Political Philosophy: What is Conservatism?

In beginning a series of explanatory overviews of various schools of political philosophy, I have started to decide with the most ancient of the schools of thought: Conservatism.  For English-speaking people, conservatism is a term that has infiltrated public consciousness but few seem to understand it.  In particular the two greatest groups of offenders of the term “conservatism” are both those who embrace the term for describing themselves and those critics or detractors who use it pejoratively.  Since this is a site about philosophy, and not the ignorant musings of the New York Times, CNN, or Fox News, I will warn readers now that the definitions and outlooks of the political philosophies I intend to cover will cause you to have apoplectic reactions if you’re unwilling to join a serious and philosophical overview and consideration of the topic at hand (e.g. you subscribe to non-philosophical outlooks concerning these terms).  Thus, proceed at your own discretion as you leave the Cave to the Light.

I. Eschewing “Political Science”

We are all familiar with the Left-Right dichotomy in political science.  Political philosophy has always rejected the Left-Right paradigm, which itself is an invention of the 20th century with its roots going back to the French National Assembly during the early days of the French Revolution where supporters of the ancien regime sat on the right side of the assembly and those who advocated for radical transformations within French society sat on the left side of the assembly.  According to infantile political science definitions, the “Left” (which encompasses diverse groups such as Marxist-socialists, non-Marxist socialists, social democrats, and liberals) support political programs that include wealth redistribution, a more equitable society (not merely materially but also in gender roles, sexuality, and so on), and favor greater state action to achieve transformative ends.  The “Right,” according to political science (which encompasses diverse groups such as nationalists, traditionalists, “conservatives,” monarchists, rightwing libertarians, and fascists) radically differs in views, is generally understood as promoting a political program that safeguards capital, property, hierarchy, and promotes “traditional” views of human sexuality and gender.    Dean Blackburn writes of the left-right paradigm, and conservatism in particular, as one of egalitarianism and inegalitarianism, with the further “left” one goes the greater degree of equality is sought and the further “right” one goes the greater degree of inequality is defended.  For Blackburn, conservatism is primarily concerned with defending material (economic) and human inequality.

The problem with the political science paradigm is that its dichotomy of left and right, and how one understands the left and right, is reflective of certain modern prejudices: Materialism, Monism, and Economism in particular.  Concerning materialism, Blackburn’s definition highlights it very well.  Equality is generally conceived of in material (economic) terms.  Thus, the left favors greater degrees of material equality in society while the right defends material inequality in society.  Monism is the metaphysical assertion that all reality can be reduced to a single substance or source.  Generally, in the “Enlightenment” Era, this single substance was considered to be matter (the material).  This is already embedded in the materialist understanding of left-right that I just described.  Monism, however, in more modern left-right political science understandings seems to revolve around notions of human gender and sexuality.  In particular, that there are “no differences” between “man” and “woman” (which are conceived of as social constructs), we also see the left as embracing monism (the push toward a gendered equal society) while the right as defending coercive socially constructed gendered constructs (such as “traditional views” of man and woman). 

Lastly, on the issue of economism – the view that all life can be reduced to economics and economic choices – the left-right paradigm also embodies this quintessentially Enlightenment outlook (rooted in Locke and made prominent by 19th century German sociologists) in which the left favors greater economic equality and choice, while the right restricts economic equality and choice and defends the accumulation of capital in the hands of a few rather than many.  Economist and political scientist Anthony Downs’ book An Economic Theory of Democracy, serves as the perfect example of this materialistic and economistic orientation of understanding “politics” that pervades political science thinking.  Rather than look at the deep essences of political traditions (in their understandings of questions of humanity, human nature, justice, authority, and the concept of the political), political science attempts to just outline basic characteristics of motion of political ideologies: For reform or for the status quo, for wealth redistribution or defense of wealth disparity, for higher taxes for social programs or supporting tax cuts for prospective economic growth, etc.

II. Political Philosophy

What is political philosophy you might ask?  Political philosophy is primarily broken down into two understandings, one “classical” and the other “historicst.”  In reality, political philosophy should be a combination of both understandings and still is in many universities and among many political philosophers.

