What Is Conservatism?

New to the Conservative Intellectual Tradition?

This seminar will give you an opportunity to get to know the principles and ideas that formed the conservative intellectual tradition. With essays and selections from thinkers such as Abraham Lincoln, Publius, William F. Buckley Jr., and F. A. Hayek, this is the perfect way to get an introduction to the principles of conservatism.

Society Seminar



  • Reading: Pages 2–22, 50–54
    • Intro: Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University is one of the leading contributors to conservative thought today. He is also part of a tradition founded and championed by Leo Strauss, a tradition that interprets political philosophy by way of the great thinkers of the Western canon. This student’s guide is an introduction to that Straussian way of thinking. The history and progression of political philosophy can be found woven into the fabric of the Western canon, most clearly by the great masters of philosophy and dialectic. A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy begins by marking the first spark of political philosophy as simultaneous with the beginning of the Western tradition: that is, with Socrates. The reading we have chosen from this book covers Plato and Aristotle, arguably the two greatest philosophers to ever live and the men who did the most to lay the foundations that the rest of this course will be built on.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • This book presents the study of political philosophy through the lens of great thinkers—thinkers who did not necessarily represent the dominant philosophies of their day. Would you prefer a different approach to the study of the evolution of political philosophy?
    • Mansfield says that political philosophy is the completion of the partly rational nature of politics (page 3). What does this mean?
    • How would politics be altered if politicians today used the language of political philosophers—if the dialogue of politics shifted toward virtue and ends instead of needs and means? What would be gained and what would be lost?
    • Is Mansfield right when he says political science came from political philosophy (page 6)? How could one argue that, in fact, the reverse is true?
    • Why is it important whether natural justice exists? How does this question of political philosophy bleed into policy issues?
    • Plato’s best regime is governed by those who have achieved the highest philosophic virtue, while Aristotle’s is ruled by men of moral virtue (page 16). Which do you think would be the more successful government?
    • A political constitution is neither entirely natural nor entirely artificial (page 19). What parts of the U.S. Constitution seems natural and what parts seem artificial?
    • Who is more suited for politics: the philosopher or the historian?
    • What ideas are in tension between Mill and Burke?
    • How important is context in understanding political philosophy? Do we need to know what Plato’s and Aristotle’s contemporaries were thinking? What are the dangers of deriving a political philosophy from great philosophers alone?
  • Further Reading/Activities:
    • Consider finishing the book.


  • Intro: You found your way here because you are passionate about educating yourself. But have you thought about why? Before we launch straight into the humanities, let’s take a moment to talk about why we are here. From practical, philosophical, and political frameworks, let’s talk about the purpose of education. This can be anything from a formalized debate to a roundtable discussion. One easy style of debate is simply to have people take turns making speeches for each side and fielding questions when they finish. If you do decide to make this more of an open discussion, below are some questions if the conversation hits a lull.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • If your education is entirely paid for by the government, should it be treated like a gift or an investment with an expected return?
    • How much say should students have in what they are learning?
    • Would we be better off with more or fewer artists alive today?
    • What disciplines are most directly connected with virtue?
    • Do more-educated people tend to be more virtuous?
    • As human knowledge has advanced, have men become more virtuous?
    • If you could restructure the education system, how would you do it?
  • Further Reading:


  • Reading: Pages 9–25 (Frank S. Meyer)
  • Intro: Frank S. Meyer is the editor of this volume of essays, so it isn’t surprising that he chose himself as the first on a list of “12 leading conservatives.” Meyer is most famous for coining the term fusionism, a philosophy that fuses two seemingly diametrically opposed conservative viewpoints: traditionalism and classical liberalism. In this essay, he points out the dangers of extremism if each of these philosophies is not fused with its counterpart, and he argues that true conscious conservatism exists in the dialectic between various streams of conservative thought. He was right to put himself first—his is the perfect introduction to the brilliant writers who follow, and he gives us some guidance on how to view their thoughts together.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • How would you describe the “collectivist Liberalism” that Meyer takes issue with?
    • Meyer emphasizes the dangers of extremist versions of traditionalism and libertarianism, but what are the dangers of taking both in moderation? Is he watering down two extensive philosophies and combining them? Or is he right that they are “opposite sides of the same truth” (page 12)?
    • Which would be the least dangerous without the other: a philosophy built on reason or a philosophy built on tradition?
    • What are the advantages and disadvantages of the fact that conservatism is not monolithic—that it is a conversation between different philosophies with different points of emphasis?
    • How do we go about employing Meyer’s fusionist philosophy? How do we know when we are relying too much on reason or too much on tradition?
    • Can this particular brand of conscious conservatism galvanize a large enough coalition or be as powerful a motivator as traditionalism or libertarianism?
  • Further Reading:

If you liked the Frank Meyer reading, consider reading his second essay in this volume: “Consensus and Divergence” (page 249).


  • Intro: The line of what is and isn’t a right seems perpetually blurred in civic dialogue. Is education a right? Is healthcare? How often do these sorts of conversations happen without the interlocutors bothering to define what a right is to them? The question is further obscured when we consider the difference between natural rights, human rights, and other sorts of rights. We take the Declaration of Independence very seriously when it refers to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” But can men ever truly know God’s law? If not, is it hubris to try to build it into our Constitution? There are strong arguments that human rights are fictitious: invented by men, for men. Is this true, and if it is, does that render human rights any less important?
  • Further Reading:


  • Reading: Pages 51–80 (Willmoore Kendall)
  • Intro: The Bill of Rights enjoys a strong reputation in the United States, but its story is often overlooked and taken for granted. In a deep dive into the history and politics that made the Bill of Rights possible, Willmoore Kendall is able to make us think critically about it for the first time. The hubris of defining natural human rights may have gotten lost in the fray of eighteenth-century politics, but it is not lost on Kendall. This essay is a brilliant balance of a nuanced and careful look at history and a critical dialogue about a fundamental piece of the American experiment. As we join Kendall in examining the Founding, let’s not take our focus off what it really meant to build a nation, and how it could have been done better.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Why were the Federalists so strongly opposed to a Bill of Rights, and the Anti-Federalists so vehemently in favor of it, if no one had any idea of what it would say (page 54)? What sort of policy solutions could be enacted to avoid these types of problems in modern politics?
    • What is the significance of the difference between the demand for an addition to the Constitution for the security of the states, and the need for a bill in support of individual rights?
    • Is the politics behind the ratification of the Bill of Rights different from what you imagined?
    • Is the First Amendment more bad or more good for America?
    • Kendall says that “the issue is not whether men have natural rights, but whether those rights can at any moment be specified once and for all” (page 62). What are the advantages and disadvantages of trying to vocalize natural rights? What are the advantages of doing so as part of the constitution?
    • The Madison who wrote the Bill of Rights, much like the Madison who became president, seems to discard many of the precepts of the Madison who wrote The Federalist Papers. Do you think Madison changed, or do you think he was simply being a pragmatist?
  • Further Reading:


  • Intro: World religion was never the same after Henry VIII. When the church refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry appointed himself as head of the Church in England and created a new conception of church authority in one fell swoop. Power and religion are a strange mix. One of history’s most courageous stories is told in A Man for All Seasons. It is the story of Sir Thomas More, the lord chancellor of England who believed his king was wrong to demand an annulment and was forced to stand up to one of the most powerful men in the world in the name of religion.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Is Henry VIII a good king?
    • Was Thomas More’s courage less impressive because he believed he had no other options?
    • When should we compromise our principles for the sake of the greater good?
    • What are the implications of a king’s insisting that the law of the state can trump the law of the church?
    • Is this film more motivating or disheartening?
  • Further Reading:


  • Reading: Pages 109–128 (F. A. Hayek)
  • Intro: Friedrich August von Hayek is the most important and influential economist within the liberal tradition. His economic theories were centered in “spontaneous orders,” market forces like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that keep capital growth as efficient as possible. Much of Hayek’s noneconomic politics rested on these spontaneous orders as well—he saw them in law and morality. This essay is an articulation of the classical liberal political philosophy, emphasizing how it distinguishes itself from the conservative, progressive, and socialist ideologies. Conservatism especially gets lumped in with the classical liberal/libertarian philosophy, and Hayek sets out to distinguish between the two once and for all.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Hayek says that “the tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments” (page 111). Is the telos of conservatism to reach the same ends that progressives aim for, only more slowly? Or is there some other goal or direction conservatives are headed that Hayek is ignoring here?
    • For those that did the Freedom, Tradition, and Conservatism reading: How would Frank Meyer counter Hayek’s claim that conservatives compromise in the middle and shift their beliefs every time a new extreme arises (page 112)?
    • Does the government have a duty to legislate morality?
    • Does modern conservatism suffer from obscurantism? When, if at all, is it good to reject new discoveries because of the consequences of their findings?
    • What would Hayek’s internationalist view of the world look like if successful?
  • Further Reading:


