By Dr. George H. Nash.
In May 1953, an obscure university professor in Michigan named Russell Kirk published his doctoral dissertation under the title The Conservative Mind. To the surprise of nearly everyone, it was an instant success. It received more than one hundred reviews: a remarkable number for an academic book. Time magazine’s July 6, 1953, issue devoted its entire book section to an appraisal of Kirk’s work. Its publication established him as an academic celebrity and an intellectual spokesman for American conservatism.
For most scholars, publication of a book of the distinction of The Conservative Mind would be the culmination of a career. For Kirk, who was only 34 years old at the time, it was just the opening salvo. In the years to come, he founded two influential, academically oriented, conservative journals (Modern Age and The University Bookman) that still exist; published a column for twenty-five years in the leading American conservative magazine, National Review; wrote a major biography of his friend T. S. Eliot; did more than anyone living to revive Edmund Burke as a fountainhead of conservative thought; completed a superb memoir called The Sword of Imagination; and churned out a prodigious torrent of other writings, including nearly 3,000 newspaper columns and more than thirty books. It surely helped that Kirk was a nocturnal person who for many years worked far into the night, getting by on just five hours of sleep out of every twenty-four.
Towering still, today, nearly thirty years after his death in 1994, is his masterwork, The Conservative Mind, a book that has remained in print ever since its publication. At its center is Edmund Burke—the “founder,” in Kirk’s words, of “the true school of conservative principle.” From the incomparable Burke, he argued, flowed a still vibrant, if battered, Anglo-American conservative tradition: through such men as Scott, Coleridge, Disraeli, and Newman in Britain, and the Adams family, Hawthorne, and Irving Babbitt in the United States. Conservatives had been “routed” since 1789, Kirk admitted in 1953, but “they have never surrendered.”
Kirk’s text was not only a 450-page distillation of the thinking of 150 years of the intellectual Right; it was also a spirited assault on every left-wing panacea and error imaginable. The perfectibility of man, the contemptuous rejection of tradition, political and economic leveling—these were, in Kirk’s view, the most prominent among post-1789 attacks on the social order. Liberalism, collectivism, socialism, atomistic individualism, fanatic ideology: these were some of his targets. At times he criticized capitalism and industrialism; the automobile, for example, he labeled a “mechanical Jacobin.” Kirk, in short, left no stone unturned in his challenge to the gods of modernity.
It is easy to sum up his book’s historical significance. With eloquence and conviction Kirk demonstrated that reflective conservatism is neither a smokescreen for selfishness nor the ritual incantation of the privileged. It is an attitude toward life with moral substance of its own. A century earlier, John Stuart Mill had dismissed conservatives in Great Britain as “the stupid party.” Only three years before the publication of Kirk’s book, an eminent American literary critic had opined that liberalism was the “sole intellectual tradition in the United States.” After the appearance of The Conservative Mind, the American intellectual landscape assumed a different shape. Kirk’s tour de force—an uncommon fusion of scholarship and passion—breached the thick wall of liberal condescension. It struck a powerful blow at the liberals’ superiority complex. He made it respectable for sophisticated Americans to identify themselves as men and women of the Right.
Most importantly of all, The Conservative Mind stimulated the development of a self-conscious, conservative intellectual movement in America after the Second World War. In the words of the book’s publisher, Henry Regnery, Kirk gave an “amorphous, scattered opposition” to liberalism an “identity.” In the years to come he labored unceasingly to elevate the movement’s discourse and its vision.
The Conservative Mind was not meant to be a conventional academic monograph. His manuscript, he confided to a friend in 1952, was to be “my contribution to our endeavor to conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization; and if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon.” “The struggle,” he said, “will be decided in the minds of the rising generation—and within that generation, substantially by the minority who have the gift of reason.” It was to this great endeavor that Kirk devoted himself for the remainder of his life.
