by Mark Henrie
It is a commonplace that the defining characteristic of that characteristically modern literary form, the novel, is a concern for the revelation of the inner life of the ordinary man. Hence, the frequent use at first of the device of diaries or letters (e.g. in Richardson’s Clarissa and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) culminating in the stream of consciousness style of Joyce. This focus of attention stands in contrast to the classical concern of the epic with the external deeds of the extraordinary man. The modern psyche hungers to identify itself with a protagonist, and ashamedly eschews the implicit judgment against the prosaic rendered by the exemplary life of the hero. The modern self seeks to have its undemanding gestures of sentimentality confirmed as natural, even praiseworthy, and expects to see even bourgeois virtue revealed as hypocritical inauthenticity. In its critical mood, the modern self seeks to rummage beneath the public deeds of conventionally heroic figures to discover below the “real,” all-toohuman, private man. Thereby, the modern self finds reassurance in its own mediocrity and moral failure. The tell-all biography is a special delectation for moderns.
In The Sword of Imagination (1995), his autobiography and his last book, the late Russell Kirk (1918-1994) completed a lifetime of chastening the unruly passions and interests of modern men. In that book, a reader in search of confessional display and melancholy introspection is quickly confounded, as the dean of the conservative intellectual movement in America recounts a life of much incident, both public and private, a life, as he calls it, of “literary conflict.” And yet, as written, it remains a life in which the figure of Kirk stands at a distance, just beyond our grasp in his decorous equanimity. It is a life of formal reserve, propriety in the midst of domestic happiness; and it is a life that ends in quiet gratitude for the graces which are acknowledged to be such, unmerited. So little does Kirk’s memoir meet our modern expectation of the form that we are perplexed: why go to the trouble to write a memoir, only to hide one’s “authentic” self behind a mask of eighteenth-century pious platitudes?
Most extraordinarily, a modern reader is confounded by Kirk’s decision to write his memoirs in the third person, thereby definitively frustrating the hunger for novelistic self-disclosure. Surely—one can hear the irritated objection—this is simply impossible, this is affectation gone too far. To some critics, this last stylistic choice constituted a kind of proof that Kirk could be dismissed as no thinker, but only a poseur practicing an elaborate form of the “Tory harrumph.” The style of Kirk’s prose—the meandering sentences, the unattributed references to Bunyan, the promiscuous use of aphorisms and epigrams, the sheer, untroubled confidence of the historical and theoretical assertions—is certainly a provocation to the contemporary academic mind. His ornate prose is often a stumbling block even for those who come to Kirk’s writings with an open mind. But rather than dismissing the message because of the medium, perhaps it would be wiser to consider Kirk’s provoking style in a different light— as a prompting to inquiry.
For there remains a larger “Kirk Problem” to be resolved, nearly a decade after his death; it is a problem about categorization. What exactly was the nature of Kirk’s project? What kind of thinker and writer was he? The Conservative Mind (1953), Kirk’s major achievement, is at one level a work of historical scholarship. But as it purports to be a history of normative political theories, a normative dimension cannot be ignored. And when we examine the rest of Kirk’s large corpus, we find familiar essays, reminiscences, literary criticism, local histories and grand histories, character sketches— even ghost stories and textbooks. With little variation, the style is always the same. What was Kirk attempting to effect with his idiosyncratic writing? To what was he responding? How might his writings constitute a response?
Even if we restrict ourselves to Russell Kirk’s scholarship, ought we to consider The Conservative Mind as a work of political theory? If so, it is political theory of an eccentric sort. The book begins with an encapsulation of “conservative thought” in six canons. But these appear to be yoked by no logical necessity, and none of them has more than an indirect relationship to political forms and institutions. The canons have none of the reductive clarity of the terms in which one can consider the development of, say, liberalism: parliamentary representation, the protection of rights, the priority of property, etc. As Kirk moves through his account, it is even evident that various of his conservative minds violate one or another of the canons.
