So, having at least suggested what conservatism is NOT, here's where I try to say a bit about what it IS. It's sketchy, but a start:
Conservatism by definition is anti-ideological, and thereby inherently resists reduction to a set of political dogmas. This resistance does imply several positive beliefs, albeit ones possessing a degree of flexibility that allows the conservative simultaneously to defend a set of loosely related positions without himself falling into ideological rigidity. These various positions can loosely be arrayed around the term “realism.”
For conservatives, “realism” means a firm belief in reality, that is, a reality that is given and not subject to fundamental alteration by humans, at least not without grave consequences that ultimately result in the reassertion of nature. Thus, in the first instance, conservatives embrace a realism about the frailty and flaws of human nature, which they hold be a permanent condition and not one subject to fundamental transformation. Conservatives manifest a realism about the prospects of political amelioration, and thus oppose the modern vision of political perfection or redemption. Because something can be imagined and wished for is not tantamount to its realizability. For this reason, conservatives are mistrustful of ideology in all of its forms, since ideology takes the form of a set of political beliefs to which reality is forced to conform. “Rationalism” is one such form of ideology, since political life, and human beings, are not subject to full rationalization. Conservatives can thus come across as obstructionist, “stick in the mud” traditionalists. The danger of conservatism is one of complacency in the face of meliorable injustice; the danger it seeks to call attention to is the inescapability of unintended consequences.
Because reality is “given” – including the family, city, culture, language, and the tradition into which one is born – conservative realism is reflected in an embrace of political and cultural pluralism. In this sense, conservatives are the original “multiculturalists,” in part because they believe culture is an inescapable and necessary formative force in human life. Human nature requires cultivation, and such cultivation fittingly is the proper function of culture. While human nature is more or less inalterable, culture can take many forms, and, if decent, can support the flourishing of human nature. Nature and culture are not opposed, but rather work properly to support and draw from one another. Culture is properly conceived to bring nature to its fruition (much as cultivation leads to flourishing crops), while nature frames the possibilities and limits in which culture functions (no matter how much cultivation, you can’t harvest tomatoes from oak trees). Cultures thus tend to be formed around the experiences of human nature in nature: in human terms, birth, coming of age, procreation, sickness, and death; in wider natural terms, seasons, weather, food and eating, natural disaster, gratitude and propitiation.
Conservatism qua realism is thus firmly opposed to perhaps the core belief of all modern ideology – the belief in progress. Amelioration, or improvement, is considered possible and desirable, but all such improvements take place within the context of recognized limits of human nature and the natural world as well as the recognition of the need to preserve the overarching fabric of cultures and communities. Conservatism in the West has been alignment with traditional religious belief, in particular a stress upon an Augustinian theology in which the City of Man cannot be transformed into the City of God. Conservatives reject the proposition that the “problems” of human imperfection and original sin itself can be “solved” through politics or reason. Rule by philosopher-kings, the withering away of the State, or the perfect application of deliberative rationality all represent inappropriate goals that seek to reach a “solution” to the problem of politics. “Improvement” when it occurs, takes place always within a larger backdrop of inescapable imperfection and human frailty. Politics – that is, the condition of imperfect humans attempting to forge a common life in spite of inevitable assertions of self-interest – remains the permanent condition of humankind. Accordingly, conservatives typically commend the political and intellectual virtue of phronesis, or “practical wisdom” or “judgment,” as a necessary faculty that supports judicious choices between various imperfect options. Phronesis is grounded not on abstract rationality or ideology, but rather the culmination of collective wisdom based upon a thorough grounding in one’s own culture, history, and hence a chastened but still hopeful sense of political possibility.
“Conservatism” avant la lettre might be said to describe the default position of human life, at least until modern times. “Conservatism,” prior to its explicit articulation in response to modern ideology, might better be described as “traditionalism,” and, as such, was largely unarticulated as a philosophical phenomena. As “tradition,” it was instantiated through a set of practices, customs, and most especially, religious traditions. This is not to suggest that human political experience was absent of theoretical considerations, but that those considerations were framed within the context of particular cultures and histories and with an overarching sense that human perfection or thorough emancipation or human redemption was not, nor could not be, the proper aim of political life. Conservatism, as an “-ism” was forced to articulate itself (and hence, to become somewhat “unconservative”) in response to the first modern ideology, “the Rights of Man.” In response to the assertion that there are a set of criteria, based upon the doctrine of rights, that determine political legitimacy in all times and in all places, and hence can and did serve as a perpetual justification for adjudging and even overturning political authorities that did not embody and instantiate those rights, conservatism found its voice in alignment against a form of universalism and anti-culture fundamentally inimical to the previously unarticulated conservative mindset.
In explicit reaction to the universalizing doctrines that arose out of the Enlightenment, and the attempt to put them into practice in the French Revolution, conservatives (or, not inaccurately, reactionaries, as “in reaction to something”) such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre appealed to the dignity of existing custom, the practicality of prejudice, and the steadiness of tradition.
Against the monism of science and rationalism, a hostility to nature and culture, and the ideology of progress and political redemption, conservatism qua “ism” was articulated as a defense of history, culture, tradition, authority, limits, and realism in politics.