By Daniel McCarthy.
Conservatism is a philosophy of love, which perhaps explains why it is so little understood in our time. Half a millennium ago Niccolò Machiavelli weighed whether it is better to be loved or feared. Those emotions—unlike their counterparts hate and contempt—were foundations on which a principate or republic could be built. Machiavelli believed fear was the better bet, and successors from Thomas Hobbes on down reckoned likewise.
Edmund Burke took up the question as delicately as he did all philosophical subjects. He was well aware of fear’s political logic, but he also knew that love—of a country or a queen or the best we can imagine of either—could civilize our otherwise savage race. The moral imagination improves our raw animal nature; love succeeds fear, and man becomes human.
The Conservative Mind is an education in love. And loss. The opening pages of Russell Kirk’s masterpiece show us the ruins which are all that remains of Burke’s childhood home. Something that Ireland should have cherished (and not only Ireland) has been demolished and forgotten. But The Conservative Mind is a reminder—an essay in rebuilding Burke’s house.
We are visual creatures. Machiavelli thought this a weakness: everyone sees what a thing appears to be, but only those who touch it know truly what it is. We can’t touch our memories, however, yet our memories touch our heart. A man wants to see the woman he loves, even if all he has is a photograph. The chance to see (and even touch) the place where Burke was born would be a chance to grow in affection for him and his wisdom.
But without the building itself, we see and feel nothing—unless some artist gives us its image, in words if not pictures. Then we have something to remember, not only in the mind’s eye but in the heart.
Any superficially literate person can read Edmund Burke or read The Conservative Mind, but the philosopher and Kirk’s portrait of his philosophy must be felt—by the heart not the hand—to be understood. This is why poor souls who have been trained to read insensibly, to look at books as nothing but piles of facts and conveyor-belt arguments—or worse, as crime-scene evidence of “privilege” and “victimhood”—gain little from 400, 500, or 600 pages of Kirk’s book. (Its length depends on the edition.)
Leo Strauss taught ways to “read between the lines.” Yet his own followers not infrequently have difficulty with works that must be read the way music is heard.
Kirk’s critics say The Conservative Mind isn’t real scholarship or history; it’s not philosophy; is it even conservative? Many of the figures Kirk praises are heterodox, some are even “classical liberals.” There’s no dictionary definition of “conservatism” here. Why won’t Kirk tell us what the card-carrying conservative must believe, or reason down from first principles to the essential doctrines?
Why isn’t this portrait, this symphony, a microwave manual instead?
Like many a portrait or symphony, but never an appliance instruction sheet or party platform, The Conservative Mind is a love letter. Kirk has written the letter to his subjects as much as about them. But he’s written it on his readers’ behalf—giving them words through which to articulate their own love for conservative thinkers from Burke to George Santayana and T. S. Eliot. That includes language which conveys an intellectual appreciation for them. Yet it also includes, like a good portrait, a sense of their character and contexts. A reader who comes to The Conservative Mind looking to be persuaded by arguments or to devour facts about conservatives and conservatism is misguided. You don’t read a love letter for facts or to get reasoned into a feeling—not unless you feel something in the first place.
Burke did not want the love associated with chivalry to be replaced by the barren logic of sophisters, economists, and calculators. Such naive reasoning, whether in the form of arguments for efficiency or arguments for social justice, could not supply the passions that bind a society together. Even Machiavelli knew better than to substitute Machiavellian rationality for love or fear—and if it does displace love, then when rationalism fails fear is all that’s left.
When Kirk was born in 1918, the rational, liberal world of the nineteenth century had already collapsed. The vicious regimes that rose to power in Europe during Kirk’s childhood made force and fear the support even for their perverted proclamations of love, whether of glory or the State or the Volk. And if the impersonal, humanitarian “love” of Communism was seductive on paper to the young and immature at heart of all ages, from the very first terror and violence were the foundation of Communist practice.
There was no real love for what was traditional or civilized to be found in fascism, Nazism, or Communism. They were all ideologies of the new. And in America there was a New Deal, which may not have aspired to totalitarianism, but nonetheless substituted rational, bureaucratic, centralized welfarism for the neighborly, familial, and charitable dependencies that had long been characteristic of America. Planning would deliver what love could not.
The Second World War continued the work of the first. Communism emerged from the conflict vastly enlarged, and although fascism and Nazism were stamped out, the militarized liberalism that triumphed did not portend a restoration of love. Ironically, the only thing that compelled the new scientific, commercial, military-industrial order to cherish religion and the West’s pre-scientific inheritance was the threat from the godless Communist East.
Liberalism, even at its postwar zenith, was deficient in the ability to command loyalty or inspire sacrifice—it had to turn to the memory of God and the old civilization, both threatened by the Reds, to find an effective source of legitimacy. Liberalism’s new machine civilization, which promised freedom from fear, could not dispense with whatever love was left over from the human order that preceded it.
