The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 01, 2015

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American Conservative Thought

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

A survey text on modern Western ideologies published in the Soviet Union during the Cold War identified conservatism as the oldest—indeed the original—ideology. In that work of Soviet social science, conservatism was described as the belief common among ancient Greeks and Romans, perhaps common in all traditional societies, that a “golden age” lay in the past, that our ancestors were heroes and demigods and that we are but mortal men. This interpretation, which reduces conservatism to mere pious veneration of the ancestral, marks the remotest extreme into the past that scholars have gone in the effort to discern the “roots” of conservatism. Among Western academics, less remote yet still distant origins have been suggested. At least one American political theorist has tried to tie the conservative tradition back to Plato’s “philosophy of harmony”—in contrast to those political philosophies descending from Hobbes that consider a state of conflict to be fundamental for man. Others have suggested medieval progenitors, such as Thomas Aquinas, with his doctrine of natural law. Still others have considered David Hume, with his decidedly pragmatic and antifoundational approach to politics, as the source of a conservatism identified with “historical utilitarianism.” For the most part, however, conservatism as we know it is understood to have made its first appearance in the world with Edmund Burke’s 1790 polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Storming the Bastille, 1789

This fact is significant, for it means that conservatism is really the second “ideology” to make its appearance in the modern world. Conservatism comes not before but rather after the revolutionary imposition of a species of ideological liberalism in the French Revolution: it is newer than liberalism, a reaction to an ideological fait accompli. This origin has stamped a consistent character on succeeding conservatisms in at least four ways:

  1. Unlike other political-intellectual tendencies in the modern era, conservatism is identified more by what it opposes than by what it is seeking to achieve: it is “naturally” oppositional, more certain of what is wrong than of what is necessarily right.
  2. As a result, conservative governance traditionally emphasizes prudence, thoughtful action with respect to contingent particulars, as its cardinal virtue. It is not given to grand projects or “transformational” politics.
  3. Another result of conservatism’s natural oppositionality is that there is genuine intellectual substance to conservatism, because there are consistent substantive social effects of the progressive ideologies which conservatism opposes.
  4. Finally, as Joseph de Maistre argued, what conservatives do want is not a “counterrevolution” but rather the contrary of revolution.

In the end, as Russell Kirk always maintained, conservatism is not really one ideology among many, with its own set of pat reductionisms and abstractions; rather, it is the “negation of ideology,” with a corresponding openness to reality in all its multitudinous complexity. In an ideological age, conservatism opposes ideology.

Turning to American history, it is difficult at first to give a satisfactory account of conservatism through the years. The most notable attempt has been that of Russell Kirk, whose Conservative Mind is widely recognized as one of the founding texts of the American conservative revival after 1945. But Kirk’s genealogy, which weaves together British and American thinkers into a seamless garment, has never lacked for critics.

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