Conservatives are a diverse lot. Even so, there are similar foundations in their thinking. These many politicians, social philosophers, authors, and activists share certain core beliefs. In essence, they echo down the centuries, firmly holding onto traditional attitudes and values and remaining wary of change simply for change’s sake.
Here are 16 of the great conservatives, intellectual stepping stones leading to the present day.
1. Confucius (551–479 BC)
Known for centuries in China as the Model Sage for Ten Thousand Ages, Confucius, like modern-day conservatives Russell Kirk and T.S. Elliot, stressed the “permanent things” of society. His term wu-ch’ang, or "Five Norms," represents: jen, “humaneness;” I; “righteousness;” li, “ritual,” “ceremony,” “proper deportment,” etc.; chih, “sagacity,” “wisdom;” and hsin, “trustworthiness.”
Confucius promoted social stability and family values (shades of George H. Nisbet) along with humility, honesty, modesty, studiousness and social duty. The Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” also appears in his great work, “The Analects.”
Chinese communists originally despised Confucianism and did everything they could to eradicate what they viewed as a philosophy from the days of feudalism that encouraged social inequity and interfered with social justice. Modern China has rehabilitated his reputation, however.
Granted, modern women find Confucius a bit too conservative, with his belief that a woman’s allegiance should pass from father to husband to son. But his immense influence on the history of Asian thought cannot be denied.
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2. Cato the Elder (234–149 BC)
Marcus Porcius Cato, foe of Julius Caesar and defender of the republican principles of civic virtue, was renowned for his strong opposition to luxury, believing that Hellenic (Greek) culture threatened Rome. Like his fellow Roman, the great orator Cicero, Cato believed one should both know and restrain oneself.
As censor, Cato scrutinized the conduct of candidates running for office and of military generals. He urged the Romans to destroy its trading rival, Carthage, ending every speech and conversation with the words “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). He wrote several books, one a manual on how to run a farm.
Incidentally, today’s Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., is named not after Cato but after “Cato’s Letters,” a series of 144 inspiring and influential political essays written in the 18th century by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who appropriated Cato as a pseudonym.
3. John Locke (1632–1704)
Long before Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, there was the more fundamental Social Contract of John Locke, an English philosopher and physician who was one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. In the Social Contract, people must knowingly agree to live and work together. If any party at any time breaks the pact, then other members of community may choose to remove the dissenter or dissolve the union altogether.
Liberals believe Locke is the Father of Liberalism because he laid the foundation for liberal epistemology (how we know what we know). Conservatives believe he is the Father of Conservatism because he founded a natural law political philosophy, which assumes that one has an innate nature and values.
Libertarians also like Locke. To Locke, property is acquired by exercising one’s labor over it. His conception of government is one of limits, with the rule of law dampening the impulse to tyranny. However, though the individual in Locke’s worldview has rights, those rights are also bound by social duties and responsibilities.
Locke’s defense of the English Declaration of Rights in 1689, with its right of free speech, right to bear arms, and freedom from taxation without representation, inspired the American colonists to regain these rights nearly a century later. As more than one political philosopher has pointed out, the American Revolution was basically a conservative event, a thunderous way to recover rights that had been brushed under the rug by King George III and Parliament.
4. Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Unlike his brethren of the idealistic Enlightenment, the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke — considered the father of modern conservatism — saw limits to human reason. His distrust of pure democracy is echoed today in the Electoral College, that last protection against unbridled public rule. Indeed, Burke was perfectly at ease with the idea of a monarchy and classed society. Moreover, he felt that both Church and State draw their inspiration from the same divine source and are in a sense inseparable. Thus, he rebuffed the idea of a social contract, believing that government derives its authority from ancient innate principles of virtue, articulated in religion, tradition, myth, and folklore.
As philosopher Jesse Norman wrote, Burke didn’t believe in small government but “slow government,” infused with unpretentiousness and humility, always pushing for reform rather than radicalism and revolution.
Despite his disbelief in the ability of unbridled individual freedom to bring personal or social happiness and his fear of liberalism’s trappings, Burke hated injustice and any abuse of great power. He was against oppression of the American colonies and the exploitations of the East India Company in India. He rejected military adventurism and argued for the phasing out of slavery.
