Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

What is Conservatism? A Philosophical Overview

Many people like to use the term “conservative” who have limited or no understanding of it. As a discernible political philosophy, conservatism is distinct from liberalism, socialism, and fascism, the three other great political movements/traditions from which more specific outgrowths derive from such as progressivism, communism, or Nazism. Conservatism, in is most basic form, is a political philosophy dedicated to the synthesis of order and liberty (as compatible and necessary to each other) mediated through intermediary, non-state, associations and organizations.

Conservatism as a philosophy of “ordered liberty” (in the famous words of Russell Kirk looking back to the writings of Edmund Burke), identifies four principle intermediary associations for the preservation of liberty and order against state-sanctioned impositions. These are: 1) family; 2) church; 3) charitable organizations; 4) small businesses. Tied to the broader conservative outlook are concerns of transcendental truths: aesthetic, moral, and spiritual. These transcendental concerns have often been the subject of considerable study and reflection of conservative theorists and intellectuals, but not your run of the mill conservative in social life. So we are not concerned with these transcendental concerns which influence the understanding of why these four intermediary associations are important to the conservative.

Conservatism is opposed to the state on these grounds: family, church, charity, and small businesses (entrepreneurs) are the bulwark of state intervention in social life. Conservatives advocate a human-centric social order and social life relatively unregulated by state bureaucracy. The origins of conservatism lay in the medieval and Renaissance views of the world: the medieval world of family and church; the Renaissance world of middle-class social organizations and private capital businesses. Conservatism, then, is the attempt to conserve what remains of the medieval and Renaissance social order against the modern social order of the technocratic state which emerged out of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions of the last 400 years (especially the last 200 years) with strong support from liberal political theory (we’ll touch on what liberalism actually is in political philosophy vs. what most people are indoctrinated to believe it is later).

Conservatism, then, actually doesn’t have much to say about the rule of law. It isn’t until Hegel, and the Hegelian conservatives after him (epitomized by the likes of Michael Oakeshott and my former teacher Sir Roger Scruton) that conservatives become occupied with the idea of the rule of law. The post-Hegelian conservative vision comes to argue that the state, in its legitimate function, promotes a constitutional order that supports family, church, charitable, and small scale business life. In this view, the legitimacy of the state is minimal and protects and promotes the unique social traditions of the people it represents.

Taken to a more mature view, conservatism then sees “the community” as the bulwark of ordered liberty against the intrusion of the state into social life. Conservatism identifies a healthy civil and social society as the spirit of order and liberty. An unhealthy, that is, degenerate and chaotic civil and social society, weakens all the intermediary associations hitherto mentioned, which invariably leads to the growth of the state and its bureaucracies to reimpose a new order over society. This imposition of a new order over society is what conservatives distrust and fear.

Because of the conservative vision of intermediary associations as the bulwark of lived vitality, order, and liberty, most conservatives historically came from, and still come from, these associations in social life. Most conservatives come from strong families, a religious background (often as members who are also deeply engaged in religious life rather than on-off church attendees), charitable organizations, and the small business community. As mentioned, because conservatism seeks to conserve the mediaeval and Renaissance social orders, or what remains of these social orders, conservatism is a pre-modern philosophy as the Marxist philosopher Immanuel Wallerstein notes.

What is conservatism?

It is the political philosophy dedicated to the preservation of order and liberty as principally emanated from family, church, charity, and small businesses. It is generally antagonistic to the state but can see legitimacy in state action when the state promotes laws—the rule of law—that protects and entrenches these intermediary associations and their interests. It is also pre-modern. The social order that conservatism historically arose to defend were the social orders that emerged in medieval and Renaissance society in which individuals found their freedom and social lives in associations and institutions other than the state.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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