In the 1950s and 1960s, Kirk wrote frequently for the New York Times. In the following excerpted article, “The Aim of the Conservative is to Keep the Best in Life,” (NYT, March 4, 1956, pg. SM6), the 38-year old Michiganian proclaimed his allegiance to the timeless principles of Socrates, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and C.S. Lewis. The continuity of the traditions of the West, he hoped (but remained unsure), might just trump the vicious ideologies and so-called progress of the modern world.
Russell Kirk, “The Aim of the Conservative is to Keep the Best in Life,” New York Times (March 4, 1956): SM6.
“My boyhood may be said to have been spent in the railway yards; at college, living on peanut butter and crackers, I hugged my poverty about me like a cloak; and I have not the slightest expectation of eventual worldly prosperity. If any young man is bent upon advancement, I advise him to enlist in some “liberal” undertaking, for the conservative element which survives in our country does not have wealth, or influence, or even means of expression.”
“The liberal, old-style or new style, swears by the evangel’s of progress: he thinks of society as a machine for attaining material aggrandizement, and of happiness as the gratification of mundane desires.”
“The American industrialist, by and large, has been a liberal, and so has the American labor organizer; they have different about means, rather than ends. I do not mean that no industrialists, or no union organizers, are conservatives; some are truly conservative, but they are exceptions. The session with economics—a Benthamite and Marxist obsession—which is oppressed nearly all discussion of the wants of Americans for a good many years, is only now beginning to give way to some serious discussion of what we really want from life, and of how we may keep life tolerable.”
“From the beginning, I was in Hawthorne’s camp. The modern “liberal” world, as I have come to understand it, is making its way straight toward what CS Lewis calls “the abolition of Man”—toward a society devoid of reverence, variety and the higher imagination, in which “everyone belongs to everyone else,” in which there is collectivism without community, equality without love.”
“Precisely what does the American conservative want to conserve? First of all, he wants to keep humanity human: he is determined not to allow men to be reduced to the sensual and equalitarian condition of Dr. Johnson’s all in a pasture, thinking, “here is this cow, and here is this grass: what more could I ask?” There is great reason to fear that the infatuation with material aggrandize meant which marks our generation is leading toward just that condition, in which we shall be starved for imagination and hope and love. Second, the conservative wants to protect that heritage of civilization which the painful labor of numberless generations of men has bequeathed to us, and which is now menaced by fanaticism and the craze for the new. The conservative knows that we are pygmies mounted on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than our ancestors only because of their support, and liable to tumble into the abyss if, presumptuously, we sneer at the wisdom of our ancestors. Third, the conservative seeks to protect the elaborate civil social edifice which, under Providence, has developed in America—our government of laws and not of men, our economy characterized by volition rather than compulsion, our institutions calculated to make a man his own master, our political system which prefers variety to centralized uniformity.… I am not disposed to exchange the manifest benefits of Christian civilization and American life for any New Morality or any New Order. We are afflicted by many moral and social evils, and there is every reason for the true conservative to turn his hand to prudent reform. Yet if worst comes to worst, I prefer the devil I know to the devil I don’t.”
“It appears to me that are more advanced “liberals” have now quite given up any concern for freedom of personality, and are endeavoring to persuade us, instead, to submit to her regime of life and death, a colorless mediocrity and monotony in society, and emptiness of heart, a poverty of imagination. They are no longer interested in Liberal education, or freedom of choice, or in asking themselves just what true human happiness amounts to. What, indeed, are our liberals about? They do not aspire to make the human person truly free, under God: their aspiration is to make us identical units in a monolithic society. To the representative modern liberal, the world is a very simple place, and man has only very simple material needs. With Hawthorne, I think that we live in a universe of mystery. I think that men are better than beasts, and that life is something more than the satisfaction of appetites. I think that variety and growth—not equality and uniformity—are the characteristics of a high civilization. Therefore I am a conservative. Very possibly I am on the losing side; I often think so. But, out of a curious perversity, I had rather lose with Socrates, let us say, than win with Lenin.”
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