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The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot ()


Orrin's All-Time Top Ten List - Non-Fiction / Conservative Thought

To understand the historic import of this book, which began life as a doctoral dissertation, it is perhaps helpful to note that a year after it came out, Lionel Trilling, in his book The Liberal Imagination, would maintain that :

    [I]n the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.... It is
    the plain fact [that] there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation...[only]...irritable mental gestures
    which seem to resemble ideas.

Though the sentiment is obviously inane, Mr. Trilling's hubris, and that of liberals in general, was perhaps understandable in light of the fact that he wrote at the precise midpoint of the long liberal interregnum that prevailed from the presidency of Herbert Hoover (1928) until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  The position of Left intellectuals of that day seems somehow reminiscent of the famed little old lady who told a physics lecturer that all he had said about the heliocentric universe was rubbish because :

    'The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.'

    The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?'

    'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady. 'But it's turtles all the way down.'

Trilling and company, perched on the middle tortoise, assumed it must be tortoises all the way up and down.  As Russell Kirk amply demonstrated, they were as wrong as she.

Mr. Kirk begins his survey of Anglo-American conservative thought (he is even credited with bestowing upon this philosophy the term conservative) by defining what it generally consists of :

    Any informed conservative is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few portentous phrases;
    he prefers to leave that technique to the enthusiasm of radicals.  Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma,
    and conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.  As a working premise,
    nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions.
    Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors...; they are dubious of wholesale alteration.  They think society is a
    spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.
    [...]   I think there are six canons of conservative thought--

    (1)    Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links
            great and obscure, living and dead.  Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. [...]

    (2)    Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity,
            egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. [...]

    (3)    Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.  The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts
            at levelling lead to despair, if enforced by positive legislation. [...]

    (4)    Persuasion that  property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress.
             Separate property from private possession and liberty is erased.

    (5)    Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters and calculators.'   Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite,
            for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason.  Tradition and sound prejudice provide
            checks upon man's anarchic impulse.

    (6)    Recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it
            is a torch of progress.  Society must alter, for slow change is the means of its conservation, like the human body's perpetual
            renewal; but Providence is the proper instrument for change, and the test of a statesman is his cognizance of the real tendency
            of Providential social forces.

He contrasts these core beliefs with those of conservatism's opponents on the Left, the radicals of all stripes, who believe in :

    (1)    The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism.  Radicals believe that education, positive
            legislation, and alteration of environment can produce men like gods; they deny that humanity has a natural proclivity
            toward violence and sin.

    (2)    Contempt for tradition.  Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as guides to social
            welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors.  Formal religion is rejected and a variety of anti-Christian systems
            are offered as substitutes.

    (3)    Political levelling.  Order and privilege are condemned; total democracy, as direct as practicable, is the professed
            radical ideal.  Allied with this spirit, generally, is a dislike of old parliamentary arrangements and an eagerness for
            centralization and consolidation.

    (4)    Economic levelling.  The ancient rights of property, especially property in land, are suspect to almost all radicals;
            and collectivist radicals hack at the institution of private property root and branch.

Thus, the playing field.  He then goes on to an erudite, idiosyncratic and altogether beguiling discussion of the chain of men who have defended conservative ideas and resisted radical impulses from Edmund Burke, the sine qua non of the Right, to T.S. Eliot, the great poet and critic.  Among the others whose thought he surveys are : John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Randolph, John Calhoun, James Fenimore Cooper, Alexis de Tocqueville, Orsestes Brownson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Benjamin Disraeli, Cardinal Newman, Henry Adams, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and George Santayana.  Their styles, their particular concerns, their errors, their failures, their successes all vary widely, but the core principles that they seek to vindicate remain, unchanging.  Pluck Edmund Burke from the mists of time and plop him down on Meet the Press this Sunday and he'd voice the same concerns about our society as he voiced about his own in the 18th Century.  On the other hand, put Karl Marx on the Today Show and even Katie Couric would tear him apart.  The enemies and the fetid ideologies that the conservative mind had to contend with were ever changing, a vast array of utopian daydreams discarded one after another by a Left that never admits the error of its ways, but merely moves on to the next destructive iteration of radicalism, secure in the delusion that this next attempt will achieve a "perfect" society, right here on Earth, while instead leaving piles of corpses in its blood-soaked wake.

