Writing on behalf of the Ancien Régime, French writer and politician François-René de Chateaubriand was the first to identify himself as a “conservative” in a political context. His journal, Le Conservateur, was first published in 1818 and through it he expressed both nostalgia for pre-Revolutionary France and opposition to King Louis XVIII. Despite his counter-revolutionary influence and coinage of the term “conservative,” however, it is not to François-René de Chateaubriand that modern scholars look for an intellectual foundation of conservatism. Rather that distinction is bestowed to the Irish-born scholar, writer, and politician Edmund Burke.
Though he personally never invoked the term conservative, Burke provided a systematic analysis of the French Revolution in 1790 that would become the intellectual basis for the disposition now commonly invoked as conservatism. Burke’s pronouncements concerning the revolution and his eloquent defense of the preservative impulse are largely contained in his best-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, which Burke wrote near the end of his life. Prior to this book’s publication, Burke had been largely ostracized from English politics due to his principled vindication of unpopular causes including his speech urging reconciliation with the American colonies. Nevertheless, Burke’s work served to reverse his political standing and Reflections on the Revolutions in France is now widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of political prose ever written.
Burke’s arguments against the French Revolution, as well as his intellectual theories concerning conservatism, stem from his appreciation of the complexity of human nature. Burke believed that man’s understanding of his own nature must at all time times be fallible and incomplete; he argued that philosophical concepts of man which endeavor to fully explain his nature would forever break down when brought to bear upon reality. Moreover, Burke considered the problem of man’s limited self-knowledge to grow exponentially when man entered civil society and expanded his relationships. Since a human being could only partially understand himself and other human beings even less, Burke rejected any theory of government that presumed to fully adhere to man’s nature or satisfy all of his wants. “The nature of man is intricate,” Burke wrote, “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or the quality of his affairs.”
Thus Burke rejected utopianism at its root, disparaging not a particular system of government but the manner of thinking which presumes that any system of government (be it monarchial, communist, democratic, etc.) is capable of fully satisfying humanity. Political governance being an imperfect science with sustainability rather than perfection as its end, Burke argued on behalf of experience as a necessary guide for achieving peace and a reasonable standard of living.
Burke’s defense of tradition, then, rested upon grounds of practicality and usefulness rather than upon theories of divine right. He strongly believed that truth could be ascertained through the perception of reality over time, and he argued that the nature of historical causality afforded men with far greater knowledge of themselves than they could ever ascertain through reason alone. The past, according to Burke, was therefore to be respected and studied not because it was perfect but because it is a source of inherited wisdom for the present. To ignore this inheritance and the painstaking work of one’s ancestors serves only to limit, stupefy, and destroy. Burke’s primary defense of England’s constitutional monarchy over the egalitarian democracy of France rested not in one system of government being objectively preferable to the other, but in the danger in France’s violent rate of change threatening to bring down the whole groundwork of European civilization.
Whereas in England Burke perceived a monarchial system slowly and prudently becoming more representative through practical measures, he foresaw across the English Channel the possibility of mass murder and terror that would accompany France’s uncompromising rate of change. Rather than a ferocious democratic frenzy, Burke proposed that “it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice, which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.” History taught Burke to proceed with caution and temperance rather than passion, particularly in the realm of political affairs in which human lives are at stake.
The implications of Burke’s prescriptions regarding society and change, often called “prudence” by his intellectual defenders, are enormous in relation to modern conservatism. Burke does not offer a succinct guide to governance and in fact casts doubt on anything of the kind being valid in itself; instead, he argues that the government a society has is likely to be better than what any one person or group could spontaneously invent. Burkean conservatism would thus likely find the U.S. Constitution as worthy of defense not because of the manner in which it was established but because of the validity of its practical use over two centuries. Burke might agree with “Constitutional conservatives” and American libertarians who decry deviations from originalism, but his justification would be notably different. Rather than arguing upon the inherent moral superiority of the founding generation, he would look to the durability and success of the U.S. Constitution over time as indicative of its truthfulness. The past as both an inheritance for the present, and a guide for the future.
Simultaneously, Burke offers guidance that is capable of rescuing modern conservatism from a theory of “the radiant past” or philosophical nostalgia that presumes that everything in the past must be preferable to the present or future. Burkean conservatism rejects the possibility of a perfect system of governance; thus the founding period of America was no utopia despite the presence of great men such as George Washington, James Madison, and John Adams. Recognizing this, American conservatives must proceed pragmatically when attempting to reauthorize original aspects of the framer’s vision, for if they proceed too hastily the civil discord and disarray they are likely to arouse will negate any real benefit.
Burkean conservatives therefore labor to improve and reform what they have, using interactions with reality and human nature to test the validity of moral beliefs. Rather than an ideology sending us spiraling towards a history-based or future-based utopianism, Burke imparts conservatism to us as a sophisticated, intellectually defensible instrument for continuity and peace. This at precisely a time in which such a perspective is sorely needed in American politics, and more.