Ought we instead to consider The Conservative Mind as a work of intellectual history? Again, it would be a very odd contribution to that literature. Kirk troubles himself not at all with demonstrating chains of intellectual influence, content with adducing something like a family resemblance among the thinkers he discusses. The negative work of careful discrimination, so necessary for intellectual history, appears only sporadically. The particularities of historical circumstances tend to fall away as Kirk works up a conservative archetype in this extended “essay in definition.”
While there is now a cottage industry of journalists decrying the depletion of our stock of “public intellectuals,” the “man of letters” is so distant from contemporary experience that we can scarcely conjure any image of the type. The man of letters is a writer: but what kind of writer? In its imprecision and deliberate archaism, the term seems merely to keep Kirk at a distance. But it also invites us further into the question of how Kirk understood his work—and how we can understand it as well. The place to begin is The Conservative Mind, which was first published half a century ago this year.
The intellectual milieu in which Kirk’s thick book appeared has been frequently recounted, notably in George Nash’s study, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. In 1950, the Columbia literary critic Lionel Trilling had written that in the United States of his day, “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” By 1955, the Harvard political theorist Louis Hartz would trump Trilling, contending that, in fact, there never had been nor could be anything but a Lockean liberal tradition in America, because America had been bourgeois from the beginning. Hartz’s maxim was, no feudalism, no socialism, but a necessary corollary— unstated, because so patently obvious— was: no true conservatism either. Daniel Bell’s 1962 book, The End of Ideology— consisting of chapters written during the 1950s—captured well the spirit of this period. It was the first “end of history,” with America’s elites unable to imagine anything but the never-ending advance of various “syntheses” of liberal and socialist progressivisms.
Kirk’s book struck a perfectly discordant note. In The Conservative Mind’s first paragraph, he contends that his age is one not of liberal triumph, but rather one of both liberal and radical disintegration. The yoking together in his indictment of liberalism and radicalism—and thus, of both Locke and Rousseau—is significant. In 1950s America, the most recent challenge to the leftward “progress” of American society had been the opposition of certain elements of the capitalist classes to the New Deal. Their defense of an older form of “classical liberalism” in the face of the emerging welfare state had become equated in the American mind with “conservatism.” But Kirk was striking out on a quite different path, rejecting the view that the historically available alternatives in America ranged only from a more classical to a latter-day liberalism. Most tendentiously, Kirk would identify even the moderate cocktail of liberalism and the welfare state—which to Bell signaled the end of ideology—as itself a form of ideology. This was a portentous claim.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and prompted in no small part by the work of Hannah Arendt, many Western intellectuals of the left and right had come to appreciate the danger of totalitarianism, a form of ideological extremism which undertook to transform human nature through politics—with the disastrous results we now understand so well. But liberalism’s great boast had always been that it founded itself upon, and best adequated to, human nature—once that nature was shorn of illusions and superstition. To the liberal mind, one might even say that if ideology is defined as a project to achieve a utopian intellectual abstraction, then liberalism is the opposite of an ideology.
But to Kirk, steeped in history, the enormities of the eighteenth-century French Revolution were as near to hand as those of the Bolshevik and National Socialist Revolutions of the twentieth century. Kirk saw that a claim to be founded systematically upon certain “facts” of human nature was no unique property of liberalism but was shared by all ideologies. Socialism could claim to be a truer adequation than liberalism to the natural equality of human beings, and National Socialism to natural inequality. Communism understood itself as a kind of “natural science” of the movements of human history. Each proceeded by a rationalist reduction of real human beings to the ideological “construction” of an abstract human nature, together with the institutions appropriate to that abstraction. Kirk’s response was the remarkable claim that conservatism was the true “negation of ideology,” and thus, the genuine (and largely unexplored) alternative in the modern age.
