By the conservatism of desolation, I mean the forlorn endeavor of certain persons of conservative instincts to convince themselves that they are “individualists”—that is, devotees of spiritual and social isolation. The dreary secular dogma of individualism is the creation of Godwin, Hodgskin, and Herbert Spencer, and it progresses from anarchy back to anarchy again. Any thinking conservative knows it for a snare and a delusion. The real conservative is all in favor of sound individuality; he is all against doctrinaire “individualism,” the belief that we exist solely in ourselves, and for ourselves, so many loveless specks in infinite time and space, like the unfortunate youth in Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger to whom Satan reveals that nothing exists except the boy and empty space, and that his very informant is no more than a random thought of the desolate Self. La vida es sueño, y los sueños sueños son. Whatever we may say to Calderon, it is well to remember that the emancipated critic of Twain’s novel is the Devil, or at least the Devil’s nephew. Individualism was born in the hell of spiritual solitude. The conservative knows that he is part of a great continuity and essence, created to do unto others as he would have others do unto him. Godwin’s and Spencer’s individualism, literally applied, would destroy the whole fabric of civilization. It is nonsense in any age; but in our complex age, with all its apparatus of industry and urban life, it would bring a very speedy and very unpleasant death to almost all men.
We ought not to indulge such childish heroics. We do not really live for our selves, nor unto our selves. Burke and Adams knew that individuality, the dignity of personality and private rights, was a great good, and the product of elaborate conventions, developed by the painful experience of the human race over many thousands of years. They also knew that the doctrine of individualism preached by their enemy Godwin was nicely calculated to wipe out the whole civil social order, should it get a hold upon the popular imagination. Burke was the most courageous opponent of tyranny and the improper extension of the powers of the state; but he knew that just government is the creation of Providence, intended to enable men to live a life, through willing cooperation, which they could not possibly enjoy in a state of anarchy.
Some well-intentioned gentlemen whom I esteem as persons (I distrust not their hearts, but their heads) recently asked me to assist in the undertakings of a society of individualists, which is rather like being asked to subscribe to a philosophy of transcendental materialism. Now the stalwart conservative is not much afraid of his enemies, but he must often beseech Heaven to save him from his friends. I found that these persons had taken for their motto a remark of Cousin (extracted from its context) to the effect that nothing exists except the individual. Burke declared that society, after all, is simply individuals taken collectively, and that no policy which harms particular persons, therefore, can be good for society. But Burke would have been horrified at the declaration that only the individual exists. Several grand realities exist in addition to the individual. The greatest of them is God. Another is our country; and yet another is our family; and still another is our ancestry. We are not simply the flies of a summer. The true conservative, indeed, rejects Rousseau’s misty and dangerous concept of the General Will, and denies Hegel’s cult of the abstract State; but he does not cut himself off from true community, his duties toward his neighbors and his ancestors and his posterity. We are made for cooperation, says Marcus Aurelius, like the hands, like the feet: “Does the eye demand a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking? Just as this is the end for which they exist, and just as they find their reward in realizing the law of their being, so too man is made for kindness, and whenever he does an act of kindness or otherwise helps forward the common good, he thereby fulfils the law of his being and comes by his own.”
These same gentlemen (who profess to be individualists, but really are conservatives in their impulses) cried up a pantheon of philosophers after their taste: Lao-tse, Zeno, Milton, Locke, Adam Smith, Tom Paine, Jefferson, Thoreau, John Stuart Mill, and Spencer. No thinking conservative would be much inclined to pull these old chestnuts out of the fire for the sake of the commonwealth. I suggested that if they were to substitute Moses or St. Paul for Lao-tse, Aristotle or Cicero for Zeno, Dante for Milton, Falkland for Locke, Samuel Johnson for Adam Smith, Burke for Paine, Orestes Brownson for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne for Thoreau, Disraeli for Mill, and Ruskin or Newman for Spencer, then indeed they might make dry bones speak, and kindle the imagination of the rising generation. But they will accomplish nothing otherwise. Were I an agent of red revolution, I should make haste to join myself to these well-intentioned gentlemen, with their confused attachment to obsolete anarchical and Utilitarian dogmas, and second them heartily, and butter them up; for the best possible way to discredit the conservative movement would be to represent it to the world as a philosophy of cosmic selfishness.
The conservative, if he understands himself and his world, is no sentimental humanitarian; but neither is he a swaggering nihilist, jeering at the state, the duties of men in society, and the necessities of modern life. As a reaction against the grim and insensate collectivism that menaces us today, this flight to individualism is understandable; but it is consummate folly, for all that, and even more disastrous to the conservative cause than the policy of unprincipled trimming. There is an order which holds all things in their places, Burke says; it is made for us, and we are made for it. The reflective conservative, far from denying the existence of this eternal order, endeavors to ascertain its nature, and to find his place in it.
Books by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. An excerpt from the chapter entitled Who are the Conservatives? in Russell Kirk’s excellent book “Prospects for Conservatives.”