Issues analysis
A brief history of the five kinds of conservatism
Part 1: 800 B.C. - 1300 A.D.
April 20, 2007
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

During this time of political setbacks for conservatives, it is a good time to consider the vital role of Conservatism in Western cultural and political history.

Conservative ideals played a crucial role in the rise of the West, and Liberalism did not. In fact, Liberalism appeared during the 18th century after the West had already become the premier civilization of the world in literature, philosophy, art, music, architecture, economics, commerce, exploration, science, technology, war, and politics.

There is an illusion abroad in the land that Liberalism is an old tradition, and that Conservatism arose in the late 1940's as a reactionary force. This essay will demonstrate that four of the five kinds of Conservatism were very old when Liberalism first appeared.

Conservative ideals have consistently had salutary effects upon culture. In contrast, Liberalism has never been better than a mixed blessing and was often destructive to Western culture. It was destructive because it propagated false views about the nature of man, society, government, and the cosmos.

In this essay, I shall introduce each of the five major kinds of Conservatism in the order of its first historical appearance from 800 B.C. to 1300 A.D. The next essay — part 2 — covers 1300 to 2000 A.D. The historical order of appearance of the schools of Conservatism is: 1) Traditionalism, 2) Christian Conservatism, 3) Natural Law Conservatism, 4) Neoconservatism, and 5) Libertarianism.

Looking back is the way forward

The seminal ideal of Western Traditionalism in the ancient world was the belief in a golden age of the mythical past. Societies that had glorious visions of their cultural past tried to recover and preserve as much of it as possible. They wanted to conserve precious old cultural treasures and hence were called conservatives. Tradition was valued as a means of embracing the wisdom and blessings of the past and preserving the culture from decay.

Liberals have long argued that looking back to the past blocks "progress." This essay's walk through history indicates that where culture is concerned, almost the opposite is true. Every cultural renaissance we shall encounter in Part 1, was inspired by "backward-looking" conservative ideals. My counterintuitive hypothesis is that for the cultural improvement of a society, looking back is often the way forward.

Literary traditionalism

After gaining historical and cultural traction, Western traditionalists stopped looking back to a largely mythical, distant golden age and started looking back to the great thinkers and the literary masters who went before them. The process of literary traditionalism began when the oral poetry of Homer (9th & 8th century B.C.) and Hesiod (8th and 7th century B.C.) were committed to writing. As each new great thinker and writer appeared, he was added to the literary canon and became indispensable to the culture.

Literary traditionalism was essential to the Greek cultural renaissance of Athens (5th and 4th century B.C.), the Roman cultural renewal of the 2nd century A.D., the cultural flourishing of the High Middle Ages (12th & 13th century), and the Italian Renaissance (14th & 15th century). An extensive comment on literary Traditionalism will be made in Part 2 of this essay. Now let us begin at the beginning.

The Golden Age

We remember the Mycenaean Greek Bronze Age because of the Trojan War (12th century B.C. ?). Mycenaean civilization collapsed during the invasion of the Dorian barbarians (1100 B.C.?), and a long Greek Dark Age followed.

During those dismal times, epic tales by bards such as Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey, 9th and 8th century B.C.) and legends of a golden age by epic poets such as Hesiod (8th and 7th century) kept the people from despair. The memory of heroes and the myths of a golden age were preserved by tribal bards, who memorized a huge corpus of literature by using poetry and song accompanied by the harp. These long enchanted songs produced kind of proto-Traditionalism among the Greek tribes.

Hesiod, a Greek poet, sang in his Works and Days that the first age of man was a golden age. During Hesiod's golden age, the people enjoyed peace, harmony, abundance, and freedom from physical affliction. They lived in a pastoral, Arcadian paradise of delight. The happy people were vivacious, playful, and carefree, always frolicking, feasting, and making merry.

A charming quality of lighthearted playfulness can be traced from the time of Hesiod through the historic age of classical Greek culture (4th & 5th century B.C.). The image of the seven Muses singing and dancing atop Mount Parnassus is an archetypal image of the sweetness and vivacity that was Greece. The Olympic games are a remnant of Greek sport and playfulness.

