ought to teach the value of self-discipline or individual responsibility. Furthermore, without the restraining power of such institutions, there can be no ethical behaviour and consequently responsible use of ordered liberty is not possible. In Burke’s words, people need “a sufficient restraint upon their passions” and these institutions provide just that. Moreover, G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) writes that humans by nature are political (or social) animals, and they are bound by their identity to the family, to the city and we are born into a network of relationships obligations which we did not choose. Thus, our identity is formed in the family unit and then in the wider civil society. According to Hegel, the family unit and the public world of civil society needs to be sustained by authority of the state and not consumed by it. Hegel insist on the priority of the state (which must be a strong state according to Plato) and its independence from the individual, family, and institutions of civil society. Conservative thought, therefore, rejects the notion of an abstract ahistorical individual rational agent as purely nonsense, because we are born in to a family, a culture, a country, etc.
Thus, conservative thinkers prefer limited constitutional government because of the belief in the imperfection of rulers, and the desire to have and encourage the self-reliance of subjects or in other words the right of individuals to make their own way in life and to benefit or not accordingly. Burke suggests that a good constitution is one adorned with ‘pleasing illusions’ to ‘make power gentle’ and ‘obedience liberal’. Most conservative thinkers believe that constitutional Monarchy, which is steeped in tradition and customs of the land is most desired form of government. Dante, it is argued, is one of those thinkers.
As well as Plato, Aristotle’s (384-322 BC) thinking is embedded in conservatism. For example, his thinking on the need for practical experience in guiding both moral and political matters, and the role of tradition in inculcating habits of virtue and wisdom in the young. This Aristotelian thinking is captured splendidly in Lord Hailsham remark that “an ounce of practice being worth a ton of theory”. This could be taken as an expression of the temperament to be averse to abstract argument and theorising, and opposition to the ‘rationalist blueprints’ and top-down planning of society. Additionally, Michael Oakeshott, an English Philosopher (1901- 1990), put forth that existing traditions of behaviour are themselves a principal index of concrete behavioural values which are a product of wisdom and experience. In other words, conservatives put more emphasise on concrete practices based in tradition rather than on mere abstraction.
I shall take my leave with this: I believe Sir Roger has capsulated the essence of conservatism in this remark, and I paraphrase, ‘great things are easily destroyed and not easily created’. Therefore, the idea of conservatism is about conserving the great things, such as the great works of Shakespeare or the family unit. As the title says; a short and ad hoc frolic through the idea of conservatism.