The Conservative Mind Renewed
For the radical libertarian, “it usually begins with Ayn Rand.” So, at least, claimed a book of that title published a few years ago. I do not know whether for young traditionalist conservatives it usually begins with Russell Kirk. But certainly the appearance of The Conservative Mind in 1953 was an event of importance in the recent intellectual history of the American Right.
The achievements of Kirk in this book were manifold. With eloquence and conviction he demonstrated that reflective conservatism was not mere myopic selfishness, was not the rationalization of unattractive greed, was not the ritual incantation of hardened privilege. A century earlier, John Stuart Mill had described conservatives as “the stupid party.” Only three years before the publication of Kirk’s book, Lionel Trilling had stated that liberalism was the “sole intellectual tradition in the United States.” After The Conservative Mind, the intellectual landscape assumed a noticeably different shape. Kirk’s effort—an uncommon fusion of scholarship and passion—helped to dissolve negative stereotypes and to affirm the existence of a relevant, viable tradition of conservative thought. Above all, The Conservative Mind stimulated the development of a self-conscious conservative intellectual movement in the early years of the cold war.
This was a considerable achievement for a single volume and a little-known author in 1953. Now, twenty-five years later, comes a new, somewhat revised edition of what remains Russell Kirk’s most influential book. An anniversary of this sort poses a significant question. We know the importance of The Conservative Mind when it was published; we know of its timeliness then. But thousands of books have been unleashed upon the reading public every year in the following quarter century, and few of them have survived to draw our attention a generation later. Is The Conservative Mind a “period piece,” of historical interest only? Or does it continue to justify the claim implicit in this act of republication?
Since most readers of The University Bookman doubtless are familiar already with The Conservative Mind, this reviewer need not present an elaborate summary of its contents. Rereading Dr. Kirk’s volume for the first time in several years, however, one is impelled to emphasize and comment upon several of its themes and characteristics. Here is a form of conservatism fundamentally and fearlessly grounded in religion, particularly Christianity. For Russell Kirk, “religious sanction” is the indispensable “basis of any conservative order,” and “the first principle of all consistent conservative thought” is “reverence for the wisdom of our ancestors, through which works the design of Providence.” In an era of predominantly secular public discourse, one is impressed by the frequency of Kirk’s references to Providence, the soul, and to the conviction that God rules society. To those who believe that “God is dead and everything is permitted,” Kirk unremittingly preaches the dangers of hubris and the intractability of sin. “When the inner order of the soul is decayed,” he warns, “the outer order of the state must be maintained by merciless severity, extending even to the most private relationships.” In an age of “neoterism” and the doctrinaire pursuit of “levelling,” he celebrates “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.” In an age of jargon, semi-literacy, and Orwellian perversions of language, he unabashedly invokes poetry and the literary imagination. I can think of no other conservative scholar writing today who resorts as frequently to the world of literature to buttress his social and political commentary.
Another theme deserves notice. As an unreconstructed opponent of mass society, chic and shallow progressivism, and the ruthless totalitarian state, Kirk castigates what he clearly regards as one of the principal modern agents of harmful social change: the rootless, secular, liberal and radical intellectuals. It is a motif given more explicit emphasis in the revised edition of The Conservative Mind. In an expanded final chapter Kirk criticizes an intelligentsia which he perceives as arrogant, dogmatic, and alienated from a surrounding society it despises. This is not to suggest that Kirk is an obscurantist; his own writings, laden with quotations and literary allusions and reflective of wide reading, belie such a simplistic explanation. Instead, Kirk distinguishes between the “scholar,” rooted in his “cultural patrimony,” and the social type known as the “intellectual” who, according to Kirk, adopts a fixed adversary posture toward the heritage which has nurtured him. Like many other contemporary conservatives, Kirk believes that “men of ideas,” not politicians, “determine the ultimate course of things,” Perhaps for this very reason he dislikes “intellectuals,” who in his judgment abuse what should be a solemn vocation.
Much has happened—to America and to conservatism—since the publication of The Conservative Mind twenty-five years ago. Even then Kirk felt himself to be jousting against the age; The Conservatives’ Rout, he originally wanted to entitle his book. As one rereads it from the perspective of more than two decades, one cannot help but notice the gulf which remains between the world in which we live and the kind of traditionalism espoused by Russell Kirk. He admonishes us, for example, about the “unchecked will and appetite,” but the gospel of humility, reverence, and self-discipline seems ever more remote from the hedonistic America of the 1970s. He preaches the necessity of roots and community, but his audience is a restless people nearly one-half of whom change homes every five years. As an historian Kirk correctly observes the enormous and traumatic consequences of industrialism, symbolized by what he labels a “mechanical jacobin”: the automobile. But barring some staggering military, economic, or ecological catastrophe, America is very unlikely to abandon the automobile, the airplane, the computer, or any other manifestation of technology for a rural lifestyle and lost ancestral ways. The idiom, imagination, and temperament of this moralist-traditionalist appealed to much of America in the early 1950s. But can they hope to do so now?
In confronting this question it is important to keep in mind what The Conservative Mind was and is. One will not find in it detailed analyses of the SALT treaties, the capital gains tax, the Equal Rights Amendment, or other issues of policy which currently dominate the political arena. It is not that kind of book—and was not meant to be. In Kirk’s own words, it is a “prolonged essay in definition,” an “exercise in the world of history, arts, and letters.
And it is precisely here, I think, that the justification for this new edition can be discerned. For The Conservative Mind addresses itself fervently to enduring issues which transcend the day-to-day minutiae of political maneuver. It recalls to our minds the timeless values, the “permanent things,” which undergird our public policy: the truths which, in Robert Frost’s words (quoted by Kirk), “we keep coming back and back to.” Tirelessly Kirk reminds the reader that political problems are fundamentally “religious and moral problems,” that social regeneration is a goal which requires remedies at levels deeper than the political and economic. This is the contribution Kirk’s book continues to make long after the circumstances of its original success have evanesced: it refocuses our concern on the crucial realm of the value-creating and value-sustaining institutions of society. In an era riven by the so-called “social issue,” an era in which abortion and the very structure of the family have become subjects of controversy, an era of politicization, even of the sacred, it is well that someone should beckon us to questions of ends and not only means. It is especially appropriate, therefore, that Kirk concludes his book with a section on poetry, a mode of discourse attuned to universal questions of the spirit.
Successful resistance to the total state, the reconciliation of individualism and the sense of community, the inculcation of a “living faith” in the “lonely crowd,” and the “restoration of the ethical understanding and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded”: these are some of the vast challenges that this new edition of The Conservative Mind identifies as central to the conservative agenda. It is infinitely easier, of course, to state the problem than to specify or effect a solution, and as we noted above, this is not a handbook which informs its readers in easy steps “how to do it.” Whether Russell Kirk’s traditionalism will prove persuasive is problematic. Recently I came across a 1953 edition of The Conservative Mind in a large university library. On one of the final pages someone had scribbled, “Who will read Kirk in 1984?” The future is, as always, veiled from our vision. But if indeed a new “dark age” is averted, we shall have to thank, among others, the author of The Conservative Mind who, a quarter century ago, illumined truths that were timely—and not only for his generation but also for our own.
Dr. George Nash, the author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (Basic Books, 1976 [1996, 2011, ISI Books]), was at the time of writing at the Hoover Library in Iowa, writing a biography of Herbert Hoover.
Posted: April 28, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.
A Forgotten American Horace