Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the Alabama Policy Institute and the author are properly cited. With such an abridged version, conservatives of all education levels will be able to read swiftly and concisely what the best minds in American conservative thought have had to say. This series is an attempt to capture the central message of the various authors and to express it in fewer, simpler words. We believe there are still men and women in sufficient numbers today who take their values seriously and who consider themselves to be of conservative principle but might be hard pressed to explain their political philosophy.

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Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the Alabama Policy Institute and the author are properly cited. With such an abridged version, conservatives of all education levels will be able to read swiftly and concisely what the best minds in American conservative thought have had to say. This series is an attempt to capture the central message of the various authors and to express it in fewer, simpler words.

We believe there are still men and women in sufficient numbers today who take their values seriously and who consider themselves to be of conservative principle but might be hard pressed to explain their political philosophy. This series is for them. It is certainly true that these condensations were written in hopes of providing a rough familiarity with the ideas of leading conservative thinkers, but they were also written to whet the appetite enough to motivate the reader to tackle the main text as well.

It is the nature of a summary to touch upon the main points of a text and omit the full beauty of the original prose; all of the illustrations and the humor — the personality of the author must be left behind in the primary source. These smaller versions of great works are far better reading than nothing at all, but who is satisfied with the appetizer when he can have the main course? Russell Kirk was a pillar of American intellectual conservatism. Chief among his works is The Conservative Mind, his doctoral dissertation for St.

First published in and revised six times since, this thick volume did more than most to provide a genealogy of ideas for the fledgling conservative renaissance that followed World War II. In this magnum opus, Kirk traces the history of modern conservatism through its leading lights, beginning with British statesman Edmund Burke and concluding, in the revised edition, with literary critic T. Kirk surveys the great names of Anglo-American conservative thought and gleans lessons as fresh today as when he first taught them.

Even in such diverse figures as John Adams, John C. Calhoun, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kirk finds common strands of thought that can provide forceful, much-needed answers to the perennial question: What is conservatism?

His first chapter is an excellent introduction to the rest of the book because in it Kirk reveals what he considers to be the essence of conservatism. To make sense of his choices among the literary and political leaders of the past requires that we know his guide rule, and while Kirk is careful to call his work an extended essay in.

There is objective truth in the universe, and we can know it. On this point all others will depend. There are such things as truth and right, false-hood and wrong. Without an unchanging standard, attempts at social living are doomed beforehand for failing to acknowledge that men are spiritual beings not infinitely malleable. Conservatives are convinced that life is worth living, as Kirk was fond of saying, and, unlike liberals, do not seek to force sameness upon humanity.

Redistribution of wealth, by taxes or other means, is not economic progress. Men need property to secure their rights, discharge their duties, and limit government. A conservative believes things are the way they are for a good reason: past generations have passed on customs and conventions that stood the test of time. Customs serve as a check on anarchy and the lust for power. Hasty innovation can destroy as well as improve, so conservatives are prudent with their changes and approach reform with caution rather than zeal.

Kirk allows that deviations from this list have occurred, as well as additions to it. Kirk makes a brief attempt at identifying key principles of liberal thought, as well, in his first chapter. Kirk slaps them with what is for him a searing indictment: they are in love with change. In this chapter, Kirk lavishes attention on the father of modern conservatism in the British-American tradition: Edmund Burke, the Irishman who served his beloved Britain with fervor prior to and during the French Revolution.

He was a member of the Whig Party, and as such he stood for checks on governmental power, religious tolerance, and limits on imperial expansion abroad. Burke was an opponent of arbitrary power wherever he saw it encroaching and was equally ready to defend both the monarchy and the English Constitution against Parliament.

Burke believed reform was inevitable and could be a good thing, but he knew the liberties Englishmen enjoyed were the fruits of a deliberate and painstaking process that took generations to establish. Reform, then, needed to be cautious, reverent, and prudent, or else it might destroy where it ought to improve.

Burke had cause to be nervous. Across the English Channel, the heads of state were quite literally being cut from their French shoulders. Burke was horrified at the blood and chaos that came spewing out of the Continent after Washington, DC: Regnery , p. Kirk calls these combined works the charter of conservatism, for with them by Burke succeeded in checking the enthusiasm for French innovation and social leveling that were encroaching on Britain.

In replying to the arguments of the philosophes who led the intellectual movement that produced the Reign of Terror, Burke had no choice but to enter a realm he generally detested — metaphysical abstraction. Burke was a man of particulars, of the concrete, and of the real. He believed the arid world of abstract theory so beloved by the radicals was a danger to the real liberties of Englishmen. Nevertheless, in his responses to men such as Rousseau and Bentham and their tenets, Burke framed a triumphant philosophy of conservatism on the belief that first principles in the moral sphere come to us through revelation and intuition, not the fanciful speculations of dreamy philosophers.

