This paragraph from the forward to the seventh edition of The Conservative Mind captures the essence of conservatism:
The book distinctly does not supply its readers with a "conservative ideology": for the conservative abhors all forms of ideology. An abstract rigorous set of political dogmata: that is ideology, a "political religion," promising the Terrestrial Paradise to the faithful; and ordinarily that paradise is to be taken by storm. Such a priori designs for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative....Why do conservatives abhor "ideology"? Because ideologies place greater stock in abstract theorizing rather than reality. They ignore human nature, or rather, they fantasize that human nature can be perfected by their abstractions. Thus, the conservativism of Kirk is not Conservativism, but rather conservativism, not a political ideology but a politics of prudence, the application of time-tested principles in a prudent manner.
Liberalism and Conservatism, though seemingly on opposite ends of the political spectrum, share the fault of all ideologies - the triumph of intentions over reality. Liberal ideologues who have welcomed the erosion of the traditional family and attempted to replace it with government feel good about their programs even as the objective evidence shows such policies to be a disaster. And Conservative ideologues who have insisted on such creeds as "no new taxes" feel good about their pledges, even as the nation plunges deeper into debt.
In stark contrast, conservatism as a way of thinking rather than as an abstract ideology, holds to basic principles tested by time that taken into account the nature of human experience. Kirk outlined six of these principles in The Conservative Mind:
(1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.
(2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
(3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society."
(4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.
(5) Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.
(6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.
Conservative-minded people may often disagree about specific policy proposals, but they share these broad convictions, time-tested principles true of all flourishing societies.