by Bradley J. Birzer
Dear TIC Readers,
William Henry Chamberlain, “The Bookshelf: A Study of Conservative Thought and Its Progress in the Last Two Hundred Years,” Wall Street Journal (June 10, 1953), 6.
“At least a climate has now been created were the case for conservatism may be expected to receive a reasonable and even sympathetic hearing. This case is stated in scholarly yet clear and persuasive fashion by Prof. Russell Kirk.”
“Prof. Kirk proves that conservatives are not old fogies or Col. Blimps, but men who wrestle with eternal problems of life, morals and politics and possess as much intellectual depth and integrity as their radical opponents. This is a lesson well worth teaching in America.”
Colin Clark, “English and American Conservatism, I: The Basic Principles Enunciated by Mr. Kirk,” The Tablet (October 9, 1954): 341–342.
“It is hard to be patient with those (including some Professors of Politicks) who say that for the Conservative Party to have any doctrine would be doctrinaire, that Conservatism is what the Conservative Party does, and that it is the duty of all good Conservatives to support it. Perhaps it is not surprising that the really good systematic exposition of Conservative thought and principles, so long awaited, should have been written, not by and Englishman, but by an American. So many of the Englishmen who might have written it would have been compromised in their Conservatism through having supported the Conservative Party. Mr. Kirk writes, not only with thoroughness and sincerity, but also with real eloquence and indeed, at times, with inspiration.” (341)
“But we must recognize the importance of this step which he is taking. He has irrevocably made Conservatism a ‘middle’ party. . . . we must then go on to explain that Conservatism at any rate the Conservatism of Mr. Kirk and his followers, is firmly opposed to such a society. Without going to the logical extreme of a caste society we can consider our own fairly recent past. An eighteenth-century Tory believe in a society which was largely, though not quite completely, Hereditarian. He took it for granted that the great majority of men would remain, and be quite happy to remain, throughout life in that social and economic status in which they were born; and while there was a certain element of social promotion, from gentlemen to noblemen, from lawyers (I apologize to the present day legal profession) the gentlemen, and a few opportunities for tradesmen’s sons to enter the professions, and for laborers to become tradesmen, he thought of such promotions as gradual and exceptional. His was a predominantly rural society, and he took it for granted that it must remain so. He was an Anglican, a High Churchman, and no bones about it. While he might not wish to persecute dissenters or Catholics, as his steward predecessors had done, nevertheless it was important to prevent them holding any public or teaching office, or military commission. To the Tory, Church and State were one. The most important duty of the Tory was to defend the Established Church. This eighteenth–century Toryism is not at all to Mr. Kirk’s liking. ‘Conservatism,’ to Mr. Kirk, is a fusion of Toryism and Whiggism, a fusion brought about at a single historical moment, in the white heat of the year 1790—and the hand which brought it about was that of Burke, whom Mr. Kirk treats almost as a demigod. The sentiment is also shared by a large number of the younger Conservative thinkers in England. Mr. Kirk discountenances 18th-century Toryism, and follows Burke with delight–here we see the American mind going off on its fevered emotional jaunt—because the Tories were ‘oppressors’ of Americans and Indians, while Burke defended their liberties.… Prof. Feiling describes Burke’s oratory as ‘raving vulgarity’; perhaps a little overstated, but probably nearer the truth in the apotheosis which Mr. Kirk seeks to prepare for him.” (Page 342)
“But these characteristics do not affect the justice of their cause, and the fact seem to be that the American Revolution was an unjustifiable rebellion against lawful authority, an authority, moreover, which was supported by a large part of the American population itself. Unhistorical views of the American Revolution—filled with conviction by Americans, on grounds of expediency by English writers—may have been largely responsible for giving Burke too prominent a place, and the eighteenth-century Tories to discreditable a place, in the structure of our thought.… Our ancestors, of both parties, saw the unquestioned individual ownership of property as one of the basic concepts of society.” (Page 342)
“Of all the English traditions which the Conservative wishes to conserve, the poetic tradition is the greatest and most characteristic.” (Page 342)
“The reason why the Englishman’s life is so incomprehensible to Europeans, and is only understood with considerable difficulty by Americans, is because so much of it is an expression, in traditional and sometimes rather beautiful ritual, of ideas which he rarely bothers to express in words. Surely it is for this reason, above all others, that England is the home of the still living Conservatism, a concept which has virtually disappeared in Europe, and is only a week and artificially–tended shoot in America. These profound and elusive truths about England have penetrated deeply into Mr. Kirk’s mind. It is obvious that he feels at home in England, and understands English culture better than many Englishmen do.” (Page 342)
Colin Clark, “English and American Conservatism, II: The Opposing Philosophies,” The Tablet (October 16, 1954): 365-366.
