Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

In her Heritage Foundation Lecture titled “The Conservative Heart: Life with Russell Kirk,” Annette Kirk recounts an episode that occurred partway through her nearly thirty-year marriage. It seems that one of Kirk’s college-age assistants noted the remarkable differences in temperament between the loquacious Annette and the reserved Sage of Mecosta and put the following question to him: “Dr. Kirk, you and Mrs. Kirk are two very different people. Mrs. Kirk is very energetic, always on the move, and outgoing. You, on the other hand, are more meditative, stoical, and reserved. How is it that you have such a happy marriage?” Russell replied in his typical manner— without hesitation and to the point—”What you have said is true—we are very different. First Principles—this is the basis of our happiness.”

In truth, the life Russell Kirk led exemplified the truths found in his flagship work, The Conservative Mind: that it is in acts of love, in the works of humble obedience, in the fellowship of friends and family, within interconnected communities of ordered freedom, in the embrace and living out of first principles—not in the search for or the achievement of fame and wealth, or in searching for the next great fad or sensation—that joy is found.

Joy and happiness are not the same, though they are related and may overlap. One may possess joy amid circumstances that would crush the happiness out of anyone. Depending upon their nature, a person’s first principles may enable him to endure and to prevail, with hope, confidence, and joy. Writing sometime after the publication of The Conservative Mind, Kirk wrote that the principled conservative believes “that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can ever reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.”

Further, Kirk wrote, the wise conservative “has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons of chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that “they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.”

The spirit of Edmund Burke pervades The Conservative Mind, which is much more than an historical artifact to be revered. Much has been written on the significance of this work, this “exercise in the history of ideas,” for its role in giving form to conservatism, particularly to that element of the movement known as traditionalist conservatism. Beyond this, it is a document whose strength lies in Kirk’s articulate reminders that man is much more than a political and economic creature who is entirely fulfilled when his creature comforts are satisfied, or an organic machine that can create an earthly Paradise if conditioned just the right ideology. Kirk affirmed, in fact, that man is also and primarily a spiritual being who seeks meaning and purpose that cannot be found in wealth and comfort alone. Despite his bent toward error and sin, man is a being that is meant for eternity and beloved by his Creator. (This view of man characterizes what Kirk called “the moral imagination.”) Man is a player in the drama of history and part of a community of souls, formed in character by his forebears and also a shaper of generations yet to come. Man has a purpose, and this is a source of joy that is both a comfort and a challenge.

A man who was happy in the hour of his death, Kirk wrote that without an object of allegiance, a sense of rootedness in the land, a body of tradition to give context to one’s life, a foundation of hope and joy, and the small, voluntary communities of family and neighbors with which to fellowship, man is given over to boredom and aimlessness, and the society of which he is a part slides into decadence. Therefore the great test of the modern conservative is to restore “a living faith to the lonely crowd, how to remind men that life has ends,” making for order in the soul and order in the commonwealth. In words that run entirely counter to the prevailing political outlook of our times, T. S. Eliot once told Kirk, in a letter, “I think it is very true to say of any country, that a decline in private morality is certain to be followed, in the long run, by a decline in public and political morality also.” This, too, is of a piece with the essence of The Conservative Mind.

The high value of this work lies in its power for reminding the reader of what Kirk and Eliot called “the permanent things.” By this he meant those timeless, normative truths—the rightness of honor, courage, and mercy, the importance of high character, the essential beauty of chastity, and other norms recognized since time out of mind—those first principles grounded in prudence and wise tradition by which humanity lives, and which it ignores at its peril—truths that will endure so long as brass is strong and stone abides.

Kirk wrote, “In essence, the body of belief that we call ‘conservatism’ is an affirmation of normality in the concerns of society.” He added, “There exist standards to which we may repair; man is not perfectible, but he may achieve a tolerable degree of order, justice, and freedom; both the ‘human sciences’ and humane studies are means for ascertaining the norms of the civil social order, and for informing the statesman and the reflecting public of the possibilities and the limits of social measures.”

