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Conservatism has been one of the principal ideologies of the modern era. It first developed in reaction to the French Revolution and became a key part of the Counter-Enlightenment which challenged many of the ideas of liberalism, in particular its abstract individualism, its universalism and its demands for equality. Conservatives stressed the importance of history and tradition, the particular and the local.
First used as a party label in England in the 1830s, Conservatism gradually spread elsewhere, but Conservatives tended to regard it not as an overarching doctrine or transnational movement, but as composed of several distinct national traditions. Conservative thinkers have been highly diverse, ranging from Edmund Burke to Joseph de Maistre, and from Michael Oakeshott to Leo Strauss. Because Conservatives are so averse to rationalism and to universalism, Conservatism has not usually been presented as a universal doctrine in the grand manner of liberalism or socialism, organized around a distinct set of values and principles. It takes the form of a number of separate national traditions, each with its own peculiarities because of its unique national history and the statecraft that is deemed appropriate to conserve it.
Conservatism is a fundamentally defensive doctrine, concerned with the presentation of existing institutions and interests, and with resisting the pressures for reform and change when these are seen to threaten them. Arising from this is a profound skepticism about human reason, human goodness, human knowledge, and human capacity. Conservatives are generally pessimistic about the state of the world and human society, and believe that most schemes of improvement are at best well-meaning and at worse malicious attempts to change society which will end up making it worse. The Conservative instinct is always to hang on to what is familiar and known, rather than to risk what is unknown and untried.
- O’Sullivan, N. (1986) Conservatism. Dent, London.