“But it is amazing how completely the principal point can be missed. No reference is made to Bentham’s profound (but concealed) atheism and his hatred of Christianity, which played a big part in the formulation of all his theories.” (Page 365)
“Mr. Kirk is naïve enough to believe that Marxists, either old or new, desire and equalitarian form of society.” (Page 365)
“Quite so: but once you admit departure from the hereditary principle, there are no natural limits to the process. Admission to the ‘natural aristocracy’ is claimed and one in turn by Nonconformist clergy, journalists, and trade union leaders; if the next generation decides that its natural leaders are to be found among footballers, radio comedians, comic strip artists and astrologers can Mr. Kirk or any other neo-Burkean give us any criterion of political philosophy for deciding whether these still constitute a ‘natural aristocracy’”? (Page 366)
“Mr. Kirk gives full illustration, for he is invariably in trouble over this economics.… Mr. Kirk is in trouble with his economics throughout.” (Page 366)
Colin Clark, “English and American Conservatism, III: Religion and Culture,” The Tablet (October 23, 1954), 394-396.
“Mr. Kirk to the discussion on the rights of property very skillfully over the ponds as Sonora of American philosophy—the property rights of slave owners in the early nineteenth century. Quite firmly, he comes down against them. He uses somewhat different language, but in effect says that when the right of property conflicts with the natural right of men to freedom, the right of property does not subsist.” (Page 394)
“Here again, Mr. Kirk’s spoils his case by overstatement, particularly when he refers to the ecclesiastical reforms of the early nineteenth century.… One almost expects to find Mr. Kirk defending ecclesiastical pluralism.… But Mr. Kirk does not quite seem to see the point. It must be very difficult for an American, even though he’d be an Episcopalian himself, to grasp the unprecedented nature of the relationship between Parliament and the Church of England [n.b. This is not true; Kirk was never a member of the Episcopal Church or any of its affiliates--BjB].” (Pages 394–395)
“With great coverage, Mr. Kirk opens his book with an attack on Hamilton. He is entirely right. The disintegration of what might have been a genuine Conservative movement came earlier in the United States than in England, and came more thoroughly. For Hamilton not merely condoned, but advocated and sought with all the force of his powerful personality, the two things most destructive of genuine Conservatism, industrialization and centralization.… Mr. Kirk shows that Conservatism is entirely incompatible with the impersonal life of modern large–scale industry.” (Page 395)
“Mr. Kirk’s American Conservatives had a discouraging time, and it is a discouraging story he has to tell of them.” (Page 395)
Colin Clark, “English and American Conservatism, IV: Rationalism and Faith,” The Tablet (October 30, 1954), 421–422.
“The argument against rationalism in politics cannot really be sustained by a loyal American. The most magnificent and successful example of political rationalism in the world is the United States Constitution. A group of learned, practical, and essentially humble men pooled their knowledge of history and politics and sat down to write out on paper a permanent constitution for ordering the affairs of a new country. It is one of the Englishman’s most irritating habits to dilate two Americans on the superiority of Britain’s unwritten Constitution and parliamentary method. The British parliamentary system, to an independent outside observer, seems to be in a rather serious state of decay, and many farsighted English Conservatives I’m now beginning to realize how valuable it would be to have a proper written Constitution. With an unwritten Constitution and the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of parliamentary majorities, Britain stands wide open to the seizure of power by a totalitarian group.” (Page 421)
“Rigid adherence to ancient customs and practices is a certain recipe for failure in business. Throughout history, the businessman has been the innovator, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but success in business and Conservatism apparently do not go together. In other words, a truly Conservative society must consent to be a poor one. The whole story is a melancholy one, of Conservatism decaying in Britain, and never really having taken root in America. And what has been the reason for this? That its ideas were inherently wrong? Some perhaps, but not all. The vigor and skill of its assailants? Only in part. No—the reason lies much deeper. It is that Conservatism began as an essentially religious movement, and allowed its faith to decay.” (Page 421)
“We need a sense, however, not only of divine intent, but also of divine law. After all, the moral law is a concrete and unchanging thing. That Conservatism advocates no fixed and immutable body of dogma. Mr. Kirk boasts this may be wise, so far his particular political measures are concerned. But in so far as Conservatives set out to base their political principles on the moral law, some part of their dogma must be absolutely fixed and immutable. The eighteenth-century Tories, and the Burkean wags, understood the moral law clearly enough. They resisted with all the strength at their command, and rightly, all efforts to read write it, whether on the part of the Jacobins, of Bentham, of Hegel, or of John Stuart Mill.” (Page 421)
“The steady weakening of the bond between the Conservative Party and the Church of England has been described. In America, the disintegration of the Protestant faith proceeded a great deal faster.” (Page 421)
“Mr. Kirk admits that it ‘now seems possible that with in two or three generations the majority of Church community in the United States—possibly the majority of the whole population—may be Roman Catholics.’ But he does not seem entirely happy about it. He falls into the condescending error by saying that Catholicism is beneficial because it is in neatly Conservative. If we take this sentence literally, it must mean that he is putting his whole political beliefs first and his religion second. And, in fact, while Catholicism teaches us to conserve some things, it also teaches the necessity for quick and drastic innovation in others. Mr. Kirk finds it difficult to understand Newman, whom he oddly describes as ‘Calvinistic.’ The list of English Conservative writers of the nineteenth century, whom Mr. Kirk quotes with approval, shows a curious record of faiths. Maine’s faith was apparently a very uncertain one. Sir James Stephen was a Calvinist so stern and uncompromising that he had almost reached a position of godless stoicism. Herbert Spencer was a categorical unbeliever. (Few people could have for seeing that the intellectual lion of the 1880s would be so completely forgotten now, in respect of his philosophy as well as of his economics and social science.) Lecky was a violent modernist, who thought that Christianity should be rewritten to remove the miraculous and supernatural element.” (Page 421)
“Mr. Kirk fully approves of Dean Ingle, and it is not surprising therefore that Chesterton and Belloc are dismissed in a single paragraph, as mere auxiliaries ‘outside the true line of descent and Conservative ideas, sentimentally democratic and economically fanciful.’ Mr. Kirk also discusses to American the Conservative thinkers of this period. Adams lacked Inge’s scholarship and eventually drifted into a red ticketless pseudo–scientific determinism about ‘inevitable phases of human evolution.’ Irving Babbitt, on the other hand, was a strange but spiritually minded as the, and believer in Free Will, though he did not support any cap church. The book is with an account of Santayana, who (apart from his mistrust of economics, the hallmark of the true Conservative) was a real profit. What could be more vivid and true then his description of the proletariat as ‘a vast crowd of exiles in their own country, would have nothing in common but the mere physical and vital powers of man… they have no arts, no religion, no friends, no prospects; work for them is evil, so that their chief effort is to diminish work and increase wages.’ But then Mr. Kirk goes on to disfigure his final pages by making an extraordinarily mouth doozy and judgment. Efforts to improve wages and material conditions are bound to fail in the long run, because “the proletariat multiply like wild animals.” The truth is that in England, first the educated classes, and then a generation later the manual workers, stopped multiplying, because Dean Inge and other Christian leaders told them to stop—and in consequence, England’s proud place in the world has now been here retrievable he lost.” (Page 422)
Norman Thomas, “Books are News,” United Nations World (August 1953), 34-35.
“The conservatism he hymns is peculiar to Britain and America.” (Page 34)
“Professor Kirk’s enthusiasms are provocative but not convincing; his history selective but not impeccable; his criticism of a conventional liberalism weightier far than his own outline of a conservative program.” (Page 34)
“His opinions of trade unions, socialism, the income tax, the causes of wars, his uncertain grasp of economics show failure to cope with reality.” (Page 34)
“When he has given us an eloquent bit of special pleading, which is, in part, a false, and, in sum total, a dangerously inadequate, philosophy for our times.” (Page 34-35)
“Generation to Generation,” Time (July 6, 1953), 88-92.