In miniature, this is the key body of truth Kirk discourses upon in The Conservative Mind. As for which: Who were the individuals, and what were their ideas, who appeared in Kirk’s best-known book? Space does not allow a full description of all three-score (and more) of them; but for now, here is a list of several of the giants profiled in The Conservative Mind and thumbnail descriptions of what Kirk discerned of value in their lives and works:

  • Edmund Burke: A strong emphasis upon “the moral imagination” and the contract of eternal society. The vision of humanity and the transmission of truths and traditions from generation to generation, and of society as an organic entity. The present generation is linked intimately with past generations and owes a healthy patrimony to future generations. When this skein of organic interconnectedness is broken, great harm is done to a people and a culture.
  • John Adams: The concept of “liberty under law”: not liberty as unfettered license, beholden to individual whim, but liberty exercised within lawful restraints of custom and moral and legal authority.
  • Sir Walter Scott: The truth that conservative ideas can be expressed in living works of imagination, reminding us that we have ancestors and inherit a moral patrimony. He pictured the virtues of loyalty, fortitude, respect for women, and duty toward those who will succeed us in time.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The practice of never condemning prejudices because they are prejudices, but examining them as the collective verdict of the human species, and endeavoring to make clear the latent meaning in them. Coleridge perceived the reality of ideas, the role of imagination, and the sanctity of constitutions.
  • John Randolph of Roanoke: The emphasis upon slow processes of natural change, a deep affection for agricultural life, and an assertive localist and regionalist perspective and loyalties.
  • Alexis de Tocqueville: An understanding that democracy married to virtue is a noble engine, and that democracy divorced from virtue is the tyranny of the mob.
  • Orestes Brownson: The truth that Americans of the Gilded Age—and other gilded ages, for that matter—can and should be reminded that no nation, however prosperous, however swaggering in its sense of individualism, can long endure without knowing the meaning of Justice.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The emphasis upon humanity’s fallen nature, its sinfulness—and thus a warning against belief in human perfectibility through programs and practices. A positive note is sounded in Hawthorne, as well, articulated in words that Kirk took to heart in their essence: “In chaste and warm affections, humble wishes, and honest toil for some useful end, there is health for the mind, and quiet forthe heart, the prospect of a happy life, and the fairest hope of heaven.”
  • John Cardinal Newman: An emphasis upon the principle of aristocracy, the concept of loyalty to persons, and the sources of true authority. Newman was suffused with that sense of the vanity of worldly things which is highly characteristic of great conservatives.
  • Walter Bagehot: The introduction of a conservatism of reflection and enjoyment.
  • Henry Adams: The truth that much that is worthwhile can arise from the minds and writings of individuals who are otherwise censorious, mocking, and vain—even this individual, whom Russell Kirk referred to as “the most irritating person in American letters; and the most provocative writer, and the best historian, and one of the most penetrating critics of ideas.”
  • Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More: Demonstrated that classical humanism can be a living force for cultural regeneration, and that it is possible to be among the remnant who “are not looking for a brave new world, but instead seek to restore what once was, and so may be again.”
  • T. S. Eliot: The emphasis upon “the permanent things.” Also from Eliot: the concept of the “timeless moment,” those especially telling episodes in life where time and eternity intersect.

Thus fourteen souls whose words continue to live. Today, in a time when pleasant, cultured voices have been raised to encourage American’s to believe that there is no connection between the state of the soul and the state of the commonwealth, that the role of government is to keep people within bonds of perpetual childhood, and that tradition as a devil-word, it is plain that The Conservative Mind retains its relevance as one of the literary and historical touchstones for those who seek and value ordered freedom.

As Frank Meyer wrote in his review of this book in 1953, Kirk is owed a great debt for having “given us a deep, eloquent, and convincing restatement of the fundamental principles of conservatism.” For in The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk issued a call for all the verve, all the imagination, all the refusal to exist as a mere drone of commercial and political delusion, and all the prudential wisdom the rising generation has to offer. As Henry Adams said, in a remark often quoted by Kirk, the fun is in the process.  

James E. Person Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999). He is currently editing a selection of Kirk’s letters for publication.