The classical understanding of political philosophy surrounds itself with the question of quid sit homo (“what is man”)?  Within this question comes attempts to understand the nature of justice, authority, order, rights, the polis (political), law, and so forth.  To give a brief example, in his Politics Aristotle states that “man, by nature, is a political animal.”  This is understood to mean that humans have a social animus.  That is, they naturally seek togetherness (or community).  From this Aristotle proceeds to try to understand the nature of justice, authority, order, rights, and law within the framework of the polis (the city, or the “political”) from this starting premise that humans are social creatures.  What one should immediately see is that political philosophy is really concerned with thought whereas political science attempts to bullet point declarations (generally concerned with economic questions).

The more recent understanding of political philosophy – the “historicist” model – takes the view that political ideologies (e.g. socialism, liberalism, and conservatism, etc.) can be understood by examining the metaphysical, ontological, ethical, and other philosophical ideas that gave rise and have informed said ideologies.  This requires epochal studies (historicism) of philosophy.  When taken in totality we can also see the emergence of understandings of History (Historicism) within ideologies as well.  To highlight an example of this mode of looking at political philosophy would be to try to understand why “liberal-democracy” generally conceives of itself as the “best” or “proper” form of the political.  To this one looks at the origo of liberalism (16th and 17th century) and suddenly one finds that most of the prominent names associated with “classical” liberalism were metaphysical monists (Bacon, Hobbes, and Spinoza) or the implications of their philosophy tends toward a monistic understanding of humans and the world (Locke). 

Thus, political ideology is inextricably the politicized manifestation of philosophical principles.  Those ideologies that believe in universal and totalizing solutions to all problems tend to have something in common: Their philosophical roots are metaphysically monist at origin.  Those ideologies that believe that no single solution can solve problems also tend to have something in common: Their philosophical roots are metaphysically pluralist at origin.  There are also embedded scientific (philosophy of science) prejudices involved with the language I just used, like “solution” or “problem” invoking mathematical and mechanistic language that became prominent during the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions in science which influenced Enlightenment era philosophy.  I will also (albeit briefly) touch upon the influences of natural philosophy (which became what we know call “science”) upon political philosophy.

The best political philosophy programs tend to try to synthesize the two understandings as a whole.  That is, to understand political philosophy one needs both the classical and historicist models to make the most sense of what we call “politics.”

III. Quid Sit Homo?

To begin an understanding of conservatism (or conservatisms) in political philosophy we must first attempt to understand what conservatives (or those who have been considered conservative) have thought concerning the question “what is man”?  I am, of course, since this is an overview, going to paint in a broad brush.  Do understand that within political philosophy there is much more density and diversity than what I decide to highlight for foundational purposes.  But these broad brushes do have their basis in said foundations within political philosophy study.

Generally speaking, conservatism understands humanity to be instinctively social.  That is, conservatism agrees with Aristotle’s definition that man is a social animal.  (Aristotle is not the first to infer this, for instance, the Book of Genesis within the Tanakh also takes this view.)  Thus, in conservatism, humans are community building and community seeking animals.  Therefore, contrary to “American Conservatives,” conservatism rejects the atomized notion of the individual that John Locke, among other Enlightenment philosophers, celebrated.  Since humans are social, and the social animus naturally leads to the formation of communities, conservatism also understands humans as finding meaning by being part of a community.  (Of which family is the building block.)

Within conservatism there are varying “first principles” to the community.  The more classical notion of the community, to be found in the likes of Aristotle or Ibn Khaldun, is that the community builds from the family.  More modern notions of the community, generally found in the likes of the German Romantics, is the first principles to the community are language and culture (thereby superseding the filialism of Aristotle and Ibn Khaldun).

This is not to say that conservatism rejects “individualism.”  But this requires us to understand what “individual” means.  The word individual comes from the Latin word individuum, which means indivisible.  Thus, the word individual actually embodies a social animus understanding of humanity itself.  Individuals unite because of their social animus and become indivisible in their union.  Political philosophers are sometimes careful to denote competing theories of the “individual”: one that is essentially social but that the individual is unique or has special talents (this is predominately a Jewish-Christian understanding of the individual), and the other an essentially solitary and separated understanding of the individual (self-sufficient) and is sometimes referred to as “atomistic individualism” (the individualism of modern philosophy of humans being singular) and separated entities  Conservatism rejects atomistic individualism.

