Classic Kirk Essays

Conservatism: A Succinct Description

National Review | September 3, 1982
This essay is adapted from Russell Kirk’s Introduction to The Portable Conservative Reader (Viking Penguin). 

“What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln inquired rhetorically, as he campaigned for the Presidency of the United States. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” By that test, the candidate told his audience, Abraham Lincoln was a conservative. 

Other definitions have been offered. In Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary one encounters this: “Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

As a coherent body of political thought, what we call conservatism is a modern development. It is approximately as old as the different body of opinions called liberalism, and several decades older than the ideologies called socialism, Communism, and anarchism. 

True, one might trace a continuity of conservative political thought back into the seventeenth century (though it was not until the third decade of the nineteenth century that the word itself was incorporated into the English lexicon of political controversy). Lord Falkland, during the English Civil Wars, touched upon the essence of conservative convictions in declaring, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” A rudimentary conservatism may be discerned in colonial America, too, assuming definite form just after the American Revolution in the most successful conservative device, the Constitution of the United States. For that matter, conservative impulses and interests have existed ever since a civil social order came into being. By analogy, it is possible to speak of Aristophanes as a conservative, or Plato, or Cicero. 

But modern conservatism commences with the age of Edmund Burke––the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Modern use of the word “conservatism” implies those principles of social thought and action that are set against radical innovation after the pattern of the French Revolution. Edmund Burke opposed his “moral imagination” to what has been called the “idyllic imagination” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From that last contest arose what Walter Bagehot called the “conservatism of reflection.” Almost by definition, ever since Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the principal conservatives in the Western world have been conscious or unconscious disciples of Burke.

Burke himself did not employ the word “conservative,” speaking rather of “preservation”––as in his aphorism “Change is the means of our preservation,” or his remark that the able statesman is one who combines with a disposition to preserve an ability to reform. During Burke’s own lifetime there existed no sharp demarcation between the words “conservative” and “liberal.” 

As a term of politics, the word “conservative” arose in France during and just after the Napoleonic era. Philosophical statesmen as varied in opinion and faction as Guizot, Bonald, Maistre, Chateaubriand, and Tocqueville all were influenced by Burke’s writings. Seeking for a word to describe a policy of moderation, intended to reconcile the best in the old order with the necessities of the nineteenth century, French political writers hit upon the concept of the conservateur, the guardian of the heritage of civilization and of the principles of justice.

From France, this concept passed into England. The editors of The Quarterly Review, in 1830, approved “conservative” over “Tory” to describe the British party of order. By the 1840s, the word “conservative” had attained popularity in the United States. 

Burke’s political concepts spread rapidly across Europe, especially in the Germanys and the Austrian system. The European revolutionary movements of 1829-30 and of 1848 caused greater emphasis to be placed upon distinctions among conservatives, liberals, and radicals. Throughout Europe, conservatism came to mean hostility toward the principles of the French Revolution, with its violent leveling innovations; while liberalism increasingly signified sympathy with the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and material progress. 

Conservatives, especially in Britain, soon found themselves opposing another radicalism than that expressed in the theories of Rousseau: that is, the radical utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, called by John Stuart Mill “the great subversive.” Thus the intellectual heirs of Burke, and the conservative interest generally, did battle on two fronts: against the successors of the Jacobins, with their “armed doctrine”; and against the economists of Manchester, with their reliance upon the nexus of cash payment. 

Our first necessity here, then, is to endeavor to describe (rather than to define) the conservatives’ understanding of society. In recent years the term “conservatism” often has been employed to mean “reactionary” or “obscurantist” or “old-fangled”; it has even been confounded with the economic dogmas of the Manchester School. What does the word really signify? 

Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology. (In the phrase of H. Stuart Hughes, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”) Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the civil social order. Although certain general principles held by most conservatives may be described, there exists wide variety in application of these ideas from age to age and country to country. Thus conservative views and parties have existed under monarchical, aristocratic, despotic, and democratic regimes, and in a considerable range of economic systems. The conservatives of Peru, for instance, differ much from those of Australia; they may share a preference for the established order of society, these conservatives of the Spanish and the English heritages; yet the institutions and customs which these conservative factions respectively wish to preserve are by no means identical. 

Unlike socialism, anarchism, and even liberalism, then, conservatism offers no universal pattern of politics for adoption everywhere. On the contrary, conservatives reason that social institutions always must differ considerably from nation to nation, since any land’s politics must be the product of that country’s dominant religion, ancient customs, and historical experience. For our present purpose, however, we may set down several general principles upon which most eminent conservatives in some degree may be said to have agreed implicitly.

First, conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society. A Divine tactic, however dimly descried, is at work in human society. Such convictions may take the form of belief in the “natural law” or may assume some other expression; but with few exceptions conservatives recognize the need for enduring moral authority. This conviction contrasts strongly with the liberals’ utilitarian view of the state (most consistently expressed by Bentham’s disciples), and with the radicals’ detestation of theological postulates. 

Second, conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. They prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the lifeblood, of a society must not be interrupted in its flow. Burke’s reminder of the social necessity for prudent change is in the minds of conservatives. But necessary change, they argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never “unfixing old interests at once.” Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills.

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. “The wisdom of our ancestors” is one of the more important phrases in the writings of Burke; presumably Burke derived it from Richard Hooker. Conservatives sense that modern men and women are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very frequently emphasize the importance of “prescription”––that is of things established by immemorial usage, so “that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.” There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity––including rights in property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept, for “the great mysterious incorporation of the human race” has acquired habits, customs, and conventions of remote origin which are woven into the fabric of our social being; the innovator, in Santayana’s phrase, never knows how near to the taproot of the tree he is hacking. 

Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative holds, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be effective. The conservative, being mindful of this, declares that he will act only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are perilous as sudden and slashing surgery. The march of Providence is slow; it is the devil who always hurries. 

Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality in the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society longs for honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences among people are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality. Similarly, conservatives uphold the institution of private property as productive of human variety: without private property, liberty is reduced and culture is impoverished.

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent––or else expire of boredom. To aim for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are forgotten, then the anarchic impulses in man break loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

To have set down some principal convictions of conservative thinkers, in the fashion above, may be misleading: for conservative thought is not a body of immutable secular dogmas. Edmund Burke turned to first principles in politics only with reluctance, believing that “metaphysical” politicians let loose dreadful mischief by attempting to govern nations according to abstract notions. Conservatives have believed, following Burke, that general principles always must be tempered, in any particular circumstances, by what Burke called expedience, or prudence; for particular circumstances vary infinitely, and every nation must observe its own traditions and historical experience––which should take precedence over universal notions drawn up in some quiet study. Yet Burke did not abjure general ideas; he distinguished between “abstraction” (or a priori notions divorced from a nation’s history and necessities) and “principle” (or sound general ideas derived from a knowledge of human nature and of the past). Principles are necessary to a statesman, but they must be applied discreetly and with infinite caution to the workaday world. The preceding six conservative principles, therefore, are to be taken as a rough catalogue of the general assumptions of conservatives, and not as a tidy system of doctrines for governing a state. 

. . . .

Coleridge wrote that in any state there must be its Permanence, or elements of stability and continuity; and its Progression, or elements of growth and experiment. If the restraining conservative influence were destroyed, any society would fly apart from the vertiginous speed of change.

In that sense, a kind of universal conservatism may be glimpsed. It has not been stamped out even in the Soviet Union. Under tribulation, it is nurtured by an instinct for veneration almost inextinguishable in some people; by an insight best expressed by Richard Hooker: “The reason first why we do admire those things which are greatest, and second those things which are ancientest, is because the one are the least distant from the infinite substance, the other from the infinite continuance, of God.”

At bottom, then, conservatism is not a matter of economic interests and economic theories; not a matter of political advantages and political systems; not a matter of power or preferment. If we penetrate to the root, we discover that “conservatism” is a way of looking at the human condition. As a conservative Polish proverb puts it, “Old truths, old laws, old boots, old books, and old friends are the best.” The conservative impulse is a man’s desire to walk in the paths that his father followed; it is a woman’s desire for the sureties of hearth and home.

In every culture, what does the imaginative conservative aspire to conserve? Why, to conserve order: both order in the soul and order in the state. With Luke, the man of conservative impulses says to himself, “No man having drunk old wine straightaway desireth new; for he saith, The old is better.” Out of the deep well of the past comes order; and as Simone Weil reminds us, “Order is the first need of all.” 

From revelation, from right reason, from poetic vision, from much study, from the experience of the species––so the conservative argues––we human beings have learned certain ways and principles of order. Were we lacking these, we would lie at the mercy of will and appetite––in private life, in public concerns. It is this order, this old safeguard against private and public anarchy, which the conservative refuses to surrender to the evangels of Progress. Were there no ordering of the soul and of the state, no human society could survive; indeed, no civilized individual could endure. That being so, conservative beliefs will not cease to be unless the civil social order ceases to be. 

“Imagination governs the human race.” Who said that? No poet: instead, Napoleon, master of the big battalions. He knew that in the long run, the power of the moral imagination exceeds the power of a whiff of grapeshot. If the world is entering upon the Post-Modern Age (John Lukacs has set A.D. 1945 as the Year Zero of this Post-Modern Age), new-seeming ideas and new-seeming modes of statecraft may grow popular during the next few decades. The Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes may turn out, after all, to be revived truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives. 

Lionel Trilling, more than thirty years ago, found the liberal imagination nearly bankrupt; that kind of imagination has not prospered since then. It may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age, particularly in America. The aim of Burke, says Paul Elmer More, was “to use the imagination as a force for order and self-restraint and political health.” It is just conceivable that such conservative imagination may attain its fullness in the twenty-first century.

Copyright © The Russell Kirk Legacy, LLC


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