According to Burke, if we are to know the state, we must first know the man as a spiritual being. Burke saw society as a creation of Divine providence. The hand of God has moved slowly and subtly in the history of many generations, guiding, allowing, and restraining.

To Burke, it was impious for man to elevate his isolated intellect against the collected wisdom of human history and plan a utopia built to his specifications.

His belief in the sinfulness of human nature, a hallmark of conservatism, made him an implacable enemy of those who attempt to craft heaven on earth. Unlike the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Burke was unwilling to dismiss discussions of first principles and moral philosophy. For him, either we are sinful creatures, made by God but fallen, or we are adrift in a moral vacuum, subject to the whims of the strongest. Taking it for granted that I do not write to the disciples of the Parisian philosophy, I may assume, that the awful Author of our being is the author of our place in the order of existence; and that having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned to us.

We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not a matter of choice….

When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not a matter of choice…. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. For him, statesmen were far more than representatives of the people, elected to do their bidding; their tasks are sacred, their offices consecrated to the betterment of future generations and the observance of immortal truth.

Especially in popular government, Kirk notes, a sense of holy purpose is needful — the people need to understand their responsibility in holding power. For Burke, society was a sacred thing, a tacit agreement between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn, to be protected and nurtured for ends that do not all bring immediate gain. And, if society is sacred, if the world is ordered according to a divine plan, we ought to tinker with it only in fear and trembling. To sustain such a spirit, Burke relied on the national church and its influence in British culture.

The church must consecrate public office and instill veneration for the world as God has given it to us. Burke, he writes, had to answer the following questions: What is the foundation of authority in politics? How may men judge the prudence and justice of any particular act? The supernatural realm does not micromanage the routine details of earthly life, so where are men to look for guidance on political judgments?

Burke had an answer: the collective wisdom of mankind through millennia of experience and meditation, taught by Providence — in other words, tradition.

Man ought to have respect in his everyday decisions for the customs and laws of mankind and apply them with expediency. Tradition enables men to live together with some degree of peace; it manages to direct consciences and check the appetites.

He would rather trust common sense and the wisdom of ancient custom to guide the masses and restrain their more base appetites. If men began altering the constitution of their state whenever they wanted, no generation would link with another.

Did Burke expect men to resist all temptation to change, then? Far from it — properly guided, change is a process of renewal. Burke looked back to an older tradition, to the ius naturale natural law of Cicero, reinforced by Christian dogma and English common law. Burke, rejecting the above figures as well as the teachings of Hume and Bentham, instead defined natural right as human custom conforming to divine intent. He denounced the idea of an idyllic, free state of nature, from which man voluntarily came into society, there to critique its laws by the rights he supposedly had beforehand.

Neither history nor tradition sustains the idea of a primeval paradise such as the philosophes posited. Instead we must muddle along as best we can, seeking to conform our laws to those of God, recognizing our limitations and respecting the prescriptive rights handed down by our forebears. We have rights, to be sure, but Burke saw nothing but danger in attempting to judge what he called the chartered rights of civilized men by an abstracted notion of the rights of primitive man.

Social man has given up any claim to absolute autonomy to gain a measure of peace and security; and to the benefits of that society man does have a right, but that right must be defined by convention, and by august tradition. Burke believed men could claim a right to equality before the law, security of labor and property, civilized institutions, and order.

These are the purposes for which God ordained the state; these are the real rights of man, confirmed by custom and upheld by law. Instead, he believed that aristocracy and hierarchy were natural, and in the sixth section of this chapter, Kirk observes how Burke understands equality.

Is there a sort of equality with which God has endowed us? Yes, Burke replies, though only one sort: moral equality.

Men are judged fairly by their Creator; no man has more innate value as a human being than any other. As for every other measurement, such as wealth, birth, intelligence, and beauty, we are unequal.

Men are largely unequal in the ways of political authority. Certainly political equality is an artificial product; men have no natural right to majority rule, because not all men are born with what Burke believed to be the necessary qualifications education, moral nature, tradition, property. The point to learn from Burke is that such wide-spread political power is the result of expediency, not moral argument. There is no natural law of equality, but it is awfully hard to convince men of why they should not be able to vote once they see their neighbors voting.

Burke respected high birth, to be sure, but he had in mind a different sort of aristocracy. In one of his most memorable passages, he explains,. To Burke, leadership by such a class would be natural, not mediocre. A society organized in this fashion would conform to the eternal natural order that holds all things in place.

A government that cooperates with the created order ensures the vitality of civil society. We adapt and trim and prune the old order to deal with new circumstances, but we do not seek to reconstruct our way of life to suit revolutionary abstractions. Unlike France, he succeeded in keeping Jacobinism from sweeping Britain. He founded a school of politics on the concepts of prudence and veneration for the past, a school that has ever since fought the appetite for innovation.


Russell Kirk

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