The Man Who Wrote “The Conservative Mind” and Changed History
Next Thursday I am remembering Russell Kirk (1918–1994), whose death on April 29, twenty-seven years ago, ominously coincided with the eclipse of his vision. That eclipse is all but complete now that America’s popular conservatism largely assumes first-principles forged in the fires of progressivism. But Kirk’s vision calls us back to the roots of our tradition, offering a way forward towards a more dignified future.
Kirk and The Conservative Mind
Russell Kirk was a Michigan-based academic who galvanized post-war conservatism with his classic 1953 work, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Originally his doctoral dissertation, the thesis surveyed the great Anglo-American conservative philosophers and statesmen since the time of Edmund Burke, while synthesizing their common vision with remarkable clarity.
Why did this dissertation written by an obscure academic become an international bestseller? To answer this question, we must understand that post-war America was a very different place from the country we know today. For one thing, the conservative vision that we take for granted had not been identified and clarified. In the early 50s, America had a number of anti-progressivist movements that were opposed to radical ideologies abroad and at home, but these movements were disparate without any sense of commonality. By defining and clarifying conservatism, Kirk was able to bring these groups together under one banner, and thus permanently alter the landscape of American politics.
Kirk explained that conservatism started in response to the French Revolution and has existed in conflict to the revolutionary impulse ever since. In successive editions of his magnum opus, he showed how the revolution was finding expression in the radicalism of the 60’s and the socialist creep during the second half of the 20th century.
But Kirk’s vision of conservatism was not just reactionary, a sort of whatever-progressivism-is-not. Instead, he showed that conservatism had a rich philosophical and literary legacy, one much older than progressivism, and more articulate, imaginative, complex, thoughtful, and sophisticated. Ultimately, what conservative philosophy offers us is not an ideology, polemic, or party platform, but a certain cast of mind. That cast of mind preserves human dignity through showing deference to the permanent things.
By giving the conservative movement intellectual respectability, Kirk galvanized an entire generation of conservative thinkers, though he often parted ways from populist conservative spokesmen and politicians. As Matthew Continetti observed in The Atlantic, while other conservatives wanted to defend a party agenda, Kirk promoted a vision that was “scholastic, literary, philosophical, poetic, and noninterventionist.”
Kirk’s erudite dissertation continues to serve as a touchstone for conservative thinkers, even as the populists and polemicists contemporary with Kirk are largely forgotten.
How to be Conservative in Six Steps
In the first chapter of The Conservative Mind, Kirk condensed conservative thought down to the following six canons:
- Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems…. True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
- Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.
- Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.
- Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescriptions are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.
- 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.
To these must be added the words from Kirk’s 1986 Foreword to the seventh revised edition:
"On many prudential questions, and on some general principles, conservatives may disagree from time to time among themselves; so this book offers a certain diversity of opinions. Yet the folk called ‘conservative’ join in resistance to the destruction of old patterns of life, damage to the footings of the civil social order, and reduction of human striving to material production and consumption."
Preserving the Norms of Humanity Through Love
For Kirk, the reason we should strive to preserve what we have inherited from our ancestors is not because tradition is an end in itself, but because the norms of humanity are the best way to achieve a world in which everyone is treated with dignity. These norms are preserved and perpetuated, not through tinkering with the external environment or better social planning, but through local relationships and acts of love. The state exists to help preserve these basic human bonds so that men and women can flourish, and thus be truly free. Kirk put this into practice in his own relations through considerable charity, kindness, self-sacrifice, and love.
“He truly believed that real change comes from acts of love,” historian Bradley Birzer told the Acton Institute. Birzer continued:
"[Change] really does come from one person helping another, and that’s what makes history over time. You’ll always have great figures who rise and fall, but real history—and this is so Augustinian—real history is moment to moment. And I think he’d be very upset about where conservatism is. I think he would reject a lot of the ways it has gone, but he would not be without hope. In particular he loved to say, quoting Edmund Burke, 'Wherever there is a heart beating, there is always hope…' What matters is not that one person will arise to do this, but that we'll have some intellectuals out there, some thoughtful people who are doing the right thing, lots and lots of very good people doing lots of little things in neighborhoods and elsewhere."
Below is the talk Bradley J. Birzer gave to the Acton Institute about Kirk's life and legacy. Birzer, who teaches history at Hillsdale College, explained the cultural and political context to Kirk's work, in addition to sharing how Kirk applied conservative principles to his own relationships.
Earlier this year we published a couple articles exploring how COVID-era controversies have resulted in conemporary "conservatives" departing from the vision of Edmund Burke and drifting unthinkingly towards Thomas Paine, the father of the modern left. This underscores the need to return to Kirk's recapitulation of Burke, laid out so masterfully in The Conservative Mind. You can read these articles at the following links:
- Paine-fully Conservative? Remembering "Rights of Man" and the Original Left-Right Divide
- Rethinking Rights: Questioning Natural Rights with Edmund Burke
is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• SUBSCRIBE TO BLOG VIA EMAIL Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/remembering-russell-kirk