The Study of Conservatism

There exist many centers, foundations and even a few schools for propagating conservative thought and ideas. From centers for liberal and Austrian thought like the Cato Institute, Mises Institute and Acton Institute to conservative think tanks like the Hoover Institute and Heritage Foundation, it would seem that these strains of thought are alive and well. And so they are, there are many fine thinkers and writers working on alternatives to the ideas in government, law and education of the American Left.

The study of conservative ideas, however, appears somewhat lacking. Conservative ideas are often associated with a preference for Originalism in law, reverence for the Founders in history and a predilection toward free markets in economics. But this is not quite enough, without a great framework to support political ideas and parties. As someone who once asked this question myself, I am going to take a brief look at how we can study the ideas we claim.

One challenge to this study in ideas is the lack of a clearly defined central work of political ideaology or philosophy. In his work The Politics of Prudence, American conservative Russell Kirk has written, “There exists, then, no conservative equivalent of Das Kapital; and, God willing, there never will be.” Kirk goes against such thinkers as Irving Kristol, who once called upon American conservatives to adopt an ideology to counter Leftist ideologies. For a classical conservative like Kirk, the thought of conservative ideology is in itself a contradiction in terms.

Modern politics is defined by ideology (also called political religions by such thinkers as Eric Voegelin) and by its central strains often being founded by one man, or a few men a line of intellectual descent, and often on one work written by the founder. Marxism and National Socialism based their political movements on the persons, ideas and works of Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. This makes their political ideologies relatively easy to grasp, if you know the works of Marx you’ll have a pretty strong understanding of what Marxism is. One of the most abhorrent strains of these thinkers and movements is there preference for abstractions over the real, by which an idea becomes a tyrannizing ideology and rids rough-shod over men.

Political and philosophical abstractions are not solely found among radicals and dictators. A love of abstractions is also found among those who opposed tyranny. Thinkers like Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, J.S. Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau approached the world with an abstraction and dreamily expect all to live up to it. Ayn Rand, for example, developed a profound contempt for those who differed from her even on one point of philosophy. Rousseau is known to have declared a profound love of ‘humanity,’ but as Paul Johnson has demonstrated, Rousseau had contempt for actual men.

Unlike those thinkers and movements which love abstractions and remote ideas, conservatives are often reluctant to discuss such matters. Modern political movements are marked by a zeal for ideological (one might almost say theological) purity, regardless of consequences. The conservative, unlike the ideologue, does not like to explicate pure ideas, or to address first principles. Conservative dislike of abstraction appears a weakness in the current time. I can sit down, and find works which will explicate the exact ideas and systems of Marx, Lenin, Comte, the French Revolutionaries, as well as Ayn Rand and libertarianism. But there exists no sole compendium for a conservative.

The variety of sources and modern expositors of conservative can create frustration in a busy man, who would like his politics the same as he likes his coffee: from a single source, ready-made and produced as quickly as possible. Like trying to study philosophy, religion or history, conservatism is not particularly adaptable to our need for celerity.

The desire to be truly a ‘conservative by reflection,’ to borrow Bagehot’s phrase, is to be commended, for those few who find their way to it. Too many today see no ned to back a philosophy or a politics with study, study being as abhorrent now as Toryism was for the Sons of Liberty. So to earn a conservative mind will require some reading, some study and hopefully good conversation.  It is not necessary to read vast numbers of works by Hobbes, Locke, Adams, Burke and Marx, to understand a conservative mind. The French Jesuit A.J. Sertillanges expresses it well when he wrote, “We must read intelligently, not passionately.” If you read a few good books, and read them well, you are better off than someone who knows a smattering of a dozen authors, but doesn’t know a single one well. Our French guide has further written “Read only those books in which leading ideas are expressed at first hand.” To that end, I’ll tell of a few works that have influenced my own path to a ‘conservatism by reflection.’

The works of current conservative thinkers like Thomas Sowell and Kenneth Minogue are a good place to begin. Sowell has written a number of works that are readily accessible to the educated layman, including your servant. If you wish at some point to dive a little deeper into conservatism here is brief guide.

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, by Russell Kirk. This work provided a central piece of current American conservatism. Kirk gave to conservatism a deep intellectual pedigree dating over two centuries ago.

Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. This is the greatest work by the man called “the greatest man since Milton” and “the greatest Irishman to ever live.” Burke’s reaction to the first display of radicalism in politics provides the inspiration for conservatives ever since, as well as to such eminent liberals as Tocqueville.

Democracy in America, by Alexis De Tocqueville. While Tocqueville is more often identified with classical liberalism, he also holds a place in the history of conservative ideas. His work is the greatest work on the sociology of our ‘mass age’ ever written.

Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton, like Tocqueville, Acton and Hayek, was a liberal in the finest sense of that word. His Christian vision of modern society is still germane to our world, as we suffer under the same scourges as Chesterton wittily castigates.

Order and History, by Eric Voegelin. This four-volume work by a sadly ignored philosopher is a vast investigation into formation and significance of political ideas from Sumer, Egypt and Israel, through Greece and Rome and beyond. While I have not finished the work, I can speak for its depth. I have met no other thinker who is as vastly knowledgeable as Voegelin.

To this I could add a great many other works, some of which I have not read but which are well-spoken of. For further guidance I heartily recommend the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, it’s journals, online courses and resources expounds on many facets of conservative thought. I hope this will be of some aid.


Your Humble Servant, C. McDonald


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