“Kirk’s six canons suggest an appraisal of his books couched appropriately in conservative understatement: it has an interest that is not mainly antiquarian.” (Page 92)
Clinton Rossiter, The American Political Science Review: 868-870.
“The Conservative Mind is a study of political and social conservatism written, be it noted, by an unabashed conservative. Professor Russell Kirk of Michigan State, who already enjoys a solid reputation as historian of ideas things to his incisive off of Roanoke, has brought together a series of essays about British and American conservative thinkers in a book marked by candor, discipline, erudition, and grace.… The sum of these assays is a study that must certainly be it knowledge one of the most valuable contributions to intellectual history of the past decade.” (Page 868)
“Prof. Kirk stand for conservatism is staunch and uncompromising. It is refreshing to meet and historian of political and social ideas willing to go on record.” (Page 869)
“It should be said in the author’s behalf that he never fires one of these broadsides without carefully training his guns. His scholarship is manifestly of the highest order. In dealing with this subject, especially in dealing with it in so clear and committed a spirit, Prof. Kirk has laid himself open to serious attack. Limitations of space do not permit a full catalog of possible chinks in his armor, but certainly it would seem proper to point out what may well be the most serious defect of the book: be inclusive assumption, occasionally made explicit but never really supported by conclusive evidence, that I’ll are present discontents may be traced back to the forces of lustful, shallow, your religious liberalism loosed upon the West by the French capital revolution. The historian of ideas has a deep obligation not to put too much faith in the power of ideas.” (Page 869)
David W. Knepper, “Left, Right or Center?,” Christian Century (November 4, 1953): 1262.
“Prof. Kirk’s excellent treatment of conservative thought from Burke to Santayana should be read by all who champion conservatism as well as by all who fancy themselves of other inclination.”
“Studies in Tradition,” The Economist (February 26, 1955): 703.
“The difficulty inherent in such a task is that conservative thought is usually meaningless save is the response to a reforming or revolutionary challenge; so that a satisfactory account of conservative arguments involves an almost equally thorough examination of radical arguments. Otherwise, it is like hearing one in of the telephone conversation. Mr. Kirk, in this series of intelligent and illuminating essays, overcomes this difficulty with skill.”
“Perhaps this somewhat fictitious continuity is small objection to a book which remains, in its essence, a collection of lively critical essays, worth reading for their own sake despite marked political prejudices and occasional errors of fact and interpretation. The initial study of Burke is the best in a book of many excellences.”
Gordon Keith Chalmers, “Goodwill is Not Enough,” New York Times Book Review (May 17, 1953).
“The tendency of this scholarly book is especially salutary at the present time. Exception might be taken to one of its general lines of judgment, when the question arises over placing Coleridge, Paul Elmer More and T.S. Eliot on the broad central highway of the conservative tradition of Burke.”
“The Conservative Mind is history as well as argument. Familiar decades and political theories and controversies which usually, in our lifetime, have been illuminated by a searchlight from the left, are here revealed in unfamiliar highlights and shadows by Mr. Kirk’s dexter beam.”
Lynn Harold Hough, Religion in Life (Winter 1954-1955): 150-152.
“This profound and learned book has had a remarkable reception and an unusual sale. It is written in a graphic and often early and style. The author buttresses his conclusions by close analysis of source materials covering a wide field of investigation. Here we meet with a refreshing contrast to those books which substitute clever epigrams for demanding and disciplined study.” (Pages 150–151)
“Only those who are loyal to the best in the past are to be trusted to deal with the evils which the past has hurled into the present. Civilization is a rare and precious thing. The conservative knows how costly it is, and he seeks to secure even necessary changes with caution, with patience, and with a deep sense of reverence. Dr. Kirk feels all this so deeply that sometimes he seems a little casual about great evils.” (Page 151)
“Many other brilliant minds contribute to this volume, which has all the good qualities of an anthology of conservatism and which rises from quotation to clear and discriminating analysis. No thoughtful American can afford to miss this provocative and fruitful book.” (Pages 151–152)
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.