What Is Conservatism?

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the work of the eighteenth-century philosopher, politician and writer Edmund Burke. Born in Dublin, Burke began his career in London as a journalist and made his name with two works of philosophy before entering Parliament. There he quickly established a reputation as one of the most formidable orators of an age which also included Pitt the Younger. When unrest began in America in the 1760s, Burke was quick to defend the American colonists in their uprising. But it was his response to another revolution which ensured he would be remembered by posterity. In 1790 he published Reflections on the Revolution in France, a work of great literary verve which attacked the revolutionaries and predicted disaster for their project. The book prompted Thomas Paine to write his masterpiece Rights of Man, and Mary Wollstonecraft was among the others to take part in the ensuing pamphlet war. Burke's influence shaped our parliamentary democracy and attitude to Empire, and lingers today.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Edmund Burke

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

For Conservatives, all disputes over law, liberty and justice are addressed to a historic and existing community. The root of politics, they believe, is attachment – the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people who are theirs. When socialists promise a more equal society they are talking about us; when liberals offer to expand the list of human rights, they mean the rights that we enjoy.

The language of politics is spoken in the first-person plural, and for Conservatives, the duty of the politician is to maintain that first-person plural in being. Without it, law becomes an alien imposition, not ours but theirs, like the laws imposed by a conquering power. Conservatives are not reactionaries. As Edmund Burke said, “we must reform in order to conserve” – or, in more modern idiom: we must adapt. But adaptation means survival, and survival means a maintained identity...

Continue reading Roger Scruton's article: Why it’s so much harder to think like a Conservative 

Further Reading

It is contested both what conservatism is, and what it could or ought to be—both among the public and politicians, and among the philosophers and political theorists that this article inevitably focuses on. Popularly, “conservative” is often a generic term for “right-wing viewpoint occupying the political spectrum between liberalism and fascism”. Philosophical commentators offer a more distinctive characterisation. Many treat it as a standpoint that is sceptical of abstract reasoning in politics, and that appeals instead to living tradition, allowing for the possibility of limited political reform. On this view, conservatism is neither dogmatic reaction, nor the right-wing radicalism of Margaret Thatcher or contemporary American “neo-conservatives”. Other commentators, however, contrast this “pragmatic conservatism” with a universalist “rational conservatism” that is not sceptical of reason, and that regards a community with a hierarchy of authority as most conducive to human well-being...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Conservatism by Andy Hamilton

Related Topics

If you’re interested in conservatism, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Political Philosophy | Revolution | Utopia

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