Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red

What is Conservatism?

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

While contemporary political discourse is often characterized by heated discussions of liberalism or fascism, socialism or “populism”, the broad category of “conservative” thought seems to take a back seat. This despite its enduring relevance not only for understanding political history and the history of political thought, but also as an analytical tool today. What exactly is conservatism? How can we understand a category so capacious as to include both Edmund Burke, often called “father of Modern Conservatism,” and his contemporary, the Catholic reactionary Joseph De Maistre, who was a major influence on the towering 20th-century fascist political philosopher Carl Schmitt? What does it mean when someone like Friedrich Hayek—so profoundly influential to this day on everything from right-wing economics to political theory—grounds so much of his political thought in liberalism? What ties conservatism together? Commitments to social, political, economic, racial, and gendered hierarchies? Are conservatives from Burke to contemporary “tradcaths” simply proponents of a hegemonic—or dominant—traditionalism? What is the place of theology, in particular Christian theology, in Western right-wing thought? Are conservatives always reacting (as implied in the very word “reactionary”) to left-wing, emancipatory movements and theories? Or do they have energies and qualities all their own? How can we understand not only the early Modern roots of Western conservative thought, but also its contemporary recapitulations and relevance?

In this course, students will approach such questions by demystifying and unpacking the black box of modern conservatism. We will first read selections from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in order to introduce and situate ourselves to Burke’s conservatism, from his political repudiation of the French revolution to his related aesthetic ideas about harmony, beauty, hierarchy, and more. Next we will turn to Friedrich Hayek’s transforming but unwavering commitment (alongside such thinkers as Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman) to a society grounded in capitalist, liberal terms taken to perhaps their most extreme, i.e. “neoliberalism.” From there, we turn to Carl Schmitt’s searing and thorough critique of liberalism from the right as well as his analysis and recapitulation of classic counter-Enlightenment thinkers like Joseph De Maistre and Juan Donoso Cortés in theorizing “Political Theology” for the 20th century. In our final week, we’ll look to brief excerpts of contemporary right-wing thought, including Adrian Vermeule and Yoram Hazony, examples of conservatism in even modernist letters and aesthetics (in cases like Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, the Italian Futurists, among others), contemporary Christian revival and traditionalism, and borderline cases like the reactionary metaphysics of Martin Heidegger, the difficult-to-categorize philosophical investigations of Friedrich Nietzsche, or the difficult-to-pin political theories of Hannah Arendt, all of whom have their advocates and detractors across the entirety of the political spectrum. In the end, we will ask: Is conservatism nothing more than the defense of power, taking different forms across different times? And we’ll interrogate what role conservative political philosophy plays—for self-professed conservatives and reactionaries, as well as for liberals and those on the left.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
May 16 — June 06, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Closed

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