Can we define conservatism?

Posted by Helen Friday, January 20, 2012 ,

Robin Harris's history of the Conservative Party is hefty but so well written that it is a pleasure to it. Once finished, there will be a longish piece on it. In the meantime, I was interested to find a quote in the Introduction from the great conservative thinker, Michael Oakeshott.
To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise. It is to be equal to one's own fortune to live at the level of one's own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one's circumstances. With some people this is itself a choice; in others it is a disposition with appears, frequently or less frequently, in their preferences and aversions, and is not itself chosen or specifically cultivated. 
This is an attractive philosophy but is not, and cannot be a political ideology, let alone the basis for policy making. After all, there is just the possibility that what is in place is not quite what any true conservative would want to preserve. Then what?


  1. Noticed similar fault-lines when reading Oakeshott’s essay ‘Rationalism in Politics’ many years ago. And another reason why Russell Kirk’s conservative dismissal of ‘ideology’ needs to be rethought.

    His quotation does point a way forward, though, if one takes his opening contrasting ideals (familiar versus unknown, the tried versus the untried, fact versus mystery, &c.) as a conservative preference for reality against the intelligentsias’ (both left and right) infatuation with the genius of their own social planning schemes.

    Aquinas has a wonderful disquisition on this theme in relation to prudence (which he categorises as ‘practical’, not ‘speculative’, reason): ‘right reason applied to action’, which is rooted in Aristotle’s triad of ‘deliberate, decide, act’ construed instead as ‘counsel, judge, command’ (Summa Theologiae, II-II.47.8, responsio). It is based on experience and what is — a perfect grounding for conservative action.

  2. Helen Says:
  3. I don't know Aquinas that well and it is years since I read any of his writings. (Memo to self: must read again.) But I seem to recall Burke writing along similar lines when taking apart the French Revolution.

    Strictly speaking, conservatives should be against any kind of social planning scheme and, therefore, be prepared to change existing systems if they rely on those.

  4. dfordoom Says:
  5. there is just the possibility that what is in place is not quite what any true conservative would want to preserve. Then what?

    That's precisely the problem with modern conservatism. What we would like to preserve has already been destroyed. We're faced with the much bigger problem of trying to rebuild.

    The biggest problem is that conservative parties today seem to have no interest in doing that. They seem to take it as a given that it's neither possible nor desirable to try to undo the destruction wrought by the Left. Even worse, they seem quite willing to join the Left in its orgy of destruction. Are there any conservative political parties left that are truly conservative?

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