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stoicism supportingAs I prepare to celebrate our New England holiday of Thanksgiving, I’ve been reading quite a bit of Russell Kirk’s less-well known articles from the 1950s.  One of my favorite has been one that appeared in the Georgia Review (1954).

Here are few tidbits from it.  Kirk spoke as poignantly to his audience fifty-six years ago, as he does to us now.

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow conservatives.  Enjoy the wisdom of a previous generation—specifically from a a man of Puritan background who converted to Catholicism in 1964.


All from: Russell Kirk, “The American Conservative Character,” The Georgia Review 8 (Fall 1954): 249-60.

“I am by no means happy, therefore, to find various journalists and critics, writing of the ‘New Conservatives’ in the United States—as if they were a coherent sect of political economists.  The cardinal principle of conservative thought is the conviction that new systems and structures incline dangerously toward presumption; the true conservative wants no share in an undertaking that is wholly new.” [p. 249]

“I hope, then, that our resurgent American conservatism will not be truly new, looking toward a wave of the future, but rather a genuine revival of intelligent interest in the old liberties and duties of American society.  I hope, moreover, that it will be not merely a shop-and-till conservatism, a conservatism of timidity, but instead a conservatism of imagination, generous and charitable.  I hope it will not be a clumsy muddling through our national problems, in contempt of principle, but on the contrary a conservatism illuminated by the wisdom of our ancestors and inspired by a revived consciousness of the moral nature of society.  We Americans were from the first a people endowed with strong conservative prejudices, immeasurably influenced y the spirit of religious veneration, firm in a traditional morality, hostile to arbitrary power whether exercised by a monarch or a mob, zealous to guard against centralization, sedulously eager to retain prescriptive rights, convinced of the immense value of the institution of private property.  The best men in our political life, like Calhoun and like Lincoln, generally desired to be considered conservatives. . . . We have submitted ourselves with good will to the most successful conservative device in the history of politics, the Federal Constitution, so that it is not accident that we now constitute the chief conservative power among the nations.” [pg. 250]

“I do not really want a new conservatism, but rather an illumination and renewed recognition of the lofty conservative concepts and realities which have sustained our nation so long.”  [pg. 250]

“The corruption of the meaning of important words has been one of the most ominous and confusion symptoms of the decay of the higher learning in our time.  We can get nowhere in politics, or in any other field of endeavor, until we can define our terms.” [pg. 251]

“But Mr. Schlesinger believes that the New Conservatives—his term, not mine, for I do not think that there really is sufficient coherence of opinion and endeavor among our thinking conservatives to justify their being designated as a sect—suffer from impracticality and an historical confusion. . . . Mr. Schlesinger slips into the errors of the Jacobins—especially the Jacobin passion for simplicity.  The dominant aspiration of the French revolutionaries was for simplicity of structure and concept; it was no mere coincidence that they detested gothic architecture.  And Mr. Schlesinger, in his desire to reduce the complexity of American politics to black-and-white abstractions, lops away from his concept of the contesting forces in our country every branch or twig that does not suit his a priori system, so that when he has finished we are left with the Hard, Practical Industrialist confronting the Civil-Liberties, Democratic Liberal.” [pg. 252]

“. . . . and at last, after such a series of ingenious bounds, he leaves us with the interesting alternatives of serving Mammon or serving The People.”

“Conservatives are not merely a sect of political economists, but rather a number of persons, all of classes and occupations, whose view of life is reverential, and who tend to be guided by the wisdom of their ancestors, rather than by abstract speculation.” [pg. 253]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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Published: Nov 24, 2010
Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was the author of some thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and many short stories. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when in 1998 it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”
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3 replies to this post
  1. Brad, happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. It is a fine selection from Saint Russell and the last sentence is alone worth more than many a modern political-science degree.

    Stephen Masty

  2. Brad,

    Here's a footnote to these wonderful Kirk quotations. My political theory mentor at Hobart College was a terrific teacher, Maynard Smith. He noticed that although I professed to being a kind of Hubert Humphrey liberal in 1959, Maynard saw that I was ambivalent about Lincoln and really didn't appreciate much about Woodrow Wilson. He said one day, "John, you should try reading Russell Kirk or one of the other "new conservatives." He gave me The Conservative Mind, which I finally got around to reading in 1966, almost finished with my PhD. It changed my life, and Russell of course became mentor and very good friend. These quotations bring back the energy I felt from him from a very early reading.

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