The author of The Conservative Mind was not indifferent to the worldly concerns of politics and economics. In the early 1960s, for instance, he helped to launch the Goldwater-for-President movement. But fundamentally Kirk realized that political activism was not his calling. He was, rather, a moralist and man of letters whose vocation, as he saw it, was to remind us, in Robert Frost’s words, of “the truths we keep coming back and back to.”
Here I wish to point out something we should keep in mind as we think about Kirk’s teachings. American conservatism is not, and has never been, monolithic. It has become a coalition with many points of origin and diverse tendencies, not always easy to reconcile. In the mid-1950s, Kirk’s Burkean “traditionalism” (as it came to be called) was not the only school of rightwing thought vying for leadership in the United States. Another intellectual tendency, known in those days as “classical liberalism” or “individualism” but generally known to us today as libertarianism, was also stirring. Among its adherents, broadly speaking, were such free-market economists as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, and the novelist Ayn Rand.
To Kirk, “true conservatism”—Burke’s conservatism—was antithetical to unrestrained capitalism. It was also opposed to what he deemed the corrosive, egoistic ideology of individualism. “Individualism is social atomism,” he exclaimed; “conservatism is community of spirit.” Spiritually, he said, individualism was a “hideous solitude.”
Such sentiments, which Kirk expressed with gusto in The Conservative Mind and elsewhere, did not endear him to militant individualists and libertarians like Frank Meyer, a fellow National Review contributor who accused him of lacking a grounding in what Meyer called “clear and distinct principle” needed (he said) for the successful defense of a free society against the real enemy—collectivism—that was threatening to engulf us all.
Space does not permit a detailed examination of the many debates that ensued at National Review and elsewhere concerning Kirk’s conservatism and the proper relationship of freedom, virtue, and tradition in conservative thought. In many ways these debates continue today. Suffice to say that, as the conservative intellectual movement took shape and matured from the mid-1950s forward, Kirk responded vigorously to the challenges hurled against his “traditionalist” formulation of the conservative creed.
Toward doctrinaire libertarianism, for instance, especially as expounded by someone like Ayn Rand, he remained utterly uncompromising. It was, he declared in the 1980s, “an ideology of universal selfishness,” “as alien to real American conservatism as is communism.” And, he added: “We flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already, without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.” To those who asserted that his Burkean brand of conservatism was insufficiently principled and mired in eighteenth-century British society, he reinterpreted Edmund Burke as a powerful thinker in the “natural law” tradition—a tradition of wisdom that transcends national borders and changing social conditions. To those who disparaged his conservatism as an alien hothouse plant imported from Europe and irrelevant to the American experience, he increasingly emphasized the roots of American order in the civilizational patrimony of ancient, Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, and (in more recent times) Great Britain: a priceless inheritance going back many centuries.
And always, in contrast to those he labeled ideologues, he insisted that true conservatism was not an ideology but “the negation of ideology”: the antithesis of bumper sticker sloganeering and sound-bite certitudes. It was a body of inherited wisdom, whose application, in the political sphere, required what he eventually called “the politics of prudence.”
Another way in which Kirk responded to his critics was more persistent. On the opening page of The Conservative Mind in 1953, he declared that his book was “a prolonged essay in definition.” In a sense, he never stopped writing that essay. Although he firmly refused to systematize his conservatism into a rigid set of abstract doctrines, he did believe that conservatism was more than a mere matter of temperament. Thus in the first edition of The Conservative Mind he famously identified what he called “six canons of conservative thought.” He reprinted this list with subtle modifications in all subsequent editions of the volume.
Revisiting Dr. Kirk’s book seventy years after its publication, one is struck by how unconventional it is by the standards of 2023. In an age of predominantly secular public discourse, Kirk speaks unabashedly of the immortal soul and of his conviction that God rules society. In an age of unashamed atheism and agnosticism, he affirms that “religious sanction” is the indispensable “basis of any conservative order” and that “the first principle of all consistent conservative thought” is “reverence for the wisdom of our ancestors, through which works the design of Providence.” 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 besotted by the doctrinaire pursuit of “leveling,” he celebrates “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.” In an age of cultural illiteracy, Orwellian perversions of language, and the growing hegemony of the social sciences, he defiantly invokes poetry and the literary imagination. Indeed, I can think of no conservative in living memory who resorted as frequently as Kirk did to works of literature to buttress his social and political commentary.
