Conservatism is probably the most hated and misunderstood philosophy in the English speaking world. Most people who self-identify as conservative aren’t actually conservative. Most of the hate that conservatism receives is actually the internal divisions of liberalism, between its modernizing and logically fulfilling wing (progressivism) and the defenders of the “classical” liberal wing which now goes by the name “conservatism” in much of the Anglosphere. In reality, philosophical conservatism – while strongly opposing liberalism – does not have any political movement to its name, not even Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, or Marine Le Pen. Just as I pointed out in the essay “What is Progressivism?” conservatism is rooted in communitarianism, teleology, and Lebenswelt, not “low taxes,” “government off your back,” “pro-growth economics,” and “free trade.”
Liberalism is not conservatism, and conservatism is not liberalism. This is one of the first things any student of philosophy, and especially political philosophy, will learn. What is liberalism? Liberalism, like conservatism, seems to mean many things to many different people – some good, some bad, and everything in between.
Aristotle, in explaining epistemology (the study of knowledge), which was then cultivated by Christian philosophers (especially St. Anselm), stated “To say of something which is that it is not, or to say of something which is not that it is, is false. However, to say of something which is that it is, or of something which is not that it is not, is true.” Thus, to speak of something falsely – even if it is the “colloquial” usage of the term, is to speak falsely of it. Such a person is not speaking truth, and highlights themselves as an anti-intellectual, and probably an ideologue. In philosophy, sans postmodernism, clarity and specificity of language and reference is important. Since philosophy maintains that there is truth and we can know it, language, which is meant to reflect and propel humans to an understanding of truth and knowledge, must be understood at all times.
Before we explore the two dominant strands that have influenced conservative philosophy, we must first begin by understanding what conservatism is not. While I plan a larger explanation of liberalism and economism, what most people call as conservatism is, in fact, classical liberal economism, and I will briefly outline that here to juxtapose with conservatism.
Liberalism, as a philosophical tradition, emerges in the early modern period with the publication of Francis Bacon’s New Science. Liberalism, as a political philosophy – and is still rooted in Bacon’s foundations – emerges in the 17th century with a famous trio of names: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Benedict Spinoza (or Baruch Spinoza). Later figures like Sidney Algernon, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo are also important in the development of liberal theory and thought. With the exception of Locke, a common feature of liberal philosophy emerges: materialism (Locke, properly speaking, is something of an empirical dualist – which is actually important for Lockean liberalism’s slow moving radicalism over the centuries and gives Lockean liberalism a cursory “traditionalism” to it). Other common universal features in Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Algernon, Smith, and Ricardo are (1) state of nature anthropology, (2) social contract politics, and (3) economism (contingently related to materialism for all but Locke, for Locke, economism is related to the right to property).
Philosophical liberalism denies pluralism, and asserts, in its place, a monistic universalism that is tied to its materialism and economism (as well as social contract thought). Rather than creatures of an instinctively social and communitarian nature, liberalism asserts the opposite – we are instinctively a-social creatures, this will give rise to the notion of anthropological atomism (the view that all persons are “atomized individuals” who care not for community except for when it suits their individual needs and advancement). Likewise, we are not creatures of innate ideas and desire for wisdom, beauty, or happiness (per Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian philosophy), instead we are “blank slates” (tabula rasa) with only the capacity for life and consumption (conatus). From the state of nature, which is either a “war of all against all” in which violent death falls on most (if not, we live in constant fear of violent death), or we are beset by the anxieties of constant fear and danger of invasion, loss of property, and live of solitary life of subsistent production and consumption for oneself, the establishment of the social contract “saves” us from this wretched state whereby life, “liberty,” and production (from property ownership) is finally allowed to take off and “flourish.”
Because of liberalism’s materialistic understanding of human nature – if we can call it that – “flourishing” and “happiness” is no longer something innate to us, it is not an ontological and teleological property, or Form, to use Greek language, instead it is completely external, fleeting, and rooted in the material. Flourishing is not ontological happiness as Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas asserted, instead, it is “whoever possesses the most stuff.” Happiness, likewise, in liberal philosophy, rejects Aquinas’s rebuttal in the Summa that external goods, created goods, and bodily pleasures is where “real happiness” is found – instead, happiness is found precisely where Aquinas maintained only fleeting happiness could be: external, created, and bodily goods. (This is because of liberalism’s metaphysical and ontological materialism.) But as Leo Strauss noted back in 1953, liberalism’s account of happiness is the “joyless quest for joy.”
Life, in liberalism, is reduced to what philosopher Martin Hollis called the “novus homo economicus” (the “new economic man”). Reason, then, is not the rationalism of Platonism, Neo-Platonism, or even the mixed rationalism and empiricism of Aristotelianism or Augustinianism, instead, it is pure materialistic mathematical reasoning. Whatever leads to the greatest outcome of material acquisition is now that which is “reasonable.” As the pristine liberal publication The Economist wrote in July 2017, a world of open movements and open borders, while it would be initially “disruptive,” would be worth it because we would end up being “$78 trillion richer.”
This mentality is called “economism” in philosophy. Economism is the bedrock of liberalism. The purpose of producerism so as to have greater consumerism is the reason for the social contract in the classical liberal philosophers. Furthermore, economism became the foundation for the development of modern social (consumer-oriented) liberalism in the early 20th century. Most philosophers and political theorists, far from seeing “modern liberalism” or “social liberalism” as being deviant from classical liberal thought, understand modern liberalism as the natural, logical, and necessary extension of classical liberal thought. I will return to this at a later date, as mentioned already.
Thus, those – like Sean Hannity – who claim conservatism is about “capitalism,” “low taxes,” “getting government off your back,” “pro-growth economics,” and “protecting our producers” or “protecting our consumers” are, in fact, classical liberals and classical Whigs. They are not, and have never been, “conservative” even if they use that term 24/7 to describe themselves as such (and their opponents and critics use the term too). It is sad, going back to Aristotle’s statement of communicative epistemology, that a supposedly “educated” 21st century society can’t even understand – or know – the basics of philosophy and political philosophy.
Conservatism, when one studies it in philosophy, comes in two waves. The first is classical and traditional, and, in fact, Western Traditionalism is not really unique apart from Christianity (we’ll touch on this in a moment). The second is far more Western-centric, and more specifically, Euro-centric; the second wave of conservatism emerged – not in the counterrevolution of the French Revolution – but the intellectual counterrevolution which liberal intellectuals dubbed “The Counter Enlightenment” (though philosophers tend not to use that term anymore). Conservatism’s second wave begins with the rise of German Romanticism, and important reversals of classical conservative thought, as well as points of emphases, arise with the emergence of Johann Herder, Georg Hegel, Johann Fichte, and the Right Hegelians and their descendants.
Classical Conservatism, or Traditionalism, is both Western and universal in this sense. The core of traditionalist philosophy is rooted in the ontology of love – but not the cheap and consumerized brand of “love” today (free sex, sensuality, and bodily experience) – specifically love of family, love of community, and love of one’s land. Traditionalism promotes a filial pietism that is common in Confucian and Shinto philosophy just as it is in Pagan, Jewish, and Christian philosophy – after all, the Decalogue proclaims to honor and love one’s parents.
Patriotism, rather than 19th century notions of “nationalism,” also dominates classical conservative thought. (In some way, it also motivates an animating spirit in Chinese Irredentist foreign policy.) Patriotism, rooted in the Greek word patris, which means “fatherland,” and the Latin pater, meaning “father.” Patriotism, properly speaking in philosophy, is the “love of one’s fatherland.” Thus, we return how patriotism is rooted in the ontology of love – which is the basis of filialism, and also the basis of patriotism. Without love, one cannot embrace filialism or patriotism – it is a blank and dead soul, or spirit, toward one’s parents and one’s symbolic parents (one’s land, or country). Just as your parents nurtured you when you were young, your land also nurtured you at the same time – thus, love of land is an extension of love of the nurturing side of one’s parents in traditionalist thought.
Filialism and patriotism are universal across all corners of traditionalist thought, whether it be European, Asian, or tribalistic. Classical conservatism, as it relates to the Western tradition, however, is rooted in a deep philosophical anthropology: humanism.
Humanism is not what most uneducated and illiterate people think humanism is. “Humanism,” as most people use the term today – which is more or less the “secular humanism” of liberalism and want to detach humanness from religion even though religion, specifically Christianity, became the most important force in establishing humanism and a systematic account and understanding of human nature – is nothing but a Jacobinal anti-humanism quite frankly, but all students of philosophy already know this. Contemporary “humanism” denies the basics of human nature, teleological ontology, and is really a front for transhumanism. Humanism, properly, is the assertion that there is a (1) universal human nature (by definition, if we are all human then human nature must apply to all), (2) that human nature is good and beautiful, and (3) humans have a natural end (telos).
Traditional conservatism’s humanism is rooted in its heavy emphasis on philosophical anthropology – this, as all students of philosophy know, is the child of Christianity. While the Greeks and Romans, especially Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, concerned themselves with questions of human ontology, none really gave systematic concern to anthropology in the same manner that Christian philosophy eventually did. This, in part, is the “uniqueness” about traditional conservatism in the West – it is tied to humanism (properly understood) because of the historical rise and legacy of Christianity.
Classical conservatism’s anthropological foundation is what sets it apart from liberalism, and even the second wave of conservatism. According to classical conservative anthropology – following from influences from Aristotle, Cicero, Roman Stoicism, and especially Augustinian-Thomistic anthropology (Catholic anthropology), humans are inherently and instinctively social animals who desire community, but in their desire for community not only are humans socially communitarian animals but also hierarchal animals. Additionally, classical conservatism’s teleological anthropology maintains that humans desire knowledge and happiness. This too follows from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire knowledge” and from Catholic anthropology which built upon Aristotle in asserting that the desire for knowledge is the harmony of desire being ordered by Logos to achieve the more ultimate end of knowledge: happiness. Catholic doctrine even enshrines this anthropology as it declares, “truth and happiness [is what man] never stops searching for.”
Accordingly, classical conservatism’s anthropological focus is what dominates its core foundations. Classical conservatism is a humanist movement – humanism properly understood – and because of its obsessive concern over human nature, it sees organic evolution and all of the outgrowths of the human spirit as a reflection of human nature. Human nature leads to love of family, which extends to love of community which is the extension of humanity’s social animus, and the love of family and community leads to a love of the land in which people live in.
The first wave of conservatism, perhaps paradoxically to some, is the synthesis of Paganism and Christianity – insofar that traditional Christianity (e.g. Catholicism, Anglo-Catholicism, and Orthodoxy) always saw Pagan philosophy and literature in a positive light. After all, St. Justin Martyr extolled Plato in the Apologies, Plato and Plotinus were held in high esteem by Augustine, Tertullian loved Seneca and Seneca influenced Augustine, even in the Confessions Augustine admits that it was the beauty of Pagan literature (Virgil and Cicero in particular) that led him to God and cultivated his eventual growing appreciation of the beauty of the Hebrew Bible. Pagan literature, especially the works of Homer and Virgil, were de-facto Christian study books. In a certain sense, traditionalist Catholicism (and not “traditionalist” in the post-Trent pro-Latin mass sense) integrated Virgil’s Aeneid as the co-Exodus foundation for Europe – not only was the Biblical Exodus a shaping and cultivating story because of Christianity’s relationship to its Hebraic foundations, but Aeneas’s exodus from Troy to Rome was also “divinely ordained” because of the primacy that Rome came to occupy European history, the Christian tradition, and the Euro-Christian imagination. The Exodus of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt may have been the spiritual exodus that Christianity would be tied to theologically, but the flight of Aeneas from Troy to Rome would be the political, historical, and cultural exodus for a Christian Europe.
Classical conservatism sees the products of human nature and the human project as something that we inherit, give meaning to our lives (and has given meaning to our lives), and is worth preserving, propagating, and continuing to refine. Some postmodernists have even argued, along with anti-Catholic Protestants, that the anthropocentric and humanist impulse of classical conservatism served as the roots for its self-exhaustion into fascism (postmodernist assertion) and an apostatized Christianity (anti-Catholic Biblicist Protestant assertion). While such assertions are clearly motivated by a particular ideology in mind – we can understand classical conservatism as concerned with human nature, philosophical anthropology, the inheritance, preservation, and propagation of the broad cultural achievements passed on to us in the present. Related to this includes what we began with: emphasis on filialism and patriotism – love of self, family, and land.
