11 minute read


Origins Of Conservatism: Britain, France, And Germany

Restricting the scope of politics in this manner has made conservatism appear at odds with the promise of modernity. Certainly, any political project to remove evil from the world is for the religious conservative an act of impiety, just as any project to perfect humankind is for the secular conservative an act of dangerous folly. The difficulty remains that these fundamental criticisms of modern hubris are easily dismissed as nostalgic, self-interested, and most damning of all, irrationally prejudiced. If conservative irrationalism can be ascribed to any particular failing, it is thought to be the presumption of resisting historical progress. In this view, conservatism and modernization are antithetical, since to be modern is to assume history to be linear and its meaning to be emancipation from ignorant custom. That is an audacious concept of politics that understands traditional restraints to be obstacles to manifest destiny.

Conventional historical wisdom has been that the event that transformed these terms of political argument was the French Revolution. That convention is a sound one. The main currents of European intellectual life were drawn into the revolution, and out of it emerged the modern narrative of progress versus reaction, improvement versus obstruction, and reason versus tradition that was to shape political reflection in the course of the following two centuries. This has been an influential narrative and a persuasive one. In its light, conservatism at best serves as a prudential brake on the wheels of change, at worst as an insufferable denial of human development. In neither case is it thought to involve anything of substantial value or intellectual significance. Nevertheless, the temptation to interpret conservatism as "antimodern" should be resisted, for to be conservative does not entail a passive acceptance of the status quo. Rather it involves a critical encounter with what exists. Conservatism was itself a nineteenth-century neologism for a modern, novel, self-conscious disposition in politics and as such is a contemporary of socialism, liberalism, and nationalism. Its meaning has been given by modern experience and its content by the recurring expression of certain principles in the work of thinkers alarmed into reflection by revolutionary activity. Conservatism, in other words, has a history, not a nature, and that is an insight owed to the Irish "philosopher in action," Edmund Burke (1729–1797).


If Burke is taken to be paradigmatic of conservative thought, it is by attribution rather than by design. Burke drew on a large repertoire of ideas, such as the social-contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) and the skeptical conventionalism of David Hume (1711–1776), and marshaled them like a great melodist to challenge the abstract "speculatism" of the French revolutionaries. Writing from within a culture of constitutional monarchy that had only recently and precariously secured its legitimacy (albeit with the loss of the American colonies), Burke's intent in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is to warn against the implications of revolutionary principles, which he thinks are as subversive of good government as they are of bad. If society is indeed a social contract, it is a contract "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born," and in that formulation Burke tries to make safe two of the potentially radical loose ends bequeathed by Locke. Political society, Burke argues, is not dissolvable according to demands made by the present generation, and the "tacit" consent of contemporaries is assumed because of their inherited obligations and future responsibilities. Burke does refer these obligations and responsibilities to laws of nature, but he is aware that nature can be a false friend. It is those very "natural" rights, so beloved by revolutionaries in France, that he dismisses as being incompatible with the "real" rights of political society. For Burke, to "follow nature" is not a radical invitation to rebel against society but an injunction to accept one's "second nature" as a dutiful member of a historically achieved political order. Since history is a record of experience and since all practical knowledge is a product of experience, history supplies a sufficient guide to political activity. From that empiricist rather than natural-law premise, Burke proposes that prudence, circumstance, utility, convenience, and respect for order provide the proper conditions for liberty, while abstract theorizing delivers the condition of "rational despotism."

For some, this committed Burke (and conservatism) to an "organic" theory of society. That is an understandable interpretation, but a degree of caution is required because the argument is more subtle and the content less mysterious than the expression "organic" sometimes implies. Burke's notion of the constitution assumes an arrangement in which order and liberty presuppose one another. It assumes that the individual is part of and has meaning within a social order of classes or estates and that the state is an authoritative expression of that social order. The "little platoons" of immediate identity are functional to stability because their education in local and social affection forms the basis of patriotism. On the one hand, the state cannot be absolute, for its existence depends on the life of its parts and it has a duty to secure them. On the other hand, reasons of state cannot be reduced alone to the protection of the rights of individuals. If revolutionary theorizing would dissolve these historical associations into dust and make social relationships as evanescent as the "flies of summer," Burke's model was not an alternative blueprint. Unlike the revolutionary's vision of France as "nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble anything he pleases," Burke is defending what he takes to be the actual life of the British state, monarchical, aristocratic, and constitutional.

The paradigmatic conservatism of Burke's thought lies in its evocation of sympathy for what is enduring in a political association. While revolutionary politics proclaim a profound incompatability between the values of the people and the principles of traditional structures of government, Burke proclaims a deep congruence. Tradition, which is shorthand for a politics of congruence, emerges from his work as an important value in conservative politics. Conservatism puts the idea of tradition to work in defense of the political order. It seeks to encourage people to accept the world around them, for it just happens to be the world in which we do live and it is one that sets limits to political change. In the British case, the ability of the political order to secure its authority through prolonged periods of economic and social change appeared to confirm Burke's maxim that a state without the means of reform is without the means of its own conservation. It also appeared to confirm his assumption that the advancement of civilization owes more to the advantages of stability than it does to the pursuit of abstract rights. In the conduct of reform, continuity is secured because improvements are never wholly new and what is retained is never wholly obsolete. Of course, the reconciled condition that conservatism proposes is reconciliation within the ideology itself and not necessarily reconciliation in experience. It is possible to conceive of reality as being seriously at odds with the ideology.


