Top 10 Essential (Philosophical) Conservative Book List

Today, a classic column. Original appearance 5 June 2011.

A list of (non-fiction) books concerning knowledge, and the limits of certainty, about man’s relations to other men. The Federalist Papers by Publius, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and The Road to Serfdom by Hayek, and others similar, which are all required reading, are not included here because their contexts are more directly political or economical.

The works below all share a common epistemology, which will be immediately obvious from the quotes I selected. From them you may deduce what to be a conservative means: one who holds certain truths to be self-evident and who is cautious in his predictions.

These books are the most fundamental, the books I should have been greatly sorry never to have read.

  • Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke. “As the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.”
  • Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver. “Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will not strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom.”
  • The Conservative Mind (pdf), Russell Kirk. In which he quotes, inter alia, John Adams: “But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is a gross fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people, as was ever practiced by monks, Druids, by Brahmins, by priests of the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution. For honor’s sake, Mr. Taylor, for truth and virtue’s sake, let American philosophers and politicians despise it.”
  • Liberty Equality Fraternity, James Fitzjames Stephen. “Men are so closely connected together that it is quite impossible to say how far the influence of acts apparently of the most personal character may extend…[W]e can assign no limits at all to the importance to each other of men’s acts and thoughts. Still less can we assign limits to that indefinable influence which they exercise over each other by their very existence, by the very fact of their presence, by the spirit which shines through their looks and gestures, to say nothing of their words and thoughts.”
  • Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville. “When the members of an aristocratic community adopt a new opinion or conceive a new sentiment, they give it a station, as it were, beside themselves, upon the lofty platform where they stand; and opinions or sentiments so conspicuous to the eyes of the multitude are easily introduced into the minds or hearts of all around. In democratic countries the governing power alone is naturally in a condition to act in this manner, but it is easy to see that its action is always inadequate, and often dangerous. A government can no more be competent to keep alive and to renew the circulation of opinions and feelings among a great people than to manage all the speculations of productive industry. No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands. Worse still will be the case if the government really believes itself interested in preventing all circulation of ideas; it will then stand motionless and oppressed by the heaviness of voluntary torpor. Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.”
  • Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
  • The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith. “The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
  • The Idea of a University Cardinal Newman. “This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, if called Liberal Education; and though there is no one in whom it is carried as far as is conceivable, or whose intellect would be a pattern of what intellects should be made, yet there is scarcely any one but may gain an idea of what real training is, and at least look towards it, and make its true scope and result, not something else, his standard of excellence.
  • On Enlightenment, David Stove. “A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion…You guarantee a minimum wage, and find that you have extinguished, not only specific industries, but industry itself as a personal trait… This is the oldest and best argument for conservatism: the argument from the fact that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. It is an argument from so great and so mournful a fund of experience, that nothing can rationally outweigh it. Yet somehow, at any rate in societies like ours, this argument never is given its due weight. When what is called a ‘reform’ proves to be, yet again, a cure worse than the disease, the assumption is always that what is needed is still more, and still more drastic, ‘reform.'”
  • Bible, God et alia. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Since this list has been compiled early on a Sunday morning, I might have forgotten entries, or included works better left off (perhaps de Tocqueville?). Thus, the “initial” consideration above.

Your list?


  1. Speed

    Reflections … is available on the Kindle for $0.89.
    Ideas … is available for $5.77 (Amazon used)
    Democracy … is a free Kindle download
    Orthodoxy is a free Kindle download
    … Moral Sentiments is available on the Kindle for $0.89
    The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: In Nine – Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin by John Henry Newman (Jul 6, 2010) (I don’t know if this is the same as Briggs wrote above) is a free Kindle download
    Bible (frequently called The Holy Bible) is a free Kindle download.

    Many years ago while travelling out west I camped (really camped … tent in a field, no water, no toilets) near a hippy couple in a VW microbus filled with books. Filled to the ceiling. I’d never seen so many privately owned books on one set of wheels before. Or since. They were seeing the country, reading the country’s books and studying psychotropic pharmacognosy.

    Today they’d be carrying a pair of Kindles on a motorcycle.

  2. David Archibald

    Vladimir Nabokov – “Speak, Memory”

  3. JDubs

    “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” by William Graham Sumner

    The introduction of the term the “Forgotton Man” – very different in its origins from its frequent misuses.

  4. WillieMaize24

    Down and Out in Paris and London-Orwell
    Witness-Whittaker Chambers
    Vision of the Anointed-Thomas Sowell
    Life at the Bottom-T. Dalrymple
    The New Totalitarians-R. Huntford

  5. Anthony

    Just found your blog (thank you dailycaller), hence the obligatory comment 5 years later.

    Given your insight on a wide range of issues, it’s hard to believe you’re an academic. Perhaps there’s hope after all. Your reading list is excellent, but you must find a way to include Etienne Gilson. After Gilson, the analytically minded will naturally find Aquinas and Aristotle; the philosophically minded not quite able to get over Russell’s sophism about Aquinas will find Marcel (which of course, will lead them to Aquinas) . Wonderful, either way.

    Weaver was brilliant, so was Chesterton.

    The Burke suggestion is a good one, and it is hoped that through him readers make their way to Epictetus and Seneca, after finding Plutarch and Cicero.

  6. Solid list. I’d like to add The Federalist Papers, The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis), and How to Be a Conservative (Roger Scruton).

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