During this week, students will explore the Anglo-American conservative political tradition through the writings of Edmund Burke (1729–1797). Like classical liberalism, this tradition favors limited government, property rights, and individual liberty. But unlike classical liberalism, it is empiricist and regards successful political arrangements as developing through an unceasing process of trial and error. As such, it is deeply skeptical of claims about universal political truths, and provides support for traditional institutions such as the biblical religion, the family, and the national state.

Students will consider the historical and philosophical differences between these two major political traditions, conservative and liberal. They will explore the emergence of Anglo-American conservatism and its conflict with liberalism, as a basis for drawing political distinctions that are highly relevant for our own political context.

Image: William Hogarth, The Polling, from The Humours of an Election series, 1755

Yoram Hazony on nationalism and conservatism


Yoram Hazony

Yoram Hazony is an Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar, and political theorist. He is President of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, and Director of the John Templeton Foundation’s project in Jewish Philosophical Theology. His books include The Virtue of Nationalism and The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. 

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Recommended Reading:

Edmund Burke, The Great Thinkers 




Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the Anglo-American conservative tradition? When did this tradition begin? What are its main principles?
  2. How did Anglo-American conservatism come into conflict with classical (or Lockean) liberalism?
  3. According to the Anglo-American tradition, how do political communities come to be? What holds them together?
  4. Why, according to Fortescue, is the English constitution the best model of political government?
  5. What is the basis of the rights and liberties of Englishmen? Of Americans?
  6. How liberal is the American regime? How conservative?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is political power according Locke?
  2. What are the basic characteristics of human beings living in the state of nature according to Locke?  Why does liberal political tradition take such interest in the state of nature? What are the consequences for a liberal politics?
  3. Burke wrote his Reflections in part as a response to Richard Price’s “Discourse” written in support of the French Revolution. What is it about Price’s views that so outrages Burke?
  4. How does Burke respond to the purported “three rights” that the English acquired during the Glorious Revolution? Is this a veiled critique of Locke?
  5. What is wrong with the philosophy of the revolutionaries and what bad consequences, according to Burke, will flow from their errors?
  6. What does he mean when he says that the British system follows “nature” (p. 30)?
  7. Why does Burke argue against a government founded on “natural rights” (pp. 51–52)? He claims to support “real” rights and liberty. What does he mean? What are the foundations of British rights and liberties?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What distinction does Burke make between a “true moral equality” and a “leveling” type of equality (pp. 32, 134)?
  2. Burke prefers prudence to abstract reason. What is the difference between the two? Why does Burke prefer prudence?
  3. Can prejudice be good? Under what circumstances?
  4. What is the meaning of the statement that citizens of any commonwealth are really only “temporary possessors and life-renters” of their commonwealth (p. 83)?
  5. According to Burke, governmental power is not enough to stabilize society. How do property, religion, and prejudice help governmental power to stabilize society?
  6. Is politics an art (a matter of practical know-how) or a science (a matter of theoretical knowledge)?
  7. Is Burke opposed to all social and political change? Under what circumstances, if any, is revolution justified?



Discussion Questions:

See previous day’s questions, as well as these:

  1. Who are the “New Whigs,” and how do their political ideals differ from the “Old Whigs” with whom Burke identifies?
  2. What does Burke mean in saying that “nothing universal can be affirmed” in politics and morals? (p. 91) Does this mean he is a moral relativist?
  3. Does Burke oppose republican government? Why not?
  4. What does Burke mean by “the people”? How is this different from a view like Locke’s?
  5. What does Burke think of the Enlightenment? Why?

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