The term conservatism appears with an increasing frequency in European political discourse; and this is equally true of the public life of those nations with or without conservative parties.
But the term is often used incorrectly. Speakers mix up conservative with reactionary—or with liberal, for that matter—and ascribe ideas to conservatives that have nothing to do with the glorious history of conservatism.
It is therefore not only useful, but necessary to shed light on the philosophical foundations of conservatism. Hungarian researcher Ferenc Hörcher does just this in his book A Political Philosophy of Conservatism, which has the subtitle: Prudence, Moderation and Tradition.
Hörcher invites his readers to look at the history of Western philosophy from an unusual perspective. His narrative starts with the cardinal virtues of the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition—a tradition that regards justice as one value among many, including courage, moderation, and prudence (practical wisdom, or prudentia). Indeed, if any virtue may be said to be queen, it is prudence.
The foundational insight of the book is this: politics must be guided by the virtue of prudence—before it addresses the virtue of justice. Although justice remains central in the European tradition, Hörcher calls on justice to give over its favoured position to prudence.
The narrative leads the readers from the ancient Greek thinkers to Gadamer, Ricoeur and Oakeshott. The first part of the book introduces the concept of prudence as it was understood throughout history: Aristotle in the ancient world; Cicero and St. Augustine in antiquity; then spreading across Europe through St. Thomas Aquinas and the Florentine humanists of the Renaissance; in modernity, prudence appears in the works of Gadamer and Ricoeur; and finally confronts Bernard Williams and Raymond Geussand in modern philosophy (Hörcher distinguishes this stage from late modernity).
These diverse authors are united by the conviction that right political action requires the leading role of the virtue of prudence. Hörcher follows this thread through history, tracing the belief in the primacy of prudence across millennia. Once he has established the history of the concept, he turns to his second project: examining how this philosophy of prudence—this conservativism—relates to individuals and communities, and to politics.
In the section on modernity, Hörcher traces the connections between the histories of political thought and political philosophy. If the first part of the book is concerned with the conceptual history of prudence, the second part focuses on the relationship between practical wisdom and political conservatism. After all, it is necessary to overarch the fissure which today separates politics from the virtues, and which was dug centuries ago—and given force by Machiavelli, of course—to separate morality from politics.
Hörcher lays out a series of requirements that each political action must meet in order to be virtuous, both on the level of the individual and on that of the community. This concept of the community is crucial for conservatism, as Ferdinand Tönnies has spelled out in his famous work, Community and Society, in which he proposed the conceptual distinction between community and society.
Even as he gives an abstract description of how one should act in politics, he circumscribes the concept of conservative republicanism. What is the secret of the right political action? The author claims: “to keep the tradition alive, political education is needed”. Then he adds that we have to keep in mind the examples of the past in order to choose the right action in the present, and to have a vision about the future.
Hörcher summarizes the political philosophy of prudence thusly: this philosophy explains the individual’s potential to use their willpower, something which plays a substantive role in the growth of any given virtue ,and in the development of the attitude and character of the person. Individual virtues, together with a well-developed character, constitute the basis of a virtuous political agent, and prudence is the foundation of the other virtues. But prudence alone is not enough. Each person needs more than individual virtue to defend and uphold his values. This is why we also depend on the virtues of the community, virtues that include the rule of law and political culture. A community has to be undergirded by that common sense, the starting point of which is an institutional order of politics, that safeguards against moral corruption.
When we understand conservatism this way, it is clear that conservatism devoted to tradition is crucial for the flourishing of human communities. Customs and traditions represent only one piece of the puzzle, but they are nevertheless decisive elements. All political communities are saturated by a political culture, which is nothing more than organic unity of customs and views of life. Therefore, in order to sustain our constitutional order, we have to initiate our children and our children’s children into our political culture. And now we come at last to the necessity of pedagogy. We cannot hope to initiate young people who are ignorant of our traditions. And so, all conservative communities depend on the virtue of prudence being taught and spread through robust, Aristotelian education.
But there is another reason why Hörcher’s book is an important contribution to the conversation about the present state of European conservatism. In Western Europe, that conversation revolves around the place of conservative thinking in a prejudiced society—at a moment when in France, Italy and Germany, so-called nationalist groups are quickly gaining influence. In this discourse, Hungary and the personality of Orbán garner great interest. Although Hungarian political events feature often in the Western media, the same cannot be said of the relevant cultural and academic aspects of the country. And this is also true, even if we take it in a wider sense, about the Visegrád Group: mainstream media focuses on the surface events of Central and Eastern Europe, leaving out of the picture the deeper reasons and the intellectual developments that lead to political events.
It is no accident, for example, that Ferenc Hörcher teaches at one of the most important higher educational institutions of Hungary, of which we have hardly heard. He writes from the heart of the rebirth of the Hungarian conservative tradition, which can be connected to key thinkers like Thomas Molnar, John Kekes, Aurél Kolnai, or from an earlier generation, Ferenc and István Széchenyi, or Aurél and József Dessewffy.
To conclude, Professor Hörcher is accurate as far as his sources are concerned and correct in his analysis. His important book gives a clue to the contemporary Hungarian conservative movement, which is not a mono-drama but instead is simply a contemporary celebration of a centuries-old Hungarian tradition. Hörcher’s book is itself only one voice of many, each taking a different approach to the topic of conservatism. Two other similarly valuable initiative are: the journal Kommentár, edited by the young intellectual, Márton Békés; and Századvég the Institute of the 21st Century, directed by Mária Schmidt, who also conducts important academic work.
Hungarian conservatism, in other words, is a cultural motivating force, which has as its aim not only the elaboration of ideas, but also enhanced involvement in political life. This movement aspires to become the voice of typically conservative values, like the defence of cultural or national identity, the prominent role of the family, the Christian roots of European culture.
It is not our task to decide to what degree prudence—the virtue of practical wisdom—is present in the governments of the Visegrád countries. But it is our task to decide what role prudence plays in our own families, communities, and nations. Decision-makers of Western countries would do well to reorient themselves towards this virtue and practice it. If they did so, their politics would be characterized not by the search for short-term consensus, but rather by the elaboration of long-term perspectives.
Francesco Giubilei is a columnist and publisher. He founded Giubilei Regnani Editrice in Rome, as well as Italy’s conservative intellectual movement, Nazione Futura. He is president of the conservative foundation, Fondazione Tatarella, and is the author of various books including The History of European Conservative Thought (Regnery 2019). He also serves on the Editorial Board of The European Conservative.
This is an abridgement of a review titled “The Philosophical Foundations of Conservatism” that originally appeared in the 14 March 2020 edition of the Hungarian Review (Vol. XI, No. 2). It appears by kind permission.