If the modern world is a largely liberal “construction” rather than a liberal “revelation (and liberation) of nature,” then a conservative must proceed by way of excavation and recovery. And if this liberal construction represents a “leap” out of a putatively superceded world of “tradition,” then there is a burden to demonstrate that an alternative conservative tradition persists as an historical availability. That is what Kirk was attempting in The Conservative Mind, a book which represents itself, in the first instance, as a scholarly recovery of the “underside” of the history of modern social and political thought. Kirk would give voice to those who participated in the “great dissent” from the modern project—but in particular, to those whose sense of political responsibility prevented their own fall into a mere counter-ideology of reaction.
In seeking to grasp the substance of a political or social idea, it is useful to examine that which is negated. Who are the subjects of actively disdainful treatment in The Conservative Mind? There are, first of all, the rationalists of the French Enlightenment: Condorcet, Turgot, Voltaire, their English disciple Tom Paine, and at least half of Jefferson. There are the utilitarians: Bentham and both Mills. There is Comte, in a category of his own. And there are the naturalistic romantics: Emerson, and above all, everywhere, Rousseau. All are understood as partisans of innovation. Against these, Kirk assembles his conservative tradition, beginning withthe Burke of the Reflections and proceeding through John Adams, John Randolph and John C. Calhoun, Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Macaulay and Tocqueville, Disraeli and Newman, and so on (after a rather dispiriting set of figures around the turn of the twentieth century) to Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and George Santayana—later, to T. S. Eliot. These represent the “party of order,” the defenders of “tradition”—itself understood as the full truth about man which is trimmed away in ideological abstraction.
As can readily be seen from even this partial recounting, Kirk’s genealogy was not only an act of recovery, or rehabilitation, of a set of marginalized conservative minds. He was also engaged in reinterpreting or (re)claiming certain well regarded thinkers who, it would seem, might just as plausibly be claimed for “the other side”—such as Macaulay, or Newman, or Coleridge. Kirk would bring to light certain dimensions of their thought that had been deliberately obscured in the “standard account” of the progress of modern thought. Where others might dismiss the conservative elements of their thought as forgivable lapses and fasten instead upon more progressive views deemed to be “central,” Kirk’s evaluation of the ambiguous evidence was exactly the reverse. Simply by bringing forward the conservative thoughts of minds that might have been “half-liberal,” Kirk was confronting his readers with the deepest biases of the intellectual history of his day.
Now, during the past half century the progress of Wissenschaft in the American universities has piled monograph upon monograph about virtually every major and minor figure in European and American history, including those found in The Conservative Mind. We have also experienced “the revival of political philosophy” in several important “schools,” bringing into existence a particularly sophisticated generation of readers in this field. And one frequently finds a skeptical prejudice against Kirk, since he did not hold a regular university appointment or participate in the routines of academic life. As a result, a number of pointed questions have been raised about Kirk’s scholarly account of the conservative tradition, and these questions are often pressed in the manner of an indictment. For example, it is sometimes observed that Burke was a lifelong Whig rather than a Tory: can he therefore be considered a conservative in the robust sense that Kirk attributes to him? Does not John Adams’ rejection of the canon and the feudal law demonstrate his fundamental lack of sympathy for the kinds of institutions for which Burke (and Kirk) had such solicitude? Conversely, was the Enlightenment really as dogmatic as Kirk claims? Are there not “conservative” strains among the lumières, and even in Rousseau? More generally, has Kirk really recovered a tradition? Or has he invented one?
Kirk’s book actually compares quite favorably with the level of American scholarship of its period, a fact of which Kirk’s most dismissive critics seem ignorant. And it remains a valuable corrective to misleading tendencies in even the best current scholarship. For example, in the deepest questions of political philosophy Americans in recent decades have typically oriented themselves with reference to German thinkers, an artifact of the Germanization of the American mind after the 1930s. But before the twentieth century, the Anglo-American world had only the slightest contact with German thought. Kirk’s orientation with respect to French thinkers is surely a more defensible point of departure. Moreover, some of Kirk’s apparently eccentric historical judgments, though now contrary to conventional wisdom, still show promise of one day gaining currency: for example, his view that Alexander Hamilton was an essentially backward-looking mercantilist, whereas John Adams, deep in his study of the ancients, had a surer grasp of the future problematics of American political economy.