The Orphic mystery religion (6th century) adopted the cult of the golden age. The philosopher Empedocles (5th century) emphasized the mythical golden age of Greece at the very time that Greece was having a real golden age centered at Athens. Therefore, the enchantment with an imagined golden age was partly responsible for the Greek cultural renaissance in the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ.

The birth of Western culture

The Apollo of the Belvedere by Greek sculptor Leochares (4th century B.C.) is not the sculpture of a god who is recognizable in Greek mythology. The gods of Greek Polytheism were highly individualistic. The faces on the statues of the gods made during the classical period (490 -323 B.C.), however, all have the same idealized and stylized face. The countenance of Apollo Belvedere bears the idealized image of the perfect man who Greeks imagined must have lived in the golden age.

The Greeks of the classical period retained the forms of their old polytheist religion, but looked to golden age myths to provide their spiritual ideals. Their gods retained their historical names, but were converted into spiritual archetypes. The creative energies of the classical period were animated by these archetypes.

When the Greek confederation defeated the Persian Empire in two wars, the Greeks came to believe that nothing was impossible to them. They thought themselves ready to enjoy another golden age. Their creative energies were unleashed, and Western culture was born in the cultural and intellectual ferment of Athens.

Aristotelian Natural Law

Aristotle (4th century B.C.) defined virtue and the good life in terms of human nature. As such, he laid essential conceptual foundations for natural law philosophy — which is one of the five branches of Conservatism. We can discover further traces of natural law thought among the Roman Stoics. St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century A.D.), borrowed ideas from Aristotle and wrote the first comprehensive natural law philosophy that deeply influenced Western culture. We shall revisit the subject of Natural Law in Rome of the 2nd century A.D. and in Europe in the 13th century.

Christianity and the golden age

The Christian belief in the Garden of Eden as a kind of golden age was somewhat compatible with Hesiod's golden age. When Adam fell into sin and was cast out of the garden, the longing to return to Eden was somewhat comparable with the Greek longing to return to the mythical Arcadian golden age of Hesiod. Since the majority of the early Christian church spoke Greek as a first language and lived in culturally Greek cities, the linkage of Christianity to Greek Traditionalism came early.

Roman ambivalence about Arcadia

The Romans were more traditionalist than the Greeks because of ancestor worship. They tended towards sternness and were often a bit lacking in the Greek quality of playfulness and sweetness. Their statues of gods had stern faces, in contrast to the mild expressions on the Greek statues. Therefore, the Romans were a little uncomfortable with the idea of Arcadia as a place for play and song.

Rome had epic poets who wrote of a golden age, most notably Virgil and Ovid. However, Virgil implied in his Georgics that man's journey away from the golden age was probably worth it in spite of immense toil, hardship, conflict, and sorrow that followed the loss of paradise. Rather than leave men in the sweet slumber of Arcadia, it was probably better to awaken them to a world of harsh challenges so they could develop their wits, virtues, intellectual powers, and force of will, he intimated. In this way, men could build cities, participate in a civilized community, and enjoy a sophisticated culture. At the price of immense labors, suffering, and warfare, man had developed and come into his own through Roman civilization, if only for a fleeting moment of glory.

Virgil wrote that Saturn's golden age of a tranquil Arcadia was superceded by Jupiter's iron age of work and striving. In like manner, Greece in all her rustic grace and charm must give way to Rome in all her cosmopolitan glory.

The Roman battle of life

In contrast to the Greek infatuation with nature, Virgil regarded farming as a war between man and nature. Man must struggle with a disordered natural world and he must also must struggle with disorder within himself. The poetry of Virgil and the philosophy of Stoicism were intended to help win the inner battle. (Source of the insights on the Goergics is Cultivated Taste, a review of two books on the Georgics by Bruce Thornton, Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2007)

The Romans recognized in man an elemental contradiction and an inner conflict between good and evil. This Roman insight became an essential and enduring trait of Western Conservatism, in contrast to the more optimistic view of the Greeks. The Christian doctrine of the fall of man reinforced the more pessimistic Roman view.

Virgil believed that a civilized political regime must go to war against chaos to create social and political order. The battle against chaos that he celebrated involved a struggle against disordered men, against political rebels, against the barbarians, and against nations hostile to Rome. Roman triumph was the key to history, according to Virgil, because Rome's destiny was to bring law, order, and civilization to the world.