  • Intro: Ought our country be more republican or more democratic? This debate raged in the Continental Congress when the Founders toiled to turn our confederation of states into a nation. In the end, the Constitution landed on a compromise: instead of being elected by a vote of Congress, or by popular vote, our president would be elected by an elector. Each state would have its allotment of electors based on how many representatives they had in the House and the Senate. That meant that electors would reflect another compromise: small states would have a disproportionately high number of electors, allowing their voices to be heard on the national stage. Now, on a practical level, we often talk about the power of swing states in presidential elections, and many Americans feel that even in a close national election, their vote won’t count unless the election is close in their state. Do we think this system is just? It would be wrong to think too practically—to consider which political party has the advantage at this moment in history—but let us consider whether our nation ought to decide elections through more democratic or more republican means.
  • Further Reading:


  • Reading: Pages 161–184 (Stephen J. Tonsor)
  • Intro: Stephen J. Tonsor was a scholar of intellectual history, an associate editor of Modern Age, an unapologetic defender of traditional values, and a grossly understudied intellectual. This essay is a full-throated defense of “conscious conservatism”—that is, conservatism that understands the value of faith, morality, and liberty. Tonsor highlights the importance of freedom in securing virtue and vice versa.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • What are the ways in which Tonsor believes liberalism is more coherent than conservatism?
    • Tonsor says, “Lacking internal religious authority, society can exist only if an external secular authority is imposed” (page 166). Is tyranny inevitable in a secular nation?
    • What is the future of faith in America? Does our liberal system pose an eventual threat to it?
    • Do you agree with Lord Acton that liberty is man’s highest good?
    • Does conscience necessarily follow from liberty? If free people don’t necessarily become good, and Tonsor’s warnings about giving too much power to a church or state are correct, what other choices do we have to secure a good society?
  • Further Reading:
    • “Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom,” Russell Kirk (page 29)


  • Directions: The game is simple: read the five fictional situations and decide which, if any, should get the money. Settle in for a long, legalistic argument.


  • Reading: Pages 219–226 (John Chamberlain)
  • Intro: After spending his youth as an ardent socialist, John Chamberlain went on to be a senior editor of two famous conservative journals, The Freeman and National Review. He spent most of his adult life fighting communist ideas and defending liberalism. This essay is important because it gives us an argument for the morality of markets—and not one we are used to. This isn’t an argument that men deserve to be left alone or that freedom is the greatest good. It’s not even an argument that free enterprise is inherently linked to morality. It’s a demonstration that big government is necessarily linked to immorality.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • If, as The Federalist Papers points out, men are not angels, then why would we be better off without a church-run state? Doesn’t the fallible nature of man point to the inevitable failure of a society where freedom is the ruling principle?
    • Describe the link between economic freedom and virtue.
    • How does Chamberlain think we’ve been mischaracterizing laissez-faire economies of the Gilded Age?
    • What, for Chamberlain, is the appropriate role of the state?
    • Chamberlain asks, “What, after all, is more corrupt than the compulsion of a man to labor against his will in a place and for a master whom he has not chosen?” (page 226). Is this characterization never applicable to capitalism?
  • Further Reading:

On Doing the Right Thing, Alfred J. Nock


  • Intro: The Searchers is one of many collaborations between all-time great director John Ford and monumental lead actor John Wayne. The Searchers is much more than a western, but the rough lawlessness of its late nineteenth-century setting colors the mood of the film and accentuates the drama. This is a film that explores racism, but primarily it is about the core human emotion that lives in us all: hatred. Love of family, ardor for revenge, and a blind hatred all have a strong effect on Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), and audiences cannot look away as his character develops and his unique sense of justice begins to command his every action
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Try to describe Ethan’s values: not just his prejudices but his politics and personal life philosophy as well.
    • Who changes more over the course of the film, Martin or Ethan?
    • This is an extremely straightforward plot. What, then, keeps the audience’s attention?
    • How does this film twist and distort the American dream?
  • Further Viewing:
    • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