Almost always, when Kirk’s interpretations differ from “what we now know” it can be demonstrated that Kirk is aware of the excluded alternative; he has simply come to a different judgment. This is true, most significantly, in his treatment of Burke’s Whiggery. Many students of political theory now tend to see Burke more as a statesman than a philosopher, and if a (mere) statesman, then necessarily a statesmen operating within the political horizon “legislated” by a true philosopher. Locke was the great Whig philosopher, and he was the founder of modern liberal democracy. Thus, it is a mistake to discover in Burke, a Whig, any fundamental revolt against the modern world. Q.E.D. Kirk, however, does not share the contemporary opinion about the supremacy of the philosophers: in fact, he clearly held that the poets are the true legislators of the world, identifying the better part of the twentieth century as “the age of Eliot.” But Kirk also takes pains to show that despite his Whig political commitments, Burke in the Reflections “disavowed a great part of the principles of Locke.” Conservatism after Burke owes “almost nothing” to Locke. These are strong, and carefully considered, claims.
Similarly, students of political theory who are wedded to the notion of the supremacy of the philosophers and who cannot find an adequately rigorous system in Burke have sought for a philosophical founder for modern conservatism elsewhere, thus implicitly questioning a central pillar of Kirk’s achievement. Most frequently, attempts are made to find such a “true” founder in Hume or Hegel, both “respectable” philosophers. Kirk rejects them both, however, describing them as conservatives only “by chance.” There is ample evidence in The Conservative Mind of Kirk’s deliberation, but unlike most academic writing, this intellectual work is subdued in the text rather than highlighted. If we are to learn from Kirk, we must learn a different way of reading.
Kirk’s claim concerning Burke’s repudiation of Lockean principles brings to light another question, however. What can it mean for a thinker to reject Locke’s principles while defending essentially Whig, or “Lockean,” political institutions, as Burke apparently does? This question relates to a further objection to Kirk’s presentation of the conservative tradition. Are not the thinkers that Kirk treats in his book primarily engaged in some form of social and cultural critique? Do they not, with only rare exception, fail to proffer any set of institutions which might stand as a concrete alternative to the “constructed” world of liberalism? When they do make arguments about institutions, Kirk’s conservative minds seem to disagree as often than they agree, and Kirk in any event never organizes his discussion around constitutional issues. Lacking any evident institutional program, in what sense can Kirk’s conservatism be understood as a form of political thought? We have returned to our original question. What kind of thinker was Kirk? What was he attempting to accomplish in his writing?
In a sense, we have also returned to the question of the style and the form of Kirk’s writing. In The Conservative Mind, after a couple cursory paragraphs to introduce his theme, by the book’s second page we find Kirk digressing to tell a story, or rather to paint a personal vignette. He pauses to remark on Number 12, Arran Quay, in Dublin, the birthplace of Edmund Burke. Kirk, a would-be pilgrim, laments that the house was subsequently demolished in the name of progress—in its place stood a shabby government office building—so little did even the “conservative” Irish think to commemorate their great men. Here, Kirk evokes solicitude for a concrete heritage; he prompts and affirms a sentiment to conserve in opposition to the defining spirit of the age, innovative self-assurance; he sardonically deprecates the modern follies of the children of men. Before he has barely begun, he has already “wandered” far from scholarship. But such repeated digressions appear intrinsic to the structure of the book, and so, must be intrinsic to Kirk’s purposes.
Despite his formal reserve, Kirk is everywhere a real presence in even his most scholarly writings, almost a “character” in the “story,” and this presence became ever more prominent as he progressed in his career. The unexpectedly personal quality of Kirk’s otherwise archaically formal prose has, it appears, never been given due consideration. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that it is the “figure” of Kirk, the “sage of Mecosta” speaking in his texts, that remains most vivid, most alive, to us today. Long after this or that judgment about a particular thinker is forgotten, long after the disciplined advance of academic inquiry has obscured the original insight of the arguments, what is remembered—and keenly so—is the elevated, dispassionate tone, the gothic refusal to streamline prose to meet the purported needs of “efficient” communication, the structure of a peculiar kind of Tory romantic sentiment that “would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.” What continues to insinuate is a certain sensibility, which is associated in Kirk’s mind with the Burkean phrase, “the moral imagination.” By the end of the 1950s, Kirk had himself become the icon of the conservative mind, but that mind seems to have concentrated itself in an effort to speak, quite indirectly, to the heart.
There is perhaps a precedent for writing of this kind, in the least likely of places: the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The academic political theorists have lately taught us to appreciate the subtlety and penetration of Rousseau’s philosophical arguments concerning the state of nature and the general will, republican virtue and civil religion—the basic elements of Rousseau’s explicitly political thought. But such sympathetic judgments are a quite recent development. Among his contemporaries, The Social Contract was thought to be Rousseau’s least successful effort. Even the philosophes found his political writings to be little more than visionary fantasies. Nevertheless, Rousseau was a literary phenomenon of his age. His Confessions and the Emile were international best sellers of scandalously wide appeal. In both books Rousseau is himself a “character.” And beyond the particular arguments, what was most memorable in these works (and most talked about in the salons) was “Jean Jacques” himself, the sometime “Citizen of Geneva,” now embodying a novel “virtue”: the compassionate love of humanity.
As Clifford Orwin has nicely formulated it, whereas Machiavelli worked to construct “new modes and orders” in politics, Rousseau sought instead to insinuate “new moods and feelings” in the most private of spheres. “He aimed at a revolution from within, not one of reason, but of those reasons of the heart that the reason does not know,” Orwin writes. Rousseau would introduce a new “sensibility,” one that might transform everything—while leaving “everything” relatively intact. Humanitarianism would supersede both the classical and the bourgeois virtues in the heart of moral life. Of course, this effort at sentimental education was related to a set of distinctly radical political ideas, a distinct understanding of the nature and the needs of that historical being, modern man, who inhabits the modes and orders of a bourgeois civilization. But Rousseau’s “work” was not to be accomplished by a political program; it was not to be accomplished simply by a philosophical breakthrough; it was accomplished by a tacit appeal to the deepest movements of the heart. And Rousseau remains, whether we like it or not, at once among the philosophical and the poetic legislators of our age.
Edmund Burke understood well the character of Rousseau’s project when he observed that “Rousseau is a moralist or he is nothing.” And much of Burke’s own late work may be understood as a form of sentimental (moral) education aimed at countering the achievement of Rousseau—especially as the Rousseauan romantic sensibility formed a deadly synthesis with the rationalism of the French Enlightenment. This, at least, seems to be the decisive lesson that Kirk learned from Burke, who remains the pre-eminent model of the conservative mind.
Following Burke, Kirk was alarmed at the oppressive disenchantment of the world, the handiwork of the Enlighteners. Following Burke, Kirk was alarmed at the sentimental “cure” proffered by Rousseau, which acquiesced in the construction of liberalism’s iron cage of rational self-interest while offering as compensation only the naturalistic idyll of indiscriminate compassion. Following Burke, Kirk appreciated the real political achievements of many modern institutions; what was problematic were the ideological and sentimental meanings with which those institutions were invested and by which their development was guided. Thus, if ideological reduction and sentimental gesturing were to be overcome, if man were to reclaim the nobility that was traditionally his birthright, it could only be through an education of the moral imagination. The complexity of the human good and the demanding life of virtue had to be rendered compelling by a new, and very different, appeal to the heart. “The conservative finds himself…a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required—and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding.” It is passages such as these that mark Kirk’s central legacy, the legacy of a moralist educator of the sentiments.
