Conservatism: Origins

Conservatism: Origins

Historical Background

  • Conservatism, as a political ideology, dates back to the 18th century, during a time of social upheaval caused by the French and American revolutions.
  • It originated as a reaction against the perceived excesses of Enlightenment rationalism and revolutionary fervour.
  • Early conservatives sought to defend the existing social order and traditional institutions against the rapid changes and perceived threats of the time.
  • Conservatism gained ground in the 19th and 20th centuries, advocating for gradual reform and maintaining the status quo over radical changes.

Key Thinkers

  • Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is widely considered the ‘father of conservatism’. He emphasised the value of tradition, social stability and argued that change should be cautious and gradual.
  • Another significant conservative thinker is Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed in a strong state or ‘Leviathan’ to keep peace and prevent ‘the war of all against all’.
  • Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was an influential British conservative who argued for the importance of experience and tradition over abstract theory in guiding social and political practices.

Core Principles

  • One of the fundamental principles of conservatism is a belief in the importance of tradition and historical continuity.
  • Conservatives emphasise the value of order, stability, and hierarchy in society, as they see human nature as fundamentally flawed and incapable of perfection.
  • They support the maintenance of established institutions, like the Church, the monarchy and the nuclear family.
  • Conservatives believe in organicism, the idea that society is like a living organism with interconnected parts, and that change to any part will impact the whole. Therefore, they advocate for slow, cautiously managed change.
  • Many conservatives also hold economic liberals views, favouring free markets and limited state intervention in the economy, but this is not true of all.

Remember: While conservatism may seem just about resisting change, its prime focus is on maintaining societal stability and continuity through a respect for tradition, established institutions and the natural order. The ideology recognises the realities of human imperfection and the importance of organic societal structure. The manifestation of conservatism can vary significantly, from paternalistic conservatism valuing social obligation to neoconservatism with a more liberal economic agenda.