Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

Sixty years after its publication, The Conservative Mind could easily be dismissed as an irrelevant artifact of a failed political movement. The “conservative movement” has utterly failed to stop or even slow the leftward tilt of American politics and culture. The America of the early 1950s is no more. Indeed, that era is generally derided as racist, sexist, and homophobic. Today, atheist monuments are being unveiled beside the Ten Commandments, abortion on demand is the law of the land, which even Catholic charities must support in their employee benefits packages, state-run medical care is in the process of being fully institutionalized, and marriage itself has been redefined from a responsible binding for the purpose of rearing children to a public recognition of couplings-of-the-moment providing access to monetary benefits. Meanwhile, the “conservative” party debates how quickly to grant citizenship to people who broke the law in entering the country, mumbles incoherently in regard to the family, and seeks to make itself sound “tough” by advocating yet more military adventures overseas—with a military it is happy to see used as a laboratory for sexual and social experimentation.

All of which is to say that Kirk’s masterpiece remains every bit as relevant as it ever was. For our society’s ills are not the products of politics. Rather, our politics suffer because of our social and cultural decay. As Kirk well knew, politics is a mere practical art. It is in the realm of culture—of religion, education, art, and literature—that a society lives or dies.

The Conservative Mind was not intended as a political manifesto. What it provided was a linking of diverse, sometimes isolated figures and groups into a coherent tradition of thought and action. Few of its members—from modern conservatism’s founder, Edmund Burke, to the great poet and critic, T. S. Eliot—“won” many of their battles. But that was never the point. What Kirk showed in his book was that conservatism is not merely a political creed, any more than it is a mere “disposition” to conserve what happens to exist. Conservatism, as we have come to know it, was born of conflict with the forces of revolution, and has continued to be so known to this day. But, again as Kirk showed, conservatism is merely the modern manifestation of a deeper, more important tradition, namely of Christian Humanism or, if one prefers, natural law. Often derided for their medieval sensibilities, conservatives like Burke and Kirk recognize that there is an order to the universe that has normative force, showing us how we ought to act and what we ought to value.

The Conservative Mind should be remembered and should continue to be studied for the link it helped forge between modern struggles and the continuing order of being. As the “developed” world continues its slide into rampant individualism, supported by an all-encompassing state, we must remember that the horribly disordered order of the day is distinctly unnatural. We must keep in mind, as our societies continue destroying our unborn children, begin destroying ever more of our old and weak, and continue undermining the natural communities in which alone comfort and happiness may be bred, there remains a tradition upon which we may call in rebuilding a civil social order and reinvigorating the moral imagination through which we may reconnect our fleeting lives with the Permanent Things. 

Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University’s College of Law, Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, and author of Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville.