Philosophy Political Philosophy History

Understanding Progressivism

There is no more confusing, if not pedantic, attempt to explain conservatism and progressivism.  Everyone offers up political definitions, peddled by both fourth and fifth estates.  In the halls of philosophy, however, contrary to the opinion pages of the New York TimesNew Republic, or National Review, a very different picture of conservatism and progressivism are made visible.

Conservatism is often appropriated and misused to denote prejudice and superstition. It has a hefty and healthy reputation as being close to religion, and influenced by theology.  Progressivism is demonized as quasi-socialistic, communist, godless, and completely at odds with “Western Civilization,” at least by some rightwing forces.  In philosophy, a completely different picture of both emerges.  Here, we dispense with nonsense and take a philosophical look into these clashing dispositions—for that is what they are, philosophical worldviews first and foremost.


Conservatism has its earliest beginnings, as an intellectual tradition, with the ancient Greeks, principally Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle each contributing aspects to conservative thought—although Aristotle would be the one of the three that is truly conservative whereas Socrates and Plato are more mixed despite bequeathing to Aristotle important concepts and ideas for conservative thought.  It is from the Aristotelian Platonism of Aristotle that early Christian Fathers drew upon, adding another element of conservative thought.  Despite the closeness to religion, conservatism is actually a “secular” philosophy.

What is secular, however?  Saeculum, the Latin word which secular derives from, means “in the world” or “in the present age.”  It is de-facto worldly.  In fact, Catholic and Orthodox clergy who serve parishes are considered secular clergy.  Conservatism is a worldly philosophy that doesn’t discriminate against religious or non-religious persons, both are perfectly compatible since religion is just as much “in the world” as anything else that includes humans and earthly institutions.  St. Augustine is the great philosopher of the saeculum in the realist conservative tradition, outlining how all humans instinctively aim for a modicum of peace, justice, and stability so as to pursue their loves (cupiditas and caritasCity of God XIX).  Thus, the secular is actually the plane where all of our teloi come together in the modicum of civil society.

Conservatism, as philosophy, is premised upon realism.  Realism is premised on the idea of a natural state that is inherent and intrinsically foundational to the human condition and world we inhabit.  It is common to the “State of Nature” of Hobbes, or Locke, or Rousseau, but at the same time is altogether different than how they understand the state of nature.  Hobbes and Locke see human history, the formation of civil society and such, as a progress away from the state of nature that was fundamentally good.  Rousseau saw devolution from the state of nature, the formation of the Social Contract being the root for oppression, inequality, and class conflict.  In all three cases, we see a movement away from the state of nature.  The natural state of man, according to Aristotle, is one instinctive—natural, as it were—to seek the highest good of human life and fulfillment (borrowing from Plato).  Left to his own desires, man will naturally live in his natural state with others in community in pursuit of the highest good.  Whether this be virtue, justice, or love of God.

What is the natural state, therefore, in conservative philosophy?  Man’s natural state, according to Aristotle, was the polis, at least in his time (by polis, he means “community”).  Aristotle’s description of man as a “political animal” meant that men, when left to their own natural inclinations, seek out the city—polis—for natural associations.  Man congregates together to form a spontaneous association of naturally forming individuals, which begets “society.”  Here, society is viewed as something organic, or naturally occurring.  It is spontaneous and natural—man does not need instructions on how to form associations or live in community.  In community, man is structured and directed through community’s natural stability and harmony, and its reinforcing traditions and customs, to pursue whatever highest good that community is seeking.

Therefore, man’s natural state is organically occurring, leading to an association of humans that constitute community.  This community is harmonious, with each individual living out his own life according to his own desires.  The unintended results of this spontaneous and naturally occurring community is the improvement of everyone else’s lives too.  For example, one man is a farmer.  The other a carpenter.  The farmer desires furniture.  The carpenter needs food.  Rather than pillage, the two men come together in association with each other.  This is their natural inclination.  The farmer trades his crops for a chair.  Both acted according to their own desires—the farmer wanted a chair, the carpenter food.  The result of the association is, however, the social improvement of both of their lives.  This subsequently maintains stability and avoids conflict, and by achieving this both the farmer and carpenter can also strive for the highest good without wanton fear of poverty, conflict, or sickness.

The conservative therefore, seeks to live in nature.  To be part of the web of nature, as it were.  Something natural, organic and spontaneous.  This spontaneous association of individuals who interact with each other is the genuine “market economy,” so called.  Thus, the conservative sees nature as organic and orderly.  Everything is as it always has been.  In other words, realism.   Conservatism, then, sees a world of multiplicity and plurality.  Many cultures, many civilizations, many communities, and many nations – even their own national community is comprised of many meta-communities within it, tightly interwoven and weaved together in a harmonious ebb and flow that work with each other rather than against one another.