Moving beyond the belief that humans are social animals, and therefore communitarian animals, conservatism generally takes the “realistic” (or tragic) view of humanity.  That is, humans are generally aggressive, base, coercive, and domineering animals.  Ibn Khaldun summarized it this way, “aggressiveness is natural in living beings” and is therefore in the very DNA of being human.  Joseph De Maistre more poetically and hauntingly described it this way:

In the whole vast domain of living nature there reigns an open violence, a kind of prescriptive fury which arms all the creatures to their common doom. As soon as you leave the inanimate kingdom, you find the decree of violent death inscribed on the very frontiers of life. You feel it already in the vegetable kingdom: from the great catalpa to the humblest herb, how many plants die, and how many are killed. But from the moment you enter the animal kingdom, this law is suddenly in the most dreadful evidence. A power of violence at once hidden and palpable … has in each species appointed a certain number of animals to devour the others. Thus there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fishes of prey, quadrupeds of prey. There is no instant of time when one creature is not being devoured by another. Over all these numerous races of animals man is placed, and his destructive hand spares nothing that lives. He kills to obtain food and he kills to clothe himself. He kills to adorn himself, he kills in order to attack, and he kills in order to defend himself. He kills to instruct himself and he kills to amuse himself. He kills to kill. Proud and terrible king, he wants everything and nothing resists him.

In other words, humans are naturally aggressive, unvirtuous, and dangerous to themselves, others, and the world around them.  Also, since humanity springs from nature (or “the dust of the earth”) what makes us much different from nature?  Nature is particularly harsh and brutal (as De Maistre’s quote illustrates).  In his Politics, Aristotle said it this way, “For just as man, when he is perfected is the best of animals, so too separated from law and justice he is the worst of all…Without virtue he is most unholy and savage, and worst in regards to sex and eating.”

The American poet, historian, and philosopher Peter Viereck famously described conservatism’s view of humanity as being the “conscious secularization of the originally theological doctrine of Original Sin.”  Thus there is the famous, but generally accurate, description of conservatism as having a profound distrust of humans.  Humans are often dangerous animals.  Dangerous not only to themselves but to others (more damningly).  Hence to stereotype that conservatism takes a “low view of humanity.”  A stereotype that is fairly accurate. 

Here I should stress something that is important from St. Augustine, that while humans are base, coercive, and domineering, being itself is also something quite remarkable and beautiful.  The shame is not so much we exist (as antinatalists would argue) but rather the shame is what humans do with their existence.  Thus, while conservatism generally takes a low view of humanity it equally (perhaps paradoxically) sees human life as something also remarkable and beautiful but marred by tragedy (or “sin”).  Conservatism, then, is comfortable with paradox: the world is both tragic and remarkable, terrible and beautiful, where humans have the capacity for great displays of love, solidarity, and union, but also a strong tendency toward hate, destruction, and war.

From this view of humanity being social and also either easily corrupted or embodying a natural state of aggressiveness and baseness, there are two prominent schools of conservatism that emerge.  The first is the “Realist” or “Tragic” School that maintains that humanity’s “saving grace” is its social animus.  Thank God for these chains and bonds of community, religion, law, and duties and obligations to family and country! in other words.  The realist school maintains that humanity’s social animus, and the outgrowths thereof, principally the bonds of community, religion, law, and duties to family, community, and country are something that keep humanity’s otherwise aggressive and coercive nature in check.  This is not to say that any of these things ever “override” human nature, but that they curb the excessive aggressiveness and violent impulses within humanity as they are pacified and directed to more productive endeavors.  This is a phenomenological understanding of humanity (humanity has strong desires, and those desires generally lead to bad things but can be directed to good things).

The second school is the “Virtue” School that maintains humanity’s telos is correlated with, and contingent upon, being virtuous.  Virtue, moreover than community, religion, law, or duties to family, etc., serve as the great counterweight to humanity’s otherwise base desires.  Aristotelianism and Stoicism are famous philosophical schools that embody this outlook and understanding of humanity.  As Epictetus said, true freedom is found in the mind and of knowing while slavery is being dominated by the passions.  The aforementioned quote from Aristotle about virtue being the nobility of man is also a great example of this example of conservative thought.  In contrast to the realist, or tragic, school of conservatism, the virtue school takes a stronger intellectualist understanding of humanity.

For strong political philosophy aficionados, the realist school argues that law, order, community, are the well-defined “boundaries” which create the ethical and social norms in which life can flourish.  In other words, law, order, community and religion, etc., are the katechon that prevent humanity from otherwise slipping into total chaos from which life would become untenable.  The “virtue” school argues that virtue itself is the katechon that prevents humans from becoming and behaving like “the worst of animals.”

