Prospects for Conservatives: A Compass for Rediscovering the Permanent Things by Russell Kirk, Imaginative Conservative Books, 2013, 278 pages
In 1954, in a span of less than two months, Russell Kirk hammered away at what would become, arguably, his best book, A Program for Conservatives. Two years later, he revised and re-titled it, Prospects for Conservatives. Kirk took some of the material for the book from a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Detroit, spring semester, 1954, as well as from his keynote address to the national meeting of Chi Omega sorority. Peter Stanlis had arranged the former, while one of Kirk’s biggest fans had arranged the latter. The Chi Omega sorority meeting provided the young writer with a platform to deliver his most powerful proclamation:
“The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learned that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. He apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them with him bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars.”
Kirk used this passage to end the introduction to Prospects for Conservatives. Through and through, the book embodied this spirit, reaffirming the writer’s desire that one approach conservatism through art, literature, and culture rather than through political thought or economics.
It’s hard to imagine more eventful years for Kirk than 1953 or 1954. Kirk had rather dramatically left his professorship at Michigan State, claiming the lowering of academic standards and the effete rule of the glad-handing, superficial John Hannah as president, as his reasons.
Equally important, he had already published his first book, John Randolph of Roanoke, in 1951, to much academic acclaim. Real fame throughout the West, however, welcomed him upon the publication of his dissertation, The Conservative Mind, two years later. Equally perplexed as well as amazed at his own instant celebrity (this is no exaggeration as Time and the New York Times praised the young man as one of the great intellects of the era), Kirk had to plan carefully his next book. Conservatism, he feared, offered brilliant critiques of current problems, but it might not offer long-term solutions.
After meeting T.S. Eliot in the summer of 1953, he decided his next book, The Age of Humanism, should serve as a manifesto, a way to explore humanist thought from the pre-Socratics through Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More to Eliot. He modeled his own book—at least in the outlines and notes—after Plutarch’s lives, presenting each period through two opposing characters. One figure represented the best, humanist tradition of his age, while the other represented the opposite. No extant records reveal just how far Kirk got in his writing, though Christian Humanism would serve as the central focus of four of his five post-Conservative Mind books. Sadly, though, Kirk never pursued the prequel, The Age of Humanism, and it remains, if at all, only in incomplete memory, subjective fantasy, and quasi-intellectual conjecture.
No one thing led Kirk to write 1954’s A Program for Conservatives. Instead, the critiques of The Conservative Mind seemed to have prompted him to write this sequel, especially as he developed lectures for the University of Detroit course. Yet, A Program is really more of a sequel to the final chapter of The Conservative Mind rather than to the entire book.
Regardless, this is a masterpiece of the twentieth-century. Written in fury, but a fury backed by the wisdom of the ages, Kirk rages. Rages against war and brutality. Rages against the Machine, Demos, and Leviathan. Rages against self-delusion and mass and conformity. And, most importantly, rages for the human person.
It is with the utmost happiness that we present the very first work from Imaginative Conservative Books, under the editorial and publishing control of the Winston Elliott III, mastermind behind the vision and growth of The Imaginative Conservative. Graciously, Annette Kirk gave us permission to reprint her late husband’s work. After much deliberation, we decided the 1956 version of the book the best.
As I’ve mentioned before, I first met Winston in 1995, and we’ve been the best of allies since. One of the books that has meant so much to our own friendship has been Prospects for Conservatives. As some guys might talk about the latest NFL draft picks or who the best bassist in rock music is, Winston and I talk Kirk and Christian Humanism. We both believe in the greatness of this book. We hope you agree.
Winston Elliott, you’re now a publisher and a series editor. Congratulations! You stand in line with Frank Sheed and Henry Regnery. Not bad company. Not bad, indeed.