Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

It is easy to sum up the historical significance of The Conservative Mind. With eloquence and conviction Russell 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, Lionel Trilling 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 wall of liberal condescension and made it respectable for sophisticated people 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 in the early years of the Cold War. In the words of the book’s publisher, Henry Regnery, Kirk gave an “amorphous, scattered opposition” to liberalism an “identity.”

All this was a remarkable achievement for a single volume by a little-known author in 1953. Since then, uncounted thousands have had their minds changed, and in some cases their lives transformed, by their encounter with his influential book.

Sixty years after its publication, however, a question arises. We know the importance of The Conservative Mind when it was published; we know of its timeliness then. But hundreds of thousands of books have been unleashed upon the reading public since then, and only a few command our attention today. Put simply: is The Conservative Mind a “period piece,” of historical interest only? Or does it continue to justify the claim implicit in our act of commemoration?

Revisiting Dr. Kirk’s volume (which remains in print), one is struck by how unconventional it is by the standards of 2013. In an age of predominantly secular public discourse, Kirk writes unabashedly of the soul and of his conviction that God rules society. In an age of growing 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 of “neoterism” and the doctrinaire pursuit of “leveling,” he celebrates “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.” In an age of cultural illiteracy and Orwellian perversions of language, he unabashedly invokes poetry and the literary imagination. Indeed, I can think of no other conservative scholar 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 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, he bluntly criticizes an intelligentsia he deems arrogant, dogmatic, and alienated from a surrounding society it despises. Kirk himself, a learned man, is no obscurantist; his own writings, laden with quotations and 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 a fixed, adversarial posture toward the heritage that has nurtured him. Like many other conservatives, Kirk believes that “men of ideas,” not politicians, “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 and to conservatism—since the publication of Kirk’s magnum opus more than half a century 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 chasm between the world we inhabit and the kind of conservatism he championed. He warns us, for example, against “unchecked will and appetite,” but the traditionalist gospel of humility, reverence, and self-discipline seems ever more besieged in the hedonistic America in which we live. He preaches the necessity of rootedness and community—to an increasingly restless people nearly one-half of whom change homes every five years. As a historian, Kirk correctly notes the enormous and often destabilizing consequences of industrialism and technology. But barring some staggering military, economic, or ecological catastrophe, few Americans are likely to forsake the high-speed, high-tech world in which we all, willy-nilly, participate. The idiom, imagination, and temperament of this moralist-traditionalist appealed to much of America in the early 1950s. Can they hope to do so now?

In confronting this question it is important to keep in mind that The Conservative Mind is not, and was never intended to be, a political book in the usual sense of the term. In its many pages (more than 500 in the final edition) one finds no elaborate legislative agenda, no flashy list of talking points prepared for the rat-a-tat-tat crossfire of political debate. Instead, Kirk offers us, in his words, a “prolonged essay in definition,”–an elevating excursion into the broader world of “history, arts and letters.”

And it is precisely here that The Conservative Mind continues to justify itself and engage our imagination. As a book written by an unabashed man of letters, it addresses perennial issues that do not go away: issues that transcend the day-to-day minutiae of political maneuver. It recalls to our minds the principles that undergird our public policy: the truths which, in Robert Frost’s words (quoted by Kirk), “we keep coming back and back to.” Tirelessly Kirk reminds the reader that political problems are fundamentally “religious and moral problems” and that cultural renewal requires remedies at levels deeper than politics and economics.

This is the contribution Kirk’s tome 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. It is especially appropriate, therefore, that Kirk’s book concludes with a section on poetry, a mode of discourse attuned to universal and spiritual questions.

Successful resistance to the total state, the reconciliation of individualism and community, the inculcation of a “living faith” in a “lonely crowd,” 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. It is infinitely easier, of course, to state the problem than to specify or effect a solution, and whether Russell Kirk’s traditionalist conservatism will prove persuasive is problematic. But the future, as always, is veiled from our vision, and as Kirk in his later years often reminded us, it is the duty of conservatives to attempt to redeem the time as best they can.

And if indeed a new “dark age” is averted, we shall have to thank, among others, the intrepid author of The Conservative Mind who, sixty years ago, took up his “sword of imagination” and illumined truths that were timely, not only for his generation but also for our own.  

George H. Nash, historian and senior fellow of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, is author of, among other books, Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism.