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The Conservative Mind Russell Kirk

The critic of his time must accept the risk of being accused of negativism, but he can console himself with the knowledge that serious criticism has its source in a definite position with its own standards, values and objectives. By the 1950’s, with the work of such men as Albert J. Nock, T. S. Eliot, Richard Weaver and Eliseo Vivas, among many others, the criticism of liberalism had grown into a substantial literature; what was lacking was a point of view, or attitude, movement together and give it coherence and identity. It was the great achievement, one can say historic achievement, of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, which was published in 1953, to provide such a unifying concept. Kirk not only offered convincing evidence that conservatism was an honorable and intellectually respectable position, but that it was an integral part of the American tradition. It would be too much to say that the postwar conservative movement began with the publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but it was this book that gave it its name, and more importantly, coherence.

When we published the book that made his reputation, Russell Kirk was an instructor in history at Michigan State College. had published one book, John Randolph of Roanoke, and numerous essays, many of them in English magazines. Canon Bernard Iddings Bell had spoken to me of Kirk, but I came to know him and became his publisher through a mutual friend, Sidney Gair, who had been a textbook traveler for many years for one of the large Eastern publishers, and after his retirement had become associated with our firm. Sidney was a delightful man – a good conversationalist, had read widely and well, courtly in his manner, and, confirmed conservative that he was, a great admirer of Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt. What it all comes down to, he used to say, is that a conservative knows that two plus two always, invariably, equal four, a fact of life a liberal, on the other hand, is not quite willing to accept; it was through him that I met Russell Kirk and published The Conservative Mind, for which I will always remember Sidney Gair with gratitude.

Returning in the early part of 1952 from a trip to some of the colleges in Michigan, Sidney told me that a friend of his, a young instructor at Michigan State, had written a manuscript he thought I would be interested in. I remember his description of Russell Kirk very clearly: “…the son of a locomotive engineer, but a formidable intelligence-a biological accident. He doesn’t say much, about as communicative as a turtle, but when he gets behind a typewriter the results are most impressive.” Soon after, Sidney asked me to read a letter Kirk had written him from St. Andrews in Scotland, in which he described a ninety-mile walk he had just made “from Edinburgh to Alnwich, in Northumberland, over the desolate Lammermuirs and along the Northumbrian coast.” After describing various adventures, he continued “Appropriately enough, that evening, as I descended the hills toward the douce old country town of Duns, I beheld a bogle sitting motionless and malevolent by a fence-post, in the misty gloaming – or what indubitably would have been taken for a bogle, not many years syne.” He expressed the hope in this letter that he and I might meet during the summer, and from this beginning a correspondence soon developed. In reply to my expression of interest in his manuscript, he told me that it was on offer to Knopf, but if they declined it, he would send it to me. “There never has been a book Iike it,” he remarked in this letter, “So far as breadth of subject is concerned, whatever its vices may be. The subtitle is An Account of Conservative Ideas from Burke to Santayana.” In the same letter, he urged me to bring out a collection of letters of his friend Albert Jay Nock. This was followed by a post card from Trier showing a photograph of the Roman Porta Nigra, which was my publishing insignia, and on July 31, 1952, he wrote from St. Andrews that Knopf would be willing to publish his manuscript only if he would reduce it to about one quarter of its original length, and that he was sending it to me. His manuscript, he said,

…is my contribution to our endeavor to conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization; and if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon. What Matthew Arnold called “an epoch of concentration” is impending, in my case. If we are to make that approaching era a time of enlightened conservatism, rather than an era of stagnant repression, we need to move with decision. The struggle will be decided in the minds of the rising generation – and within that generation, substantially by the minority who have the gift of reason. I do not think we need much fear the decaying “liberalism” of the retiring generation; as Disraeli said, “Prevailing opinions generally are the opinions of the generation that is passing.” But we need to state some certitudes for the benefit of the groping new masters of society. More than anyone else in America you have been doing just this in the books you publish.

On August 21st I acknowledged this letter and the receipt of the manuscript, which after his description, I was most anxious to read. My judgment of manuscripts has often been faulty, but with this one I knew that I had an important, perhaps a great book, and although I had some doubts about its commercial possibilities – which proved to unfounded – I was determined to publish it. In reply to my letter to this effect, Kirk, after urging me “not to forsake our Lake States for the East,” had this to say about the battle we both felt we were engaged in:

It may well be that we shall be trampled into the mire, despite all we can do. But Cat0 conquered. And we shall, in any event, be playing the part which providence designed for us. Even the failure of Charles I, after all, was in the long view of history a considerable success. By opposing what seems inevitable, often enough we find that its force is not irresistable; and at the worst, we have the satisfaction of the heroic attitude of the Sassenach confronting Roderick Dhu’s crew

Come one, come all; this rock shall fly

From its firm base as soon as I!

The manuscript was in beautiful shape, and could have been sent out for typesetting as it came in, except for the original title, which none of us thought would do “The Conservative Rout.” Sidney Gair suggested “The Long Retreat,” which was worse (he thought “rout,” I mentioned to Kirk in a letter, “sounded ‘too hasty’”), and Russell replied, not too helpfully, that “there is a rather fife-and-drum sound to ‘rout,’” but we kept trying, until someone suggested “The Conservative Mind,” which Kirk readily accepted. We gave great care to the design of the book, which I wanted to be appropriate to the dignity of its language and the importance of what it had to say. The jacket confidently, and as it turned out, correctly predicted that this was a book which “will become a landmark in contemporary thinking,” and on the back of the jacket, to make it evident that The Conservative Mind was not a solitary effort on our part, we listed four recently published books: The Republic and the Person, by Gordon Chalmers; The Return to Reason, essays in rejection of naturalism by thirteen American philosophers and Charles Malik of Lebanon; The Forlorn Demon: Didactic and Critical Essays, by Allen Tate; and Wyndham Lewis’ Revenge for Love. In March or April, 1953, we sent out review copies, and with some fear and trepidation, since this book represented a major commitment on our part, we awaited the response, which was not long in coming, and far exceeded our most optimistic expectations.