Furthermore, within this simple but dense question of what is humanity comes the part that makes many moderns uneasy: Is humanity a hierarchal animal?  If humanity is a social animal and being social involves more than one person, then an unescapable logical syllogism and dilemma emerges: How do humans organize in a body?

Conservatism has long taken the view that humans, beyond being naturally social, are also naturally hierarchal.  Yes, we cannot escape this uneasy issue.  Yet, conservatives would assert that one should simply “look at nature” to see hierarchy all around.  All types of animals are structured around hierarchy.  From apes to lions, to even insects, are all structured around hierarchy.  Why is humanity any different given that humans are – as even the ancient Greek, Roman, and Christian philosophers knew – animals?

We can understand conservative outlooks as being this concerning the question of what is man:

  1. Humans are social animals.
  2. Because humans are social animals they are community building, and community seeking animals.
  3. Community > Individual.
  4. Humans find meaning in being members of a community.

We can also understand conservative outlooks including this:

  1. Humans is an aggressive and domineering animal with strong desires.

(2a) Without community, law, order, religion, or other such “chains” to guide humans, humans would be lost in a sea of chaos and struggle in which life would be untenable.  Order is very important because without order human life could not flourish.

(2b) Without virtue, humans would degenerate into the worst type of animals (because they reject their own rationality and enslave the mind to the passions).  Virtue is very important.

Lastly we can also understand conservatism as including this:

  1. Because humans are social animals humans must be organized in some manner.
  2. Organization is naturally hierarchal.
  3. Therefore, humans are hierarchal social animals.
  4. Nature itself is hierarchal, and since humans are part of nature, humans reflect this in their social organization.

Therefore, contrary popular (and ignorant) understandings of “conservatism,” like those peddled by Fox News, “Prager University,” or the more general English speaking world, conservatism is communitarian rather than individualistic.  In its rejection of atomistic and solitary individualism conservatism will also take views on political economy much different than the “conservatism” promoted by the likes of the Heritage Foundation (in the United States) or the Wall Street Journal.  “Conservatives” who celebrate the primacy of the individual, “picking yourself up by the boot straps,” and believe it would be better for people to be separated and “mind one’s own business” are not really conservative.  Conservatism celebrates the primacy of community and believes that the community should help individuals whenever possible.

IV. The State

Contrary to popular and ignorant American conceptions of conservatism, conservatism is not intrinsically anti-statist.  In fact, almost no political philosophies are “anti-statist.”  Almost all are “statist.”  Here I use the term statist in a non-derogatory or pejorative sense but in the traditional understanding that the state is a natural product of humanity’s social animus and therefore is something that is natural to be found in the political.  Conservatism’s relationship to the state can be best summarized as paradoxical.

First, conservatism, because of its low view of humanity, is skeptical of the grand engineering projects of state power.  Second, because of the low view of humanity, conservatism doesn’t shy away from the use of state power to maintain order and stability in society.  Thus, we can understand conservatism as viewing the state not as an engine of social engineering but rather a vehicle of corrective action.  That is the state is a reactive force to violations of the law, and that the state is also a corrective force that checks those aggressive, base, coercive, and domineering desires within humans.

This leads us to the Augustinian dilemma concerning the state within conservative thought.  Since humans are “sinful,” aggressive, and coercive – that they lust for domination – the state is not only natural but necessary to check against the malevolent side of humanity.  At the same time Augustine is also clear that the state cannot define for humans what the good life is or provide the good life to humans (this is squarely left to humans).  The state primarily exists as that corrective force to dispense justice to those who have been harmed of their property, household, or their body (Augustine’s definition of judicial function in the City of God). 

This is all well and good except for the fact that because humans are coercive and lust for domination, the state should also be limited is size and power for fear of what humans might do with such power under their thumb.  Conservatives, in contrasts to popular prevailing wisdom established after Rousseau, see humans as the agents of oppression and domination rather than political, legal, and judicial structures – for these political structures could not be oppressive or domineering without someone using said structures for those ends against other people.  Thus we see a tensioned dialect within conservatism that emerges because of its understanding of humanity: The state is something natural and positive to check against humanity’s licentious and aggressive desires, but the state is run by licentious and aggressive humans which also means we should be weary of state power and initiatives.

