conservatism

the origins of conservatism

  • conservative politics should not be confused with reactionary politics
  • the origins of conservatism were a reaction to the politics of the Enlightenment
  • at the heart of the enlightenment was a belief in reason and remorseless progress; the notion that there was an ideal society towards which politicians should strive, underpinned by tolerance, equality and individuals rights
  • by the 2nd half of the 18th century, it became difficult for politicians and philosophers to argue against the principles of the Enlightenment without appearing regressive and intolerant
  • in England this was the period called 'the Whig supremacy'
  • early liberal politicians were confident that the progressive principles embodied by the Glorious Revolution and America's Declaration of Independence were intellectually unquestionable and politically irresistible
  • any critique of the enlightenment seemed rooted in outdated, theocratic thinking
  • the French Revolution 1789 seemed to vindicate the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment
  • the rapid and dramatic overthrow of the despotic French monarchy, the rejection of the irrational religious assumptions that went with it, and the creation of a new republic founded on liberty, equality and fraternity were all greeted with enthusiasm by European intellectuals
  • a huge continental power was embracing the ideas of Rousseau, Voltaire and other enlightenment philosophers
  • by 1792 it was clear that revolutionary change and the ruthless imposition of reason could have shocking and horrific consequences
  • the public beheading of King Louis XVI was accompanied by the Terror- a period when thousands of citizens were persecuted and executed in the name of progress; genocidal violence became the means of securing an enlightened revolutionary regime
  • the course of the French Revolution and the threat posed to peace across Europe by the new French regime proved a watershed in political theory
  • events in France made it possible to assail liberal enlightenment principles without seeming reactionary; to criticise progress without denying the spirit of the Enlightenment; to accept reform without rejecting revolution
  • the savagery of the French Revolution paved the way for a new sort of political ideology that would respect the case for change while warning of its dangers
  • the political thinker who epitomised this new approach was edmund burke, the father of conservatism

the core ideas of conservatism

human nature

  • defined largely by response to those of rival ideologies
  • stress human frailty and fallibility
  • philosophy of imperfection
  • deny any possibility of a perfect, utopiean society, comprising flawless and rational individuals
  • highlights humanity as it is
  • rejects the malleable view of human nature offered by socialism
  • scorns the idea that humanity can be significantly remoulded given the correct environment or society
  • human nature is fixed and constant
  • the job of politicians is to accomodate this reality
  • hobbes- human nature is ruthlessly selfish, calculating and competitive; without the restraints of formal authority, relations between human beings would be marked by envy, hatred and war, leading to a life that was nasty, brutish and short
  • hobbes- underpinning human nature is a cold rationality; would eventually lead to warring individuals to forge a contract, which would lead…

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