Conservatism is a broad term used to describe a political philosophy that emphasises traditions, hierarchy, and gradual change.  However, it is important to note that the conservatism we will discuss in this article will focus on what is referred to as classical conservatism, a political philosophy that differs from the modern conservatism we recognise today.          

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Conservatism is a broad term used to describe a political philosophy that emphasises traditions, hierarchy, and gradual change. However, it is important to note that the conservatism we will discuss in this article will focus on what is referred to as classical conservatism, a political philosophy that differs from the modern conservatism we recognise today.

Conservatism: definition

The roots of conservatism lie in the late 1700s and came about largely as a reaction to the radical political changes brought about by the French Revolution. 18th-century conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke played a major role in shaping the ideas of early conservatism.


In its broadest sense, conservatism is a political philosophy that emphasises traditional values and institutions, one in which political decisions based on abstract notions of idealism are rejected in favour of gradual change based on pragmatism and historical experience.

Conservatism came about largely as a reaction to radical political change – specifically, the changes that came about as a result of the French Revolution and English Revolution in Europe.

Origins of conservatism

The first appearance of what we refer to today as conservatism grew out of the French Revolution in 1790.

Edmund Burke (1700s)

However, many of conservatism's early theories and ideas can be traced back to the writings of British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, whose book Reflections on the Revolution in France laid the foundations for some of conservatism's earliest ideas.

Conservatism Statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol StudySmarterFig. 1 - Statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol, England

In this work, Burke lamented the moral idealism and violence that fuelled the revolution, calling it a misguided attempt at social progress. He viewed the French Revolution not as being symbolic of progress, but rather as a retrogression – an undesirable step backwards. He strongly disapproved of the revolutionaries' advocacy of abstract Enlightenment principles and disregard for established traditions.

From Burke's perspective, radical political change that did not respect or take into account established societal traditions was unacceptable. In the case of the French Revolution, the revolutionaries sought to abolish the monarchy and all that preceded it by establishing a society based on constitutional laws and the concept of equality. Burke was highly critical of this notion of equality. Burke believed that the natural structure of French society was one of hierarchy and that this societal structure should not simply be abolished in exchange for something new.

Interestingly, while Burke opposed the French Revolution, he supported the American Revolution. Once again, his emphasis on established tradition helped shape his views on the war. For Burke, in the case of the American colonialists, their fundamental freedoms existed before the British monarchy.

The purpose of the French Revolution was to replace the monarchy with a written constitution, which would lead to what we recognise today as liberalism.

Michael Oakeshott (1900s)

British philosopher Michael Oakeshott built upon Burke's conservative ideas by arguing that pragmatism should guide the decision-making process, rather than ideology. Like Burke, Oakeshott also rejected the ideology-based political ideas that were so much a part of the other main political ideologies like liberalism and socialism.

For Oakeshott, ideologies fail because the humans who create them lack the intellectual capacity to fully comprehend the complex world around them. He believed that using prescriptive ideological solutions to solve problems oversimplified how the world works.

In one of his works, titled On being Conservative, Oakeshott echoed some of Burke's early ideas on conservatism when he wrote: [the conservative disposition is] “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried … [and] the actual to the possible.” In other words, Oakeshott believed that change should remain within the realm of what we know and what has worked before because humans can't be trusted to reshape or restructure society based on unproven ideology. Oakeshott's disposition echoes the conservative idea that emphasises the need to take into consideration established traditions and Burke's belief that society should value the inherited wisdom of generations past.

Theory of political conservatism

One of the first notable developments of conservative theory originated with British philosopher Edmund Burke, who in 1790 articulated his conservative ideas in his work Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Conservatism Depiction of Burke's position on the French Revolution by Isaac Cruikshank StudySmarterFig. 2 - Contemporary depiction of Burke's position on the French Revolution by satirist Isaac Cruikshank

Prior to its turn towards violence, Burke, after conducting a thorough analysis, correctly predicted that the French Revolution would inevitably turn bloody and lead to tyrannical rule.

The Burkean Foundation

Burke based his prediction on the contempt the revolutionaries had for traditions and society's long-held values. Burke argued that by rejecting the foundational precedents of the past, the revolutionaries risked destroying established institutions without any guarantee that their replacement would be any better.

For Burke, political power did not give one the mandate to restructure or reconstruct society based on an abstract, ideological vision. Instead, he believed that role should be reserved for those who are cognisant of the value of what they are inheriting and the responsibilities they have to those who passed it down.

From Burke's perspective, the notion of inheritance extended beyond property to include culture (e.g. morals, etiquette, language, and, most importantly, the correct response to the human condition). For him, politics could not be conceptualised outside of that culture.

Unlike other philosophers from the Enlightenment period like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who viewed political society as something based on a social contract established among the living, Burke believed this social contract extended to those who were alive, those who were dead, and those who have yet to be born:

Society is indeed a contract.… But, as the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born… Changing the state as often as there are floating fancies… no one generation could link with the other. Men would be little better than the flies of a summer.1

- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, 1790

Burke's conservatism was rooted in his profound respect for the historical process. While he was open to social change and even encouraged it, he believed that the thoughts and ideas used as an instrument to reform society should be limited and occur naturally within the natural processes of change.

He was vehemently opposed to the kind of moral idealism that helped fuel the French Revolution – the kind of idealism that positioned society in stark opposition to the existing order and, as a result, undermined what he viewed as the natural process of social development.

Today, Burke is widely regarded as the 'Father of Conservatism'.