  • Reading: Pages 97—108 (Wilhelm Röpke)
  • Intro: Wilhelm Röpke will go down in history as an ardent enemy of socialism. As a former socialist himself, he was perhaps particularly well suited for the job. Röpke credits the writings of one of the great thinkers of the classical liberal tradition for his “conversion”: Ludwig Von Mises. Röpke took Mises’s free market principles and pitted them squarely against socialism and collectivism. But Röpke set himself apart from other liberty-minded economists because he focused on what he called the “humane economy.” For Röpke, economic freedom was not a matter of efficiency; rather, it was about virtue. Efficiency was a happy consequence. In this essay, Röpke tackles the matter of education in economics. For Röpke, one must begin one’s journey into the field of economics by understanding why it’s so important. Freedom is at stake. And before you understand anything about markets, you must understand that without our liberty we will not have the opportunity to act with virtue.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Why is economics “freedom’s first line of defense”?
    • Why is economics a philosophical discipline?
    • How much economic freedom do we need to be free?
    • Röpke identifies some compulsory measures as necessary to the freest economy: they are “of a general nature and apply to everybody, they are predictable, not arbitrary, and are formulated in precise regulations.” Why do you think these are his criteria for compulsory measures? Would you add any to his list?
    • Röpke identifies the constitutional state as being intrinsically linked to economic freedom. Why do you think that is?
    • Do you think Röpke would label economic inequality as a “necessary evil”?
    • Would economic freedom still matter to Röpke if he didn’t believe it was the most efficient market system?
    • Röpke believes everyone should be educated in economics. Does our free market make that more difficult?


  • Intro: It’s a sad and simple truth: every day there are human rights violations all over the world, and the United States does nothing in response. But should we? It is not hard to explain why our government has a duty to defend its own people. But the government cannot right all the wrongs in the world without putting an intense strain on Americans. So how ought we discern what types of conflict we have a duty to be involved in? How directly must such conflicts relate to our own national security concerns?

Further Reading: Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Short


  • Reading: Pages 227—249 (William F. Buckley Jr.)
  • Intro: William F. Buckley Jr. is the man who helped transform American conservatism from a mere disposition into a principled political movement. Linking the intellectual arms of the classical liberals/libertarians and the Barry Goldwater republicans, Buckley pioneered a new conservatism rooted in the duel principles of liberty and virtue. That conservatism would inform the newly burgeoning intellectual right and lead directly to the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. Buckley was the first president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and is most famous as the founder of the conservative journal National Review. In his What Is Conservatism? essay, Buckley uses his experiences at National Review to tell the story of conservatism—in part because, at least intellectually, that story truly did unfold within the pages of that magazine. Even in the ’60s, as the right was still finding it’s footing, National Review was its voice. As its editor, Buckley had to guard his journal from anyone who would derail or pervert its conservative mission. So as conservatives began to break into factions, Buckley had to have a deep enough understanding of what he meant by conservatism to know who could contribute to its vision and who was going too far afield. Why, for example, did the neocons and the traditionalists belong, while the Randians and the John Birch Society did not? In this essay, Buckley explains that conservatism is by nature temperate and prudent, and anything radicalized or reactionary cannot fit his mold.
  • Discussion Questions:
    • Why does Buckley define what conservatism is by spending most of his time on what conservatism isn’t?
    • What does the conservative temperament that Buckley is worried he doesn’t possess look like? What should it look like?
    • Buckley tells us that “no conservative cosmology whose every star and planet is given in a master book of co-ordinates is very likely to sweep American conservatives off their feet.” Clearly, conservatism can’t be an ideology. Do you think we treat it too much like one? If so, how?
    • Do you agree that if you are anti-religion, you cannot be a conservative?
    • Buckley quips that “one man’s anarchism is another man’s statism.” So does he think there’s a metric to figure out if your view on the role of the state is or isn’t conservative?
    • Buckley says of the left: “Because whatever virtue there is in what they call for . . . no one of them can begin to do the whole job, which continues to wait on the successful completion of the objectives of the Committee to Abolish Original Sin.” What, then, is the real object of an earth-bound conservative?
    • Is Buckley too charitable toward the John Birch Society?
    • It is clear that Buckley thinks that if you disagree entirely with the conservative principles he outlines, you are automatically out of the group. But what precisely do you have to agree with to join or remain in the group?
  • Further Reading: