Classics of conservative thought

Including Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Roger Scruton

Thomas Hobbes (1651)
The place of Hobbes's masterpiece in the conservative pantheon is a matter of some controversy among scholars. He is certainly sceptical of the idea that human beings could ever overcome their moral and intellectual imperfections, and sees men's inclination to compete for "honour and dignity" as tending to "envy, and hatred, and finally war". Moreover, he regards government as a bulwark against the "war of all against all" that obtains in a notional state of nature. The legitimacy of the Hobbesian "sovereign" resides in his ability to stave off civil strife.

The Idea of a Patriot King
Lord Bolingbroke (1738)
Bolingbroke was a friend of Voltaire and a committed deist. His religious views later attracted the opprobrium of Burke, who wrote in his Reflections: "Who now reads Bolingbroke; who ever read him through?" However, a century after Patriot King was published, Disraeli reclaimed Bolingbroke for Toryism, deriving from his work the notion of an "administration inspired by the spirit of our free and ancient institutions". Bolingbroke's patriot king would "espouse no party" but "govern like the common father of his people", an idea that reflected his un-Hobbesian conception of man as an essentially social being.

Essays, Moral and Political
David Hume (1741-42)
“My views of things," Hume once wrote, "are more conformable to Whig principles; my representation of persons to Tory prejudices." Hume's reputation as a Tory thinker depends largely on The History of England (1754-62), in which he defended the Tories and attacked the Whigs, and for which Thomas Jefferson branded him the "great apostle of Toryism". The interpretation of Hume's writings popularised by Thatcher's guru Friedrich Hayek presents him as one of the architects of the "ideal of personal liberty" that formed the basis of 19th-century liberalism. Nevertheless, the scepticism of his philosophical masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature, does lend his political theory an anti-utopian flavour that could be described as "conservative".

Reflections on the Revolution in France
Edmund Burke (1790)
Burke's Reflections is the source book of English conservatism. He supported the claims of the American colonists, on the grounds that they were "descendants of Englishmen devoted to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles". Their counterparts in France, however, sought to remake society in the image of abstract ideals, and in doing so forgot that government is a science of "practice", not of logic. Reflections ends with Burke praising the "moral timidity" of his ancestors and urging Englishmen to "admire, rather than attempt to follow in their desperate flights, the aeronauts of France".

Vindication of the English Constitution
Benjamin Disraeli (1835)
Disraeli's principal work of political theory begins with a thoroughly Burkean attack on utilitarianism. Disraeli's objections to utilitarianism are twofold: first, it seeks to apply an abstract, universal principle (the principle of utility) to the business of statecraft; second, it treats government as a legitimate object of a priori reasoning, when it is in fact a practical art. Enduring political structures, Disraeli thought, reflect not rational principles, but national characters shaped by distinctive histories; a state is a "creation of refined art", not the product of armchair theorising.

Rationalism in Politics
Michael Oakeshott (1962)
The title essay of this, Oakeshott's most substantial collection, takes aim at what he calls the "myth of rationalist politics". What rationalists fail to see, he argues, is that moral and political ideals have "significance only so long as they are suspended in a religious or social tradition". Rationalism presents us with the spectacle of politicians "preaching an ideology of unselfishness and social service to a population in which they have done their best to destroy the only living root of moral behaviour". In the essay “On Being Conservative", Oakeshott elaborates the idea of conservatism as a "disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for".

The Meaning of Conservatism
Roger Scruton (1980)
Scruton rejects the modern "myths" of progress, socialism and liberalism, and erects in their place a conservatism that puts "public before private, society before individual, privilege before right". In setting out an authentically conservative account of political authority, Scruton rejects the social contract theory that is central to liberalism. The fiction of the social contract, he argues, "bears about as little relation to the facts as the view that my parents and I once surreptitiously contracted that they would nourish and educate me in return for my later care".

Click here for Jonathan Derbyshire's essay on the meaning of conservatism.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush