The Politics of Prudence
By Russell Kirk.
Regnery Gateway, 2023.
Paperback, 314 pages, $19.99.
By Michael P. Federici.
This introduction to the 2023 edition of The Politics of Prudence is reprinted with permission from Regnery.
Originally published in 1993, about a year before his death, The Politics of Prudence is a collection of seventeen lectures given by Russell Kirk to the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., one lecture delivered at Hillsdale College, and an epilogue. The purposes of the lectures, which were delivered over a period of five years, are, first, to define conservatism by contrasting it to ideology, including ideological conceptions of conservative thinking such as libertarianism, neoconservatism, and populism; second, to identify important thinkers, books, principles, and events that embody and reflect conservative thinking, culture, and politics; and, third, to speculate about the future of conservatism as the American heritage that Kirk described in The Roots of American Order and the conservative tradition that he evoked in The Conservative Mind faded from memory and were being replaced by ideology.
The lectures are designed for young conservatives working in one capacity or another in the capital or college students inclined toward conservative politics. After half a century at the center of the conservative intellectual movement, Kirk attempted to guide young conservatives away from ideological politics and the temptation to turn conservatism into a civil religion. He encouraged them to develop the habits of mind that were evident in generations of conservative exemplars. Conservatism, he argued, is a disposition of character rather than a collection of reified, abstract political doctrines. It is the rejection of ideology rather than the exercise of it. One might think that in 1993, after the Reagan presidency and the proliferation of conservative politics, publications, ideas, and media, those involved in conservative politics would know the characteristics and meaning of their political identity. Yet, the popularity and political success of conservatism did more to obscure its meaning than clarify it. A rush of politicians and commentators, often with significantly different political and philosophical beliefs, embraced the label “conservative” without knowing much about its intellectual roots. The result was widespread confusion, especially in the media, about the meaning of conservatism. The Politics of Prudence is an attempt to clarify the meaning of conservatism by associating it with the historical figures, experiences, and companion ideas that gave it intellectual and political life. The book is an exercise in conservative self-understanding and self-identity.
Kirk understood that there were competing conceptions of conservatism; what is referred to as “conservatism” in the popular media is a conglomeration of three or four variants of conservatism that both converge and diverge. He draws clear lines of demarcation between traditional, libertarian, neoconservative, and populist schools of thinking while advocating for a Burkean conservatism rooted in the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions. This type of conservatism formed its political identity in opposition to the French Revolution and the rise of radical and revolutionary ideological movements that centralize power as the means to escape the limits of the human condition. The inclination to preserve the wisdom of the ages, the accumulated experience and insights of past generations, when it is under assault from the forces of political, social, and intellectual radicalism is at the core of the conservative disposition. Kirk’s enumeration of conservative thinkers, books, and events includes ancient statesmen like Cicero and Marcus Aurelius; British authors and statesman such as Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Walter Scott, and Samuel Johnson; communist dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Pope John Paul II; and American figures such as John Randolph of Roanoke, Orestes Brownson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, and Irving Babbitt. These figures are unified by resistance to radical change, adherence to the politics of prudence, and commitment to a moral order that obligates both city and soul and that makes politics the art of the possible.
Before comparing and contrasting variants of conservatism, Kirk explains why it is not an ideology. While ideology assumes a high level of certainty, if not possession of absolute truth, conservatism accepts the limits of human reason, virtue, and politics. Human understanding is clouded by passion, self-deception, self-interest, and moral imperfection. Consequently, humility restrains the conservative from ideological pronouncements about the end of history, gnostic claims of justice, or political schemes to perfect human nature and society. Politics, Kirk repeats throughout his lectures, is the art of the possible. It requires prudential judgment that is derived from adherence to historical experience embodied in tradition, custom, and convention.
Conservatives aim to preserve and apply the wisdom of the ages, not change the constitution of being; they do not attempt to escape from the limits of the human condition but use them to distinguish between realistic and utopian expectations. Conservative politics is inspired by modesty, not conceit. Ideology is immodest and utopian at its extremes; it claims to know how to implement final solutions to age-old problems, to end war, tyranny, poverty, inequality, and injustice generally. The conservative, Kirk notes, understands that the human condition limits the extent to which justice can be realized on earth. The politics of prudence assumes that imperfection is a permanent part of human character and human society. We grope toward a tolerable order that accepts imperfection, the devil we know, while avoiding greater evils, the devil we do not know. Preservation of civilization, as imperfect as it is, is the conservative’s work. Kirk reminds us of Edmund Burke’s insight that preservation requires change. Conservatives are not antiquarians, mindlessly preserving tradition without regard for the exigencies of particular circumstances or the need to reform. Inspired by moral imagination, they attempt to reconcile permanence and change, avoiding radical and revolutionary change that ignores the limits of reality and makes a bad situation worse. Prudent reform depends on reconciliation of circumstances, the limits of politics, and what Aristotle calls the good. While the work of reform may occur in the domain of politics, statesmen prepare for it through the cultivation of a quality of imagination and character that occurs in families, schools, churches, and communities. Culture, not politics or political power, is the first concern of the conservative.
Kirk’s insistence that politics is the art of the possible relates to his first and foundational principle that a transcendent moral order obligates and limits human beings in private and public life. How do we know what is possible in given circumstances? How do humans come to know the obligations and limits of the moral order? Historical experience is a guide to what is possible, but more than historical knowledge is required to prudently apply that knowledge to existing circumstances. Circumstances change, and with them the possible changes as well. Discovering the possible requires attunement to the moral order, and the moral imagination to both perceive life as it is (as opposed to the impossible dream) and to conceive of what is possible and prudent at a given time and place. Statesmanship requires creativity and conformity to the order of being. A prudent politics requires use of sail, anchor, and sextant. In short, 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, what Kirk refers to as the reconciliation of permanence and change. In foreign affairs, for example, the statesman must avoid the rigidity of ideological politics that is interventionist or isolationist. Rather, prudent statesmanship should be what it needs to be in the circumstances, sometimes requiring intervention and sometimes restraint from intervention. What is consistent in conservative statesmanship is following the path of prudence.
Law and policy should not require what the moral order deems impossible. Experience is a guide in discovering the limits of politics and the possible. Ideology dictates that policy and law reify abstract rights, that liberties, for example, be absolute and immune from the exigencies of time, circumstance, place, and the limits of human nature. Ideology claims a monopoly of virtue and truth. It sees no need for compromise, and it recognizes little or nothing of value in the claims and interests of opponents. The conservative, Kirk asserts, is in the “habit of dining with the opposition.”
Among Kirk’s conservative principles is variety. Ideology is monistic. It tends to see universality and the good in stagnant, reified ways uncomplicated by circumstances. It craves uniformity even when it advocates diversity. It aims to enforce through centralized power uniform policy and thinking because it claims to possess the one solution that applies universally. Conservatism champions organic pluralism because it recognizes that universality manifests in diverse, particular ways. It favors decentralized power that enables local communities to find the true, the good, and the beautiful in their particular circumstances. The consequence is a mixture of policies across state and local communities. Kirk understood the temptation to nationalize politics, to control the reins of the federal government and impose uniform “conservative” policies on communities across the nation. Such an approach to politics violates Kirk’s principle of voluntary community; it moves the country toward involuntary collectivism. To maintain prudent restraints on power, the decentralized structure of the American constitutional system created by the Framers needs to be maintained. Conservatives need to resist the temptation of a politics of conservative progressivism.
It is with these assumptions and principles in mind that Kirk rejects ideological forms of conservatism, including libertarianism, neoconservatism, and populism. Libertarians share with traditional conservatives a prejudice toward smaller, decentralized government and a modest foreign policy. Yet, many libertarians do not appreciate the challenges that stem from an imperfect human nature. They are far too confident that eliminating most constraints on individuals will maximize liberty without unintended consequences to order. Libertarians share too much philosophical ground with Jean Jacques Rousseau, who assumes that human nature is good and that conventions are the cause of injustice and evil. The conservative argues that humans will collapse into disorder when liberated from traditional constraints. Kirk crystallizes Edmund Burke’s prudent view of liberty. Individuals are fit for liberty in proportion to their ability to put moral chains on their passions. The more ethically self-restrained they are, the less outer restraint they require. Yet, the balance of liberty and restraint cannot be predetermined apart from circumstances. The prudent judgment of statesmen and cultural leaders is required to find the right balance between liberty and order. Conservatives reject a priori politics, another name for ideology.
The neoconservative vision of politics contrasts with Kirk’s view of conservatism. It aims to replace the American constitutional republic with a global empire intent on transforming the world into a system of democratic nation-states. To create such a global empire, power must be concentrated in the federal government and in the executive branch. In the neoconservative view, most restraints should be removed from the foreign affairs powers of the federal government, and, as was evident in George W. Bush’s foreign policy, the United States should aggressively use its military to topple nondemocratic regimes and engage in nation building to convert conquered nations into viable American-style democracies. Kirk, however, argues that to build a global empire abroad is to destroy the republic at home. Organizing the world into uniform regime types defies the conservative commitment to variety. Just as state and local communities in the United States should have the autonomy to adjust their laws and policies to the particularities of their circumstances and cultures, nations should be free to create the regime types that fit their circumstances and cultures. Neoconservatives share traditional conservatives’ opposition to communism and radical global ideological movements. When nations that are animated by such ideologies behave in ways that are contrary to American interests and security, the conservative response is prudent statesmanship, not the ideology of American empire. The fire of ideology should not be fought with the fire of counter-ideology.
Ideologies of all types overpromise and underdeliver because they are out of sync with human nature and historical experience. They see politics as the art of the impossible. Populism, like libertarianism and neoconservatism, is also inconsistent with traditional conservatism’s sober view of politics. It attempts to replace the wisdom of the ages, embodied in tradition and convention, with the momentary will of the undeliberative and unchecked majority. The voice of the people, Kirk is quick to note, is not the voice of God. It is a mix of interests, passions, and beliefs that cannot substitute for the judgment of prudential statesmen. Kirk favors G. K. Chesterton’s democracy of the dead, the Burkean community of generations dead, living, and yet to be born. The living generation does well to learn from the experiences of past generations and to consider its obligations to future generations. Continuity between generations requires the primacy of the wisdom of the ages to the wisdom of the age. Populism, by contrast, elevates the passion of the moment, as if human beings can navigate the complexities of political life without historical knowledge or example. It replaces the prudent statesman with the demagogue, who like Joe McCarthy or Huey Long incites popular passions for short-term political gain.
The appearance of a new edition of Russell Kirk’s The Politics of Prudence is an indication that it remains relevant to current conservatives. In fact, the state of American politics suggests that conservatives would do well to heed Kirk’s wisdom and warnings about American culture and politics. Since the original publication of the book, conservatives have too often succumbed to the temptation to think of themselves as advocates of a national ideology that should be imposed on the nation by laws and courts following election victories. They are losing touch with the principles articulated by Kirk in this book, that politics is the art of the possible and the art of compromise, that culture prepares the way for politics, and that the imperfectability of human beings limits the possibilities of politics, especially in foreign affairs. The conservative identity crisis that engendered The Politics of Prudence has deepened. Recalling to memory the historical and theoretical meaning of conservatism is a first step in the recovery of prudent political conservatism. Learning to orient the conduct of politics to the principles, wisdom, and spirit of the conservative mind and imagination is the second step to a renewed political conservatism. When conservatives sound less like advocates of a fixed ideology and more like prudent statesmen, Kirk’s influence, and the aim of the book—enlargement of the first principles of conservatism and awakening the conservative imagination—will be evident.
Michael P. Federici is professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University and author, among other books, of The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton.
 Gnostics claim to possess absolute knowledge that reveals the hidden secrets of history and the structure of reality. This secret knowledge, gnosis, is only known to the leader of a political, quasi-religious, or intellectual movement and a small group of devoted followers. Gnostics assume that gnosis can be used to change, if not perfect, human nature and human society. For a detailed analysis of modern gnosticism, see Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1968).
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