Furthermore, classical conservatism understands the materialist and economistic (e.g. economism) anthropology of liberalism to be nihilistic and Jacobinal. Life, simply put, to the classical conservative is much more than just economics. Life is not just about economics. Justice is not just about economics (e.g. economic redistribution). Politics is not just about economics. Community is not just about economics. Instead, culture, literature, religion, human nature, love of self, community, and land, as well as the cultivation of human virtue, are what the politeia is truly about and embodies. Lastly, we might understand classical conservatism as embodying and elitist, agrarian, and aristocratic ethos in life and politics. (This will also be important in distinguishing classical conservatism with the second wave of conservatism.)
The second wave of conservatism – as it relates to the Western intellectual tradition – begins with German Romanticism. We might call this “Romantic Conservatism” to distinguish it from “Classical Conservatism” or “Traditionalism” which we just outlined. Romanticism has been equally vilified by liberal writers and intellectuals, casting it as the primacy of emotion and passion over reason, of militancy over diplomacy and compromise, and the ultimate root for the rise of 20th century totalitarianism. Most scholars of Romanticism, however, especially Frederick Beiser, have countered against such claims.
Important names in the formation of Conservative Romanticism were Johann Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Justus Möser, Adam Müller, Hegel, and Johann Fichte. What they have in common is a revolt against the materialism and universalism of liberalism, and a strong emphasis on cultural relativism. By cultural relativism, one does not necessarily mean “relativism” in the sophist and postmodern sense – e.g. all knowledge and ethics are relative (which is to say there is no formal knowledge or ethics). Instead, we might better understand Herder’s cultural relativism as the cultural particularity that Hegel eventually codified (and Hegel built from Herder). That is to say, while all humans still share the same human nature (by definition), all cultures are different, and reflect in of themselves the values of that particular group of people.
What separates this second wave of conservatism from the first is the shift concerns. Romantic conservatism generally eschewed humanism and human nature – anthropology as it relates to human nature – in favor of linguistic primordialism and cultural studies. This concentration of language and culture is the basis for Heder’s volksgeist (people’s spirit), and therefore romanticism took on a more populare and “democratic” outlook – a romanticized notion of the “general will.” In particular, German Romanticism reversed the basic concreteness of classical conservative anthropology: self, family, community, and nation, to nation, community, family, and self. Rather than the self and one’s immediate family as the foundations for community and nation, Romanticism understood nation and community as what influenced family and the self. Some might say that Romanticism fundamentally redefined filialism and patriotism into a non-Jacobinal nationalism. (We must remember that the original nationalism of the late Enlightenment and mid-19th century were inherently progressive at their core.)
A further irony emerges in Romanticism’s cultural relativism. To Hamann, Herder, and Hegel, religion is the basis of culture. Now, the religion of the German Romantics was also unique. The German Romantics, sans a few from Southern Germany, were mostly Lutherans and deeply suspicious of Catholicism. From a historical perspective, the importance of religion to the formation of culture was a means by which the Romantics could “Germanize” Christianity (in particular, Lutheranism), and circumvent the authorial claims of Roman Christianity.
In its own ways, Conservative Romanticism also attempts to integrate Paganism and Christianity (since no serious conservatism can ignore either of the two most dominate strands that gave rise and influence to Western identity, consciousness, and literature) – but unlike classical conservatism which can better be seen as an attempt to Christianize Paganism, Romantic Conservatism embarked on the attempt to (re)Paganize Christianity (and Protestantism, especially Lutheranism, more explicitly). Altogether, however, this differs from the hedonistic atheism of Hobbesian liberalism or the secularization of religion into a “civil religion” per Rousseau (which just exhausts itself into atheism anyway). To the German Romantics, a direct line could be traced from Germanic Pagan mythology to medieval German mysticism (e.g. Meister Eckhart) to the eventual emergence of German Lutheranism. Thus, Germanic Christianity has an established and organic line to it that provided it with its own cultural uniqueness.
