By Roger Kimball.
An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance, and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers. . . . Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption.
—Edmund Burke, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs
What is a classic? T. S. Eliot, who along with Edmund Burke, became one of one of Russell Kirk’s primary cynosures, said in his lecture of that title that “If there is one word on which we can fix, which will suggest the maximum of what I mean by the term ‘a classic,’ it is the word maturity.” How many books find enthusiastic new audiences seventy years after their first publication? Precious few. By reason of longevity alone, The Conservative Mind, as of 2023 a septuagenarian, is a classic. But “maturity” is more than a chronological marker. It describes a quality of mind, a force of habit, a disposition and refinement of what Kirk, following Burke, would not have been too shy to call “prejudice.” By that standard, The Conservative Mind is like some lexical Athena. It was born mature, fully-armed and ready for battle.
As I have noted elsewhere, one of Kirk’s chief attractions was the amplitude of his worldview. He would not, I think, have quite approved of Walt Whitman. But there was a largeness about Kirk’s view of the universe that was Whitmanian in its insouciance regarding logical niceties, which can seem sterile when counterpoised against the rude pulse of living tradition. I do not say that Kirk, as Whitman boasted, contradicted himself. But he assuredly “contained multitudes.” For example, it was no accident, as the Marxists like to say, that Kirk’s biggest literary success by far was in the demotic realm of ghost stories. His first novel Old House of Fear (1961) was a conspicuous best-seller, far out-stripping in sales any of his later, officially “serious” books. If ghosts and other non-quotidian manifestations loom large in Russell Kirk’s spiritual geography, it is partly because he was not beholden to the exiguous dogmas of a self-declared age of enlightenment whose defining prejudice is, in the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer’s crisp and deflationary phrase, a “prejudice against prejudice.” Regarding ghosts, I believe that Kirk would have appreciated, with a twinkle, what Margot Asquith said. Asked whether she believed in ghosts, the elegant wife of the Prime Minister replied that “appearances are in their favor.”
Kirk, in short, was a thinker who coaxed us to enlarge, not diminish, the existential furniture of our world. Some Catholic Churches in this country have lately taken to ending the Mass with a prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel. “Protect us in battle,” we say, “be our safeguard against the nequitiam et insidias diaboli, the wickedness and snares of the devil. “ Are those just words? Airy nothings gilded with a crust of sentiment, or sentimentality? Or are we talking about real things, Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos?
Hold that thought.
In Henry IV Part 1, Sir John Falstaff, a thoroughly modern rogue, asks “What is honor?” and concludes, not without a bitter dram of contempt, that honor is but a word. And what, he asks, “is in that word ‘honor’? What is that ‘honor’? Air. A trim reckoning,” he says, “a mere scutcheon.”
Russell Kirk’s life was a campaign against this species of existential depreciation. For Kirk, honor was a reality, not “air,” not nothing, and I suspect his pantheon of realities had plenty of room for angels as well.
The philosopher Roger Scruton once observed that Kirk showed that conservatism is fundamentally not an economic but a cultural outlook, and that conservatism “would have no future if reduced merely to the philosophy of profit. Put bluntly,” Scruton said, “conservatism is not about profit but about loss: it survives and flourishes because people are in the habit of mourning their losses, and resolving to safeguard against them.” I think that is correct.
Kirk’s friend William F. Buckley, Jr., the founding editor of National Review, is often credited with rescuing conservatism from political irrelevance and social ostracism. Buckley’s force of personality, his languid if also bright-eyed and energetic demeanor almost single handedly injected life into the conservative project at a moment when the pieties of a regnant liberalism were nearly ubiquitous and, therefore, taken for granted.
But if Bill Buckley reenergized the political and social fortunes of conservatism, Kirk was the person most responsible for reinvigorating the intellectual heritage of conservatism in this country. Kirk’s was a lonely voice in the wilderness when, aged 34, he published his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, in 1953, two years before the inaugural issue of National Review.
Only a few years before, in 1950, the literary critic Lionel Trilling famously wrote that “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Today, he said, “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
In a single stroke, Kirk’s book challenged that diagnosis. Kirk had set out to write a kind of elegy, commemorating a great but derelict past. In the event, The Conservative Mind not only recovered a neglected legacy of conservative ideas, but also trumpeted a conservative future. The edition I first read, back in the 1990s, was a seventh revised edition: who knows how many printings the book has been through by now.