Kirk approached the difficult task of presenting conservatism as a tradition relevant to our time with two enormous advantages: great skill in organizing a vast body of knowledge with which he was thoroughly familiar, and a superb literary style. “To review conservative ideas, examining their validity for this perplexed age,” he tells us in the introductory chapter “is the purpose of this book.” It is not, he goes on to say, “a history of conservative parties….[but] a prolonged essay in definition. What is the essence of British and American conservatism? What system of ideas, common to England and the United States, has sustained men of conservative instincts in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation ever since the beginning of the French Revolution?”[1] Any informed conservative, he continues, “is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases….Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma, and conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the times. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.”[2] Kirk then lists “six canons” of conservative thought, which, in somewhat condensed form, are as follows:

  1. Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead….Politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes. The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at levelling lead to despair, if enforced by positive legislation. Society longs for leadership, and if a people destroy natural distinctions among men, presently Buonaparte fills the vacuum.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress. Separate property from private possession, and liberty is erased.
  5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite, for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress. Society must alter, for slow change is the means of its conservation, like the human body’s perpetual renewal; but Providence is the proper instrument for change, and the test of a statesman is his cognizance of the real tendency of Providential social forces.[3]

For Russell Kirk, conservatism begins with Edmund Burke; one can say, in fact, that for him, the teachings of Burke comprise the basic principles of conservatism. In any practical sense,” Kirk asserts, Burke is the founder of our conservatism.” The opening chapter of The Conservative Mind, “Burke and the Politics of Prescription,” quite appropriately, therefore, is devoted to the thought of Kirk‘s teacher, and with an eloquence of language worthy of the great Whig himself, under such headings as Providence and humility, Prejudice and prescription, Equality and aristocracy, The Principle of order, Kirk sets before us the principles of conservatism as developed by Edmund Burke. “Edmund Burke’s conservative philosophy was a reply to three separate radical schools: the rationalism of the philosophes; the romantic sentimentalism of Rousseau and his disciples; and the nascent utilitarianism of Bentham,”[4] but it was a philosophy derived from a deep sense of piety and a profound understanding of the sources of order. Now and again,” Kirk tells us, “Burke praises two great virtues, the keys to private contentment and public peace: they are prudence and humility, the first preeminently an attainment of classical philosophy, the second preeminently a triumph of Christian discipline. Without them, man must be miserable; and man destitute of piety hardly can perceive either of these rare and blessed qualities.”[5]

Russell Kirk sees Burke’s accomplishment, “taken as a whole,” as “the definition of a principle of order,” and he states Burke’s position, “in the simplest terms,” as he says, in the following paragraph:

Revelation, reason, and an assurance beyond the senses tell us that the Author of our being exists, and that He is omniscient; and man and the state are creations of God’s beneficence. This Christian orthodoxy is the kernel of Burke’s philosophy. God’s purpose among men is revealed through the unrolling of history. How are we to know God’s mind and will? Through the prejudices and traditions which millenniums of human experience with Divine means and judgments have implanted in the mind of the species. And what is our purpose in this world? Not to indulge our appetites, but to render obedience to Divine ordinance.[6]

Russell Kirk was a young man when he wrote The Conservative Mind; he was in his late twenties when, still a graduate student at St. Andrews University in Scotland, he began the book and in his early thirties when it was finished. One senses the freshness of discovery, particularly in the chapter on Burke, the immense pleasure of a young man, searching for his way in a confused and confusing age, who had discovered a view of life that satisfied him, gave him direction, and seemed to answer his most pressing questions. For all its maturity and sound scholarship, Kirk is able to maintain the quality of discovery throughout the entire book that is evident in the first chapter; he may have been, as a young man, “about as communicative as a turtle,” as his good friend Sidney Gair described him, but he wrote not only with profound knowledge of his subject, but with the passion of a man who has discovered a great truth and wishes to communicate his discovery to others. It is this quality of the freshness of discovery as much as its scholarship, perhaps, which carried the day for The Conservative Mind and made it one of the most influential books of the postwar period.

Having laid down, in his chapter on Burke, the basic principles of conservatism, Kirk proceeds to follow the development of conservative ideas and their influence through such men as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Walter Scott, John Randolph of Roanoke, John Calhoun, Macaulay, James Fenimore Cooper, Tocqueville, Disraeli, Cardinal Newman, down to Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, George Santayana, and T. S. Eliot. To read the book again after almost twenty-five years was as rewarding as when I read it the first time in manuscript. It maintains its high level from beginning to end, but a chapter which especially impressed me at this late date of my life, more, perhaps, than when I first read it, is “Conservatism Frustrated: America, 1865-1918,” which, it seems to me, brings out with particular clarity and perception the still unresolved contradictions, tensions and conflicts which the rise of industrial society has created.

Kirk begins the Chapter on America between the Civil War and the First World War with an account of the moral confusion of the country in the decades immediately following the collapse of the Confederacy: the South prostrate, desperately trying “to make a dismembered economy stir again,” too much concerned with the exigencies of life to think about anything else, and the Northern intellect, which, he says, “practically was the New England intellect,” ill-equipped for the task of restoring values, for “splicing the ragged ends.” New England conservatism, Kirk says, had always been, “in essence, a conservatism of negation,” and its recent “self-righteous flirtation with radicalism, political abstractions, and that kind of fanatic equalitarianism which Garrison represented,”[7] made it even less able to meet the needs of the day than it might otherwise have been. It was an age of “relentless economic centralization, of dull standardization, of an insatiable devastation of natural resources”[8] – “Jefferson’s America,” Kirk remarks, “is as much eclipsed as John Adams’…American character, individualistic, covetous, contemptuous of restraint, always had been stubborn clay for the keepers of tradition to mould into civilization. Now it threatened to become nearly anarchic, to slip into a ditch of spiritual atomism. What can be done? Lowell speculates uneasily; Godkin scourges the age in the Nation; the four sons of Charles Francis Adams try to fight their way into the thick of practical affairs, but are repulsed, and Henry and Brooks Adams pry bitterly into the probabilities of social destiny.[9]

In the rest of this chapter Kirk describes the thought and influence of these four “keepers of tradition,” and their attempt to fathom the currents of their time. Kirk‘s treatment of James Russell Lowell and of E. L. Godkin, the English-born editor of the Nation gets to the heart of the matter, and by showing the manner of their confrontation with their time helps us to understand its nature, but it is in his presentation of the response of Brooks and Henry Adams to their age,  and particularly of the enigmatic Henry Adams, that Kirk rises to the challenge and gives us a virtuoso demonstration of his skill in synthesizing and ordering a complex body of ideas and showing their sources and influence.

“A case might be made,” Kirk asserts, “that Henry Adams represents the zenith of American civilization. Unmistakably and almost belligerently American, the embodiment of four generations of exceptional rectitude and intelligence, [he was] very likely the best educated man American society has produced….But the product of these grand gifts was a pessimism deep and unsparing as Schopenhauer’s, intensified by Adams’ long examination and complete rejection of American aspirations.’, His conservatism, Kirk continues, “is the view of a man who sees before him a steep and terrible declivity, from which there can be no returning: one may have leisure to recollect past nobility, now and then one may perform the duty of delaying mankind for a moment in this decent; but the end is not to be averted.”[10] By the discoveries of modern science man had released a jinni from the bottle, Adams thought, a jinni who would become his master, and the laws of thermodynamics, which teach that while the total sum of energy remains constant, its usefulness is constantly dissipated, only increased his pessimism. As Kirk summarizes Adams’ conclusions, “Once man turned from the ideal of spiritual power, the Virgin, to the ideal of physical power, the Dynamo, his doom was sure. The faith and beauty of the thirteenth century, this descendant of the Puritans declared, made that age the noblest epoch of mankind; he could imagine only one state of society worse than the rule of capitalists in the nineteenth century – the coming rule of the trade unions in the twentieth century.”[11]

What had happened in the short span of three generations to change the robust confidence of John Adams, who risked hanging for freedom and was a founder of a new nation, to the despair of his enormously gifted great-grandson? If the law of the dissipation of energy is valid, it has been valid since creation. Kirk’s explanation of Henry Adams’ pessimism is worth repeating, not only for what it says about Adams, but also for what it says about Kirk and his conception of conservatism:

Christian orthodoxy believes in an eternity which, as it is superhuman, is supra-terrestrial; and the real world being a world of spirit, man’s fate is not dependent upon the vicissitudes of this planet, but may be translated by Divine purpose into a realm apart from our present world of space and time. In this certitude, Christians escape from the problem of degradation of energy; but Adams, however much he might revere the Virgin of Chartres as incarnation of the idea and as a symbol of eternal beauty, could not put credence in the idea of Providence. He was determined that history must be “scientific”….The phase of religion was far nobler, to Adams’ mind, than the phase of electricity; but he felt himself borne irresistibly along by the wave of progress. One might reverence the Virgin, in the Electric phase; but one could not really worship. The blunt non-conformist piety of John Adams gave way to the doubts of John Quincy Adams, the humanitarianism of Charles Francis Adams, the despair of Henry Adams. Belief in Providence, so enduringly rooted in Burke’s conservatism, was lost in the vicissitudes of New England’s conservative thought.[12]

It was, as Kirk says, a “swaggering half-century,” and “even if conservatives had been able to command any substantial body of public opinion, they scarcely would have known what way to lead the nation….By the time the First World War had ended, true conservatism was nearly extinct in the United States existing only in little circles of stubborn men who refused to be caught up in the expansive lust of their epoch, or in the vague resistance to change still prevalent among the rural population, or, in a muddled and half-hearted fashion, within certain churches and colleges. Everywhere else, change was preferred to continuity.”[13]

In the last three chapters of his book, Kirk considers the situation of conservatism in the twentieth century: the last chapter, in the first edition, is called “The Recrudescence of Conservatism”; in the most recent edition, that of 1972, this has become “Conservatives’ Promise.” His treatment of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, in whom “the dismayed aloofness of Henry Adams was succeeded by a dogged endeavor to achieve conservative moral reform”[14] is written with particular understanding and sympathy. In Irving Babbitt, Kirk says, “American conservatism attains maturity.”[15] With his emphasis on self-discipline, on the need of the active will to rise above the lethargy of the senses, and in his rejection of humanitarianism, Babbitt arrived at a conception of work which shows how great the gap was between him and his time: “It is in fact the quality of a man’s work that should determine his place in the hierarchy that every civilized society requires.”[16] For Babbitt, according to Kirk, “The only true freedom is the freedom to work.”[17] Babbitt and More had much in common, but with More there is a different emphasis; through all his work, Kirk believes, “runs a stern continuity: the insistence that for our salvation in this world and the other, we must look to the things of the spirit, accept the duality of human nature, remind ourselves that the present moment is of small consequence in the mysterious system of being.”[18] Kirk goes on to say, “For him, sin and redemption, justice and grace, were realities which the naturalists can ignore only at the cost of brutalizing society; and after half a century of controversy, the tide appears to be turning sharply in More’s favor.”[19] Kirk concludes this discussion with the observation, “With Babbitt and More, American conservative ideas experienced a reinvigoration attesting the coquetry of History and the mystery of Providence.”[20]