This emphasis on cultural uniqueness gave rise to the notion of Lebenswelt (life-world) in Romantic philosophy. It was this Lebenswelt of culture, which Martin Heidegger called bodenständigkeit (deep roots) that was under threat by materialistic and mechanistic liberalism. Liberalism’s sterilizing vision of the world, the triumph of economistic rationalism, and the reduction of all life as nothing but matter in motion and the pursuit of ever greater material possessions was perceived as a nihilistic and ablating force to the spirit of culture (and culture means life).
The end result of this troubled concern over liberalism gave way to a form of romanticist nationalism that was conservative in the anti-Jacobinal sense. The nationalism of Herder, Hegel, and Fichte was one rooted in want to protect itself from external threats, but one that was not interested in expanding – or imposing – itself over other cultures and peoples. Thus, in romanticism, nationalism takes on a messianic and salvific quality and character. The emphasis on “passion” and “emotion” simply reflect that passion and emotion are essential to the human condition and embody a core element to what it means to be human. A soulless, passionless, and emotionless world is not a place worth living – in fact, per Oswald Spengler, the rise of soulless, passionless, and emotionless “civilization” represents the death of culture and slow demise of Lebenswelt which inevitably concludes with the destruction of bodenständigkeit.
It is not so much that romantic conservatism is antagonistic to classical conservatism, but we can note – and see – important distinctions of the character of classical conservatism and romantic conservatism. Classical conservatism values and emphasizes humanism, human nature, and philosophical anthropology, whereas romantic conservatism values and emphasizes language, cultural particularity, and the nation. Classical conservatism’s religious soul is a Christianized Paganism whereas Romantic conservatism’s religious soul is a Paganized Christianity; both, however, are deeply opposed to the implicit atheism of liberalism and the secularized and controlled “civil religion” of Rousseauianism. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, classical conservatism’s concreteness is rooted in the self and family (from which common community and nation emerge as being shaped by filialism) while romantic conservatism’s concreteness is rooted in the nation and common community (which shape and influence the nature of filialism).
When I closed the brief commentary on classical conservatism I noted that classical conservatism’s high cultural aesthetic and ethos was agrarian and aristocratic in nature. Romanticism pushes in a more völkische direction (following Herder’s volksgeist), and is therefore far more populist in character than classical conservatism which harbors a natural distrust of the “masses” whereas romanticism celebrates the passion and energy of the masses. The energies of life and culture take precedence over the safeguarding and ordering of human nature and teleology to their natural ends. With regard to the importance placed on the role of religion in shaping culture and uniqueness, classical conservatism tends to be Catholic or culturally Catholic while romantic conservatism tends to be common among the High Church Protestant traditions – this is, of course, a loose prognostication since there are Protestants who fit the classical conservative mentality just as there are Catholics in the romantic conservative tradition.
What the two waves of conservatism share, however, is an opposition to economism, an opposition to materialism, an outlook that sees the attempt to graft humanity into the novus homo economicus as deeply nihilistic and totalitarian, a celebration of the importance of religion, literature, and the arts, and an outright rejection of philosophical liberalism and progressivism. Furthermore, both waves are humanistic – but in different lights. Classical conservatism’s humanism rests on its privileging of human nature and teleology to the fore, whereas romantic conservatism’s humanism rests on an almost apocalyptic and forlorn hope defense of passion, emotion, and spiritedness (thumos) of human life and creative endeavors and capacities. Lastly, both classical conservatism and romantic conservatism understand history as a process of organic evolution, with everything deeply intertwined and interconnected with each other.
Both classical conservatism, and romantic conservatism, however, has been forced out of the public sphere of social contract orthodoxy. After all, the so-called “conservative” or “rightwing” parties of the world are really (neo)liberal parties rooted in the classical liberal producerism and economism of Locke and Smith while modern liberalism is rooted in the social liberal consumerism of early 20th century progressivism and Gotha social democracy. Conservatism, as it properly exists – and as all philosophy students learn of it – exists as an intellectual, artistic, and religious movement moreover than a political movement. But as society has become more politicized, reflecting and embodying Aristotle’s disparaged “man of action,” Cicero’s “man of folly,” and David Hume’s “false philosophy,” it is precisely conservatism’s intellectuality that has harmed it in the age of politicization, revolution, and the social contract that is imposed to keep conservative philosophy and ideas out of public acceptance and orthodoxy.