Another contrarian theme in The Conservative Mind catches our notice. As an unreconstructed opponent of consumerist, mass society, of chic and shallow progressivism, and of the ruthless, totalitarian state, Kirk castigates what he regards as one of the principal agents of harmful social change in the modern era: rootless, secular, liberal and radical intellectuals. It is a motif given more explicit emphasis in later editions of The Conservative Mind. In the final chapter of the sixth and seventh editions, issued in 1978 and 1986, he bluntly criticizes an intelligentsia he deems arrogant, dogmatic, and alienated from a surrounding society it despises.
Kirk himself, a learned man, was no obscurantist; his own writings, laden with literary allusions and reflective of wide reading, belie such a simplistic explanation. Instead, he carefully distinguishes between the “scholar,” rooted in his “cultural patrimony,” and the social type known as the “intellectual,” who, according to Kirk, adopts an adversarial posture toward the heritage that has nurtured him. Like many other conservatives then and now, Kirk believes that “men of ideas determine the ultimate course of things.” Perhaps for this very reason, he dislikes “intellectuals” and ideologues, who in his judgment abuse what should be their conservative vocation.
Much has happened—to America, to Europe, and to conservatism—since the publication of Kirk’s magnum opus seven decades ago. Even then he felt himself to be jousting against the regnant spirit of the age; he originally wanted to entitle his book The Conservatives’ Rout. As we read it today, we cannot help but notice the distance between the world we inhabit and the kind of conservatism he championed. He repeatedly warns us, for example, against “unchecked will and appetite,” but his traditionalist message of humility, reverence, and self-discipline seems ever more besieged in the hedonistic world in which we live. He preaches the necessity of rootedness and community—to habitually restless Americans, nearly one-half of whom change homes every five years. As a historian, Kirk correctly notes the vast and often destabilizing consequences of industrialism and technology. But barring some staggering military, economic, or ecological catastrophe, few Americans or Europeans are likely to forsake the high-speed, high-tech society in which we all participate. The imagination and temperament of this moralist-traditionalist appealed to many in Britain and America in the early 1950s. Can they hope to do so now?
In confronting this question it is important to understand that The Conservative Mind is not, and was never intended to be, a political book in the usual sense of the term. In its pages one will find no elaborate legislative agenda, no doctrinaire, ideological blueprint for public policy. Instead, Kirk offers us, in his words, an excursion into the broader world of “history, arts and letters” and what he came to call the Permanent Things.
And it is precisely here that The Conservative Mind continues to justify itself and engage our imagination. As a book written by a doctor of letters, it addresses perennial issues that do not go away: issues that transcend the day-to-day minutiae of political maneuvering. Tirelessly, Kirk reminds his readers that political problems are fundamentally “religious and moral problems” and that cultural renewal requires remedies at levels deeper than economics. This is the contribution that his magnum opus continues to make long after the circumstances of its original success have disappeared. It refocuses our minds on the crucial realm of the value-creating and value-sustaining institutions of society—on questions of ends and not only of means. It beckons us as individuals to ponder how we ought to live.
Successful resistance to the total state, the reconciliation of individualism and community, and the “restoration of the ethical understanding and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded”: these are some of the challenges that The Conservative Mind identifies as central to a truly conservative agenda, then and now.
The future, as always, is hidden from our vision. But as Dr. Kirk in his later years often reminded us, it is the duty of conservatives to attempt to redeem the time as best they can. His life and work inspire us to do exactly that.
George H. Nash is a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center and author, among other books, of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.
This essay is adapted from a lecture which George Nash gave at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal on July 18, 2023.
The Russell Kirk Center will celebrate the 70th anniversary of The Conservative Mind (published in 1953) in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2023. The event is open to the public and tickets are available here.
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