Viewed another way, the critical quality of the conservative minds in Kirk’s genealogy illustrates most forcefully that conservatism is not a matter simply of preserving the status quo, whatever it may be. Conservatism’s original intuition is one of discontent with the present age. There is thus a certain formal commonality between conservatism and radicalism, a fact to which Karl Marx paid a kind of tribute: large portions of The Communist Manifesto essentially paraphrase standard nineteenth-century conservative critiques of liberalism. But the conservative discontent extends also to all the “solutions” proffered in the radical tradition. The conservative seeks to recover human nature from beneath the ideological constructions. But differing sharply from Rousseau, the conservative recognizes that this nature is complex rather than simple. Man’s nature is discontinuous with, and nobler than, non-human nature. But when the dark pall of Enlightenment doubt has covered everything, this conviction can only become fecund through an education of the moral imagination.
It is in this light that one must approach the six canons that Kirk articulates in the introduction to The Conservative Mind. That they are “canons” rather than “principles” is the way by which Kirk adverts to the complexity of human nature, refusing to engage in ideological reduction or to provide a plan for ideological construction. One of them, the fourth, concerns the relationship between property and freedom. It is the single element of Locke that survives in conservative thought, a recognition of the practical achievements of modern political institutions. The first three canons, however, are the most substantive ones, and they are virtually a catalog of the aristocratic mores which Tocqueville considered untenable in the democratic social state that marks our age. The first canon is the belief that “a divine intent rules society as well as conscience”: in the post-Enlightenment age, the boast is that man is rightly autonomous, the proper sovereign of the world. The second is an “[a]ffection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life”: liberal construction results in the homogenization of all social spheres. The third is the “[c]onviction that civilized society requires orders and classes”: the straightforward opposite of the democratic leveling impulse. Kirk was seeking to cultivate something like an “aristocratic” sensibility within modern mass society, Tocqueville’s doubts notwithstanding.
The last two of Kirk’s six canons concern adherence to “prescription” and skepticism toward “innovation,” and they introduce the further problematic which Kirk understood himself to be confronting. They are conservative “meta-principles”—not substantive social goods but rather critical attitudes toward permanence and change. The early liberal thinkers were engaged in a great effort to build institutions in which “progress” could become self-sustaining. Later liberal thinkers such as Mill developed arguments for the beneficent nature of widespread experimental innovation. And even Tocqueville, possessed of profound doubts about democracy’s effects on human dignity, could see no way to halt the progress of the modern spirit. In the end, the most disabling element of the modern age is the widespread conviction that progress is inevitable, and so conservatism is, strictly speaking, impossible. F. J. C. Hearnshaw once observed that “[i]t is commonly sufficient…if conservatives, without saying anything, just sit and think, or even if they merely sit.” But this cannot be a correct assessment. In the age of progress, to sit still is to be swept “forward”—to what exactly is never quite clear. The fundamental modern belief that progress is “inevitable”—a belief especially pronounced in the land that was founded to be novus ordo seclorum—conveniently spares the partisan liberal the requirement of arguing that this or that anticipated bit of “progress” is actually, on balance, good for human beings. Historical “inevitability,” after all, presumes for itself the hard quality of a “fact,” and so stands incontestably above all the subjective squabblings over mere “values.” “Facts” cannot be argued with.
Russell Kirk’s prose style was an impossible anachronism. And yet in the second half of the twentieth century, he published more than thirty volumes of it, commanding a broad and devoted readership. The fact of the books belied the “fact” that only crisply efficient academic prose is “possible” in our time. The “facts” of the progressive age could be shown to be a congeries of opinion and sentiment.