It seems certain that the Left will never bring itself to reckon with the conservative critique of the whole liberal impulse, but after Russell Kirk's book, no one can honestly argue that such a critique does not exist.  The very endurance and continuing relevance of conservative ideas suggests that, in fact, when the intellectual history of the West is written, it will be conservatism that is found to have been the most powerful philosophical tradition that our culture created.  Whether that history is written by a free and decent human being may well depend though on the ultimate success of the conservative mind.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Russell Kirk Links:

    -ESSAY: The Essence of Conservatism: Adapted from The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Conservatism (Russell Kirk, The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal)
    -ESSAY: Eliot and the Follies of the Time (Russell Kirk, 08/01/08, First Principles)
    -TRIBUTE: Ordered Liberty: Remembering Russell Kirk (BreakPoint with Charles Colson, October 24, 2003)
    -REVIEW: of America's British Culture by Russell Kirk (Stephen M. Krason, Religion & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology By W. Wesley McDonald (Alvino-Mario Fantini , Townhall)
    Ghost Stories: The season of mellow fruitfulness is also fright time. (Michael Dirda, October 31, 2004, Washington Post)
    Contempt; a review of The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, Edited by George A. Panichas (Alan Wolfe, 07.09.07, New Republic)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "russell kirk"
    -The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal
    -BOOK LIST : Ten Conservative Books, from "Politics of Prudence" by Russell Kirk
    -LECTURES : The Heritage Lectures by Russell Kirk
    -LECTURE : The Politics of T.S. Eliot  (Russell Kirk, The Heritage Foundation)
    -AUDIO LECTURE : Russell Kirk  : Major Issues Lecture Series (Ashbrook Institute, Ashland,  Ohio, September 18, 1985)
    -ESSAY : Lord Acton on Revolution (Russell Kirk, Acton Institute)
    -ESSAY : Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries (Russell Kirk)
    -ESSAY : From the Academy :  Freud and the Educationists (Russell Kirk, National Review,  August 29, 1959)
    -ESSAY : Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer  (Russell Kirk)
    -Russell Kirk Web Site
    -American Writers : Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr. (AmericanWriters.org, C-SPAN)
    -TRIBUTE : Life With Russell Kirk (Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Memorial Lecture, Delivered November 17, 1995, Heritage Foundation)
    -TRIBUTE : Kirk: Postwar Conservatism's Prophet  (William A. Rusher , On Principle, Fall 1994)
    -TRIBUTE : The legacy of Russell Kirk (Daid Frum, December 1994, New Criterion)
    -HALL OF FAME : Russell Kirk (Townhall.com)
    -Russell Kirk (1918-1994) (Acton Institute)
    -ESSAY : Russell Kirk's Economics of the Permanent Things (John Attarian, Liberty Haven)
    -ESSAY : Do All Roads Lead to Avernus? : Russell Kirk's Conception of Decadence (Gleaves Whitney, Ideas on Liberty)
    -LECTURE : RECOVERING RHETORIC: HOW IDEAS, LANGUAGE, AND LEADERSHIP CAN TRIUMPH IN  POSTMODERN POLITICS (Gleaves Whitney, Heritage Foundation)
    -ESSAY : A guiding light (Keith Saylor, December 1997, National Review)
    -ESSAY : I WAS A TEENAGE CONSERVATIVE : The dead end of politics & the possibilities of art (Gregory Wolfe, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY : How Conservatives Failed 'The Culture' (Claes G. Ryn, Humanitas)
    The Democracy Worshipers (Pat Buchanan, 12/16/02, American Conservative)
    -ESSAY : Apologists Without Remorse :  American Conservatives on South Africa (Jacob Heilbrunn, January 1998, The American Prospect)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Turning Right in the Sixties  By Mary C. Brennan
    -USEGROUP : PermanentThings · For those interested in the ideas and writings of Russell Kirk. (Yahoo!)
    -ARCHIVES : "Russell Kirk" (National Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "Russell Kirk" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "russell kirk" (The New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict by Russell Kirk (Gregory Wolfe, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of The Sword Of Imagination: Memoirs Of A Half-Century Of Literary Conflict. By Russell Kirk (Janet Marsden, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of   America's British Culture by Russell Kirk (Stephen M. Krason, Acton Institute)
    -REVIEW : of The Politics of Prudence, by Russell Kirk (E. Calvin Beisner, Summer 1993, Contra Mundum)
    -REVIEW : of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind. By James E. Person, Jr. (Jeremy M. Beer, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of  Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind  by James E. Person, Jr. (W. Wesley McDonald, Rockford Institute)
    -BOOK LIST : Goldberg's Conservative Canon : A motley affair. (Jonah Goldberg,February 9, 2001, National Review)

EDMUND BURKE :
    -ESSAY : Specters of History: On Nostalgia, Exile, and Modernity (PETER FRITZSCHE , American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of Don Herzog. Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders (Michael Levin, American Historical Review)

JOHN ADAMS :
    -REVIEW : of C. Bradley Thompson. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. (Marc W. Kruman, American Historical Review)

ALEXANDER HAMILTON :

FISHER AMES :
    -ESSAY : The Federalist Trope: Power and Passion in Abolitionist Rhetoric (Marc M. Arkin (Journal of American History)
    -ESSAY : The Democratic Societies of Philadelphia and the Limits of the American Public Sphere, circa 1793?1795 (Albrecht Koschnik , William and Mary Quarterly)

SIR WALTER SCOTT :

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE :

JOHN CALHOUN :

JOHN RANDOLPH :

JAMES FENIMORE COOPER :

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE :
    (see Orrin's review of A Memoir on Pauperism)

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS :
    -REVIEW : of JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: A Public Life, a Private Life, by Paul C. Nagel (Kenneth Silverman, Wilson Quarterly)
 

ORESTES BROWNSON :
    -REVIEW : of Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Ed. by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright (James Perrin Warren , Journal of American History)

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE :
    (see Orrin's review of The Birthmark)

BENJAMIN DISRAELI :

CARDINAL NEWMAN :

JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL :

HENRY ADAMS :
    (see Orrin's review of The Education of Henry Adams)

IRVING BABBITT :

PAUL ELMER MORE :

GEORGE SANTAYANA :
    -REVIEW : of When All the Gods Trembled: Darwin, Scopes, and American Intellectuals. By Paul K. Conkin (Cynthia Russett , Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of GEORGE SANTAYANA: Literary Philosopher, by Irving Singer (Wilfred M. McClay, Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Remembering Santayana : A philosopher who once graced the cover of Time is now largely forgotten. His ideas--utterly materialist yet deeply spiritual--are ripe for reconsideration  (Wilfred M. McClay, Wilson Quarterly)

T. S. ELIOT :
    (see Orrin's review of The Hollow Men)

GENERAL :
    -The NATIONAL HUMANITIES INSTITUTE : seeks to revitalize the humanities, and with them 'the culture,' as the only way of effecting lasting beneficial change.
    -On to Restoration!
    -Traditionalist Conservatism Page
    -SYMPOSIUM : On the Future of Conservatism : A Symposium : Robert L. Bartley | Peter L. Berger | Walter Berns | William F. Buckley, Jr. | Midge Decter | David Frum |Francis Fukayama Mark Helprin | Gertrude Himmelfarb | William Kristol | Michael Novak | Norman Podhoretz | Irwin M. Stelzer | George Weigel | Ruth R. Wisse (Commentary, February 1997)
    -ESSAY : Virtual Veritas : The nation's libraries do a poor job of preserving conservative truths. We need to start our own. (Mark Y. Herring, November 1997, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY : Wreaking Hobbes on mankind (Philip Coates,  06/01/97,  Independent Review)
    -ESSAY : Saving Private Abraham (Nicholas Confessore, the American Prospect)
    -ESSAY :  "Ideas Move Nations"  : How conservative think tanks have helped to transform the terms of political debate (Gregg Easterbrook, January 1986, Atlantic Monthly)
    -LECTURE : Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Intellectuals (Paul Starr, February 8, 1995 at the New York University Institute for the Humanities, in a lecture series on "Intellectuals and Public Life")
    -REVIEW : of States' Rights and the Union  by Forrest MacDonald (Eugene Genovese, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of TURNING RIGHT IN THE SIXTIES:  The Conservative  Capture of the GOP by Mary C. Brennan (Matthew Dallek, Atlantic Monthly)

Comments:

I am glad you have included this great book amongst your reviews. However, I think you left out the important point that the conservatism that Kirk is describing is specific to the Judeo-Christian worldview, which is explicitly stated in the book. This is why I am skeptical of U.S. intentions of spreading democracy to every country in the Third World and I think Kirk (and Pat Buchanan) would agree with me. In order to instill true democracy in these areas we must heed the words of Anne Coulter: "convert them all to Christianity".

- Allen

- Jun-14-2003, 10:54

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You quote his six pillars, but you don't comment on them. Do you really endorse his idea that social class is necessary for civilization? Every 'conservative' that I know denies class exists in America.

- Pearl

- Dec-18-2002, 23:34

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