The purpose of law and government, according to the conservative, is to be a mere manager of affairs so as to help nurse the souls of men in their pursuit of the highest good, which is teleological (or ontological) flourishing and happiness (this is Socrates’, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s understanding of the role of the state and law).  The rise of law and government is also organic, something that is naturally occurring that emanates from the deep roots (bodenständigkeit) of culture.  Men, in their association, seek to keep the harmony and order that has naturally—spontaneously—arisen.  Laws emerge to reflect this order.  And the state and laws erected by this community are meant to aid in the pursuit of the good for the health of man’s soul.

This is conservatism, not whatever the pages of the New RepublicNational Review, or Washington Post claim.  Conservatism’s realism asserts that civil society is still part of the Natural State, or the “state of nature” so called.  What people call “progress” is merely illusory and superficial, we have not at all progressed (or devolved) from this original state, we are still deeply rooted in the original state.  Civil society evolves or declines, evolution is preferable than devolution – or social engineered social disaster.

Thus, we see conservatism embracing a “sacred world,” the world of life-forces and organic vitalism, what the German romantics later referred to as Lebenswelt (lifeworld).  This is a world that organically evolves, emerges, and grows.  When the world is left to be world in its worlding, it flourishes.  The world is not bad, evil, or chaotic, but something good and beautiful.


Progressivism differs radically from conservatism.  Whereas the conservative sees an orderly nature, spontaneous and naturally occurring—and seeks to be part of this web of nature—the progressive sees a disordered nature, or a chaotic “state of nature.”  That is, nature and society are broken—fallen, so called—and it needs to be fixed.  Whereas conservatism is preoccupied with being part of nature, progressivism is preoccupied with reordering nature and society to some higher ideal.  This is the philosophical understanding, and definition, of progressivism—not whatever Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, or Ann Coulter have said of it.  After all, in Hobbes and Locke, two sides of the same coin really, both agree that the state of nature was untenable and so it demanded man to “quit” it and give up some of his “liberty” in the process.  Thus, progress, in its philosophical formulation, is the surrendering of natural liberty to the social contract for the promised guarantees of peace, security, toleration, and peaceable production and consumption: this culminates in the unleashing of capital and technology which allows man to fundamentally transform nature.

In this view, society and nature are not in an ideal state.  Fallen, perhaps in certain progressive theological readings (like among certain progressive Protestant traditions).  Imbued also with the sense of the Idea of Progress, where History is guiding humanity and telling humanity what is to become, progressivism seeks to reshape, reorganize, and reengineer human society and nature to reflect this higher vision of an ideal.  Progressivism is restless, soulless, and tirelessly working to establish that “city upon a hill” as the true originator of American progressivism—John Winthrop and the Puritans—boldly stated.

Society and nature are actually disorderly, in the progressive view.  Society and nature is not actually in its “natural state,” as it were.  It must be reordered to a higher ideal—whatever that means.  The very word ideology confirms this heritage.  Ide, “to see.”  It’s a vision of progress.

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, in his History of England identifies the Puritans as the first formal progressive movement.  The Puritans were insistent, from their unique and revolutionary dissenting Protestant character (during the Reformation you had the Magisterial/Ecclesiastical Reformation, and the Radical Reformation; the Puritans are heirs of the latter), in their desire to purify, reorganize, and reshape English society into their higher ideal of the Christian Commonwealth.  John Locke, an heir to the Puritan revolutionary Protestant tradition, likewise argues in Two Treatises of the ability to reshape and reorganize society into a higher ideal conformed by the restrictions of the Social Contract.  And in the 19th century, following the industrial revolution, progressivism sought to reorganize society and nature along capitalist, urban, and industrial structures and frameworks.

Hence, we see progressivism as ever changing and relativistic.  In one age, the age of the Puritans, progressivism’s goal is to reorder nature and society to reflect the heavenly New Jerusalem and New Israel.  During the Industrial Revolution, progressivism changes to reflect the new manifestations wrought by industrialization and capitalism.  Nature and society should be reordered along the lines of an industrial, urban, and capital-intensive understanding of society.  Today, progressivism is concerned about reordering the post-industrial urban order to establish greater levels of material, or wealth, equality.  The baseline logic is actually easy to follow and relatively sound if you agree with the pre-suppositional premise of progressivism: that nature, society, and humanity need to be reorganized into some higher and better ideal.

In each case, the progressive looks at the world around him and sees disorder.  Society and nature are not in their ideal state.  Because society and nature are not in their natural state, it becomes the pious task of the progressive to reorder both into their natural state.  For the Enlightenment theorists, that meant granting men their natural rights—property, the most important.  During the Industrial Revolution, that meant establishing an industrial and urban society.  At present, living in the post-industrial but still urban society previously created by the Industrial Age progressives, this means erasing the obscene levels of poverty and inequality wrought by industrial capitalism.

