Buckley defined Conservatism through the metaphor of a man standing on the train tracks of history, yelling ‘stop!’. Scruton defined Conservatism as the stewardship of the beautiful, in a particular way of life. The intuition expressed in both definitions is sound. For Conservatism to mean anything, then it must include the preservation or conservation of something important. Scruton is closer to that mark than Buckley is, because he’s closer to a fundamental principle than Buckley is.
Here are some 20th century books that guided me away from contemporary American Liberalism (and its Germanic progressive bias), and contributed to my understanding of Conservatism as an evolving worldview. I will offer four philosophical, and four political suggestions: Philosophical: After Virtue (1984), Alasdair MacIntyre - This book began my divorce with both Enlightenment modernism, and the English analytical tradition. MacIntyre makes a powerful case for Aristotelian ethics, and against the Germans, especially.
Shelby Steele, Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country [The modern left] and I come from two very different Americas. The shorthand for these two Americas might be “liberal” and “conservative,” but this would indeed be a shorthand. These labels once signified something much less incendiary than they do today; they were opposing political orientations, but they shared a common national identity. One was conservative or liberal but within a fairly non-contentious cultural understanding of what it meant to be American.
Traditionally, there are two great debates at the core of political philosophy. The first is what justifies political authority, and the second is what should be the form of the institution that assumes that authority. The first debate includes questions of fundamental justice. Issues like what the state owes to its subjects, and what the subjects owe to each other, are central to the debate. The second debate depends somewhat on the answer to the first, in that it seeks to answer how the duties, obligations, rights, and responsibilities of the first debate are to be enacted and enforced.
Michael Oakeshott, “On Being A Conservative” (Excerpts): “…[the general characteristics of the Conservative disposition] center upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone.
George Will, On The Character of American Conservatism (From his book “The Conservative Sensibility” ) …Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil nostalgia, irrationality, and tribalism. American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.