As I understand it, Conservatism, as a term and ideology, can be traced back to Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke. He espoused a civil society upheld by, as he saw it, the then pillars of civilisation: constitutional monarchy, state church, and parliament representing the aristocracy. Importantly, this was not simply a continuation of British tradition, which would have been the absolute monarchism of the Torys. Thus conservative movements around the world; explicitly conservative and not just traditional, can be traced back to him and his teachings.

I would like to know if this understanding is true or false, and thus whether logically and historically speaking we can say that Conservatism is to Edmund Burke as Christianity is to Jesus or Communism is to Karl Marx.

I ask because I'm fed up of people using terms like "liberal" and "conservative" with absolutely no understanding of where they come from and what they mean, and so want to be sure I'm not one of them.

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    You may be interested in my answer here about American conservatism: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/8511/4019 And my answer here about American liberalism: politics.stackexchange.com/a/2811/1953 Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 4:17
  • @KeshavSrinivasan interesting answers, though I find the distinction between "libertarian" and "liberal" odd, in that the classical and progressive split (which happened in Britain too, and I wonder which way the wind blew at the time) produced children from the same parent. They're both liberals, especially when compared to different ideological families, like communism, fascism, etc. The question of quite how conservative America's conservatives are is valid, especially if they claimed to be influenced by Burke, and the question of how he defined conservatism.
    – user8398
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 9:24
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    I'm not sure what a good answer will look like, but I can say that many American conservatives read Burke and take him very seriously.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 14:23
  • You may also be interested in this answer I just posted about the alt-right: politics.stackexchange.com/a/12353/1953 It's much less Burkean than mainstream American conservatism. Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 5:08
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    Keshav Srinivasan's answer on phil.SE is the best I can imagine. But I'd like to see more attention here, so I'm offering a bounty on this. Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 16:03

1 Answer 1


While modern day Conservatism is indeed grounded in the thinkers and thinking of the Enlightenment, think of such luminaries as Locke, Burke, Hume, Adam Smith, and Jefferson, conservative thought really began with Aristotle.

From Aristotle, conservatives derive their sense of the need for practical experience in judging both moral and political matters, and their understanding of the role of tradition in inculcating habits of virtue and wisdom in the young.For more see https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/conservatism/v-1

I particularly like this explanation:

Various precursors of this self-conscious conservatism have been claimed. Aristotle is often cited, for holding that morality and politics—unlike natural science—lack special experts, and that in these areas, human experience over generations is the main source of knowledge. Confucius is another possible precursor. From a later but still pre-Enlightenment era, the English common law notion of precedent, developed by such as Edward Coke (1552–1634), is a clear influence on self-conscious conservatism (Pocock 1989) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/conservatism/ One could add Taoism (Lao Tzu) to the list above for similar reasons.

Finally, if one wants a contrast between the animating differences between the left and the right, I would start here: http://powerline.wpengine.com/archives/2011/12/new-power-line-series-the-basis-of-left-and-right-part-1.php

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