At the same time, tying the view of the state back to conservatism’s understanding of humanity’s social animus, the state is a natural product of humanity’s social animus.  Thus, the state is not only natural to what it means to be social (or political), but it is a benefit to have because of the other understandings of humanity that characterizes conservative philosophy.  The state is not something unnatural.  And neither should the state be dismantled.  The state is not a reflection of nomos (convention) but rather a reflection of physis (nature).

Within this conservative understanding of the state is that the state is primarily concerned with the dispensation of corrective justice, local defense, and upholding the rule of law.  Conservatism, traditionally speaking, doesn’t see the state as an organ that should be concerned with economic policy making.  That said, conservatism is not anti-welfare either.  In fact, conservatives were the first builders of the “welfare state.”

This is not lost to students of history.  In the 19th century Otto von Bismarck created the first modern welfare state and system.  He did so out of fear of socialist revolution.  This returns us to the understanding within conservatism that the state is an organ of order and stability.  It is like the frame of the body which keeps the body orderly and structured, for without this frame the body would fall apart into a disordered and unformed mass.  Welfare should be a concern for the state not on economistic grounds but on order and stability grounds.  In fact, the original Marxists and revolutionary socialists of the 19th century rejected social welfare as a conservative and liberal-capitalist construct that was meant to crush class consciousness.  Just as religion was seen as the opiate of the masses in the mid-19th century, welfare was seen as the opiate of the masses in the late-19th century.  Admittedly, conservative views on welfare are not so much out of benign help of the poor as much as it is done to prevent chaos, disorder, and possible revolution.

So again contrary to American “conservative” popular imagination, conservatism is both pro-state and pro-welfare insofar that conservatives see the state as an instrumental force of positive virtue (upholding social, cultural, and moral norms) and order (through welfare).  Again, that “pro-state” moniker should not be seen as a pejorative or derogatory label.  There are many deep considerations as to why the state is something natural, and indeed, necessary, in political life.  In fact, it is the question of whether humans are naturally political (e.g. social) or not that confuses many American “conservatives” which leads them to take views about the state that are actually contrary to the tradition of conservative political thought.  We will come to this issue when we examine liberalism.

V. Bio-conservatism

The final aspect of conservative political philosophy that I wish to cover in this first post examining conservatism is conservatism’s understanding of what we can term as the question “what is natural”?  This is where I shall explore the role of philosophies of science and their influence upon philosophy (or vice-versa depending on how strong you give credence to presuppositionalism or a-posteriori epistemology).  Again, given the debased nature of American intellectual life and discourse, what I’m about to say may sound at first controversial but is not that controversial if one has a knowledge of the deep and intertwined relationship between natural philosophy (science) and philosophy more generally, and especially political philosophy.  I am not responsible for other people’s ignorance.

Conservatism understands human experience and evolution to be organic (biological), rhizomatic, and teleological (perhaps all three at once, or having included such thoughts at varying stages throughout human history).  In the history of philosophy, though this is a gross oversimplification, we can divide the influence of science upon philosophy in three epochal stages: First is the influence of teleological science over philosophy (ancient/classical); second is the influence of mechanistic or mechanical science over philosophy (Baconian/Copernican/Newtonian); and third is the influence of biological science over philosophy (post-Newtonian).

Historically speaking conservatism has been influenced predominately by teleological and biological science while having shied away from mechanical science which exerted a more potent and visible influence on Enlightenment political philosophies (like liberalism and Marxism).  Over time there has also been the attempt to synthesize teleological and biological science, but for the sake of educational simplicity we should know that “traditional conservatism” (if we can call it that) was strongly influenced by teleological science while more modern variations of conservatism (if we can also call it that) were strongly influenced by biological science.  In any case there is a certain degree of essentialism that comes in conservatism that is defined by its relationship to teleological or biological science.

The teleological brand of conservatism maintains that organic evolution is something concrete, moving from simplicity to greater intricacy which aims at an end (telos).  That end, of course, is the flourishing and virtuous community as a whole.  Humanity finds its fulfillment in the flourishing and virtuous community.

Conservatism understands this organic evolution from the concrete to the concrete, and the simple to the complex, as something natural.  Either aiming for an end (teleological science) or simply the byproduct of natural forces at work (biological).  At the same time there is certain degree of uncontrollable growth and evolution reflected in conservatism’s rhizomatic understanding of growth and the world – leading to multiplicity and plurality.  There are many peoples, many nations, many cultures, and many traditions.  Communities, nations, and cultures burst onto the scene sometimes.  There are wild and uncontrollable moments in human history that represent the bursting of creativity, the arts, and culture, etc.  Some conservatives would go as far as to say, within life cycles or organisms (which human societies also embody) that these rhizomatic phases of human life and evolution represent the apogee of life. 

