Is being a conservative philosopher a contradiction in terms? After all, isn’t Philosophy, from its very beginnings in Greece, the celebration of the human spirit and human nature as opposed to the religious ‘conservative’ view which had been accepted for generations until then? Can we brand Plato as a ‘conservative’ thinker when his very ambition was to open the mind of his contemporaries to the perennial beauty of the world of Ideas?
Conservatism is, in fact, a fairly recent concept which is commonly associated with some strong attachment to traditional, unchanging values. Along with a fear or suspicion of anything new comes the deep belief in a better, idealised past where humanity harboured higher moral values and where a just, social hierarchy prevailed. However, philosophers do not live in a historical vacuum and their ideas develop within a stable or changing world, eventually reflected in their conception of human nature and the best possible system of government.
Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan while in exile in France during the English Civil War. It is therefore not surprising to find in his long treatise, a pessimistic view of a humanity torn by permanent conflicts. Hobbes is a conservative thinker at a time of high political turmoil and his suggested remedy for a peaceful England is directly inspired by his personal fear of a country forever reduced to chaos unless a strong ruler imposes his will over a population forced into obedience to his laws. The same ‘conservative’ reaction is to be found in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, written before the period of Robespierre’s Terror. Burke warns against the dangerous excesses of a revolutionary fervour bound to turn into a blood-thirsty frenzy. The Whig MP ascribed the stability of the English system of government to its reverence for a long tradition harking back to Magna Carta. Unlike Hobbes, Burke is not pessimistic about human nature as he believes that fair political institutions can guarantee the well-being of all subjects. In this respect, Tocqueville observed the social behaviour of nineteenth-century Americans with a scientific detachment unknown to Burke in his critical judgement on the first two years of the French Revolution. Tocqueville wants America democracy to succeed and thrive. His reservations are not addressed to the system of government but to the way he saw American citizens becoming too indifferent and complacent about the way their representatives ran their state and country.
In the twentieth-century, thinkers like Oswald Spengler and Samuel P. Huntington went as far as proclaiming the demise of Western civilisation, through a process of natural decay or an inevitable ‘clash of civilisations’ between East and West. This significant move towards a more pessimistic and conservative view of the future of Western culture may be regarded as a mere ‘sign of the times’ and not necessarily as a new trend among Western cultural thinkers. The present malaise experienced by Europe about its place and role in world politics is shared across the Atlantic too. Some contemporary thinkers take solace and refuge in nationalistic values regarded as the secure foundations of a new moral and political order. Less impassioned commentators, such as Roger Scruton claim their attachment to traditions while exposing the harm wrought on the world of ideas by over optimistic, idealist philosophers like Rousseau or Marx. As a life-long ‘conservative’ thinker, Scruton calls for a measured pessimism but is his guarded stoicism the best answer to a world in a constant flux, requiring flexibility of mind and a certain degree of qualified optimism in the future?