Although the roots of conservatism are firmly planted in classical political thought, the terms conservative and conservatism were not used in a political context until well into the 19th century. Credit for the emergence of conservatism as a sufficiently distinctive and coherent political philosophy, one that could assume a place alongside liberalism and socialism, is generally accorded to Edmund Burke. In his principal work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke sought to repudiate as forcefully as possible the strands of Enlightenment thought that fueled the French Revolution. Although the character of his undertaking did not require the development of a systematic political theory, he was obliged nevertheless to articulate the principles and assumptions that prompted this repudiation. From this work—and to a lesser extent from his other writings and speeches—it is possible to extract the major principles, beliefs, and assumptions that constitute the core of modern conservative political philosophy.
Burke, consonant with the teachings of Aristotle, regarded society as a complex, organic whole characterized by a bewildering multitude of interrelationships. Each society, he believed, was unique, having evolved over time under different circumstances, thereby giving rise to distinctive traditions, beliefs, institutions, and relationships. Although at one point he pictures society in terms of a contract, the nature of this contract is markedly different from that postulated by Locke, Hobbes, or Rousseau. For Burke, the social contract takes the form of a “partnership in all science … in all art … in every virtue … and in all perfection.” “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations,” he continues, the society also “becomes a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
These views constituted the grounds on which Burke challenged the basic presumptions and tenets of Enlightenment thought and provided the foundation from which modern conservatism takes its bearings. From Burke’s perspective, no single generation possesses either the wisdom or the right to remake a society to suit its transient wishes. To believe in “this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions,” Burke warns, is to sever the “whole chain of continuity of the commonwealth.” “No one generation could link the other,” rendering “Men … little better than flies of the summer.”
Although Burke was aware that a state must possess the means to change in order to survive, he was careful to set forth a morality concerning the conditions and processes of change. Consistent with his understanding of the evolution and complexity of society, he held that reason by itself has limited utility in reforming or restructuring society, and that effective change must necessarily proceed slowly, largely through trial and error, with due attention accorded to the traditions, prejudices, expectations, and ways of life of the people. “If circumspection and caution are a part of wisdom when we work only upon inanimate matter,” he writes in this regard, “surely they become a part of duty, too, when the subject of our demolition and construction is not brick and mortar but sentient beings.” Accordingly, he wrote of the complexities involved in the “science” of “constructing,” “renovating,” or “reforming” a commonwealth. Such a science, he warned, is “not to be taught a priori.” Rather, it is a “practical science” that requires long experience, “more experience than any person can gain in his whole life,” primarily “because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate.” Thus, he admonished, “any man ought to” exercise “infinite caution” in “pulling down an edifice” or constructing one anew.
Likewise, Burke’s organic conception of society allowed no room for the abstract, metaphysical rights in the form they were asserted by the French revolutionaries. These “pretended rights,” he insists, “are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” The metaphysical rights, he maintained, are difficult to apply in their pristine form to the society; they are like “rays of light which pierce into a dense medium” and “are by the laws of nature refracted from their straight line.” Given man’s passions and the highly complex nature of society, Burke held that it is “absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction.” These rights, he felt, had a middling status; they were “incapable of definition,” but “not impossible to discern.” Their application in society, he emphasized, involve prudential considerations that frequently involve balancing “differences of good,” “compromises between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil.”
Another aspect of Burke’s thought central to conservatism was his belief in an objective and divinely ordained moral order. He embraced the position, critical to much of what he sets forth in Reflections and elsewhere, that “religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and comfort.” He remarked “that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason but our instincts.” Burke staunchly defended the union of state and religion on the grounds that those vested with power “ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of Society.” With this understanding, of course, Burke wrote with a keen appreciation of man’s fallen nature and the need for restraints through law and tradition. Thus, he could write, “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”
Other aspects of Burke’s thinking are central to the understanding of modern conservatism. Hierarchy, he insisted, is an inherent attribute of society. “In all societies,” he maintained, “consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost.” He observed that “those who attempt to level, never equalize,” but only serve to “change and pervert the natural order of things.” He defended the unequal possession of private property and regarded the “power of perpetuating our property in our families” as “that which tends the most to the perpetuation of the society.” In this vein, among the “real” rights of individuals is that “to the fruits of their industry and to the means of making their industry fruitful.” In various writings, he defended decentralized authority. Indeed, in the Reflections, he referred to the “love to the little platoon we belong to in society” as the “first principle of public affections,” as “the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.” He embraced as well a fundamental postulate of the subsidiarity principle, namely, “Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.”
These principles, articulated by Burke, provide the foundations for modern conservatism. Their application and operation vary from country to country so that conservatism lacks the inflexible characteristics of an ideology. However, they all share the view that social institutions are the product of evolutionary development, and this judgment holds as much for man’s “rights,” which are bound to differ from culture to culture, as for any other aspect of law and politics. Conservatives embrace the view that reforms must be made within the matrix of a society’s social history, with due regard for its traditional rules and prejudices, whether they be libertarian or otherwise.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. J. G. A. Pocock, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987.
Carey, George W., ed. Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998.
Meyer, Frank S. In Defense of Freedom and Related Essays. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1996.
Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991 .