Kirk lived among the machines: he worked for Ford, he taught at “Behemoth U.”, and he served alongside conscripts of dubious character at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground for chemical and biological weapons during the Good War.
But then he went to St. Andrews, where he studied Burke and the successors to his thought. He wrote the dissertation that began as “The Conservatives’ Rout” and was published in 1953 as The Conservative Mind. The noun in the book’s title should not be misinterpreted: “mind” here means the total psyche, not just the consciously rational part.
It’s a book about authors, some of whom were statesmen, too. But politics recedes over the course of the volume, which ends with critics, philosophers, and poets like Irving Babbitt, Santayana, and Eliot. This might seem to be evidence of the “rout,” as Burkean conservatism disappears from government and becomes a tradition in letters instead. Yet it’s not a retreat: when Burke condemned the French Revolution the civilization of Europe (and the newborn United States) remained healthy enough that its greatest need was a cure for a political infection. Today the gangrene is in the marrow, and the deeper treatments of poets and philosophers are most urgent. Unless they do their work, the statesman can hardly do his. They have to recover a vision of love, so citizens and leaders know an alternative to being ruled and ruling by fear and lust.
Kirk never intended The Conservative Mind to meet the task alone. It is a curated guide to other authors who will, as a whole, supply a more complete picture. Kirk’s book is more than an index, of course—but its function as an index, or conservatism’s table of contents, is invaluable.
Because the lessons of The Conservative Mind are not simple, it’s a book that still teaches new things seven decades after it was first published. It recently helped me bring into focus two distinct claimants to the name of conservatism—the conservatism of loss and the conservatism of possession.
Kirk was careful to distinguish a serious conservatism from a mere defense of the “haves” against the “have nots.” An image of avarice that remains in my mind is one that Kirk invoked in more than one work, that of “the dragon Fafnir lying upon his hoard of gold” hissing, “Let me rest: I lie in possession!”
Yet there are subtler forms of the conservatism of possession. When Alexis de Tocqueville warned against “individualism” in Democracy in America, he did not just mean the social atomism that is all too familiar today. Rather he meant a retreat from public engagement into private life, a world in which one’s cares hardly extend beyond family and friends: a walled Epicurean garden, or something like it.
Some conservatives have built lives of great personal satisfaction behind such walls, and they resent hearing about the depredations that America suffers beyond them. They do not believe that they can lose what they presently enjoy, and they resent as doomsayers those who tell them otherwise. In their minds, the healthy bubbles in which they live remain the nation’s norm, and it’s pathological for other conservatives to talk about America’s pathologies. (At a recent presidential debate, one candidate spoke passionately about the nation’s maladies, only for a rival to accuse him of being down on America.)
This conservatism of possession entails a failure to grapple with tragedy, and so in the end it is not conservative at all. A limb cannot remain healthy if the tree is dying, and our civilization will die if we do not think and act with the utmost attention to our roots, not just our own branches.
The conservatism of possession is a conservatism ruled by anxiety, a flight from what Virgil described as the lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, the sorrowful side of life and the reminders of our mortal condition—or, in short, tragedy.
The conservatism of loss, by contrast, finds joy in the acceptance of tragedy. To feel loss is to remember what was once loved, and still is even in its absence. This deepens the care for what we still have, in the awareness that it will slip from our touch sooner if we take what—and whom—we love for granted. The conservatism of loss is not nostalgic or fearful of the future, though that’s how its critics see it. It’s rather a conservatism that unites the living and the dead, the present and the absent, each giving substance to the other.
The vivid images of men long dead that open Chapter IV of The Conservative Mind, “Romantics and Utilitarians,” capture the conservatism of loss poignantly. Walter Scott is crossing the Mound in Edinburgh after a debate with Whigs on juridical reform. His opponents walk alongside him and carry on their partisan repartee. “But,” quotes J. G. Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, “his feelings had been moved to an extent far beyond their apprehension: he exclaimed, ‘No, no—’tis no laughing matter: little by little, whatever your wishes may be, you will destroy and undermine until nothing of what makes Scotland Scotland shall remain.” Then, Kirk adds, “he turned his face to the wall of the Mound to hide his tears.”
Kirk’s conservatism was the conservatism of loss—not of rout or retreat, and certainly not despair, but a conservatism that treasures what is gone as well as what we have. Our civilization of love, the age of chivalry, is dead. Yet the dead are with us still.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review and vice president for the Collegiate Network at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
The Russell Kirk Center will celebrate the 70th anniversary of The Conservative Mind (published in 1953) in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2023. The event is open to the public and tickets are available here.
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