Originally published: 1953
501 pages
Chapter 37

THE CONSERVATIVE MIND


Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk was a religious man, not just personally but intellectually as well. He believed in a transcendent order and a body of natural law that should rule humankind, just as our properly formed individual consciences should govern our personal actions. Individualism, which he considered the essence of human existence, led him to his life's work, a quest for universal self-affirmation, personal responsibility, and a social order devoted to the realization of individual potential. Kirk saw man as capable of being self-governed through intellectual integrity and a comprehension of historical truths. Russell Kirk was Edmund Burke in the twentieth century. He was a man with the understanding and vision to see mid-century public policy for what it was: limiting, controlling, even de-humanizing-and doomed to failure.
     Private property and the liberty to do with it as one pleases were Kirk's temporal talismans. He felt limited only by his conscience in his relations with the world. Government, essentially the antithesis of imagination and individual responsibility, frightened Kirk, and so he reflected often on government's role. "Government is intended [to allow us] to provide for our wants and enforce our duties," and that is it. The rest is up to us.
     Kirk's importance as a conservative thinker, embodied in his myriad writings, was his ability to give conservatism a public coherence that it had lacked. As Kirk saw it modern American liberalism was failing, though the economic and public tragedy that would eventuate from

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its tenets went unrecognized by most political and intellectual leaders until well after World War II. The postwar period through the early 1960s was economically deceptive because so many resources were released from wartime application that we seemingly could afford anything we could imagine. But Kirk saw the law of unintended consequences looming large in the profligacy of government. He expounds his warnings and his postulates of public-management truths in the light of history's lessons.
     In his own words, Kirk's goal in writing The Conservative Mind was "[t]o review conservative ideas, examining their validity for this perplexed age . . . . This study is a prolonged essay in definition." His ability to absorb and then cogently present those ideas-and to do so at a time when answers were needed before the cascade of liberalism, misplaced sympathy, and fuzzy logic overwhelmed public thinking-are what make this work still masterful and relevant. A failure to comprehend Kirk's history makes the confusion and contentions of the twentieth (and now the twenty-first) century even more confounding.
     In making his survey, Kirk reviews the thoughts and writings of authors from Edmund Burke (1729-1797), British father of modern conservatism, to T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), American poet, critic, and editor (who lived in Britain most of his life) who was a sly arbiter of the first half of the twentieth century's exhortations and extremes. It would be futile to attempt to inspect and define the notions of the thinkers and theorists who appear between the bookends of Burke and Eliot-it takes Kirk 535 pages to do so, while he also offers a ten-page bibliography noting an additional almost five hundred books, articles and treatises that define and support his observations and assertions. What is useful in this synopsis is to observe Kirk's design in making his review, while at the same
time understanding what he sees after the war when the first edition was published, and then later in this revised edition as conservatism became resurgent.
     What Kirk witnessed is best captured through the voice of Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), American teacher, critic, novelist, and essayist. Trilling looked at the pontifications of the socialists of his day, as they publicly masticated on their intentions vis--vis the masses, and declared them imbued only with rhetoric:

               The "liberal intelligentsia," a rootless body of people intellectually
               presumptuous, on a European model, manifestly were incompetent to
               offer intellectual guidance to a people

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               for whom they felt either contempt or a condescending and unrealistic pity.

As much to the point is Kirk's observation, probably more cogent at the beginning of the twenty-first century than when he first made it:

               [T]he radical parties that detested tradition have dissolved successively,
               adhering to no common principle among them except hostility to whatever
               is established.

     Those of a liberal bent are yet again at that crossroads (still looking for perfection) where they decry the principles of both common sense and commonality, but without a hint of what they would substitute in their place. Of course, the fact that those of a conservative mind find support in religion further drives the liberals over the edge, for the liberals see no answers in faith, or prescription (learning from the past), only in the long discarded and destitute rationalism of the Enlightenment (an era now clearly understood to have been misnamed, at least when it comes to human experiments in governance).
     What Kirk offers in his investigation are the details of the development of conservative thought and conservative reaction to the ascendancy, first, of the Enlightenment's rationalism and then both American liberalism (a philosophy of sorts) and socialism (its political and economic foundation). Conservative theorists refused to accept contrived and artificial social conceptions (mostly collectivist utopian schemes where everyone would end up above average, as in Lake Wobegon, author Garrison Keillor's whimsical Minnesota enclave) and instead engaged in organized opposition to this protean and constantly expanding liberalism. They founded their criticisms on the brutality of coerced conformity embodied in universalist dogma, and in its place insisted that human dignity and individual capability be the basis of society.
     Kirk writes that the means and ends of socialistic humanitarianism, evolved today as welfarism, are counterintuitive; they breed indolence and incapability. For Kirk, there is a more relevant and more useful human need-freedom-and its driving force, incentive, that are the foundation of human existence. Kirk finds that incentive can only be stifled by the requirements of then-current government design, which in Kirk's era meant a spreading socialism, planned equalitarianism, and the welfare state. Out of his reflections grew a rational view of

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egalitarianism: opportunity embodied in action. Kirk favored a self-ordering hierarchical society molded about the realities of human interaction and individual abilities, not government controls or edicts. He recognized that equality of result was a false god.
     Like many conservatives, Kirk fulminates against the media's lack of restraint. The claim of the press to be a second sun disheartened him:

               The press supplies an endless stimulus to popular imagination and passion;
               the press lives upon heat and coarse drama and incessant restlessness. It
               has inspired ignorance with presumption, so that those who cannot be
               governed by reason, are no longer awed by authority.

Kirk wanted no part of mass media, but he did not decry its existence, only its mercenary goals and its methods of half-truths, exaggeration, and distortion used to attain pecuniary success. Like any other tool, he felt that the press could be and regularly was misused by those who wielded its power. For Kirk, therefore, it was up to the rest of us to put up a universal resistance to those of its means and ends that distorted, or worse, public issues. He would be further saddened today by the still more pronounced uselessness of the press for its intended purpose-to inform, even provoke, but only when integrity was at the core. At the beginning of Kirk's era television was the rising but not yet dominant medium. Even then, Newton Minnow, President Kennedy's Federal Communications Commission chairman, saw a "vast wasteland" in television-and that has not changed. Although TV remains potentially one of our most effective vehicles, it has become too trivialized and politicized to be taken seriously. That brings one back to Kirk's method-reason, founded in facts not emotion.
     Kirk's readers would go wrong if they were to translate his thinking into dogma beyond his insistence that life's only certainty is change. Although he views people as imperfectable, he nevertheless believes that the search for the good and the great should continue:

               The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the
               regeneration of spirit and character . . . this is conservatism at its
               highest . . . . Recovery of moral understanding cannot be merely a
               means to social restoration: it must be its own end, though it will
               produce social consequences.

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By temperament Kirk could not be a fatalist. The often-meaningless circularity of modern society was not strong enough to overwhelm him. Custom, convention, constitution, and prescription (making decisions today based on past experience), all malleable, all changing as life progresses and alters, are still the foundation of Kirk's conservatism. There is no single answer, and all answers are subject to review. Such review, though, must always be within reason, taking into account the enduring truths manifest in historical precedents of proven efficacy. Indeed, Kirk's most important contribution to conservatism is his contention that utopian politics cannot supplant historical reality-the reality that people suffer from the human experience of false starts, inattention, and failure, in addition to their successes and great acts. Against the evolving landscape of widely varying human interaction, conservatism's goal is to maintain a foundation of individual freedom.
     Kirk fears the oppressive society and encourages all to rise against it intellectually and literally, if necessary. His grave concerns may largely have been a reflection of his times (the ubiquity of socialism's rising tide after World War II), but they were nevertheless genuine. Despite Kirk's fears, a society's ability to discern good governance from what is not is undiminished, for as we have seen
since he wrote The Conservative Mind, the more oppressive the government the greater the number who ultimately rise against it. What Kirk also fears, however, and what William F. Buckley, Jr., enunciates in Up From Liberalism (Chapter 17) is the incremental loss of freedom evidenced in progressively more intrusive and overweening government. These fears always have been and always are well founded, thus vigilance is ultimately the citizen's first and last defense. This understanding is so core to all governance that it bears emphasizing: vigilance is ultimately the citizen's only defense.
     What Kirk voices in opposition to the incremental loss of sense manifested in liberal rhetoric was as confounding to liberals as it was satisfying, even uplifting, to others. He simply declares that the emperor has no clothes:

               Conservative thinkers demonstrated that "intellectuals" enjoy no monopoly
               of intellectual power, and that intellectualism and right reason are not
               synonymous terms.

     Kirk goes on to dissect the word "intellectual" and to recount its history. This leads him to discuss the value of precision in the use of

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language, as does Buckley on many occasions; Kirk is not reticent to call to account the misuse and misapplication of words. In this fashion, it was not just accuracy, but exactness (not only of language but with regard to subject as well) that became the calling card of conservatives-much to the benefit of everyone concerned.
     Finally, Kirk believes in the continuity of human progress, that life becomes discernibly better century by century, if not decade by decade. He recognizes that the forces driving progress, such as the prompting of enlightened self-interest or the value of precedent, have always been greater than those of political opportunism, which tend to be anarchic. While he embraces man's natural impulse to strive for improvement he accepts that continuity is generally more dominant than change. Kirk knew that continuity provided a sense of certitude that allowed us to travel through life with enough comfort to be secure-but hopefully enough opportunity to make things better.

About the Book
To be fully appreciated, Kirk's treatise requires a certain amount of background, both philosophical and historical. Most of those details are presented in the volumes previously synopsized in this book, which is why Kirk's effort appears as late as it does while being so core to understanding conservatism. However, Kirk also discusses and makes use of the efforts of additional authors, theorists, and philosophers who are not represented in First Principles, thus it may be worthwhile for the reader to independently follow inviting tangents as they are brought to the fore while benefiting from The Conservative Mind. Of course, the Internet offers virtually instant and comprehensive access to what may be helpful in comprehending Kirk-so the opportunity for additional viewpoints, theories, experience, etc., is not so difficult to resolve, and the results of such investigations can be substantially rewarding.

About the Author
Russell Kirk was born in 1918 in rural Michigan, an area he called home throughout his life. He was a consummate thinker, acknowledged as such by the media of his day and of ours. Recognition of
his talents and lessons came early and continued throughout his life. He received his education at Michigan Agricultural College (reconstituted later as

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Michigan State University) and Duke University. He wrote about so many subjects in so many disciplines that to list them all would risk losing the forest for the trees. He wrote fiction as well as insight and commentary, and he received awards in both fields. The Conservative Mind, his best-known work, changed thinking about political reasoning in the mid-twentieth century. It still ranks as one of the key books of the conservative canon. Vindication for his life's work, in the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, made Kirk's early years of political philosophical struggle seem prescient.
     Kirk was a professor at Michigan State University until the decline of educational standards led him to return to his home in the northern part of the state, the place where he was most comfortable and productive. Kirk died in 1994 but not before completing his autobiography, The Sword of Imagination, a book through which interested readers can begin to appreciate the breadth of his knowledge and understanding.

Available through:
Regnery Publishing
One Massachusetts Ave.
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 216-0600
www.regnery.com

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