We see, therefore, a strong distinction in the philosophical worldview of conservatives and progressives.  One serves naturally and organically forming communities.  The other serves progress, or the general push towards a higher ideal—whatever that ideal is based in time and space.  The conservative sees nature as organic and natural, i.e., it is already in its ideal shape because it is timeless.  The progressive sees nature as fallen, so called, or disordered (in a more secular language) and is tasked with uplifting (Aufhebung) nature and society to its ideal condition.

As it relates, therefore, to our contemporary politics, our so-called “conservatives” are really the last generation of progressives.  For instance, American conservatives are all about “conserving” or preserving the ideas and worldview of the industrial era progressives: urban society, industrialism, entrepreneurship, “taming nature,” capitalism (all things 19th century progressives celebrated and supported) had produced the world in which we live.  Therefore, since we benefit from the ideas that created our contemporary society, we should preserve them—because we know they work.  There is nothing philosophically conservative about today’s conservatives.

Modern progressives, as genuine reflections of the progressive intellectual tradition, are restless reformers and pilgrims.  David Hume, and many others past and present, are right that the genesis of progressivism as a social movement inarguably comes from dissenting Protestant traditions.  Even the great 19th century British liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, wrote a seminal essay on the English dissenting traditions as forming the backbone of English liberalism while the High Anglicans tended to be Tory (or conservative).  The previous generations’ progressive ideas carry no influence over them because they live in the present.  They observe, as progressives of the past did, a non-ideal and disorderly society.  (Perhaps less so than in the past, but still far from its ideal state.)  Thus, contemporary progressives observe the present, arrive at conclusions at what is wrong, and devise methods to counteract what they perceive to be wrong with society.  This is why progressives talk so much about what is wrong, rather than what is “right.”  If the world is not ideal, yet, then we must progress towards that higher cosmic ideal we know to be true.

Here, we see that conservatism, true conservatism, is not concerned with low taxes, capitalist economics, national exceptionalism, or about establishing an ideal world.  In fact, most genuine conservatives have opposed capitalism and corporate personhood while it was progressives who originally championed such causes as l’espirit de l’epoque (or zeitgeist, spirit of the times).  Also, we do not see progressivism as champion as perfectible man.  Instead, progressivism champions progress for the sake of an ideal.  Human nature may or may not be perfectible, but it is certainly malleable and can be molded to reflect something “better” than it is at present.

To return to the state of nature, or Natural State, progressives actually saw it as bad, oppressive, and chaotic.  Our original state is one of chaos and conflict, and we need to reorganize and progress away from this.  By definition, progress needs “badness” or “chaos” so as to move away from and toward something progressively better.  While many conservatives share with Hobbes his reading of the state of nature, Hobbes erred in thinking that the formation of civil authority via the Social Contract constituted “progress.”  Locke fits the same bill despite his slightly more benign state of nature.  Locke even writes clearly in Two Treatises that this state of nature still produces conflict which the rational process is the establishment of the civil society of the social contract, and once this occurs there’s no going back to the absolute freedom of the state of nature.  Man is beset by constant fear of invasion and death says Locke.  We now live in the age of obedience once we’ve consented to the social contract.  In the Whig mentality, the state of nature was something unfit, terrible, and chaotic—and our movement out of the state of nature and into civil society constitutes the origins of Historical Progress.

For readers of Leo Strauss, one should see the paradigmatic shift in understanding human nature and society too.  The conservative holds to Strauss’ “ancient conception” whereby human nature is about the flourishing of true being.  The pursuit of the highest good, unto which humanity situates himself in nature and community and traditions and customs emerge—as does the state and its laws—to help humanity reach that fulfillment of being.  Progressivism rejects this, lo, it supersedes this view.  Such an outlook is “dated,” “unmodern,” and “not with the times.”  Progressivism’s vision of human nature and society is one that needs fundamental re-organization through the principles of revisionist hedonism (self-survival and material gain per Hobbes and Locke, e.g. ethical egoism) and the social contract which permits the reorganization of nature and society along the lines of some higher vision or “ideal state.”  In other words, the progressive view of human nature is one that needs “fixing.”  Thus, liberalism’s logic of human nature necessarily exhausts itself in abolition and emancipation — or transhumanism.

Progressivism seeks to build a bridge into the new frontier while conservatives seek to merely live in, and with, the frontier we know to exist (the world as it is).  Progressivism is not some new, abnormal, or “cultural Marxist” conspiracy, it is a well-established intellectual and social tradition that emerged from the Enlightenment (explicitly).  Progressivism is the end of the internal logic of (classical) liberalism.


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 Finding ArcadiaThe Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and 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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1 comment

  1. Not to disagree but to distinguish: the ambiguity is built into human nature. However your mythology accounts for it, man is fallen. He has positive prosocial tendencies as well as anti. A realist political philosophy takes into account both tendencies: people need carrots and sticks. A “conservative” political philosophy that takes a lassiez-faire stance, removing the standing social order in the hope that an organic natural order will break out, will fail.


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