In this sense conservatism’s “tragic” view is also incorporated into the understanding of biological science: Everything rises (to life) and falls (to death).  Rhizomatic moments in culture and tribes and nations represent the successful growth to life whereby life now has a moment to wildly flourish before descending toward stagnation, decline, and death.  In biology organisms at the peak of their life cycles exhibit the most movement and expansion – akin to the sudden expansion of rhizomes in many and all directions.  In biology organisms at their stagnation and decline phase of life exhibit slower movements leading to stasis and death.

Within conservatism, then, there is a distrust of technocratic manipulation.  In other words, conservatism shuns social engineering as something “unnatural.”  Such social engineering, or biological manipulation, can also cause unintended consequences or detrimental harm to the organism.  Hence conservatism’s grounding in the organic and the concrete rather than the “new man” and the abstract.  In this manner also conservatism is strongly associated with humanism in humanism’s traditional sense (e.g. not the “secular humanism” that is often spoken of today) but the deeper humanism of human nature and the understanding of humanity and all human endeavors and byproducts as being organic and being like organisms.  Conservatism is not only skeptical of transhumanism, but conservatism strongly opposes transhumanism.  What’s wrong with being human?  What’s wrong with being mortal?  Transhumanism and technocratic and technological manipulations of nature are seen as abhorrent, dangerous, and ultimately a foolish attempt to “override nature.”  Thus, we see conservatism as a hyper organic and hyper humanist tradition – it is the philosophy of organic nature.

Therefore, conservatism stands in opposition to mechanistic anthropology (e.g. the view of humans as “lumbering robots” in the words of Richard Dawkins).  Conservatism defends the organic and biological over and against the mechanistic and technological.

VI. Irrational Rational Animals

Conservatism, following from ancient anthropology, asserts that humans are rational animals.  That is, humans possess something called rationality which allows humans to come to know the Truth, right, and wrong.  (Rationality here, means Transcendent Reason as per the ancient rationalist traditions through Immanuel Kant.)  However, conservatism’s anthropology is deeply dialectical.  Just as there is a rational aspect to human nature there is its opposite: an irrational aspect to human nature.  The more realist tradition of conservatism has emphasized the irrational (or fallen) nature of man.

What does it mean to be an irrational animal?  What irrationality means in conservative philosophy is that humans often make their decisions irrationally.  That is, people act on emotion, pure desire, sentimentality, and abstracted thinking (e.g. “theoretical reason”) which are unfounded by what Aristotle called practical wisdom (phronesis).  Humans often act, therefore, on pure emotion over and against any wisdom or intelligent.  This is, probably best seen today, with young adults who know very little lecturing their parents and grandparents about the ways of the world.  As the Roman philosopher Cicero said, people, in their folly, will destroy imperfect, but still admirable, systems precisely because of their folly.

Some political scientists will claim conservatism values irrationality then.  This is misleading because political scientists don’t distinguish between practical reason and theoretical reason.  Following Aristotle, conservatism embraces practical reason (practical wisdom) over theoretical reason.  The reason for this is, pardon the pun, is that theoretical reason can be premised on false starting principles (metaphysics).  Therefore, to follow a train of thought that is otherwise logical, but based on a faulty reality, the results will be faulty because they do not conform to reality.  Practical reasoning, in contrast, is tried and true.

If man’s rational nature is what permits him to know the good, true, and beautiful, right and wrong, man generally uses his reasoning to justify destruction and “sinful” or immoral actions.  In other words, rather than unite with the transcendent moral order knowable by reason, man decides to be the decider of good and evil and subsequently calls evil good and good evil.  The insight from the conservative disposition is that man, despite his intellectual gifts, is often irrational (e.g. immoral, sensual, and destructive).

VII. In Sum

What is conservatism?  Conservatism is predominately a philosophy concerned with the question what is man?  Conservatism answers that man is a social animal and, therefore, a communitarian animal.  While man possesses reason to come to know the Truth, right and wrong, man is often overwhelmed by irrationality which affects his thinking and action.  Man, therefore, is prone to sin, immorality, or deceitful conduct.  But since man is a communitarian animal, the community holds greater importance than the individual in conservative thought.

