A Conservative Theory for Peace

What we need today is such a theory of reform to be able to reach at a related theory of peace. I emphasize upon this statement because peace hasn’t been hampered as much by being at war as it has been by the illiteracy of state-led reform and development.


The proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war; not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not peace to arise out of universal discord, fomented from principle, in all parts of the empire; not peace to depend on the juridical determination of perplexing questions, or the precise marking the shadowy boundaries of a complex government. It is simple peace, sought in its natural course and in its ordinary haunts. It is peace sought in the spirit of peace, and laid in principles purely pacific.”[1]

Edmund Burke

As the world seems to tear itself apart, in slow, yet sure-footed suicidal moves, and we drift into a cyclotron of apocalyptic organized chaos, what provokes me is the thought whether do I, as a conservative, have a theory to offer to the society in order to heal a part of itself. I strongly believe that what we need today is a form of remedial hermeneutics to envision the possibilities of a theory of peace through a radical yet cautious interpretation of conservative texts and ideologues. But, before making an attempt at propounding such a theory, I need to clarify that the understanding of peace I’m advocating here isn’t a literal one which co-exists with the absence of war. In fact, we need to redefine the contours of war and peace, in order to visualize fresh notions of peace which are able to address the current crises prevailing in our society. The kind of war-like situations I want to grapple with and the theory of peace I espouse here is best captured in the following lines: “We need to recapture both our sense of the nation and of peace… We need to rethink it civilizationally as a preferred vision of society… We must remember that peace is not only the absence of war. Converting guns into development is not enough. Development may be as war-like in its casualties. Secondly, peace as a vision must interact and encompass rights, livelihood and ecology. Finally, it cannot be subject to fashion… We must stick to peace to the last.”[2]

The prosperous tradition of conservatism as a philosophical-cum-political stream of thought, has much to proffer to promote peace and harmony in the society. In this essay, I make a humble attempt to sketch out the basic schema of conservatism through a re-reading of various works of conservative authors in order to come up with a civilizational view of peace. The establishment of balance, order and harmony have always been at the core of conservative approach and thus I suggest that it would be the best available tonic for the promotion of peace in our society to thrive as a flourishing and peaceful civilization.

The Foundations of Conservatism

Conservatism as an ideology is not one in the conventional sense of the word, for the simple reason that it is more of an attitude or approach towards dealing with issues rather than a set of ideals. Yet it is possible to deduce the underlying idea behind such an approach which is basically a very cautious attitude while dealing with worldly affairs, and a leaning towards conserving things. Sir Roger Scruton, arguably the most influential contemporary conservative philosopher, succinctly states that, “Conservatism is about conserving things: not everything of course, but the good things that we admire and cherish, and which, if we don’t look after them, we might lose. These things are our most important collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, the security of property and family life. In all those assets we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. The work of destroying our social assets is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creating them slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the 20th century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.”[3] Thus, the conservative disposition necessarily has two facets- anti-foundationalism and a bias towards maintaining status-quo.[4] The anti-foundationalism is due to a skepticism towards the very idea of laying down foundational principles while elaborating any ideology, and the conservative disposition always prefers to be very cautionary and pragmatic (at times) while facing any issue so as to ensure that it is very careful not to disturb the fabric of the society and cause any harm or unbalance within it.[5] Conservatism tries to rely not just on pure reason of the raw human mind, rather it prefers to rely also on reason derived from lived experience and not devoid of emotions and feelings. This makes it sensitive to cultural, social and political institutions already in place as well as to the problems ailing those institutions.

Yuval Levin presents the following consequential relationship between the ideas which form the driving force of conservatism- history, order, obligations, prescription and reform, which allow those living in the present to carry on the legacy of the past generations.[6] Such a flow of ideas underlying conservative thought leads it to be a form of “reformative conservatism” where it consistently seeks to strike a balance between various contradictory ideas in order to maintain the peace and order of a continuously evolving community. Levin, on such a position of Burke states that, “In the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, clearly foreseeing the coming charge of inconsistency, Burke described himself as “one who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve his equipoise.”

This image of the man seeking to balance his ship- or to balance his country in a sea of troubles- against various threats to its cherished equipoise, is fitting, in light of Burke’s varied causes and arguments throughout his eventful career. He was a reformer when some elements of the English constitution threatened to suffocate the whole. He was a preserver when it seemed to him, as David Bromich has put it, “that revolution is the ultimate enemy of reform.” Equipoise, for Burke, is not stagnation, but rather a way of thinking about change and reform, and about political life more generally. As we will see, it was a central metaphor of his political thought.”[7]

A Peace Theory of Conservatism

The driving force of conservatism is responsibility, both individual and shared. It is this idea of shared responsibility clubbed with free association which prevents the state from interfering with the functioning of the society. Rights are supposed to go with duties as that leads to the actual realization of freedom, which comes along with responsibility.[8] Roger Scruton puts it this way, “The business of politics is to foster a flourishing civil society, composed of responsible people, tied to each other by lasting bonds of loyalty and affection. The state should protect our liberties, because only free beings can be truly responsible for their lives. But a responsible society cannot be created by the state, and is threatened when the state seeks to control associations and to confiscate wealth… Markets work only when cheats are punished and deals enforced. They depend on the legacy of responsibility that is the most important item on the conservative agenda. Markets depend on the rule of law, which in turn upholds the virtues of law-abidingness and honesty… Conservatives believe in free association and private initiatives, but not because they think that the individual is everything and that the state should leave us to grab what we can. They believe in those things because they know that society itself depends on them. It is through free association, and what Burke called the ‘little platoons’, that the sense of responsibility arises.”[9] So, essentially tradition, responsibility and balance form the bedrock (excuse me for giving it a foundation) of conservatism, which in turn result in peace, order and reform. Change is the only constant for conservatism, but it is slow, steady, reformative and stabilizing. These ethics of conservatism are the potential hallmarks of a peace theory evolved out of it. For such an approach to be adopted, the society needs to have a sense of memory, and the state needs to learn a sense of erasure. Polarized groups with conflicting rights have to understand the worldview of the other to live in peaceful sustenance, which is much more than bare survival and calls for empathy for the other, a collective attitude towards reform, and to reflect upon the sense of unity in plurality. The multiple limbs of the community need to act together as one fraternity, to uphold the dignity of each limb and the diversity of the entire community, and to act and safeguard the seamless web of the society against the onslaught of the state.

It is well known and received now that we all exist in plural communities. Plurality, to say the least, makes conservatism all the more plural and colorful. However, an important aspect that needs to be remembered, in light of the fact that now we do live in a plural world, is that pluralism itself needs to be plural. Moran explains it as follows, “Nonetheless, it is legitimate to ask: Is pluralism plural? Or is it an ideology that admits only one view, the pluralists? That is a serious question. Pluralism which claims to be inclusive fails to include either absolutism or relativism… For a plural outlook to be sustained, it has to include the relative (many views in relation) and accept the absolute (the totality of all relations).”[10] To maintain harmony while retaining the plurality of any society is a herculean uphill task. To meet these requirements, a sense of responsibility comes in handy which imbibes an idea of moral obligations on the people as a part of their citizenship to not cause discord between the strands of the society. With such an understanding of plurality and a sense of shared responsibility, what percolates through the society is change that is organic. As described by Andreasson, “An important distinction must also be made between what Quinton (1978) and O’Hara (2011) understand as two very different types of change: organic and artificial. The former, which the conservative would be inclined to accept, refers to change in societal arrangements that can be conceived as a bottom-up, in that it is driven by voluntary decisions made incrementally by large populations, such as the increasing acceptance in twentieth-century Britain of women’s role in the work force and a multi-ethnic society.”[11] Only such an organic change can sustain a civilization, because the greatest asset of any civilization is its adaptability. Adaptability is the way for reform to usher in unhindered, and such an adaptability can be attained only through organic change, or else the change would threaten to cause more harm than reform to the society. This takes us back to idea of stability and balance, summarized by Scruton as, “But as Edmund Burke pointed out in one of the founding documents of modern conservatism, his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, we must “reform in order to conserve”. Institutions, traditions and allegiances survive by adapting, not by remaining forever in the condition in which a political leader might inherit them.”[12]

What we need today is such a theory of reform to be able to reach at a related theory of peace. I emphasize upon this statement because peace hasn’t been hampered as much by being at war as it has been by the illiteracy of state-led reform and development. The body count of development today stands at a much higher pedestal than that of war itself. We are at a perpetual condition of siege, struggling within ourselves and with our state. Reform has to absorb a sense of healing, and the state and the communities have to show empathy towards each other’s concern and come up with a consensual ethics of reform which neither hampers the reformative agendas of the state nor hinges upon the culture of the communities.