From the moment it appeared, the book was a sensation. I still recall the thrill the book gave me. “At last,” I thought, “I have come home.” Describing “an inclination to cherish the permanent things in human existence,” Kirk issued a challenge to liberal pieties and provided a tonic for conservative thinkers and politicians.
John Stuart Mill had once referred to conservatives as “the stupid party.” Kirk’s book helped restore conservatism’s patent of intellectual respectability. A brief introduction outlines the six touchstones of Kirk’s conservative vision: “belief in a transcendent order”; “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence”; a commitment to ordered liberty; a recognition that “freedom and property are closely linked”; faith in prescription against the putative expertise of the “sophisters, calculators, and economists” that Burke memorably anathematized in Reflections on the Revolution in France; and the understanding that change is not synonymous with improvement (Kirk would have liked Lord Falkland’s observation that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change”).
Over the succeeding five-hundred pages, Kirk artfully develops these themes through an analysis of the work of various conservative thinkers and movements. He begins with Edmund Burke, the genius loci of Kirk’s philosophical outlook, moves through John Adams and the American Founders, the English Romantics (mostly good) and Utilitarians (suspect), Southern conservatives like John Randolph and John Calhoun, and on through the conservative pantheon and its liberal antiphony. Kirk ponders Tocqueville, Macaulay, Disraeli, Newman, Mill, James Fitzjames Stephen, George Santayana, Irving Babbitt, and T. S. Eliot, among others. It is a bravura performance, based on extensive reading but too engaged and passionate to be described as “scholarly.” The Conservative Mind is a book that examines tradition in order to reanimate and inhabit that tradition. It is an inquiry in search of a credo, not a bid for tenure.
Headquartered for most of his prolific career at Piety Hill, his family’s modest ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, Kirk wrote some 30 books—novels and those hot-selling ghost stories along with works of intellectual history—as well as countless magazine articles and lectures. His influence was enormous. He was, for example, an important part of the founding generation of Buckley’s National Review. He was a friend of politicians from Barry Goldwater through Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. But Kirk’s place in cultural history is as difficult to categorize as was the man himself.
Kirk left behind two memoirs, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory and The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict, which he completed shortly before his death. Like Caesar’s chronicle of his exploits in Gaul, The Sword of the Imagination is written in the third person, which gives the book a formal, almost stately, texture. Nevertheless the memoir provides a vivid portrait of a life devoted to salvaging traditional—even antique—values in a world increasingly ruled by technological and economic imperatives. “There are no lost causes,” Eliot observed in one of his most quoted apothegms, “because there are no gained causes.” Our sloth, our lethargy, in the face of the fragile dispensations we take for settled realities, tends to obscure that dialectic of loss and gain.
Among those who were likely to be vexed by his meditations, Kirk notes, are “enthusiasts for modernity, the global village, the end of history, the gross national product, emancipation from moral inhibitions, abstract rights without concomitant duties, and what Samuel Johnson called ‘the lust for innovation.’” It was part of Kirk’s charm to enroll modernity (what he anathematized as “the acids of modernity”) and the GNP in his catalogue of vices and cast “innovation,” and a fortiori, the lust for innovation into his index of suspect attitudes.
Kirk was fond of quoting H. Stuart Hughes’s observation that “conservatism is the negation of ideology.” His own brand of conservatism admitted principles but regarded “positions” and “dogmata” (a nice Greek plural that was one of his favorite epithets) with hostility. He blended a nostalgic romanticism with a Burkean faith in the advantages of tradition and “sound prejudice.” It was from Kirk, I believe, that I first absorbed Burke’s idea that prejudice is not, as we have been taught ad nauseam, synonymous with bigotry but, on the contrary, that “a just prejudice”—a “prejudging” based on convention, custom, and tradition— is a good thing because it renders a man’s “virtue his habit,” a nugget of wisdom whose lineage goes back to Aristotle’s teachings about prudence and habit in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Kirk was almost Chestertonian in his fondness for paradox. One of my favorite Kirkian observations is that he was a conservative because he was a liberal. What goes under the banner of “liberalism” today has so thoroughly cut itself off from such traditional animating liberal imperatives as free speech, disinterested inquiry, and advancement according to merit that it is easy to regard Kirk’s declaration as merely paradoxical. But it was not paradoxical so much as it was admonitory, recalling us to springs of freedom that only an embrace of tradition can nourish. Like Burke, Kirk understood that an affirmation of the customary and conventional is the most reliable safeguard for individuality and fructifying idiosyncrasy.
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books.
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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