by Bradley J. Birzer
As I continue to read through and digest the contemporary reviews of The Conservative Mind, I find I keep noticing certain common themes: 1) Few knew what to make of Kirk’s romantic style, though most reviewers appreciated it; 2) Catholics seem to have liked Kirk the most, seeing in him a latent Romanist; and 3) almost every reviewer found some flaw with Kirk’s list of conservatives, either through omission or commission.
The reviews, not surprisingly, often reveal more about the reviewers and the times than they do about Kirk and The Conservative Mind.
My favorite line is the last line of the last review quoted. Michael Oakeshott: Burke ”was not, indeed, a great composer at all; he was something much rarer, a great intellectual melodist whose tunes were all the sweeter because they owed so much to the intellectual folk-music of Europe.”
One could write much the same of Kirk.
Stuart Gerry Brown, Ethics 64 (October 1953): 63-65.
“Mr. Kirk wishes to revive Irving Babbitt’s approach to politics by a ‘return’ to ‘order,’ ‘decorum,’ ‘discipline,’ ‘aristocracy,’ and a faith that the state is the creature of Divine Providence.” (Page 63)
“Mr. Kirk, like Babbitt, finds in Burke the paragon of political wisdom and the most effective defense of tradition.” (Page 63)
“As for The Conservative Mind, it is tempting simply to say that Mr. Kirk has translated Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership into his own, inferior idiom and reissued it to nourish the complacency of the neoconservative coterie. But this would be in some measure unfair both to Mr. Kirk and to the neoconservatives. . . . he shows none of the attractive verve and braggadocio of a Peter Viereck—not anything of Viereck’s grasp of the contemporary problem.” (Page 64)
Francis E. McMahon, “Two Types of Mind,” America (June 27, 1953): 340.
“Russel [sic] Kirk is a professor at Michigan State College. In this well-written and scholarly history of British and American conservative thought since Edmund Burke, he has made an important contribution to a long-neglected field. Conservatism is emerging once more as a potent social force.” (Page 340)
“Enough has been said to indicate the tenor of the work. It will be judged by critics largely upon the basis of their own political and social philosophies. Most conservatives will applaud it. Most liberals will condemn it. There is a third group however, which will be constrained to make some extremely important distinctions. These are the Christian Democrats. Where the author is inclined to see only a desert waste, they see the emergence of a new historical era pregnant with possibilities for good. The noxious weeds which accompanied the birth of the democratic ideal, however, are still thriving. Prof. Kirk’s attempt to cut them down deserves much praise. But the democratic ideal itself must be preserved, improved and developed. His book would seem to be deficient on this score. A detailed appreciation of this work is beyond the scope of this review. But one might, in reading it, review the papal encyclicals of recent times, the writings of Maritain, Simon and Ducatillon, and Rev. Leo Ward’s admirable Christian Ethics. One will then understand why this book can be read with profit—but only if read with discernment.” (Page 341)
Guy A. Cardwell, “Reading and Writing: ‘True Conservatism’: Its Gods and Devils,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (June 21, 1953), 4B.
“Prof. Kirk’s present study will help the liberal, or the conservative, to a better understanding of what conservatism at a high level is like. This is a stanch, sometimes impassioned, defense of conservatism . . . . It will yield little comfort to the supporter fo the N.A.M. or the partisan for the Committee on Un-American Activities. Indeed, on surveying the American scene, Prof. Kirk describes the presidencies of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover as ‘years of vulgarity and presumption.’ Practical conservatism, he say, has degenerated among us into mere laudation of private enterprise. He has no kind of word for the rootless, irresponsible oligarchies spawned by democracy’s industrial capitalism.”
“But a good many of the conservative propositions, like many of the liberal, rest on unproved assumptions or have a disappointing way of sliding off into something resembling a mystique.”
D.J.B. Hawkins, “The Restoration of Social Stability,” The Month 12 (October 1954): 237-239.
“The book, therefore, is an account of the political thinking associated with the opposition to doctrinaire theories of equality in English-speaking countries from the time of the French Revolution. Mr. Kirk has perhaps exaggerated the extent to which this has been a rearguard action and has underestimated the moderating influence which it has been able to exercise. In any case the principles involved transcend the level of a party manifesto and belong to political philosophy.” (Page 237)
“Mr. Kirk agrees with St. Thomas and Locke in finding the safeguard of personal freedom in the institution of private property, and, more generally, calls for the restoration of the moral background of a sound political outlook, which must be very different from the complacent materialism of Bentham and his followers. Of Bentham he speaks with unusual but justified severity.” (Page 238)
“The book is an admirable theme for meditation. It enforces political truths which have too long been forgotten or obscured. It is a real contribution to the restoration of social stability and the recovery of that sobriety and dignity in politics which comes from a due sense of purpose within a context which transcends human passion.” (Page 239)
Samuel H. Beer, “Two Kinds of Conservatism,” London Observer (May 8, 1955).
“The Americans in this list represent an extraordinary sum of political failure.”
