What is Conservatism? Part I

In the ongoing series concerning Edmund Burke (part I is here and part II is here) it is also beneficial to consider what is meant by conservatism. And so, following my heroes Burke, Johnson, Coleridge, and Newman, below the fold is the first part of a consideration of this question.

Previously, I have defined conservatism as:

an approach, a style, a sentiment, a bias: against efforts of utopianism, against ideology, and against the promise of a bright new future casting aside considerations of human nature. If a policy, a custom, a norm, a tradition, an institution does not violate the natural rights and has suited the past – if these belonged to your father and grandfather and great grandfather – it is to be granted, across the generations, a high status of received wisdom worthy of commitment against movements that would seek to alter them so as to pursue ideological aims.

The chief popularizer of this view was Russell Kirk, whose ten conservative principles may be read here. Conservatism is opposition to all forms of political religion, a rejection of the idea that government can be redemptive. Instead, good governance, part of a more purposeful moral universe, is embodied by cultivated humility and prudence. The true natural rights, the purposes for which God willed the state, are equal justice, security of labor and property, the amenities of civilized institutions, and the benefits of orderly society. These are the rights which contrast with the delusory “rights of man” fiercely pursued over the course of the French Revolution and throughout the advances of liberalism. It scorns those who worship at the alters of science and rationality, seeking to build a heaven on earth and pining for the authority to order societal problems, and the persons that constitute them, according to their image of economics or politics – anything other than in the image of God. Yet for Kirk, as for Burke, Johnson, Coleridge, and Newman, the permanent things of human nature and our calling to full communion with God will never disappear.

The word conservative is an adjective, not a noun. Sustained by a body of sentiments, flexible so as to accommodate a diversity of views on a wide range of subjects, this negation of ideology is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. As Burke stated, the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged. Consciousness deliberately separated from a living reality is an ideological mind building systems of thought around concepts of utopia, manipulating humans with attractive false hope. Such ideology is always wrong because it edits actuality and in doing so simplifies reality. The best arrangement for discussion in the self-governing of human affairs is opinion filtered through accumulated experience, embodied in habits, assumptions, and institutions, and cautiously subject to change as change is necessary. Against the devolution of the term “natural rights” sprung from the radicalism begun at the end of the eighteenth century, conservatism holds that the notion of inalienable natural rights has been embraced by the masses in a vague and belligerent manner. Rights, which have practically evolved as a synonym for desires, have become a confusion that plagues society. The lengthy catalogue of “rights” that have grown through the generations since the American founding ignore the essential conditions which are attached to all true rights: first, the capacity of individuals to claim and exercise the alleged right; second, the correspondent duty that is married to every right.

The ancient truth of considerable limits to what humans know and may know indicates, for the conservative, that the best actions in the selfish arena of politics are incremental and informed by accumulated prejudice acclimated to circumstance. The sudden construction of universal law, prone to the whimsical and superficial casting aside of human nature and history, is inflamed by the desire to be freed of duties. All systems, ethical or political, attain ascendancy over the minds of men through their appeal to the imagination. Nevertheless, when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided. Man lives by myth, which is not a falsehood but a source of wisdom. The “true” myths are represented in ways particular to time and place; they are not simply an entertaining fancy. A myth may grow out of an actual event lost in the remote past, but it eventually comes to transcend the particular circumstance of its origin to assume significance universal and abiding. These are the products of the moral experience of people, stumbling toward the divine love and wisdom implanted in the consciousness from before the dawn of existence by a power and a means knowledge can never describe. There is a manner of discernment surpassing the private reason of the supposedly ingenious. Recognizing that humans are created in the image of God, the conservative moral imagination seeks the abiding amid the chaos.

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  • blackadderiv

    Austin Bramwell recently took a stab at defining conservatism here.

  • jonathanjones02

    This piece by a CUA professor is also informative:

  • jonathanjones02

    As an aside, I really wish Burke was studied more. His Reflections on the Revolution in France will knock you out, in content and in rhetorical flourish. Here, for example, is one of his descriptions of the French Revoution (the context is casting aside Christian heritage): “a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell.”

    The American founders sought the wisdom of Burke and Montesquieu, among others, and then compromised on many matters great and small to give us the (admirable, in my view, given the wide diversity of opinion and interests at the time) blend of Enlightenment sentiment, Greco-Roman civic republicanism, and therapeutic diesm that we see as the constitutional basis of the U.S. today.

  • http://postmodernpapist.blogspot.com Kyle R. Cupp


    I also wish Burke were studied more, and I am thankful that you have been posting on his thought. I taught high school English for a few years, and, you may be pleased to know, used Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in the British Literature class. I had read the work simply for personal edification and enjoyment, but upon reading it, knew it was a worthy text to teach.

  • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

    Burke should also be read for his texts on aesthetics…. not just politics.

  • jonathanjones02


    That is great to hear.

    The essential books for anti-utopian thought, I think, are the Reflections, Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order, Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism Revisited (ironically, a project of Rightist ideology), Robert Nisbet’s Prejudices, Weaver’s Visions of Order and Ideas Have Consequences, and as a popular history, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times.