Main beliefs of political conservatism

Conservatism is a broad term encompassing a wide range of values and principles. However, for our purposes, we will set our focus on a narrower conception of conservatism or what is referred to as classical conservatism. There are four main principles associated with classical conservatism::

The Preservation of hierarchy

Classical conservatism places a strong emphasis on hierarchy and the natural state of society. In other words, individuals must acknowledge the obligations they have to a society based on their status within society. For classical conservatives, humans are born unequal, and thus, individuals must accept their roles in society. For conservative thinkers like Burke, without this natural hierarchy, society could collapse.


Classical conservatism recognises that some limits must be placed on freedom in order to ensure liberty for all. In other words, for liberty to flourish, conservatism morality, and social and per­sonal order must exist. Liberty without order must be avoided at all costs.

Changing to conserve

This is one of the most important principles of conservatism. Changing to conserve is the core belief that things can and should change, but that these changes must be undertaken gradually and must respect the established traditions and values that existed in the past. As previously pointed out, conservatism rejects out of hand the use of revolution as an instrument for change or reform.


Paternalism is the belief that governing is best undertaken by those most suited to govern. This could be based on circumstances related to an individual's birthright, inheritance, or even upbringing, and directly ties in with conservatism's embrace of natural hierarchies within society and the belief that individuals are innately unequal. Thus, any efforts to introduce concepts of equality are unwanted and destructive to the natural hierarchal ordering of society.

Other characteristics of conservatism

Now that we have established the four main principles of classical conservatism, let's explore in more depth other important concepts and ideas that are associated with this political philosophy.

Pragmatism in decision-making

Pragmatism is one of the hallmarks of classical conservative philosophy and refers to an approach to political decision-making that involves evaluating what historically works and what doesn't. As we have discussed, for conservatives, history and past experiences are paramount in the decision-making process. Taking a sensible, reality-based approach to decision-making is preferable to taking a theoretical approach. In fact, conservativism is highly sceptical of those who claim to understand how the world works and is traditionally critical of those who attempt to reshape society by advocating ideological prescriptions to solve problems.


Conservatives place great emphasis on the importance of traditions. For many conservatives, traditional values and established institutions are gifts passed on by God. To get a better understanding of how traditions feature so prominently in conservative philosophy, we can refer back to Edmund Burke, who described society as being a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born’. Put another way, conservatism believes that accumulated knowledge of the past must be protected, respected, and preserved.

Organic society

Conservatism views society as a natural phenomenon that humans are part of and cannot be detached from. For conservatives, freedom means individuals must accept the rights and responsibilities that society bestows upon them. For example, for conservatives, the absence of individual restraints is unthinkable - a member of society can never be left alone, as they are always a part of society.

This concept is referred to as organicism. With organicism, the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. From the conservative point of view, societies arise naturally and out of necessity and view the family not as a choice, but rather as something that is required in order to survive.

Human nature

Conservatism takes an arguably pessimistic view of human nature, believing that humans are fundamentally flawed and imperfect. For classical conservatives, humans and human nature are flawed in three chief ways:


Conservativism believes that humans are by nature driven by their passions and desires, and prone to selfishness, unruliness, and violence. Therefore, they often advocate for the establishment of strong government institutions in an effort to limit these damaging instincts.


Conservatism often attributes criminal behaviour to human imperfection rather than citing societal factors as the cause of criminality. Again, for conservatism, the best way to mitigate these negative aspects of human nature is through strong deterrents and law and order. Without the discipline and restraining mechanisms legal institutions provide, there can be no ethical behaviour.


Conservatism also has a pessimistic view of human intelligence and humans' ability to fully grasp the world around them. As a result, conservatism bases its ideas on tried and tested traditions that have been passed down and inherited over time. For conservatism, precedent and history provide the certainty they need, while unproven abstract ideas and theories are rejected.

Conservatism: examples

  • The belief that there existed an ideal state of society sometime in the past.

  • The recognition of the basic framework of existing social and political order, as the Conservative Party in the UK does.

  • The necessity of authority, power, and social hierarchy.

  • The respect for tradition, long-established habits, and prejudice.

  • Emphasis on the religious basis of society and the role of 'natural law'.

  • Insistence on the organic nature of society, stability, and slow, gradual change.

  • The vindication of the sacredness of private property.

  • An emphasis on small government and free-market mechanisms.

  • The priority of liberty over equality.

  • Rejection of rationalism in politics.

  • Preference for apolitical values over political ones.

Conservatism An Amish farmer in the United States StudySmarterFig. 3 - A farmer from Ohio, United States - part of the Amish Christian sect, who are ultra-conservative

Conservatism - Key takeaways

    • Conservatism is a political philosophy that emphasises traditional values and institutions - one that favours gradual change based on historical experience over radical change.
    • Conservatism traces its origin back to the late 1700s.
    • Edmund Burke is viewed as the Father of Conservatism.
    • Burke wrote an influential book titled Reflections on the Revolution in France.
    • Burke opposed the French Revolution but supported the American Revolution.
    • The four main principles of conservatism are the preservation of hierarchy, freedom, changing to conserve, and paternalism.
    • Conservatism has a pessimistic view of human nature and human intelligence.
    • Paternalism is the conservative notion that governing is best done by those most suited to govern.
    • Pragmatism is defined as decision-making based on what historically has worked and what has not.


  1. Edmund Burke, 'Reflections on the French Revolution', Bartleby Online: The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. (Accessed 1st Jan 2023). para. 150-174.

Frequently Asked Questions about Conservatism

Conservatism focuses on the maintenance of traditions and hierarchy with only gradual changes over time.

Political change should not come at the expense of tradition.

The Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and the Amish people in the United States are both examples of conservatism.

The main characteristics of conservatism are freedom, the preservation of hierarchy, changing to conserve, and paternalism.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What was Oakeshott’s greatest body of work?

When did Oakeshott join the British army?

Who among these philosophers is not one of the major influences on Oakeshott’s philosophy?


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