12:59 PMThe story of conservatism - Part One
The story of conservatism: Part One: Origins |
Conservatism as a fully-fledged political philosophy was not consciously formulated until the seventeenth century. The same is true of its rival, liberalism. Both fascism and socialism, by contrast, have much more ancient roots and both philosophies can be found in, for instance, Plato.
The seventeenth century was one of the most turbulent times in human history and the English Civil War crystallised positions on both sides. Even so neither liberalism nor conservatism were constructed out of whole cloth. Arguments before the seventeenth century tended to be phrased in religious terms with thinkers like Augustine of Hippo (whose ‘City of God’ gave arguments to both sides), the conciliarist movements to limit the power of the Pope (particularly the arguments put forward by Nicholas of Cusa), the Lollards (Wycliffe was essentially a liberal while many of his disciples, such as John Ball for instance, were essentially socialist), the Anabaptists (a bewilderingly miscellaneous brood of millenarians whose political ideas ranged from anarchism, socialism, communism, fascism, liberalism and conservatism), the Hussites (the Utraquists tended to be liberal while the Taborites views fluctuated between anarchism, socialism and fascism), the Lutherans (particularly Zwingli and Melancthon) and Jean Bodin who tried to reconcile Roman law, Christianity and the beginnings of the scientific revolution in a not very convincing mixture.
Although there were predecessors, particularly Bracton and de Montfort, it was the emergence of a new independence of thought in Holland and Central Europe in the early seventeenth century that began full-tilt intellectual battle. Grotius and Comenius were probably the first major thinkers to ground their beliefs on reason and observation rather than on authority and revelation. They are the two joint founding fathers of liberalism. Both men argued in favour of toleration, extending freedom, abolishing torture and taking a humane approach to the penal code and education. Conservative thinkers like Bacon opposed them but were not systematic in their arguments.
The battle was joined under Charles I when Edward Coke appealed to the Common Law to guarantee the rights of subjects against arbitrary royal power. Then the Civil War broke out and tract after tract, pamphlet after pamphlet, book upon book rolled off the presses to defend a point of view.
The conservatives had only one major thinker on their side and he was a real Trojan horse. Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ inspired liberals, conservatives, communists and fascists and the ideas within it ultimately became the political foundations of the United States. Far more popular with conservative thinkers than the dangerously subversive Hobbes was Sir Robert Filmer whose ‘Patriarchia’ was highly praised by Royalists at first but soon fell out of favour as men like Milton, Marvell, Halifax, Shaftesbury and Locke tore it to shreds.
Filmer rested his case for conservatism almost entirely on the Bible. In an age that was rapidly becoming more secular and rationalist his ideas fell out of fashion. By contrast the atheist conservative Hobbes appealed to reason and practicality which is why he continues to be an important and influential thinker while Filmer is virtually forgotten.
‘Leviathan’ is a very dangerous book in all sorts of ways. Even Hobbes knew that his arguments, in spite of representing the most rational basis for conservatism ever put forward, could equally well be used to justify ANY form of government.
Hobbes’ primary contribution to political philosophy, besides his advocacy of an authoritarian society, was to popularise the idea of the ‘social contract.’ Because this is such a hugely important idea in political history I’ll deal with it in more detail in part two.
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