  • Morning’s Minion

    It is important to point out that Christians cannot be true conservatives in the Burkean sense. Pope Benedict noted that teh early Christians did not take the obvious title for Christ — Conservator, which would have connoted a static unchanging order, much as the Chinese view earth in harmony with heaven– but Salvator, connoting a far more dynamic approach, the anticipation of the Kingdom and our duty to build this kingdom. Christians very much act in history, not outside it.

  • http://postmodernpapist.blogspot.com Kyle R. Cupp

    I got a lot out of Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives, a book published in 89, toward the end of Kirk’s life. Each chapter is devoted to a distinct question (power, education, wants, etc.) and offers a marvelous overview of Kirk’s polished thinking on many topics.

  • http://postmodernpapist.blogspot.com Kyle R. Cupp

    Christians very much act in history, not outside it.

    A very Burkean point!

  • jonathanjones02

    It is important to point out that Christians cannot be true conservatives in the Burkean sense.

    I disagree. It is absoutely our duty to build up the kingdom of God, and to work within circumstance and history, not outside it (that is a very Burkean concept).

    The question is one of community – organic and cultivated by human organization (the largest being government), or state-organized. Rigid, state-sponsored, ideology is to be resisted and the natural law embraced, cooperatively and voluntarily. The Holy Father has made several comments quite comfortable with this Burkean tradition, such as this radio address:

    the social teaching of the Catholic Church offers some points for reflection on how to promote security and justice both at the national and international levels. This teaching is based on reason, natural law and the Gospel: that is, principles that both accord with and transcend the nature of every human being. The Church knows that it is not her specific task to see to the political implementation of this teaching: her objective is to help form consciences in political life, to raise awareness of the authentic requirements of justice, and to foster a greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest


  • Morning’s Minion

    What do you mean by “state”? The modern nation state is only a few hunded years old. My problem with the nation state is that it demands an exclusive loyalty between citizen and state, erases all overlapping competing loyalities, and severely restricts the scope of subsidiary mediating institutions. The “ideology” of the nation state is one I reject, if that is what you are getting at.

  • jonathanjones02

    Well, there are multiple social units. The final and most important are the natural rights, upon which all others are based. Ideally (as we operate under a liberal, post-Enlightenment construct I don’t think can be escaped) pluralistic authority within the nation-state is lodged within institutions (the most important being the family), not the individual or civil government (libertarians and statists both make the same mistake at different ends…something like “people are things,” commodities or rational actors to be ordered and molded). A functional pluralism of organic covenant best maintains civil liberty. Intermediate institutions – church, voluntary associations, family, and kinship groups – keep the state from tyranny. The state – by which I mean here government most removed from the local – achieves tyranny when it is the organizing instrument, especially for the attractive-sounding, sentimentalist goals (hello unintended consequences, ie No Child Left Behind, Wilsonian foreign policy).

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com DarwinCatholic

    The modern nation state is only a few hunded years old. My problem with the nation state is that it demands an exclusive loyalty between citizen and state, erases all overlapping competing loyalities, and severely restricts the scope of subsidiary mediating institutions.

    You say this sort of thing very often, but it’s not obviously true to me.

    It’s certainly the case that many Medieval and Renaissance states were monarchies in which a succession or specific lineages held power over a gradually changing area — though you also had entities that were clearly recognized to exist (Florence and Venice spring to mind) even as major changes in government occurred from time to time. States in that period also lacked formal founding dates and documents in nearly all cases — though with cases such as Britain you have the gradual accumulation of something like a constitution.

    Going back to Classical times, you have very clear ideas of national identity, which were not strictly ethnic or tied to a specific royal line. The Roman Republic at the time of Polybius and Periclean Athens both strike me as being nation states in just about every sense that the modern US is — except in being organically (and obscurely) developed rather than intentionally constituted at a specific point in time.

    What exactly about the modern nation state is it that you see as being so different than nations in other times and places?

  • http://www.houseoftheinklings.blogspot.com X-Cathedra


    A fantastic post! I am glad to see someone actually define a term that has been lurking in the halls of ambiguity in almost every modern usage; and you do so by refering to the right people.

    I wonder: having understood conservatism in this Burkean light, what do you perceive to be the major differences between traditional Burkean conservatism and Neo-conservatism, as it has played itself out in American politics over the last (what, ) half-century? What resources are there within this stock of values to critique the current regime’s particular, historically embedded form of conservatism?