The Indian Scenario

This would be the right moment to delve upon a conservative theory for peace in the Indian context. The very thought of the possibilities of having multiple such theories for peace in the Indian scenario baffles my mind as I have a glimpse at how plural, colorful and diverse India is. Not that it doesn’t complicate my task further, but that’s the lived beauty of it. The Indic civilization overflows with apostels of peace throughout its history, and the interesting fact is that most of them have been the biggest reformers of the society while being religious and conservative at the core. Religion has always been the dominant defining part of our glorious civilization and it has always been intricately linked to the reform movements within our culture and society. It offers us a different hue of conservatism, which is simultaneously both peaceful and radical. Its slow and peaceful in terms of the change that it brings about and radical in terms of the methodology it advocates. Religion and nationalism (or rather patriotism)[13] have always been a part of the conservative line of thought throughout history. Spirituality is the precious gift of religion woven into conservatism, which can be employed for multiple purposes. Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha was essentially a peace movement, which Ajay Skaria describes[14] as a form of radical conservatism. He states that, “Questioning autonomy, Gandhi affirms instead a politics organized around dharma or religion- not this or that religion, but around religion as a concept (or, more precisely quasi-concept). For him, there can be ‘no politics without religion’. Religion provides him with another way of thinking freedom and equality.”[15] Such an interpretation-cum-applicability of the concept of religion is what I’m vouching for here, because it allows for a spiritual exercise which aspires for reform and peace, while ensuring the achievement of unity in plurality as a goal and a way of life. In fact, it presents this unity in diversity as its underlying force, such that it preserves the plural fabric of Indian society as the ground and basic condition for the maintenance of peace. These thoughts have been encapsulated well by Swami Vivekananda in his Chicago speeches as follows, “This, brethren, is a short sketch of the religious ideas of the Hindus. The Hindu may failed to carry out all his plans, but if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which is its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being, from the lowest groveling savage not far removed from the brute, to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centred in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.”[16]


The ideologues of conservatism need to be explored further to throw light on its potential to offer theories of peace which fit in the contemporary times, because if realized, the conservative approach of balance and stability thrives on hope and life, and thus is the best guarantor of peace, plurality and harmony. Religion and spirituality are the key elements to be exorcised for such a realization. To conclude in the words of Rishi Aurobindo, “Thus an ingrained and dominant spirituality, an inexhaustible vital creativeness and gust of life and, mediating between them, a powerful, penetrating and scrupulous intelligence combined of the rational, ethical and aesthetic mind each at a high intensity of action, created the harmony of the ancient Indian culture.”[17]


[1] Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with America, 1775

[2] Shiv Visvanathan, A Plea for a Peace Movement, Part 7: The Necessity of Dissent, Theatres of Democracy, at p. 171 (Emphasis added).

[3] Roger Scruton, “Conservatism”, https://www.roger-scruton.com/images/pdfs/Conservatism-POV-1.pdf

[4] Geoffrey Brennan & Alan Hamlin, “Analytic Conservatism”, British Journal of Political Science, October 2004

[5] Ibid

[6] Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Basic Books, 2014

[7] Ibid, at p. xvii (Emphasis added)

[8] Roger Scruton, “Introduction: What is Conservatism?”, Conservative Texts: An Anthology, Macmillan (1991)

[9] Supra, note 3

[10] Gabriel Moran, On Being Deeply Conservative, http://www.nyu.edu/classes/gmoran/CONSERV.pdf

[11] Andreasson, S. (2014). Conservatism. In V. Geoghegan, & R. Wilford (Eds.), Political Ideologies: An Introduction (4th ed., pp. 47-70). London: Taylor and Francis.

[12] Roger Scruton, “What Trump Doesn’t Get About Conservatism”, The New York Times, July 4, 2018

[13] see Nandy, Ashis. “Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious: A Very Late Obituary of Two Early Postnationalist Strains in India”, https://arcade.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/OCCASION_v03_Nandy_031512_0.pdf

[14] Ajay Skaria, Gandhi’s Radical Conservatism, http://www.india-seminar.com/2014/662/662_ajay_skaria.htm

[15] Ibid (Emphasis added)

[16] Swami Vivekananda, Paper on Hinduism, Chicago Addresses, Read at the Parliament on 19 September 1893

[17] Sri Aurobindo, The Renassiance In India, The Completed Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 20 (1997)

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