Conservatism is one of the three post-revolutionary ideologies that I mentioned last time. In general, post-revolutionary Conservatives rejected the uncertainty and violence unleashed by the French Revolution and sought to establish as stable social and political order. Although there were many sources of conservatism in Europe, its origins as an intellectual movement lie in England with Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Edmund Burke was the first European to see the French Revolution as both a social and intellectual event. In his view, the Revolution brought not simply a change in regime, but also fundamentally altered the foundations of French society. This meant for him that the revolution’s impact could not be contained within France. It was a challenge to every society that had an aristocracy, a church, and a monarchy.
Burke made his case in his famous book Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This book was written very early in the revolution, and represents Burke’s thoughts only on the Revolution’s first six months. Knowing the timetable is important, because it shows us that Burke’s opposition to the Revolution was philosophical, rather than reactionary. Many so-called conservatives came to oppose the revolution, but only after seeing the resulting violence and bloodshed. Burke, however, published his opposition before the worst violence and destruction had occurred. For that reason, his doctrines are more considered and coherent than the screeds later opponents would write in moments of terror.
Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was an all-out assault on the revolution’s official doctrines. The foundation for this assault was his opposition to political abstraction. For example, in the text Burke rejected the idea of natural rights, holding that all rights derived from the history of a given society. In his view, rights are an inheritance passed on to the present generation by previous generations. For that reason governments cannot be thought into existence. Political and legal structures evolve slowly in accordance with a country’s history. As Burke considered the revolutionaries’ attempt to build a new, perfect government, he responded that a government is not a machine that can be taken apart and put back together; instead, it is an organism that has grown slowly over a long time and is rooted in a country’s traditions and practices. In Burke’s view, the revolution’s greatest mistake was to break France’s organic relationship to its history and institutions.
Burke saw the past as a source of wisdom. It tempered political judgments and prevented change from getting out of hand. In this context, even prejudices could prove useful, since a prejudice that had worked well in the past was better than an untested idea that threatened anarchy. (You will note, based on the previous lecture, an early hint of Romanticism’s rejection of abstract reason. Burke was no Romantic, but his opposition to abstraction was later incorporated into Romanticism.) In Burke’s view, a Revolution that had lost touch with a national past would descend into chaos and make a military strongman necessary. He wrote, “In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself….But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic.” Given the French Revolution’s ultimate course, and its final end in Napoleon, Burke could have claimed no small degree of vindication, had he lived to see the final outcome.
I have mentioned Burke’s anticipation of some Romantic themes, because there is an important connection between later conservative politics and English Romanticism. I have already mentioned William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge in a previous lecture. Both men went from being partisans of the French Revolution to opponents as the revolutionary violence progressed. They represent the spread of a conservative sentiment across Europe that abhorred Revolutionary violence. Wordsworth, for example, moved closer to the traditional authorities such as the British monarchy and the Church of England, even if his politics remained subdued. Coleridge’s anti-revolutionary sentiments were more overtly political, as he extolled the virtues of the old society of orders. In his view, each order played a valuable role in society. If people tried to act outside of their order, social and political chaos would result. This position had fundamentally political implications in that it meant, for Coleridge, that if people not trained in politics tried to join in public debate, or even worse to vote, the state would collapse. Thus, Coleridge thought it better for the orders should to live together harmoniously, with the nobles running the politics, while everyone else fulfilled their duties. This idea would have a great effect on such future leaders as Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill.
After Napoleon’s defeat another generation of conservative writers came to the fore, particularly in France, that wanted to vindicate Burke’s attacks on the Revolution, but also parted with it in significant ways. Many of the new conservatives reacted strongly against the Revolution’s excesses by demanding greater security for the state. The problem was, however, that the French Revolution and Napoleon had destroyed so many traditions that the past could seemed to provide little stability. Moreover, some stabilizing traditions that had worked well in Britain, such as Protestantism, could play no significant role in more Catholic countries. Thus, a redefinition of Burke’s conservatism was necessary before it could be applied elsewhere, and in some cases this pushed conservatism into the realm of political reaction.
Much of what post-Napoleonic conservatives in France did can be described as a re-appropriation of tradition. French conservatives gravitated toward the Catholic Church as a source of stability and tradition. The church brought a sense of hierarchy and organic order back to daily life. (There is, of course, an implicit connection to Romanticism here.) Catholicism would not have fit well with Burke’s worldview, since he was a Protestant. But in Europe’s Catholic regions, especially in France, Italy, and Spain, this kind of religious conservatism had an inherent appeal. The Franco-Italian Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) is a good example, as he has come to represent most fully the alliance between throne and altar. De Maistre took a much more pessimistic view of politics than had his enlightened predecessors. Rather than finding the state’s origins in reason, as John Locke had done, he emphasized violence as its fundamental aspect. In his view, all political systems originated in violence. Before there was a state, there was anarchy. The state keeps anarchy out of daily life by centralizing the violence that had once been randomly distributed. In this context, it is the threat of state violence keeps anarchy out of daily life.
De Maistre’s concentration on violence then combined with his doubts about reason to lead to a major intellectual innovation. De Maistre was the first thinker to expressly theorize the political importance of public ritual. In order to persist, de Maistre argued, a state needs rituals. These rituals are not rational, but are designed to inculcate belief and teach lessons. That is, public rituals of whatever sort declare allegiance to the state. (De Maistre’s analysis was on target. It is no accident that the French Revolutionaries were constantly inventing new public rituals to secure their state. Some of those rituals were violent, as the steady use of the guillotine attests.) In particular, de Maistre felt that religion was central to maintaining daily security, since it was founded on rituals. Thus, a new political approach emerged. The state is both founded in violence and permeated by the irrational. If rituals keep the state together, then religious rituals, which were the most powerful and pervasive of all public rituals, had to be protected by the state.
This basic philosophical position put Maistre in conflict with almost the entire eighteenth century. He was opposed both to the Enlightenment’s rationalism and the French Revolution’s abstractions. He detested the French philosophes’ attacks on what he considered to be the true foundation of human life, religion. De Maistre was a believing Christian, and he saw history and politics in terms of God’s divine will. In attacking the Catholic Church’s authority, the Enlightenment poisoned the social community, and caused France to lose sight of its Christian mission. The French Revolution was merely the predictable end to this sad tale, as the pain and suffering it caused were God’s punishments for irreligion. This gave the revolution meaning, in so far as all violence could be interpreted as symbolic action that represented God’s plan. According to this perspective, the Reign of Terror was a ritual sacrifice that purified France and returned it to the proper path. Now that the purification was complete, France could rebuild itself along traditional lines.
In his work de Maistre identified what became a central problem for many post-revolutionary thinkers, how does one rebuild shattered authority? De Maistre’s answer was to hold that a monarchy was the best form of government, since it best approximated God’s will. Monarchy controls the kind of egoism the revolution had set free, by showing people that state power is anchored in mystery. Mysteries are, of course, things that simply must be believed, which meant that Voltaire had no place in Maistre’s world. For de Maistre, however, banishing Voltaire and reason also made possible a return to morality. Now, the church would assume its rightful place in politics. With the political system anchored firmly in religion, individuals could live in peace within the new hierarchy.
De Maistre became enormously popular in France and across Europe. He provided a meaningful way of understanding the destruction the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had brought. He seemed to provide a better explanation for the violence than the Enlightenment could. The Enlightenment had preached that man was basically good. But how could that be, given the Reign of Terror? De Maistre provided an alternate ideology to the ideas propounded by Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. For him, people are basically evil and need to be held in check by systems of authority. Only the traditional institutions of church and state could prevent future horrors. This approach became the basis for all future conservative arguments about the about the need to protect traditional institutions.
We cannot go into all Europe’s conservatisms here, but before concluding this discussion, I want to discuss another conservatism that began before the French Revolution and was then radicalized by it, German Conservatism. In order to understand Conservatism in Germany, you must recall now my earlier discussion of Germany’s unique political structure. Until the first unification under Bismarck in 1871, Germany was divided into many principalities of different shapes and sizes. As late as 1648, there were still 365 separate German states. Some, like Prussia and Austria, were large. Others, such as the Duchy of Weimar, and Germany’s many city-states, were quite small. The diversity of institutions and states was enveloped by an ancient institution called the Holy Roman Empire. The empire was supposedly founded on Christmas Day, 800 AD, and grew organically for over 1000 years, until it was dissolved by the Austrian emperor Francis II in 1806. I want to trace the history of German Conservatism through three people Justus Möser, Friedrich von Gentz, and Carl Ludwig von Haller.
German Conservatism originated in local opposition to political change within the system. Change was defined largely through the aggression of large states toward smaller states. Thus, across Germany, voices of protest arose every time a large state—most often Prussia—tried to change existing political arrangements. Justus Möser offered one consistent voice of protest. Möser represented well the concerns of Germany’s smaller states. Born and raised in a small town called Osnabrück, in the northwest Germany, he spent his entire life there working in local government. In a weekly paper that he published, Patriotic Fantasies, Möser argued tirelessly that the German spirit lay in the organic reality of the Holy Roman Empire. He defended regional diversity, traditional liberties, and ancient wisdom against the forces of political change. These ideas would be very important later to critics of the battle between Berlin and Vienna for control over all of Germany. But Möser also influenced German literature greatly. He put the importance of diversity and local traditions onto a cultural plane in his famous History of Osnabrück. In this text he argued that culture was rooted in the daily practices of ordinary people. If you want to find authentic Germanness, you must go the peasants and listen to their language and folk tales. This idea had a great impact on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder, to whom the later Romantics would turn.
If German conservatism was rooted in local opposition to political change before the French Revolution, it became increasingly nationalistic after the Revolution. Here we turn to Friedrich Gentz. A Prussian, he was born in Silesia, the province that Frederick II had stolen from Austria, and his father worked there in the Prussian administration. Gentz grew up and was educated in Berlin, particularly by the city’s French Huguenots. Gentz’s mother was from this expatriate community, which meant that Gentz spoke and wrote both German and French. Gentz had studied philosophy under Immanuel Kant in Königsberg and was an early partisan of the French Revolution, but he soon turned against the revolutionary violence and bloodshed. In this context, it is notable that Gentz was the first person to translate Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France into German. In 1791, he read Burke’s work in English, initially with distaste, but later with growing admiration as the Revolution became more violent. Gentz then translated Burke’s work into German and published it in 1793. The translation was a hit and made Gentz instantly famous as an anti-revolutionary writer. He spent the next decade railing against the revolution in a series of conservative journals. In 1802, driven in part by personal scandals, Gentz left Berlin for Vienna, where he became part of Prince Klemens von Metternich’s stable of conservative propagandists. As a member of Metternich’s growing team of writers, Gentz brought together anti-French propaganda with conservatism and an emerging nationalism.
From Gentz we turn to the most influential conservative of the immediate post-Napoleonic period, Carl Ludwig von Haller. Haller was born in 1768 in the Swiss city of Bern. His father had been a local official in the city government, and Haller joined the city government, too. In 1786, at the young age of eighteen, Haller began working for the city government. Haller’s quiet life changed dramatically, however, with the French conquest of Switzerland in the 1790s. Haller struggled against the French occupation, but was ultimately forced to leave Bern. He returned later, but was forced to leave again, when it became known that he had converted to Catholicism. (The Bernese are very Protestant.) Like many young conservatives, the destruction of Haller’s political and social world led him to search for order in the Catholic Church.
Haller’s most important work is Restoration of Political Science (1816-1822). In this text, Haller wanted to overcome the revolutionary social contract theory with an emphasis on social inequality. In Haller’s view, society is based on social inequality. Everywhere the weak are dependent on the strong, and this chain of dependency runs right up to the prince, whose strength protects everyone. Thus, the prince’s authority was inalienable, and he made all political decisions alone. Haller was not completely dogmatic on this question. In contrast to de Maistre, he did not emphasize the church’s role in the state, nor did he claim that the prince’s power was unassailable. Even the prince had rules to follow, since he was simply a prince but was a father to his people. In emphasizing inequality, however, Haller put a strong conservative trend into German political thought. This would later combine with nationalism to give German politics a particularly anti-French flavor.
To conclude, Conservatism is a product of both the pre-revolutionary and French Revolutionary periods. It has many roots and appeared in many countries in different forms. But if there is one thing we can say about its history, it is that the French Revolution provided the impetus to make Conservatism a movement. Those who had railed against any change before 1789 suddenly came to seem like prophets. The Revolution’s wars and killings made God, King, and Country seem like a good combination to for keeping social and political order. Next time, we will talk about another approach to order, Liberalism.