Virgil celebrated the history of the legendary origin and glorious destiny of Rome in The Aeneid. He wrote his masterpiece at the request of Caesar Augustus, who credited himself with bringing peace and order to the world after a century of foreign wars, civil wars, and sundry insurrections. Virgil completed The Aeneid fifteen years before the birth of Christ.

A Roman proto-Neocon?

Was Virgil a forerunner of the Neoconservative movement? Well, he constantly quoted or made allusions to all the literary masters of Greek and Rome. He was a perfect example of the literary branch of the modern Neoconservative movement.

What, then, is the difference between Greek literary Traditionalism and the proto-Neocon sentiments of Virgil? Virgil had Roman social, political, and military agendas to bring order and civilization to the world. Athens had a regional maritime empire in the Aegean Sea, but no Greek prior to Alexander had an international agenda like Rome's. The focus of every Athenian was Athens, just as the focus of every Frenchman is Paris. Neoconservatism is Roman in quality, but not Greek.

Virgil hinted at Neocon sentiments in Georgics and the Aeneid: In order for human nature to flourish, there must be literature, poetry, art, and architecture, along with sophisticated conversation and a cultured community. None of these graces can be cultivated without virtuous men, victory in war, suppression of the disordered barbarians, social order, and a government of rational law.

Once order is achieved, men can turn to the classics and cultivate philosophic minds, poetic discernment, and aesthetic taste. Augustus was able to sponsor men of letters like Virgil after he established order. In Part 2, the influence of Virgil from the time of Dante (14th century) to the time of Milton (17th century) will be reviewed.

Roman Renaissance of the second century A.D.

After a time of decadence in the first century A.D., Rome enjoyed a time of prosperity and cultural renaissance in the second century under what historian Edward Gibbons called the "five good emperors" — namely, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The source of this revival involved a renewed interest in the classics of literature and philosophy and a rediscovery of virtue.

The quest for the recovery of virtue is a conservative trait because it involved the recovery of something timeless and precious. The loss of ancient Roman virtue weighed heavily on Roman conservatives.

Christian virtue stood out in vivid contrast to Roman depravity in the 1st century. For example, female babies who were left on the streets to die by Romans were rescued by the church and raised to be Christian. Roman young men faced a lack of eligible young women for brides, while the church had a surplus of virgin maidens of good character. The church allowed a Roman to marry one of their virgins provided the Roman converted to Christianity and promised to raise his children as Christians. Thus, the virtue and charity of the Christians led to rapid growth of the church — and increasingly shamed the Romans because of their vice.

The marriage of a virile Roman to a sweet Christian virgin became a cultural prototype in the West. The courtly romances of the 12th and 13th century sometimes featured a manly knight of military renown giving court to the pure lady of the castle who exemplified culture and spirituality. An extensive poetry, written entirely by men, was developed to celebrate the beauty, purity, and exquisite qualities of the unattainable lady of noble birth.

Roman universal law

Romans of the second century rose to the challenge of Christian virtue by seeking virtue through Stoicism and Manichaeism. Stoicism was a popular religion/philosophy of the aristocracy. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius were the greatest Roman Stoic philosophers. Epictetus was Greek by birth and a slave in Rome, and Marcus Aurelius was an emperor noted for military exploits.

The Roman Stoics connected natural law with human ethics, but did not see natural law as a higher law. The Stoics were Pantheists and saw natural law as immanent in nature and in man. They were interested in a rational and purposeful order in nature that they could follow to find virtue.

The Stoics promulgated the idea of a "universal moral law." The Apostle Paul might have anticipated that this would happen when he wrote: "For when the Gentiles who have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law ... show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness..." (Romans 2: 14, 15). Paul linked a law written in the heart with "nature" when he said the gentiles "do by nature ... the law." Paul would have not been surprised if he learned that the Romans had discovered the principle of natural law. As an educated man, he might have read Cicero, who hinted at natural law ideas.

Gaius, the greatest Roman jurist of the second century, wrote The Institutes. He distinguished between "Civil Law," as a law peculiar to a people, and "The Law of all Nations" that is discovered by natural reason. Surprisingly, Gaius did not acquire the idea of a universal law of all nations from the mature Stoic philosophers of his day, but from Cicero (106–43 B.C.). Cicero first studied Epicurean philosophy, then Platonism, and finally studied the moderate cosmopolitan Roman Stoicism of his era.

The sweet song of Christian culture vs. the wretched cries of barbarism

The epic poem of the Anglo-Saxon Dark Age was Beowulf, concerning the exploits of a warrior hero. Beowulf is a strange blend of Christian and pagan cultural elements. Beowulf's opponent was a monster named Grendel. The name Grendel means "a won saeli wer" — meaning "a being bereft of blessedness." Grendel could not understand human language or speak articulately, but was only able to make cries like a beast. Grendel attacked Hrothgar's Hall where the people were singing a "sweet song." (Source: Lerer)

During the Dark Ages (500–1000 A.D.), those who spoke articulately and could sing melodious songs were educated either at monasteries or at Cathedral schools. A barbarian bereft of articulate speech and music was thought to be a creature devoid of blessing, little better than a beast.

The Church's cultural preservation program

During the barbarian invasions, the Christian monks fled to remote locations where they could sing the liturgy and work with old manuscripts. They made copies of the scriptures from old manuscripts and saved the Bible for future generations. They also copied the classics of Greece and Rome to nourish the minds of students and to prepare against such a time that civilization might revive.

How close did we come to losing these precious manuscripts, and with them the Western cultural heritage? Art Historian Kenneth Clark said, "We came through by the skin of our teeth." We have the Traditionalist Conservatism of the Christian monks to thank for saving Western culture from Grendel's world.

Articulate speech and beautiful song were emphasized at the Cathedral schools. Alcuin of York (735–804 A.D.), Headmaster of Charlemagne's Palace school, decreed that every Cathedral school should teach the Seven Liberal Arts. The first three liberal arts — grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric — all developed articulate speech. The seventh liberal art was music.

The writer of Beowulf envisioned the blessed Christian students speaking articulately and singing sweetly, as the inarticulate barbarian (typified by Grendel), stood outside the hall, empty of blessings and howling in pain.

Barbarism has returned in the twentieth century, and we can hear Grendel once more in the scream of the rock star. Inarticulate men who are incapable of singing beautiful songs can only scream to ventilate their rage and pain.

The Medieval Renaissance of rational philosophy

During the decades following 1100 A.D., the University of Paris was founded by the disciples of Saint Anselm. At this time, Europe was rapidly recovering from the Dark Ages. Castles, cathedrals, and walled cities were springing up. The students in Paris were debating philosophy with an enthusiasm reminiscent of the philosophic debates in Athens fifteen hundred years before.

The awakening of philosophical debate was built upon four foundations: 1) The sponsorship by the church of education (all the debaters were learned church men seeking truth); 2) The teaching by the Cathedral schools of Grammar, Dialectics, and Rhetoric from the Seven Liberal Arts; 3) Saint Anselm's teaching about of how to start with faith, embrace a first principle or authoritative presupposition, and reason deductively to a conclusion; 4) Aristotle's logic, particularly the syllogism (texts of Aristotle in Latin were brought to Paris from Cordova by Muslim and Jewish scholars).

The scholastic philosophy of the 12th and 13th centuries had a process of reasoning that was more free from logical fallacies than any philosophy has been before or since. Moderns scoff at scholastic philosophy because their appreciation for reason has fallen to a low ebb, and their toleration of logical fallacies has become a cultural epidemic.

City air makes one free

A number of Medieval cities became "communes" or semiautonomous little republics. The popular slogan about these republics was "City air makes one free." Although the city fathers of the communes had more enthusiasm for regulation than Americans might appreciate, these urban republics were pioneers in the European quest for freedom within community. Some city-states in Italy became rich and powerful, setting the stage for the Renaissance.

Some of the factors encouraging the commune movement were a boom in commerce and enterprise, a cultural flowering centered in the cities, rationality, and articulate communication promoted by the Cathedral schools and the university-trained scholars, the emergence of brilliant church-trained leaders, and the idea of natural law that emerged in stages in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Aquinas and natural law

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the greatest of the scholastic philosophers, developed the philosophy of Natural Law. Aquinas followed Gratian (12th century), the founder of canon law, in equating natural law with divine law. He dissented from the Stoics, who had no concept of a law transcendent to nature.

