By David G. Bonagura, Jr.
“I think the greatest lesson that The Conservative Mind taught me was that conservatism, in its essence, is very different from other ‘isms’ (liberalism, communism, socialism, etc.) in that it is not an ideology. Rather, it is a way of living, addressing societal issues through the lens of tradition. It has no dogma of its own. Rather, it employs the wisdom of the ages always in light of the Good, and seeks change only when change actually makes sense.”
This brilliant summary of conservatism was written not by a doctoral candidate, but by a high school junior, one of fifteen teenage students who met weekly with me in the summer of 2021 to discuss selected chapters of Russell Kirk’s seminal work. When The Conservative Mind burst onto the scene in 1953, it provided fertile soil for a reignited intellectual movement. Seventy years later, for young students growing up in the barren fields of a collapsing culture, Kirk’s book plowed away the thick weeds that ideological schooling and modern media had scattered in their minds.
“The thing that impressed me the most,” another student reflected at summer’s end, “is how accurate all these philosophers and figures whom Kirk highlighted were in predicting the problems we face today.” Reading and discussing along with them, I, too, was repeatedly struck with the same thought—The Conservative Mind possesses an uncanny relevance, even as its immediate Cold War context has morphed first into the “End of History” and then the Digital Age. As we read, we identified more and more points that speak to today’s hottest issues:
- on the American intervention in and withdrawal from Afghanistan: “Now true constitutions are always based upon the conservative principle: they are the product of a nation’s struggles; they must spring from the bosom of the community; human sagacity is not adequate to construct them in the abstract.”
- on the endless claim of “rights” today, particularly the “right to abortion”: “The notion of inalienable natural rights has been embraced by the mass of men in a vague and belligerent form, ordinarily confounding ‘rights’ with desires.… Infatuation with natural rights in the practical concerns of government must end in anarchy, in a fiery and intolerant individualism.”
- on the government’s response to COVID-19: “The delusion that the state is competent to regulate all things must be exploded.… The grand Plan [of the New Society] requires that the public be kept constantly in an emotional state closely resembling that of a people at war.”
- on the political drumbeat for equity, or equality of outcome: “[Edmund] Burke states that a universal equality among men exists; but it is the equality of Christianity, moral equality, or, more precisely, equality in the ultimate judgment of God; equality of any other sort we are foolish, even impious, to covet.”
- on the importance of protecting the filibuster in the Senate: “[John C.] Calhoun had believed the Constitution a secure safeguard against oppression by section or class; and now it seemed that, given selfish interest sufficiently powerful, majorities would warp the Constitution to suit their own ends.”
Seen through the lens of Kirk’s tour de force of modern intellectual history, today’s particular problems are merely new symptoms sprung from a single, debilitating disease: “the disorder of the revolt against Providence” begun at the French Revolution. As counter-weapons, Kirk offers the permanent things—tradition, prescription, liberty, law, belief in an enduring and divinely constituted moral order—to arrest the disease’s spread.
The young students were quite taken by recurring themes that they had never learned in school before encountering The Conservative Mind. One is the indispensable foundation that religion provides for society, since, as Kirk and the conservative writers he examines all understood, we participate in a divinely constituted order. “Order in this world is contingent upon order above,” wrote Kirk. The students perceived clearly that, in their schooling, these priorities have been flipped: “We never talk about God in school”; “Modern philosophers start by attacking God first so they can create their own moral code”; “The Left knows that if it topples religion that society is a free-for-all to grab power.”
A second theme is a repurposed understanding of equality. The students were very aware of “equity” as today’s latest buzzword; they had not realized that progressives had elevated equality of condition to be a central dogma centuries ago. Where Kirk used the term “levelling,” today students hear “economic inequality,” “income redistribution,” “tax the rich,” and “privilege.” The progressive goal today is the same grave “moral and psychological blunder” Kirk identified in the French philosophes: “They think that, men naturally being equal, society will be perfect when this state of equality enters into legislation.” Through Kirk’s analysis of Edmund Burke and John Adams, the students learned that equality of condition is impossible; it exists before God and before the law—and nowhere else.
Other surprises for the students included Burke’s challenge to the contemporary progressive understanding of “human rights” as shields to promote absolute autonomy; Kirk’s explanation of the American Revolution as a conservative reaction; the conservative approach to change; and how we need the past as a compass to direct us, as opposed to our times, when, as one student remarked, “people today assume that whatever is new is good.”
Not all of Kirk’s ideas garnered instant crystallization. The students were slow to see both natural aristocracy as a pillar of a stable society as well as Kirk and other conservatives’ deep suspicion of democracy—the inverse has been ingrained into them since their earliest schooling. Adding to this confusion was their acquaintance with conservative media personalities who associate “the elite” with “wokeness.” Though they came to understand John Adams’s eight-part articulation of how aristocracy exists naturally in healthy societies, who exactly comprises this aristocracy, and what happens if the aristocrats become corrupted, lingered as unresolved questions at summer’s end.
The students’ interest and aptitude far exceeded my expectations as we approached our first meeting. As scions of conservative families who possess conservative instincts, these students eagerly absorbed Kirk’s elucidation of the principles toward which their instincts aspire. They easily saw the stark distinction between conservative principles and the progressive dogmas that they had absorbed in school. In the last few years of societal and political turmoil, these students have experienced acutely what Kirk called the conservative rout, and they learned from him that they have a specific role to play in helping to resist the progressive tide: “To restore purpose to labor and domestic existence, to give men back old hopes and long views and thought of posterity, will require bold imagination.” As Kirk was fond to say, for these students, coming of age as conservatives under siege, “Deo volente labor proficit”—“God willing, work prospers.”
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith and Staying with the Catholic Church.