    Pax Christi,

  • jonathanjones02


    Before ‘neoconservative’ became an epithet synonym for ‘bad, and I don’t like it,’ the term was used to describe social scientists (amateur and professional) who came to have serious qualms about the direction of the welfare state and its impact upon behavior. They provided significant intellectual energy to the conservative moment, but were always suspect because many of them were Jewish and secular, tended to be disinterested in the Anglo-American school of philosophical skepticism, and had sympathy for figures the ‘old guard’ (the so-called ‘paleo-cons’ of today) hated, Trotsky most notably. (Pointing to a larger rift over the possibilities of ideology and utopia…Hitchens, for example, dialogues with conservatives of all stripes and is an admirer of Trotsky). Professor Gottfried (ironically, someone connected to some of the same libertarian institutes as many of those he criticizes) lets loose with both barrels on this issue here: http://www.takimag.com/site/article/the_trotskyist_hour

    As to your last question, there is not much of Burke in the current administration. People who admire Burke can still vote without any problem, however, as Burke in rhetoric and in long parliamentary example advocated for active involvement, reform, and compromise. My own view is that Burke would be against ‘speculating’ about his own career for our times, but he would very much be in favor of importing his “sentiments” (such as caution and respectful dialogue) to our present politics.

  • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

    “To the Conservatives Socrates, as it were, said: ‘You are perfectly right, and deserve every commendation for your desire to conserve the bases of society– this is a matter of the highest importance. It is good that you are Conservatives. The misfortune, however, is that you are bad Conservatives. You neither know what or how to conserve. You flounder about and grope your way like blind men. Self-conceit is the cause of your blindness. However, your conceit, though wrong, and harmful to yourselves and others, should be pardoned, as it does not spring from ill-will, but is the result of your stupidity and ignorance.’ What possible answer was there to this but prison and the cup of poison?

    “To the Sophists Socrates said: ‘You do very well in considering and in testing by critical thought all that exists or does not exist; the pity is that you are bad thinkers, and have no idea whatever either of the aims or the methods of real criticism or dialectics.’

    “Socrates pointed out, and, what more, demonstrated beyond question the intellectual bankruptcy of his opponents. This, of course, was an unpardonable offence. Reconciliation was henceforth impossible. And even if Socrates never had directly accused the Athenian city fathers of being bad Conservatives, or the Sophists of being bad thinkers, the position would not have been changed. All the same he had accused both parties by his very personality, by his moral character, and by the positive significance of his speeches. He himself, as the personification of truly conservative and truly critical principles, was a living offence to bad conservatives and bad critics. Until he appeared, even if both parties were dissatisfied with one another, they were, on the other hand, serenely satisfied with themselves.

    “As long as the Conservatives could see in their opponents godless and irreligious men, they had the feeling of their own moral superiority, and in anticipation celebrated their victory. It might appear in very truth that they were defending faith and piety itself. There was an appearance of a dispute about principles and ideas, in which they represented the right and positive party. But when they came into conflict with Socrates, the position changed completely. They could not defend faith and piety, as such, against a man, who was himself a pious believer. It fell to them to defend not faith itself, but only the distinction between their faith and that of Socrates’, and this distinction lay in the fact that Socrates’ faith had vision, while theirs was blind. Thus the poor character of their faith was revealed, and in their eagerness in asserting this particular unchanging blind faith its weakness and insincerity became evident. On what ground could they defend absence of enlightenment in faith? Was it on the ground that every faith was bound to be unenlightened? But there, before them, was Socrates with an obvious refutation of such a supposition by the very fact of his enlightened and perceptive faith. It was clear that they defended unenlightenment, not in the interests of faith, but in other interests having no connection to faith. And, as a matter of fact, the Athenian Conservatives of that time, at least the more cultured among them, were men who had no faith. It could not be otherwise. When in the given society an intellectual movement had once begun– when philosophy appeared and developed– a direct faith requiring a childlike mind became impossible for everyone touched by the movement. What has passed away cannot be conserved, and the faith of ‘obscurantes’ is only a deceptive mask covering their actual unbelief. In the case of the more active and gifted men among the Athenian Conservatives, Aristophanes for instance, their true feelings broke through the mask; exposing the so- called impiety of the philosophers, Aristophanes at the very time by his coarse mockery of the goods displayed his own. What was conserved by such Conservatives, and what was their motive? It is clear it was not the fear of the Divine, but only fear for the old and familiar way of life which was up with a given religion.”

    Vladimir Solovyov, Plato, VII

  • jonathanjones02

    Conservatism as we exist with the term begins with Burke. It is extremely problematic to project backwards in any useful sense to any other historical figure, although Aristotle and Cicero have been heavily borrowed from.

  • wj

    With regard to the disagreement between jonathanjones02 and Morning’s Minion, and in response to DarwinCatholic’s questioning the difference between modern nation states and earlier political communities, I recommend Alasdair MacIntyre’s many (critical) references to Burke and to Burkean conservatism more generally in Whose Justice, Which Rationality and in his essay on Yeats, which I believe is included in his selected papers, Ethics and Politics (CUP 2004?).

    There is a powerful strain in Burke which holds that tradition is *opposed* to reflection. The notion of a tradition that is self-reflective seems to Burke to be a conflict in terms. However, this–according to Macintyre and before him Newman–is precisely the sort of tradition provided both by the history of the Church itself (rightly understood) and of Aristotelian-Thomist moral enquiry. That Burke polarizes Tradition and Reflection, that so much of what constitutes Tradition for Burke is and must be unconscious, organic, etc., reflects his buying into a powerful prejudice of enlightenment thinking, not his resistance to such thinking.

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