As a result of this conservatism opposes philosophies and movements which it regards as atomizing and alienating, that is, destructive toward communities.  Concerning political economy, conservatism has (historically) been anti-capitalist though not necessarily socialist.  Conservatism doesn’t have a codified or doctrinal approach to economics.

Furthermore, conservatism is a philosophy that embraces being and life.  While life, on one hand, is tragic, it is also beautiful and remarkable.  Conservatism seeks to conserve and embrace the good and beautiful in life rather than destroy those things which are good and beautiful in the promise of “a better world.”  Conservatism, then, is anti-utopian in thought.

Conservatism does not reject the importance of the state or its utility in society.  The state is an organic and natural outgrowth of human affairs and human conduct.  While conservatism is skeptical of the social engineering dreams of modernity it does not shy away from using state power to maintain law, order, and social norms.

Lastly, conservatism is a philosophy of organicism and vitalism.  Humans are the greatest and most important of organic and biological lifeforms.  But humans also have a relationship with the rest of the world.  There are distinctions between lifeforms – hence vitalism.  Not all lifeforms are the same.  Therefore, conservatism is also pluralistic.  All lifeforms are different.  All human societies and communities are different.  Laws and other juridical traditions are different.


This is the first part of a series examining political philosophy and the traditions therein.  This particular post, on conservatism, will be followed up by an examination of liberalism, socialism, communism, and fascism.

6 thoughts on “Political Philosophy: What is Conservatism?

  1. I often wonder about referring to etymology. And even previous authors .

    Do we suppose that because a word arrived through particular set of sounds and then first put into symbols called writing, that this is saying something about humanity that gets to a more essential idea of what humanity is?

    How is it that somehow we are more intelligent we are kind of the end product of a progressive evolution of being human, and yet we we referred to early humans as if there are more intelligent about being human then we are?

    It seems strange to me and it crosses my mind somewhat often. What are your thoughts on this?


  2. … I mean particular with etymology, what is it saying that our word individual is derived from whatever ancient language that means such and such? Is somehow the beginning of the word have more substance than the word that were using now? Does our word gain substance or more substances because it has a history gained in this primal utterance or this primal structuring of symbols?

    Not to say that I don’t do the same thing, but it does cross my mind about what I’m really doing.


    1. Like Chomsky, or Aristotle much earlier, I’m an essentialist and communicativist when it comes to language theory. If words don’t have essential meanings to which we can communicate with and therefore understand, then language is utterly meaningless and we can never communicate and understand each other or understand topics. What would the point of philosophy be?

      As Aristotle said, “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.”

      This is especially the case in political philosophy where long standing and well-established traditions, liberalism, socialism, conservatism, fascism, etc., are tossed around without rootedness and meaning to them. This is especially the case with all schools, but in America, even more the case with conservatism and socialism. Many of the DSA candidates finding recent success in the Democratic Party are not socialists by any historical or philosophical meaning. They are social liberals who believe the quintessential materialist-capitalist view of justice that affluence is justice. The difference between the liberal-left in the U.S., and the liberal-right in the U.S. (those whom are erroneously called conservatives) is through the mechanism in which universal affluence and peace, the prerequisites for true justice in the Enlightenment mind, is consummated. Is it the market whereby the individual achieves his affluence and justice? Or is it the state, whereby the state intervenes to dispense affluence and achieve (social) justice on behalf of those who are, through systematic contraction or poor chance, unable to find success in the market? Both aim to achieve the liberation of individuals from community and family (a fundamentally liberal idea). Both aim to achieve the conquest (or exploitation) of nature to suit man’s material and consumerist desires (a fundamentally liberal idea). “Spreading the wealth” is not what socialism ever entailed historically. Socialists of the utopian stripe see people, in full control of their labor and community, fully enjoying the fruits of their labor within their community equitably (without coercion). Socialists of the revolutionary stripe see people, exploited, rising up against systematic oppression and seizing the means of economic production and distributing the responsibilities of economic productivity among each other to enjoy the fruits of their labor without alienation and coercion from systematic structures. As far as I’m aware, none of the recent DSA candidates elected, or heading to general elections, advocate that.