Greek philosophy made a distinction between laws of nature and human laws and conventions. Aquinas noticed the concepts of natural justice and natural right in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and conflated the two in a way Aristotle might or might not have intended. Thus, Aquinas is generally credited with introducing the proposition that human rights exist and are based upon laws of nature.

Aquinas decreed that human laws are to be measured by natural law to determine if they are just or unjust. He held that an unjust law is no law at all. In this concept, we can understand the popular revolts against certain unjust barons or bishops who ruled Medieval towns, and the formation of little republics where justice prevailed. We also see in these words of Aquinas, a fore-gleam of the American Revolution as a revolt against arbitrary and unjust law.

How can we discover what natural law requires? Aquinas told us to employ the faculty of reason to discover what is natural and unnatural for human nature. We are not to consider what is natural for a brute of nature — but what is natural according to God's design. Since God designed man and nature, natural law has divine sanction.

However, Aquinas was careful to distinguish between divine law, which is a concern of the church and the believer, and natural law, which is a concern of government, commerce, and public life. It was the great churchmen like Aquinas, a Dominican friar, who taught us how to differentiate between church and state — without erecting artificial barriers between church and state, and without separating the state from God.

Self-evident truths, four good things, and seven virtues

Aquinas believed that natural law is imprinted upon the conscience of every man and that its principles are self-evident. This is the origin of the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident," which Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of independence.

The first principle of natural law is that every man is obliged to do good and eschew evil. Four principles of good are: 1) procreation, 2) education of children, 3) living in society, and 4) worshiping God. Subsidiary rules help one to live up to these four good things. Drunkenness and theft are evil because they injure to the four good things.

Aristotle put forward a list of seven virtues. The lack of any one of the seven virtues impairs one from making a moral choice. The first four virtues are called Cardinal Virtues that can be ascertained by applying reason to nature. The four Cardinal Virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The Theological Virtues are hope, charity, and faith.

Tension between natural law and traditionalism

Traditionalists have always been ambivalent about Aquinas' unabashed confidence in reason. Is reason by itself adequate to discover natural law?

Traditionalists argue that when reason stands alone spinning its theories, it tends to be abstract, simplistic, and naive about the realities of life. While reason is indispensable to human life, no man can navigate successfully through life on reason alone. God has endowed man with other faculties that he must also use in order to be wise. Among these is the ability to accumulate lessons about life based upon experience.

An admirable modern attempt to reconcile Natural Law Conservatism and Traditionalist Conservatism is Justice Antonin Scalia's doctrine of text and tradition. The jurist should rationally determine the meaning of the text. However, he should also consider legal precedent and the wisdom of cumulative social experience.

The wisdom of long tradition ought to be respected by the courts, argues Scalia, and not summarily breached by jurists who arrogantly assume that their abstract logic and personal predilections are wiser than the time-tested and wholesome traditions of a successful and happy society. Judges are not authorized by the Constitution to be tribunes of the people or reformers of society. That is why Scalia dissented from the court's decision that a private, traditional, military boy's school must admit girls.

Midway in our journey

We have come halfway in our journey through Western cultural history. Many of the elements of the conservative movement had come into existence by 1300 A.D.

In the next installment, we follow the trail of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Salutati to Bruni, a central figure of the early Renaissance. We shall learn how the Italian Renaissance (15th century) brought literary Conservatism to its logical conclusion in a Republic of Letters. We shall follow the trail of Renaissance men from Machiavelli to Montaigne to Shakespeare.

The Reformation (16th century) brought the Bible, faith, morality, and education to ordinary people on an individual basis. Natural law ideas developed further in the 17th and 18th centuries. The popularity of Virgil and his conservative Roman ideas continued unabated until the 18th century. Virgil was the great inspiration of those two titans of literature, Dante and Milton.

Liberalism and the Romantic movement were born during the 18th century. In response, traditionalist conservatives developed new concepts to stand athwart the liberal bandwagon. A revival of Classicism would furnish the West with cultural critics who eschewed Romanticism. "Classical liberalism" would leave a seedbed of ideas, some of which would sprout as Libertarian Conservatism. By 1800, most of the essential ideas of the modern debate between conservatives and liberals had come into play. Stay tuned for A Brief History of Conservatism — Part 2

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31