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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S012-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Conservatism is an approach to human affairs which mistrusts both a priori reasoning and revolution, preferring to put its trust in experience and in the gradual improvement of tried and tested arrangements. As a conscious statement of position, it dates from the reaction of Burke and de Maistre to the Enlightenment and Revolutionary thought and practices in the eighteenth century. Its roots, however, go far deeper. From Plato, conservatives derive a sense of the complexity and danger of human nature, although they reject emphatically his belief in the desirability of philosophical governance. From Aristotle, conservatives derive their sense of the need for practical experience in judging both moral and political matters, and their understanding of the role of tradition in inculcating habits of virtue and wisdom in the young.

Against Plato, conservatives prefer the limited government advocated by Hobbes, because of their belief in the ignorance and corruptibility of rulers, and because of their wish to encourage the self-reliance of subjects. They do, however, reject any conception of a social contract. In this, they follow de Maistre, who argued that creatures with the institutions and reactions necessary to form a social contract will already be in a society and hence have no need of such a thing.

While de Maistre emphasized the terror underlying political power, more characteristic of modern Anglo-Saxon conservatism is the position of Burke. For Burke, a good constitution is one adorned with ’pleasing illusions’ to make ’power gentle and obedience liberal’. It is also one which dissipates power in a society through autonomous institutions independent of the state. For both these reasons the communist regimes of eastern Europe could not be defended by conservatives, even though for a time they represented a form of social order.

While conservatism is not antithetical to the free market, and while the market embodies virtues the conservative will approve of, for the conservative the market needs to be supplemented by the morality, the institutions and the authority necessary to sustain it. Human beings are by nature political, and also inevitably derive their identity from the society to which they belong. Our sense of self is established through our family relationships and also through the wider recognition and apportionment of roles we achieve in the public world beyond the family. According to Hegel, who since Aristotle has written most profoundly on the interplay of the private and the public in human life, both family and the public world of civil society need to be sustained through the authority of the state. On the other hand, the distinctions between family, civil society and the state need to be maintained against the characteristically modern tendency to treat them collectively. In his insistence both on authority and on the checks and balances needed in a good society, Hegel may be said to be the most articulate and systematic of conservative thinkers.

Conservatism has been much criticized for its tendency towards complacency and to accept the status quo even when it is unacceptable. However, in its stress on the imperfectibility of human nature and on the dangers of wholesale revolution, it may be said to be more realistic than its opponents. Conservatives can also be quite content with the claim that societies animated by conservative political structures have been more successful morally and materially than socialist or liberal societies. This claim they believe to be true, and it is a fundamental aspect of their position that the dispute between them and their opponents is, at bottom, an empirical one.

Citing this article:
O’Hear, Anthony. Conservatism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S012-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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