This was the case for conservatives in France, where, unlike the happy condition of Britain, the experience and effect of revolution had disconnected the state from what they believed to be the true spirit of society. This compelled thinking through with passionate intensity questions of order and legitimacy, and it fostered a politics that made fundamental distinctions between what is true and what exists. In this case what mattered was the fractured rather than the coherent relationship between political structures and spiritual truth. The legitimacy of those who had usurped power in the name of reason could never be secure against the consecrated authority they had displaced. The task of conservative political argument was to recall people to their true allegiance by clarifying the principles that had been forsaken.

For Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753–1821), the French Revolution represents divine retribution for the sins of the godless Enlightenment and the "century of blasphemy" that had preceded it. One consequence of that blasphemy is the rationalist misconception involved in the creation of a written constitution. The true constitution is not to be found in the fine words of such a document but in the public spirit that should animate it. For de Maistre, "what is written is nothing." The constitution is divine in origin, and only when one acts in harmony with God can his or her actions be creative. Once separated from the Creator, people's actions are rendered negative and destructive. The rule of number, implied by popular sovereignty, has nothing to do with the rule of justice and would ultimately prove to be self-destructive. This is what the course of revolutionary history reveals to conservatives—a succession of failed constitutions of increasing perniciousness and impiety. That disastrous history is as much the fault of the internal corruption of the ancien régime as of the arguments of the philosophes. Ironically then, the revolution will serve as a necessary purgative and will lead to the inevitable, because divinely ordained, restoration of monarchy, religion, and nation. That dissociation between the social and the political as well as the theocratic justification for the restoration of the ancien régime is also found in the work of Louis de Bonald (1754–1840). Monarchy and church, throne and altar, will together bring back into harmony the body and spirit of the nation that the French political revolution had willfully divided. It will, moreover, defeat secular nationalism and replace it with ultramontane Catholicism.

Like Burke, de Maistre and de Bonald associated the terror and the chaos in France with the new, rapacious, self-seeking, revolutionary elite, and they formulated a sociology as well as a pathology of revolution to account for it. They recall to attention the monstrosity of humankind when liberals may prefer to flatter humanity, and they remind one that original sin may be a better guide to modern history than natural goodness. Nevertheless, there are a number of problems with their denunciation of revolutionary presumption. Like radicalism, their thought conveys a profound alienation between what is and what ought to be and, like radicalism, presents itself as a science of politics with a blueprint of restoration as grandiose as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Moreover, de Maistre's celebrated recommendation that if "you wish to conserve all, consecrate all" is a proposition that transforms the sacred into human artifice, as impious to the true faith as the revolutionary consecration of the cult of the Supreme Being. The intelligent reflection necessary to make the case for conserving all tends to corrode the myths upon which traditions depend and collapses conservatism into very unconservative reaction.


If conservatism in Britain defended the congruence and conservatism in France demanded the restoration of harmony between the social and political orders, then conservatism in nineteenth-century Germany aspired to bring together an idea of the social and an idea of the political. Here revolutionary France in all its horrible fascination was instructive, demonstrating not only the radical dangers of popular sovereignty but also the military effectiveness of national unity. A romantic evocation of the cultural and racial characteristics of the Volk existed alongside a statist philosophy of realpolitik. Both were to contribute to an aggressive nationalism favored by those who thought German culture threatened by alien influences and by those who thought its state insufficiently powerful. If these tendencies are present in some measure in all conservative politics, they were to take a radical and racist turn in twentieth-century German history when combined in the detraditionalized, de-Christianized, alienated, genocidal (and so unconservative) shape of National Socialism.

A very different sort of reconciliation is provided by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), whose philosophy courageously addresses the central problem of modernity—the idea of progress—that conservative thought either chose to veil (like Burke) or to deny (like de Maistre). The conservative suspicion of progress is that it denies the present in pursuit of the future. A restless and limitless ambition for change, based on an abstract model of human experience, makes modernity into a political project to be implemented rather than a process (for good and ill) to be understood. The French Revolution was such a political project, and Hegel attempts to map the lineage and the lineaments of the modern state in order to contain the destructive potential of the ideal of emancipation (that Hegelianism was not the project of modernity, the fulfillment of which demanded a new science of revolution, was well understood by that most insightful student, Karl Marx). On the conviction that the rational is actual and the actual is rational, Hegel argues in The Philosophy of Right (1821), the "plain man like the philosopher takes his stand." The task of the philosopher is to reveal the rationality of the common-sense intuition of the plain person. Hegel does not approve an institution on the basis of Burkean prescription—that its survival alone is sufficient justification of its rationality—but on the basis of its conformity with the rational self-understanding of the age. Such rationalism and historicism sit uneasily with conservative traditionalism, which often despises the self-understanding of the age and believes that the best reason for a practice is that no reason need be given. Despite his philosophical ambivalence, Hegel's appeal to the conservative is twofold. His reflections satisfy the need to feel that the enjoyment of present liberties is meaningful and should not be sacrificed to some abstract "ought to be." They also satisfy that deep desire to arrest the disturbing uncertainties of modern life within stable political institutions. Ironically, it has been these emotional satisfactions rather than his rational metaphysical system that constitute Hegel's enduring attraction to conservative thinkers.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConservatism - Origins Of Conservatism: Britain, France, And Germany, The Challenge Of The Modern, Conservatism: Civil And Cultural