“The rest of Mr. Kirk’s conservatives are primarily literary and academic. American conservatism, in his sense of the word, has fought a losing battle from 1789, when the First Congress met and the French Revolution broke out.”
“I should say, the Republicans—if one forgets their ideas on the tariff—look very much like some variety of old-time British Liberal: trusting the automatic mechanism of the market, opposed to Government regulation of business, morally braced by the doctrine that what a man makes is ‘his own.’ It is inconceivable that Republicans should produce a booklet like ‘One Nation’ or a policy statement like the ‘Industrial Character.’ The duties of property have yet to be given a place in their propaganda.”
“In tune with his own hero, John Adams, they are likely to be stern and puritanical individualists, cultivating the moral and intellectual disciplines in superior isolation from their fellows, whom they deeply distrust. Mr. Kirk himself is very much one of them.”
“What that ethic lacks most strikingly is their optimism. Mr. Kirk fears the State. He fears democracy, especially the democracy of the great cities. He fears the instability of an expanding capitalist economy and the menace of the ‘free entrepreneur’ to the social order. In British terms, I submit, Mr. Kirk is not a Conservative, but a frightened Liberal. His is not the Liberalism of the entrepreneur, but that of the rentier.”
“Somewhere off in the wings, he locates a thin files of frightened Liberals, less vulgar and more cultivated than the others, but by no stretch of the imagination what the British mean by Conservatives.”
Michael Oakeshott, “Conservative Political Thought,” Spectator 193 (October 15, 1954), 473-474.
“Mr. Kirk, of Michigan State College, has devoted a long and vigorous book to an examination of this disposition as it has exhibited itself, mostly in respect of politics, in Great Britain and in the United States.” (Page 473)
“New circumstances during the last hundred and fifty years have provoked new formulations of conservative principles and fresh attempts to show that the conservative disposition had something valuable to contribute in the conduct and understanding of human affairs. But everywhere conservatism reflects the image of Burke.” (Page 473)
“The English reader who is already familiar with such writers as Coleridge, Maine, Lecky, Mallock and J.F. Stephen will nevertheless find much to admire in what Mr. Kirk has to say about them.” (Page 473)
“So many extravagant hopes have now been shaken, or have already collapsed, that the great conservative thinkers of the nineteenth century seem more than justified in many of their fears. They were not mere reactionaries out of touch with what was happening; and they were by no means so intellectually incompetent in the management of their own beliefs as their opponents supposed.” (Page 473)
“The over-activity which marks modern European civilisation [sic], and to which we owe many of the comforts and all the discomforts of the world we live in, represents a disposition altogether opposed to the conservative—a supremely uneconomical disposition for which pieties are fleeting and loyalties conspicuously evanescent.” (Page 473)
“But this broad survey of the conservative disposition does not avoid a certain confusion. What I think Mr. Kirk never makes clear is that the conservative disposition in politics (that is, in respect of government and the instruments of government) does not need to be buttressed by the kind of speculative beliefs (such as a belief in a Providential Order) which the conservatives in general has often favored, and that political conservatism is not only intelligible in an age of incessant innovation and ever accelerating change, but is particularly appropriate in the circumstances. He perceives the isolation of the modern conservative, but he does not perceive that this springs, in part, from the odd intellectual access in which the political conservative has been asked to call upon general beliefs which, whether or not they are valid, are certainly redundant. If you does not make clear how unwarranted is the assumption that there is something in this unless dispositions in respect of government are the same as those displayed in the current activities of its subjects. There is indeed no inconstancy and being conservative in politics and “radical” and everything else. Mr. Kirk is not responsible for this confusion; Burke himself, more than anyone else, impressed upon modern conservatism. And on account of his speculative moderation and his clear recognition of politics as a specific activity, it would perhaps have been more fortunate if the modern conservative had paid more attention to Hume and less to Burke. However, Mr. Kirk is correct in perceiving that the followers of Burke outnumber those of Hume, and this examination of the tradition that sprang from Burke is both timely and acute. It is conducted with becoming moderation, and reminds us of much that we are apt to forget too easily. Nevertheless, I cannot think that his reading of Burke is altogether satisfactory. For, in these pages, Burke is presented as an initiator and as the formulator of the ‘canons of modern conservatism’; his works are described as ‘the charter of conservatism.’ It is, of course, true that Burke was provoked by an acute situation and that he had to meet opponents who occupied carefully chosen ground; but the disposition they represented had already been fully revealed in seventeenth-century England, and Burke’s thoughts were composed of an appropriate selection of long-current and well-tried notions. For example, when he said, ‘Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world,’ he used a word with a technical meaning that invoked a manner of reasoning characteristic of the Middle Ages. But further, Burke was not the formulator of a set of propositions to which his followers could dedicate themselves with assurance. He was not, indeed, a great composer at all; he was something much rarer, a great intellectual melodist whose tunes were all the sweeter because they owed so much to the intellectual folk-music of Europe.” (Page 474).
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.