Kirk’s very life would be accounted equally impossible. Having grown up near Detroit, he labeled the automobile “the mechanical Jacobin” and seems never quite to have learned to drive. A visitor to the economically distressed and utterly undistinguished village of Mecosta, Michigan, would spend the evening at Kirk’s fancifully gothic house singing songs around a piano or listening to ghostly tales by the fireside. On walks through the woods, Kirk might leap out from behind a tree to enact a scene from Sir Walter Scott. Are we to take these as anachronisms? As charming idiosyncrasies? As fantastical retreats from the harsh “realities” of the modern age? Or as living proofs that the impossible remains possible even today, for those with moral imagination; glimpses of what we are missing—and need not miss; affirmations that our “mere” nostalgia surely points the human heart to the human good? Kirk’s sentimental education of the moral imagination encompassed both words and deeds. And it is staggering to realize that Kirk’s “affected” prose in fact reveals the authentic man, a man who imagined his way out of the intellectual prison of modern ideology—and beckoned others to follow.
Throughout his writings, and with a special intensity in his later years, Kirk fairly preached that life is worth living—despite “Giant Boredom” astride in the land. This was a curious counsel to have delivered to a rising generation full of ambitious plans and projects, and some no doubt thought it a platitude. While Kirk’s was frequently described as a medieval mind, this is far from a medieval theme: a schoolman would have offered a demonstration of the goodness of the created order, and there’s the end of it. This insistent exhortation shows how closely Kirk had peered into the heart of modern acedia, how sensitively he had diagnosed the tendencies of the specifically modern sensibility. Burke described the liberal account of human nature in appalled terms: “On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order.” The nearly irresistible modern temptation is to acquiesce in this reduction of human dignity and to com pensate with frenetic Lockean activity or idyllic Rousseauan indulgence. But Kirk knew that the human heart is fit for something nobler. He sought to enable his readers to achieve the same conviction, through the cultivation of the moral imagination:
It is not inevitable that we submit ourselves to a social life-in-death of boring uniformity and equality. It is not inevitable that we indulge all our appetites to fatigued satiety. It is not inevitable that we reduce our schooling to the lowest common denominator. It is not inevitable that obsession with creature comforts should sweep away belief in a transcendent order. It is not inevitable that the computer should supplant the poet.
Is it going too far to attribute to Kirk an eccentric form of socratism? For where modern men, all about, pursue their narrow ends, certain of the historically inevitable rightness of the modern dispensation, Kirk was convinced that in our age, the unimagined life is not worth living for a human being. He labored to reform our sensibilities, so that we could see ourselves both for what we are and for what we have become. He labored to make available an intellectual tradition of dissent from the modern age. He labored to release our hearts from the bondage of ideology.
Books by Dr. Kirk and other prominent conservatives are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Mark C. Henrie is editor of the Intercollegiate Review and senior editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review. This essay is from the Intercollegiate Review—Spring/Summer 2003, printed here by permission. Read more of Dr. Henrie’s TIC essays here.
1. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1996. First published 1976.
2. It is also significant that in The Conservative Mind, Karl Marx is almost everywhere a merely marginal presence. There are many who would consider the American conservative movement to be a Cold War artifact. But the themes of “Cold War conservatism”—the critique of the planned economy and collectivism, the championing of “freedom” and “individualism”—are almost wholly absent from Kirk’s foundational work. Revolutionary Bolshevism is not among the book’s dominant themes, but the French Revolution and the industrial revolution are, and they are frequently considered in a common light. Of all American conservatives, it was the followers of Kirk who were least theoretically disoriented by the astonishing collapse of communism in 1989-1991.
3. Clifford Orwin, “Moist Eyes—From Rousseau to Clinton,” The Public Interest, No. 128 (Summer 1987),
4. Consider, for example, the famous passage about the Queen of France in the Reflections. Burke was advised repeatedly to remove it, because its unfashionable sentiment tended to undermine the persuasive force of his political and economic arguments. Burke, however, insisted on including it, and two centuries later it remains the singularly most memorable passage in his entire corpus.
5. Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries,” Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, Del., ISI Books, 1996), 281.
6. Quoted in The Conservative Mind (Washington: Regnery Publishing Co., 1953, 7th ed., 1985),
7. Russell Kirk, “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky,” Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1996), 308.