The Politics of Prudence
By Russell Kirk.
Introduction by Michael P. Federici.
Regnery Gateway, 2023.
Paperback, 314 pages, $19.99.
Reviewed by Alan Cornett.
The occasion of a thirtieth anniversary edition of Russell Kirk’s The Politics of Prudence spurs mixed emotions. I am overjoyed that this collection of what are essentially occasional essays have such staying power these decades later. However, this new edition also creates a Memento Mori moment for your humble servant who remembers all too well assisting with the editing process all those decades ago.
During my time at Piety Hill two of Dr. Kirk’s final books were published. The first was America’s British Culture, on which the editing work had been completed months before my arrival. But The Politics of Prudence I viewed as something of “my” book, which isn’t to say that I was key to its publication, but rather it was the book I actually had the opportunity to be involved with in some way.
Many hands (and eyes) were involved in poring over the proofs to catch minor errors. But it was preparing the index I most remember. Not that the process was particularly fun at the time, but Dr. Kirk actually came to the house where I lived beside the library and guided the index. In fact, Dr. Kirk insisted that only the author could do a proper job of indexing a book. Only the author would know the relative relevance of topics covered, and only he would really grasp concepts and topics that ought to be indexed. It was not a process to be left to editors or computers, he insisted.
So we sat down around a coffee table, Dr. Kirk holding the proofs. We held index cards and pens. Page by page he would call out names, events, concepts: anything that he felt needed to be readily referenced. We would scribble down the topic on a card and keep a dutiful record of the page numbers. I learned never to take an index for granted.
The book itself is a collection of essays which, all save one, began as lectures delivered at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Kirk regularly spoke in those days. Imagine a voice of wisdom and conservative insight like Russell Kirk’s having a regular outlet in the heart of the nation’s capital speaking directly both to politically influential conservatives and the influential conservatives of the future. These were the days after Reagan when conservative policies were losing their way under Bush, a president Dr. Kirk viewed less than favorably.
The essays begin with “The Errors of Ideology,” a core theme in understanding Dr. Kirk’s approach to conservatism as well as in understanding the volume’s subsequent essays. Kirk writes, “the ideologue…thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.” While the ideological impulse is fundamentally a predilection of the left, Kirk notes that “there exists some danger that conservatives themselves might slip into a narrow ideology or quasi-ideology—even though, as H. Stuart Hughes wrote some forty years ago, ‘Conservatism is the negation of ideology.’”
The danger for the right to fall into ideological thinking has not lessened in the three decades since Dr. Kirk wrote those words—in this social media age the danger has grown exponentially. The thoughtfulness and measure conservative thought demands is hard to fit into a 280 character missive. Kirk makes clear that “[t]his book, then, is addressed to conservatives especially. Its chapters are essays (originally lectures) examining conservative principles, people, books, and problems, and contrasting conservative views with ideological dogmas.”
The vision of Politics of Prudence is as an inoculation against the “sham religion and sham philosophy” of ideology. It is not a better ideology that we need, but rather none at all. “I am not of the opinion that it would be well to pour the heady wine of a new ideology down the throats of the American young,” Kirk writes. “What we need to impart is political prudence, not political belligerence. Ideology is the disease, not the cure.”
The essays are mostly grouped into themes that Dr. Kirk used to structure his lectures at The Heritage Foundation. The first group of four essays are discussions of “tens,” e.g., “Ten Conservative Principles” and “Ten Conservative Books.” Then Kirk turns his attention to individual studies of noteworthy conservatives such as T. S. Eliot and Donald Davidson (imagine a lecture given on Donald Davidson at The Heritage Foundation today!). Finally, he turns his attention to different strands of conservatism before a group of topical essays on themes such as foreign policy and education. The variety of topics is a strength of the book as it gives the reader the chance to see Kirk’s thought on a wide range of stages.
I would be remiss not to mention the two introductions included in the new edition. Michael P. Federici has written a new introduction that ably surveys the essays collected in the volume along with the underlying philosophy behind them. Federici well observes that the type of conservatism advocated by Russell Kirk is neither ideological nor a mindless attempt to repeat the past. Instead, prudence and imagination are key. He writes, “the conservative disposition requires that historical experience be used to orient the statesman to what is possible and prudent in politics. Because prudent statesmanship is not as simple as imitating the past, it requires imagination to reconstitute old truths in new circumstances.” For Kirk, conservatism can never become a list of boxes to check, but it demands imaginative engagement.
Also included is Mark C. Henrie’s 2004 introduction from the book’s initial republication two decades ago. I applaud the retention of Henrie’s introduction as it really serves a much different purpose than Federici’s. Henrie does not really discuss the essays of Politics of Prudence directly at all, rather he has given us a discursive meditation on Russell Kirk’s conservatism and its place in political thought generally. Henrie writes, “Almost always, when Kirk’s interpretations differ from ‘what we know’ it can be demonstrated that Kirk is aware of the excluded alternative; he has simply come to a different judgment.” Just so. Thus the singularity of Russell Kirk’s conservative vision although it stubbornly stands within the great stream of Western thought.
Henrie makes, too, an insightful observation about Kirk’s writings: “Despite his formal reserve, Kirk is everywhere a real presence in even his most scholarly writings, almost a ‘character’ in the ‘story,’ and thus this presence became ever more prominent as he progressed in his career.” It is impossible to separate the writings of Russell Kirk from the man himself, the archaic prose (which Henrie also discusses) and the well placed autobiographical anecdote permeate his writings, and are inseparable from them.
Henrie writes, “it is staggering to realize that Kirk’s ‘affected’ prose in fact reveals the authentic man, a man who imagined his way out of the intellectual prison of modern ideology—and beckons others to follow.” Kirk thus is not seeking to create a kind of cult of personality, but rather he asserts his own personality into the Great Conversation that extends back millennia to Socrates and beyond. Kirk challenges each of us to do the same.
Frequently I’m asked where new readers of Russell Kirk should begin. While The Conservative Mind—enjoying its 70th year of being in print—is the Kirk magnum opus, it’s a heavy lift and certainly for the uninitiated a challenge they might not survive. I always encourage people to read some Kirk short stories, but also I point them to The Politics of Prudence. The essays are aimed at an educated and thoughtful general audience. They are accessible and varied, and they provide an excellent overview of Dr. Kirk’s thought across his dozens of books. Combined with the two informative introductions, this new volume from Regnery Gateway really does provide a perfect Kirk 101.
Alan Cornett hosts the Cultural Debris podcast, is a founder of Cultural Debris Excursions, and served as an assistant to Russell Kirk as well as an Assistant Editor of The University Bookman.
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