      As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. What that means to me is health care as a human right, it means that every child no matter where you are born should have access to a college or trade-school education if they so choose it. I think that no person should be homeless if we have public structures or public policy to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.” This is just modernized 20th century social liberalism. Note how her prerequisite to her “socialism” is an affluent society. There’s nothing about structural overthrow or economic seizure in her socialism. Nor is there an equitable distribution of labor and production. Just a redistribution of wealth produced within the capitalist system. That’s exactly what social liberals advocated. People like her, and the recent phenomenon of the rise of popular approval of “socialism,” while not being able to define socialism, highlights our nihilistic and ignorant approach to language and political philosophy. To an orthodox Marxist, such people are lumpenproletariat.

      To the point of individuum and conservatism, there is a reason why we, in political philosophy, now have the distinction between individualism (of the classical mold explained here) and atomistic individualism (of the Enlightenment mold) which is to be torn apart (thus destroying the concept of indivisibility). Likewise, modern “conservatives” who praise the individual over the community are liberals, not conservatives. Conservatives are communitarians, not individualists. Historically, conservatism could be seen as being quasi-socialist in political economy while culturally and morally conservative. This differs from the fusionist types who give lip service to cultural and moral conservatism, but are radical individuals and capitalist which precipitate the collapse of cultural and moral cohesiveness and norms. Hardly conservative by any historical standard.

      So if our words have meaning, you should understand what I’ve just explained – as I understood the intent of your question. If our words have no meaning, then this is was just an exercise in futility! 😛 😉
      [Clearly I’m intending this as tongue and cheek; as you noted some time ago, it’s hard to detect joking sometimes in writing as we’re deprived of body language and orality which can often be good clues.]

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Diverging a little bit from the point of your post here:

        But I would counter : what does it matter whether socialism quotereally means” or” actually came up in a context of such and such”?

        I think Cortez as a what’s it called socialist Democrat or something like that? It’s just using the term out of the root word of “social”. And then siding with our usual meaning of the term “Democrat” Timmy more concerned with the justice of The individual through the grouphe group. And then how does as another common meaning, and conservatism means to “conserve”, Which in our current context really kind of means conserving what is understood as American values which is a coding for white American values, The free market as a means for prosperity and liberty and identity. Just a general meaning that I understand when I hear these words in the context of our current political situation.

        I’m not sure it really matters that what socialism “actually is” means in overthrowing other political structure so that everyone has equal access to labor and to feed them selves and happiness or whatever etc.

        I mean Innoway it’s kind of similar to the argument that if we don’t have God, or if God doesn’t exist, then we have no basis for ethics. (that is a common enough argument). This appears similar to, for example, your use of Aristotle, but also as if words have no meaning and less we attach them to a specific historical context that we assume is being transmitted in it’s static state through time. I am not sure that I need to know the actual meaning of any term in order for me to use the term effectively and meaningfully in my life.

        (I understand that you have already identified yourself as interested in what other authors have to say and what their ideas mean and then using that kind of historical content to create more content, if I summarized that well enough 🙂)

        Similarly I would say that I am at the car because of a multitude of factors whether or not God exist. Simile I could say that I’m a socialist and have no intention of throwing overthrowing the government but indeed feel that our current system is actually the best human system, and that the “actual meaning“ of socialism is actually an idea of enlightenment thinking, that the ideas of marks are actually in idealism and not a materialism.

        And the reason why I mentioned that I already understand you’re kind of orientation upon philosophy, it was because I would argue that there is no way to understand what Aristotle is actually saying or that this what this particular particular word actually means in the context of history that’s 3000 years old. I tend to argue that there is no content that is moving through time to reach us intact, and that what Aristotle is really identifying is this ability for human beings to understand themselves into context of transcendence, basically being a mediator of some X ternal guiding force. I’m not really sure that this is the case.

        Anyways I don’t mean to draw you into a philosophical discussion of the kind that you already admit you’re not interested and so.😁

        But in short I’m not sure it really matters if I call myself a socialist and have no intention of overthrowing the system.


      2. Oh. I think it is Possible meaning just arise it is in context. That just because there isn’t some sort of information that is actually passed through time as static and particulate material, doesn’t mean that everything is meaningless.

        And I mean this is similar to what I call materialism: to me material is the stuff that philosophy uses. Because that’s the material , there it is that’s the stuff we use when we are philosophizing, it is the philosophical material.

        To me the simplest explanation should indicate the most correct condition.

        But for some reason philosophy works off totally the opposite presumption: that if it’s simple then it can’t be true at all. 😆


  3. Sorry for the lame voice dictation auto correct. I hope you can just found out some of the words and phrases to understand what I was really saying the words I was actually using. Lol.


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