American revolutionary Tom Paine hated Burke, viewing him as a defender of the privileged and opponent of free individuals, but Burke was admired by such later political greats as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
5. Goethe (1749–1832)
Germany’s supreme dramatist and poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reinvented himself, reigning in his youthful romantic, revolutionary spirit and remolding himself as a conservative and classicist. As he expressed it: “Everything that liberates the spirit without a corresponding growth in self-mastery is pernicious, ” and “The classical I call the healthy and the romantic the diseased.”
Great British thinkers such as Coleridge, Carlyle, and Arnold were all swayed toward conservatism by Goethe’s powerful writings.
6. Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
Among America’s Founding Fathers, Hamilton was perhaps the most conservative and nationalistic. One of New York’s leading attorneys, he wrote half of the Federalist Papers and put America on a sound financial footing with a Treasury that assumed state debts as well as debts owed by the national government. He set up the Bank of the United States to make liquidity in financial markets possible, and founded the Federalist Party, to boot.
Simply to list Hamilton’s achievements would take an entire book.
7. Irving Babbitt (1865–1933)
A Harvard French literature scholar and eccentric genius, Babbitt was heavily influenced by Edmund Burke. In the 1890s he and Paul Elmer More formulated what became The New Humanism, opposing the emotional, intuitive tenets of Naturalism and Romanticism. They instead called for classical ethics, morality, systematic reason, and universal conservative values. Novelist Sinclair Lewis denounced the New Humanists in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, having not-so-coincidentally named the narrow-minded, philistine title character of his 1922 novel “Babbitt” after Irving Babbitt.
Babbitt went on to write such classic conservative works as “Democracy and Leadership” (1924).
For Babbitt, the world was not a series of accidents, but had a transcendental purpose. Individuals are born with certain natural rights, which the government should protect, particularly property rights. Morals are not relative but absolute in his world.
Babbitt was an educator for more than 40 years, and he believed that civilization’s most crucial act is the education of its children. As Prof. Robert C. Koons wrote of Babbitt’s idea: “All other social and political practices, whether the scope of civil liberties, the worship of gods or ideals, or the distribution of benefits and burdens, are merely the epiphenomena of the cultural ethos created by education.”
8. Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961)
An American writer and editor who was a confessed courier for Russian spies, Whittaker Chambers is seen here testifying before a Senate Judiciary Internal Security Subcommittee, in New York, Aug. 16, 1951, about Red infiltration in America.
Chambers’ five rolls of photographic film known as the “pumpkin papers” (because they were hidden in a pumpkin field) both catapulted anti-communist Congressman Richard Nixon to fame and sent U.S. State Department superstar Alger Hiss to prison for three and a half years in 1950.
Later, in 1952, Chambers wrote the book “Witness,” to immense acclaim. A masterpiece of its kind, it is partly autobiographical and partly a polemic against communism. Ronald Reagan would later claim that reading this book spurred his conversion from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican. (Reagan posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 for his contribution to "the century's epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism.")
Chambers edited and wrote for William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine from 1957 to 1959. His final book, "Cold Friday," was published posthumously in 1964. A strangely prophetic work, it correctly predicted that the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellite states would revolt and eventually bring down the communist system.
9. Eric Hoffer (1902–1983)
Eric Hoffer, the jovial “longshoreman philosopher” and author, delivered a memorable, scathing attack on the anti-individualist aspects of Socialism and Liberalism in his first, most famous work, "First Things, Last Things" (1951). Hoffer continued the diatribe in his "The Ordeal of Change" (1963).
In “The Temper of Our Time” (1967) he warned that America should avoid foreign interventions, though he did initially support the Vietnam War.
Hoffer is not actually considered to be a strict conservative, however, since he remained apart from any particular political ideology. But he was fascinated by how people adopted political ideologies and came under the spell of mass movements and fanaticism. He thought that a lack of personal self-esteem was responsible and that an adherent of one strong ideology could easily switch to another, such as Trotskyites becoming neoconservatists.
10. Milton Friedman (1912–2006)
Dr. Milton Friedman, seen here shortly after winning the 1976 Nobel Prize for economics, taught for 30 years at the University of Chicago and had the ear of several U.S. presidents. Friedman revealed weak points in the previously sacrosanct economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, popularized “supply-side economics,” created the doctrine known as monetarism, and in general championed an unfettered free market.
Following his death in 2006, some professors and students at the University of Chicago opposed the naming of a new institute after Friedman, saying the association with the economist's hands-off economic prescriptions was increasingly troubling amid the global financial meltdown of the time.
11. Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973)
Uncompromising philosopher, founder of the Classical Liberal movement (today called libertarianism) and central figure of the Austrian School of Economics who mentored the Nobel Prize winner Friederich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises was an implacable foe of authoritarian governments in all its forms: Nazism, Marxist Socialism, and so forth. He also opposed overwhelming coercive regulation and antiquated tax codes.
Mises influenced many economists, along with novelist Ayn Rand, who popularized classical liberal economic ideas with her best-selling writings.
12. Russell Kirk (1918–1994)
Russell Amos Kirk was an American political theorist, historian, moralist, social and literary critic, and author of fiction. Barry Goldwater proclaimed him the greatest thinker of the age. He’s seen here with Ronald Reagan.
2013 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of Kirk’s masterful dissertation at St. Andrews University in Scotland, which appeared as the acclaimed 1953 book, “The Conservative Mind.” It was heavily influenced by Edmund Burke and espoused traditionalist conservatism. St. Andrews recently sent the manuscript of the dissertation — two leather-bound volumes of 1,500 pages and 1,000 pages — to The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, a nonprofit education organization based in Mecosta, Mich.
Annette Y. Kirk, Kirk's widow, is President of the Center and continues his legacy. Today she quotes her late husband’s view that the best reformer is one who “combines an ability to reform with a disposition to preserve; the man who loves change is wholly disqualified, from his lust, to be the agent of change.”
Interestingly, Kirk viewed libertarians as “chirping sectaries” and was suspicious of neoconservatives. He also worried that “democracy” would be transformed into a sort of secular pseudo-religion.
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13. Barry Goldwater (1919–1998)
Barry Morris Goldwater was America’s leading conservative politician, espousing small government, free enterprise, and a strong national debate. Although not a political philosopher per se, one of the reasons we include him here is because of his immensely popular book, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” which appeared in 1959 and by 1963 had sold 100,000 hardback and 400,000 paperback copies.
Ironically, the book, Goldwater’s literary monument, was actually ghostwritten in 1959 by two people: Conservative activist and Catholic writer L. Brent Bozell Jr., who was married to Bill Buckley’s sister, Patricia, worked with Stephen Shadagg, Goldwater’s Senate campaign manager and “alter ego” who was chairman of Arizona's Republican Party and had written most of Goldwater’s newspaper columns for him. Bozell and Shadagg drew upon Goldwater’s many columns to craft the book, which some critics viewed more as a manifesto than a treatise.
14. Irving Kristol (1920–2009)
Known as the publicity-shy “godfather of neoconservatism,” Kristol was a political commentator who helped revitalize the Republican Party following Barry Goldwater’s1964 presidential defeat and laid the foundation for the coming of the Reagan presidency. He influenced everyone from William F. Buckley to David Brooks.
Starting in 1965, Kristol’s magazine, The Public Interest, attacked the “welfare state” and the idea that government social policies could bring about positive change. He condemned welfare programs as creating a culture of dependency and assailed affirmative action because it fostered social divisions and hurt its supposed beneficiaries.
Kristol’s famous definition of a neoconservative? “A liberal mugged by reality.”
15. Norman Podhoretz (born 1930)
A leading, fiercely neoconservative pundit who edited Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995, Podhoretz has long advocated the exercise of American military power in dealing with problems abroad, particularly when it comes to the “Islamofascist” subset of the Islamic world in defense of Israel. Needless to say, he sees Iran as a tremendous threat and likens the U.S./Iran situation to Europe’s pre-World War II appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Podhoretz has called President Obama an “anti-American leftist” who aims “to turn this country into a European-style social democracy while diminishing the leading role it has played in the world since the end of World War II.” Podhoretz has advised politicians such as Rudolph Giuliani and is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.
16. William F. Buckley Jr. (1925–2008)
Contemporary American conservatism will probably never see another author and commentator the magnitude of William Frank Buckley Jr. In 1955, he founded National Review, a publication that heavily influenced the conservative movement. He reached millions more people, however, by hosting 1,429 episodes of his TV show, “Firing Line,” from 1966 until 1999. He was the author of more than 50 books, and like many pundits, he had a newspaper column; interestingly, he was also the author of spy novels.
If the most uninformed member of the American public heard the word “conservative” it was likely the image of William F. Buckley that came to mind. ... As for Buckley himself, he alternated, calling himself by turns a libertarian or conservative.
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