Kirk is a thorough-going realist, and has no illusions about the destructive forces at work in our time and country, but believing that “a divine intent rules society,” and with Burke that “God’s purpose among men is revealed through the unrolling of history,” he does not succumb to despair. He is well aware that “conservatives have been routed,’’ as he puts it, but equally so that they had not been conquered; and while much has been lost, much is still left, and the enemies of conservatism, whether they call themselves liberals, socialists, fascists or communists, stand discredited by history. “The Federal Constitution,” Kirk points out, “has endured as the most sagacious conservative document in political history,” and “Despite the disruptive forces of mass-communication, rapid transportation, industrial standardization, a cheap press, and other mass media, and Gresham’s Law working in affairs of the mind, despite the radical effects of vulgarized scientific speculation and weakened private morality, despite the decay of family economy and family bonds, most men and women in the twentieth century still feel veneration for what their ancestors affirmed and built; and they express a pathetic eagerness to find stability in time of flux.”[21] Kirk ends his book with “Cupid’s curse against the hubris of the ruthless innovator”:

They that do change old love for new,

Pray gods they change for worse.

The first indication that the response to The Conservative Mind might be favorable was an advance notice from the somewhat unpredictable Kirkus Book Review Service on March 15th, which was all we could have asked for, and certainly more than I had expected: “A fine study of conservative thought in politics, religion, philosophy and literature from 1790 to 1952.” This was followed by a recommendation in the Library Journal on May 1st that “since the book is sure to provoke heated controversy…libraries should have copies available.” On May 1st, the day before publication, the New York Times Sunday Book Review Section raised our hopes and spirits immeasurably with an excellent, half-page review in a prominent position by Gordon Chalmers. The book was beginning to show signs of life, and in a letter to Kirk I reported that we were selling about one hundred copies a week, but what really put it into the center of discussion was a long, intelligent review in the July 4th issue of Time (dated July 6th). The whole book review section was devoted to one book, The Conservative Mind; with George Washington on the cover, and the Kirk book taking up the entire book review section – it was also mentioned in the news pages – the theme of the issue could be taken to be the continuity of the American conservative tradition. The review, which I am told was written by Max Ways, was not only favorable, it was the kind of review which stimulates the interest and curiosity of the reader, which is not true of every review, favorable or not. All this, and the circumstances of the review having appeared in this particular issue and featured as it was made the publication of The Conservative Mind a significant event. Sales increased immediately – I wrote to Kirk to four hundred a week-and the first printing was sold out before the end of July. A second printing of five thousand was delivered in August and a third before the end of the year. Russell Kirk, from having been a rather obscure instructor at what he was later to call Behemoth U had become a national figure.

The impact of The Conservative Mind when it first appeared in 1953 is hard to imagine now. After the long domination of liberalism, with its adulation of the common man,” its faith in mechanistic political solutions to all human problems, its rejection of the tragic and heroic aspects of life, and the not exactly inspired prose in which its ideas were usually expressed, after all this, I repeat, such sentiments as ‘‘the unbought grace of life,” the “eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead,” a view of politics as “the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature,” came like rain after a long drought. August Hekscher began his review in the New York Herald-Tribune (August 2, 1953): “To be a conservative in the United States has for so long been considered identical with being backward, and even faintly alien, that Mr. Kirk’s proud justification of the term is to be welcomed.” Harrison Smith, in a syndicated review which appeared in many papers including the Washington Post, welcomed the book with the words, “Thoughtful Americans concerned with the rapidity with which totalitarian theories and revolutions are spreading over a large part of the world should read Russell Kirk‘s landmark in contemporary thinking.” Peter Viereck reviewed the book in the Saturday Review. There was a most favorable and effective review in Fortune, and Partisan Review discussed the book at length in two separate issues. A long essay about The Conservative Mind appeared in the Kenyon Review by John Crowe Ransome (later reprinted in a collection of his essays), and another, in part a reply to Ransome, by Brainard Cheney in the Sewanee Review. It was reviewed in the Times (London) Literary Supplement, and both Golo Mann and Wilhelm Roepke wrote extended essays about The Conservative Mind in German publications. The post-World War II conservative movement had attained intellectual respectability and an identity, and was on its way.

For the review in Time we are indebted to Whittaker Chambers. I had first met Chambers in 1952, when he was given an honorary degree by Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. Hearing that he was in Milwaukee, I called to ask if I might see him. I did this, I must say, with some hesitation, since I was reluctant to intrude on his privacy, and was therefore all the more pleased when he told me that he would be delighted to see me, and to come along at once. He was with his wife, Esther, who had made her own contribution to his achievement and firmness under fire, and for all her gentleness and charm of manner, had character and resolution of steel. The admiration I had felt for him ever since reading Witness quickly developed into warm friendship. I visited the Chambers a number of times at their Maryland farm, visits of which I have the most pleasant memory, and corresponded with him to the end of his life. To have known Whittaker Chambers, and to have been able to regard him as a friend, was a great privilege. Feeling as I did about the manuscript, I spoke to Chambers about The Conservative Mind soon after I had read it, and sent him a set of proofs as soon as they became available. His response was the following letter, dated June 26, 1953:

I wrote Roy Alexander, the editor of Time, recently, to say that I thought that Russell Kirk’s book was one of the most important that was likely to appear in some time, and to suggest that Time might well devote its entire Books section to a review of it….I also told Time why I thought The Conservative Mind important, what it was and did.

Yesterday, Roy telephoned to say that Time agreed and that its whole forthcoming Books section will be devoted to Kirk‘s book. It will be the July 4 issue with G. Washington on the cover. So I am able at last to do something, in a small way, for you who have done so much for us – and to do something for Kirk‘s book, which you and I both would agree is the big thing. Incidentally, this shows that simply by picking up a pen, things can be done if we have the will to overcome inertia.

I can make no claim that I ever did anything for Wittaker Chambers beyond offering him my friendship; I felt more than repaid by the return of his. He was one of the great men of our time, and by assuming the terrible burden of being, as he put it, “an involuntary witness to God’s grace and to the fortifying power of faith,’’ all of us are immeasurably in his debt.

The sense of exultation we all felt when the advance copies of the Time review came in is still very clear in my memory. Sidney Gair, who had recommended the book to me in the first place, was in a state bordering on ecstasy. “Just look,” he said, striking the magazine with his hand for emphasis, “pictures of Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt in Time magazine, and all because you decided to go into the publishing business! If you had gone into oil instead, and had struck five gushers in a row, it wouldn’t have given you a fraction of the satisfaction you feel now.” I readily admitted that this was true, but mentally observed that the proceeds from only one oil well would have been most welcome at the moment to pay some bills, which, as always, were rather pressing, a circumstance which helped to keep my pride and sense of achievement within bounds.

Not all the reviews, needless to say, were favorable, and neither Harpers’ nor the Atlantic could find space to review the book at all. The die-hard liberals of the academy, in particular, were unwilling to concede anything to Kirk. Peter Gay of Columbia University, for example, ended his review in the Political Science Quarterly (December, 1953) with the observation: “In trying to confute Lionel Trilling’s position, [that American conservatives have no philosophy and express themselves only “in action or irritable mental gestured’] Kirk has ‘only confirmed it.’” Stuart Gamy Brown reviewed the book in Ethics (October, 1953), a quarterly published by the University of Chicago, and was not at all impressed. He reviewed Scott Buchanan’s Essays in Politics at the same time, which, he said, “Is much the better book.” (Brown quotes with apparent approval a remark of Buchanan’s to the effect that the Soviet Union is a “province of the democratic empire.”) Brown is “tempted 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 the neoconservatives.” Before going on to the more congenial task of considering Scott Buchanan’s book, Brown observes, “Since . . . Kirk’s despised American majority allows him to cultivate such tastes and virtues as he pleases, it is not, by the same token, required to take him seriously.” Each to his own taste, and to his own manner of going from premise to conclusion. Norman Thomas, in the United Nations World (August, 1953), concluded a long and wordy review, which gives the impression that his reading of the book was rather spotty, with the remark, “What he has given us is an eloquent bit of special pleading which is, in part, a false, and, in sum total, a dangerously inadequate, philosophy for our time.”

In contrast to the opinions of Peter Gay and Stuart Garry Brown, Clinton Rossiter, in the American Political Science Review (September, 1953), states flatly that Kirk’s “scholarship is manifestly of the highest order,” and concludes his review: “Certainly the so-called ‘new conservatism’ of the postwar period takes on new substance and meaning with the publication of this splendid book.” L. P. Curtis reviewed The Conservative Mind together with Richard Pares’ King George II and the Politicians in the Yale Review (Autumn, 1953), and expressed the opinion, “This eloquent and confident book should hearten present conservatives and open the eyes of many of them to the splendor of their moral heritage. It should give pause to those scientistic planners and sentimentalists who dismiss the forebodings of Shakespeare’s Ulysses as old hat . . . in spite of shortcomings Kirk fulfills one of the higher aims of the historian: he teaches us a way of life, and one, moreover, that is tried in experience and sprung from our condition.”

The acceptance of “conservatism” as the description of the growing movement of opposition to the rule of liberalism was not automatic nor without strenuous opposition. Both Frank S. Meyer, who eventually became one of the acknowledged leaders of the conservative movement, and F. A. Hayek, who did as much as any other single person to give direction and a sound footing to the movement in opposition to the planned economy, wrote vigorously against conservatism as a description of their position. Although recognized as one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement, Hayek has never been willing to describe himself as a conservative; he prefers to be known as an “Old Whig,” a Label which requires several pages of explanation, an explanation which probably convinces everyone who reads it except Prof. Hayek himself that he really is, at heart, a conservative. All of which provides us with a fine example of “The proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life,” which, Kirk tells us, conservatives particularly cherish.

Frank Meyer’s attack on the “New Conservatism,’’ as he called it, appeared in the July 1955, issue of The Freeman and had the ominous title, “Collectivism Rebaptized.” He begins by acknowledging that “the emergence of the New Conservatism, which has for some time filled the quarterlies and magazines of opinion and is now spilling out into the larger world, can be accurately correlated with the appearance of that book…it was The Conservative Mind which precipitated the New Conservatism.” Kirk‘s position, and that of the new conservatives in general, Meyer argues with his usual vehemence and confidence, is rhetorical, and “without clear and distinct principle.” Since, he says, Kirk “presents himself and his belief always rhetorically, never on a reasoned basis, he can succeed in establishing the impression that he has a strong and coherent outlook without ever taking a systematic and consistent position…to make tradition, ‘prejudice and prescription,’ not along with reason but against reason, the sole foundation of one’s position is to enshrine the maxim ‘Whatever is, is right,’ as the first principle of thought about politics and society.”

Meyer is particularly sharp in his criticism of Kirk’s rejection of individualism; for Meyer, “all value resides in the individual; all social institutions derive their value and, in fact, their very being from individuals and are justified only to the extent that they serve the need of individuals.” While he did eventually call himself a conservative, Meyer always differentiated his position from what he called the “New Conservatism,” and primarily on the basis of his conception of the individual and what he took Kirk’s position in this respect to be. Meyer concludes his Freeman article with the stern, and in my opinion, completely erroneous judgment, and a judgment I have every reason to believe he himself came later to regret, “The New Conservatism, stripped of its pretension, is, sad to say, but another guise of the collectivist spirit of the age.”

Hayek‘s rejection of conservatism was first given in the form of a paper at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international organization of liberal – in the traditional sense – economists and others who share their concern for the free society. The first meeting of the society took place in Switzerland in April, 1947; its annual meetings ever since, which usually are held in September, have provided opportunity for the consideration on the highest level of contemporary problems and issues. Hayek is the founder of the society, and was still its president when he gave his paper, “Why I am not a Conservative” at the 1957 meeting. He included this paper, as a postscript, in his monumental book, The Constitution of Liberty, which was first published in 1968. While neither The Conservative Mind nor Russell Kirk were specifically mentioned in the paper, it was obviously inspired by the success of Kirk’s book and the influential position the ideas it set forth had attained, which is attested by the fact that Kirk was invited to defend his position immediately afterward, which he did extemporaneously, without notes of any kind, and with great brilliance and effect. This encounter in an elegant Swiss hotel before a distinguished international audience between one of the most respected economists of his time, who had been honored by professorships at the universities of Vienna, London and Chicago, and the young writer from Mecosta, Michigan, was a dramatic and memorable occasion; as a rather biased witness, I would not be prepared to say that the young man from Mecosta came out second best.

Hayek‘s rejection of conservatism, as a noun rather than a concept, may well have been unconsciously influenced by the fact that in the Austria in which he reached maturity, conservatism was identified with the House of Habsburg and clerical Catholicism. In his explanation, however, of why he is not a conservative, Hayek undertakes to base his argument on strictly rational grounds, but it is an argument carried through without the coherence or unremitting logic one associates with Professor Hayek. Conservatism, he argues, is reactionary; while it may be against what all of us are against – collectivism or socialism – “by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative.”[22] Guided as they are, he says, “by the belief that the truth must lie somewhere between extremes,” conservatives “have shifted their position every time a more extreme position appears on either wing.” In consequence, “The conservative lacks principle,” and “is essentially an opportunist.”[23] In saying that the conservative lacks principle, Hayek does “not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction”; what he means, he says, “is that he [the conservative] has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.”[24] From this assertion Hayek goes on to say, “to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits.”[25] Finally, Hayek tells us, “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”[26]

Conservatism, as Kirk has repeatedly pointed out, is not an ideology nor a fixed body of dogma; it can much better be described as an attitude, as a way of viewing the world, a way which includes the willingness to come to terms with the realities of the human condition and to accept and to pass on the order of being as it has come down to us; it begins, as Kirk puts it, “with the premise that we must be obedient to a transcendent order.” As for the assertion that conservatives lack principle, are mere opportunists, one need only to point to some of the great representative conservatives – to Edmund Burke, to John Adams and the others who framed the Constitution, the “most sagacious conservative document in political history,” as Kirk describes it – can one say that they were men without principle? Hayek takes conservatives to task for their “fear of change”; if we have learned nothing else from the history of the last one hundred years, we should have learned that a skeptical view of change is highly desirable, that “innovation is a devouring conflagration,” as Russell Kirk puts it, “more often than it is a torch of progress.” As ironical as it may sound, it is quite possible that Hayek’s resistance to conservatism is nothing more than resistance to change: the conservatism described by Russell Kirk comes to Hayek, with the heritage of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy behind him, as a new concept, and conservative at heart that he really is, he is not willing to accept it without a struggle.

Conservatism, Prof. Hayek argues, by its very nature “cannot offer an alternative to socialism.” But why should it? Why should an American conservative, with the free and incredibly successful society behind him made possible by the American tradition and the U.S. Constitution, feel any compulsion to offer an alternative to socialism, a concept of government and society not only completely contrary to human nature, but utterly discredited by experience? As for the criticism that conservatism fails to recognize that moral and religious ideas are not proper objects of coercion, has not the present age of licentiousness taught us the contrary? A society has the right to protect itself from those who would destroy it, from those who would destroy it physically as well as from those who would destroy the moral principles on which it rests, John Stuart Mill to the contrary notwithstanding. Or as Willmoore Kendall would put it, a society embodies “a public truth, which it defends against barbarians outside its confines and heretics within them.’’[27]

By his tireless, unselfish and effective devotion to the cause of the free society, Frank Meyer earned the right to nourish an aberration or two, one of which was his infatuation with individualism. In a very broad sense, so broad as to become meaningless, it is true that “all social institutions derive their value from individuals,” but which individuals? A society is more than the individuals who momentarily make it up; its character and quality are also determined, and determined very largely, by its history, its traditions, its symbols, its myths and all the other things that comprise that “eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.” The South is different from the North not so much because those now living in the South are different, but because it has had a different experience, just as German or Austrian society is different from French or English society. To say these things, to talk about the primacy of “prejudice and prescription” in the preservation of order, is not “enshrining the maxim ‘What is, is right,’ as the first principle of thought about politics and society,” but viewing reality as it is, and its consequences as they must be.

However much our respected late friend Frank Meyer may have tilted against what he called the New Conservatism, when the first issue of National Review appeared in November, 1955, with Frank S. Meyer on the masthead as one of the editors, and only a few months after the appearance of the article which called the new Conservatism “but another guise of the collectivist spirit of the age,” the new magazine was described as “A conservative journal of opinion,” and Russell Kirk was a regular contributor. It would seem, therefore, that Kirk had won.

We published five further books by Russell Kirk, one John Randolph of Virginia, a revised edition of a book first published in 1951 by the University of Chicago Press, and another, Beyond the Dream of Avarice, a collection of essays, most of which, in somewhat different form, had appeared in various English and American periodicals. The other three books were original works, and to some extent, at least, were written with encouragement and stimulation from our firm, in which act of secondary creativity we performed one of the proper functions of the publisher.

The author describes his Randolph of Roanoke as “an account of a radical man who became the most eloquent of American conservatives.”[28] It was not the purpose of the book to give an account of Randolph’s life, except summarily, “but rather to describe his opinions and to suggest their influence.” Our edition differed from the original chiefly by the inclusion of an appendix containing several of Randolph‘s speeches which had not been accessible before to the general reader, and a number of representative letters, some published in our book for the first time. To recall the thought and influence of John Randolph, that passionate, eccentric, wonderfully eloquent Virginia aristocrat, was for Russell Kirk, as he says, “a pious act”; to publish such a book in 1964, the year of the great triumph of Lyndon Baines Johnson, was for me a particularly satisfying act of defiance.

The reader of Beyond the Dreams of Avarice will soon discover that Russell Kirk is a master of the essay form. Whether writing on censorship, on social boredom, liberalism, the island of Eigg in the Hebrides or on Wyndham Lewis, Kirk’s sense of history, his skill in illuminating a contemporary subject from the perspective of the past, and his spacious style give his essays a quality all their own. A most appreciative review in the New Yorker (August 4, 1956) ended with the comment, “As a critical tool in the hands of a writer as adept as Russell Kirk, conservatism has a sharp cutting edge indeed.”

The three books by Russell Kirk following The Conservative Mind which were entirely original with us were A Program for Conservatives, Academic Freedom, and The American Cause, the first two both published in 1955, and the last in 1957. A Program for Conservatives, in a way, was a continuation of The Conservative Mind; in it, Kirk undertook to apply to the contemporary situation the principles he had described in his earlier book. The critical response was almost as extensive as that brought forth by The Conservative Mind, but more varied. By some it was as warmly welcomed as the first book. James Burnham, for example, in the Annals of the American Academy (March 1955) concluded a most favorable review with the words, “He is not only reviving the conservative tradition, but he is rescuing it: both from sterile reactionaries who have degraded it, and from verbalists who . . . are trying to hitch a ride on the shifting Zeitgeist.” While not entirely uncritical, Raymond English pronounced the book, in the New York Times (November 21, 1954) necessary and most welcome.” Perhaps the most remarkable review was that of James Rorty in the socialist New Leader (October 25, 1954) who ended a two-page, serious discussion of the issues Kirk raises with the conclusion, “What he has done is to give us the most systematic, eloquent and persuasive general statement of the conservative position that has appeared in print.”

There were also, needless to say, voices of dissent. The review in Partisan Review was headed “The Conservatism of Despair”; The Progressive (July 1955) predictably felt that the book represented “the worst aspects of the ‘conservative recrudescence,’” and Commonweal (December 31, 1954) called it a “sterile book.” A long review in Harper’s (January 1955) was headed “Backward, Turn Backward,” and accused Kirk of “utopianism,” but had to admit, reluctantly, it would seem, that he “raises the gravest questions; he has real moral fervor; he is far better educated, far more literate, than most contemporary writers on politics and society.” From all this it is evident that having started the discussion, Kirk was well able to keep it going, and on his own terms.

Of these three books, the one that represented the most original contribution to thoughtful opinion and had the greatest influence was probably Academic Freedom. The book was written in response to what the author felt was a widespread misuse and misunderstanding of a concept he considered vital to the well-being of the university and therefore of society as a whole. The somewhat flamboyant rhetoric of the late Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, and even more a sense of guilt and inadequacy on the part of certain members of the academic community, had led to a state of mind bordering on hysteria. We were solemnly assured that a professor who dared to drive a foreign car or assign a work of Thomas Jefferson to his classes was in danger of instant dismissal. When the senator recommended that certain books critical of American institutions in the libraries maintained in foreign countries by the U. S. government be removed, the cry of “book burning” was heard throughout the land, and the American Library Association, with great fanfare, responded with a manifesto, “The Freedom to Read.” In all this, “academic freedom” was invoked like an incantation. The situation was further confused by the appearance in 1951 of a book, God and Man at Yale, by a recent Yale graduate, William F. Buckley, Jr., whose argument culminated in the paragraph, at the end of a chapter headed “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’“:

One thing is clear: it is time that honest and discerning scholars cease to manipulate the term academic freedom for their own ends and in such fashion as to deny the rights of individuals. For in the last analysis, academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support.[29]

In this welter of claim and counterclaim, of accusation and counter-accusation, Kirk felt that the real meaning of academic freedom both “as a security against hazards to the pursuit of truth by those persons whose lives are dedicated to conserving the intellectual heritage of the ages and to extending the realm of knowledge”[30] and as an obligation on the part of those it is intended to protect to act in a manner appropriate to their profession, was in danger of being lost. Academic freedom, Kirk points out, “belongs to that category of rights called ‘natural rights,’ and is expressed in custom, not in statute,”[31] which makes its proper understanding, particularly by those who claim its privilege, all the more necessary. Academic freedom, Kirk emphasizes, does not mean “complete autonomy for teachers, or the licentious toleration of a bewildering congeries of private fancies,” nor is it “freedom simply for the masters of educational institutions to enforce their opinions upon the teachers.” It is a special kind of freedom which arose from the realization that the protection it afforded was necessary if the university was to fulfill its high moral and intellectual purpose, and will survive only so long as the university remains true to such purpose.

The critical response to Academic Freedom was extensive, and, for the most part, of the kind one hopes for but does not often experience for a serious discussion of an important subject. For once, also, the response to the book was not rigidly ideological, as is so often, unfortunately, the case with a book which takes a strong position on a controversial issue. The book was reviewed at considerable length, and although not without some difference of opinion, most positively in the New York Times (March 20, 1955), by Roswell G. Ham, who called it a “brilliant and exciting study,” while William F. Buckley, Jr., found himself joining hands with the Nation in a complete rejection of the book. Buckley’s review (The Freeman, July 1955) is headed “Essay in Confusion,” and asserts “. . . Dr. Kirk’s book on academic freedom has something in it for everybody….But no one could conceivably refer to this book as a reasoned statement of a coherent position on academic freedom.”

One of the most useful, conscientious and thoughtful reviews was that of Paul Pickrel in Commentary (July 1955), who, in places, is, sharply critical and strongly disagrees with Kirk‘s position, but writes:

Yes for all that I remain finally unconvinced by Mr. Kirk‘s historical account of academic freedom, for all that I regard his philosophical position as too narrow and (as he would say) too doctrinaire, for all that I am annoyed by occasional inaccuracies, when I called his book valuable at the beginning of this review I meant it. I think the book makes a major contribution to the discussion of academic freedom in this country.

The last book we published by Russell Kirk, The American Cause, was written following the disclosure of the dismal performance of many Americans while prisoners of the Communists in North Korea. The lack of any sense of loyalty, of awareness of what their country stands for, of its traditions, history and achievement, even of the will to survive on the part of a substantial number of American soldiers taken prisoner during the Korean war came as a great shock and demonstrated that something was seriously wrong with the American system of education. To correct this situation was the purpose of The American Cause, and that it served its purpose is demonstrated by the fact that it has been widely read, and, after twenty years, is still in print. Reviewing it in Commonweal (December 6, 1957), Thomas Molnar remarked that it combined the “great qualities” of “the philosopher’s grasp of ideas and the pamphleteer’s singleness of purpose.”

As I mentioned earlier, Russell Kirk was an instructor of history at Michigan State College (now University, of course) when we published The Conservative Mind. Michigan State is one of those vast educational conglomerates which have developed in consequence of the widely held belief that if a college education is useful and helpful to some, justice and the principles of democracy demand that it be made available to all. Courses are offered, as Kirk has often remarked, in everything from medieval philosophy to elementary and advanced fly casting, and its chief function, in his opinion, is to deprive the young people who pour through its gates of whatever prejudices and moral principles they bring with them, to send them out into the world again having given them nothing in return in the way of principles or understanding to help them to come to terms with the realities of life.

Not long after the publication of The Conservative Mind Kirk resigned his position at Michigan State, using the occasion to get off a great blast at the President, John Hanna – “bachelor of poultry husbandry and honorary doctor of laws at his own institution” as he was later to describe him – and at the whole conception as well of such an institution as Michigan State. When he told me of his intention to do this, I urged him to reconsider, pointing out the advantages of a relatively secure academic position with its monthly check as opposed to the uncertainties of living as a writer and lecturer, to say nothing of the retributions to be expected from the academic establishment. To this he replied in his characteristic fashion in a letter dated October 12, 1953:

Poverty never bothered me; I can live on four hundred dollars cash per annum, if I must; time to think, and freedom of action, are much more important to me at present than any possible economic advantage. I have always had to make my own way, opposed rather than aided by the times and the men who run matters for us; and I don’t mind continuing to do so.

Make his own way he did; Russell Kirk, one can truthfully say, has become one of the most influential men of our time: we listen to him because he speaks with authority, not with the outward authority of the tax collector or public official, but with the inner authority of a man who has thought deeply about what he says, means it, and is willing to put himself on the line for it. Our last publishing association was the founding in 1957, with David S. Collier, of Modern Age. He resigned as editor after only two years, but gave the publication direction and quality which, after twenty years, it still has. “By the time Kirk resigned in 1959,” George Nash remarks in his The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, “he had established what he wanted: a dignified forum for reflective, traditionalist conservatism. Modern Age had filled a desperate need; even after Kirk‘s departure it remained the principle quarterly of the intellectual right.”[32]

Russell Kirk has chosen to live in a small town in Northern Michigan, Mecosta, where he spent many happy summers as a boy with various relatives, in a region of small lakes, sand hills and the stumps of the great pines that once covered the area. The house of his great-grandfather, where he lived as a bachelor, burned to the ground, ghosts and all, on Ash Wednesday, 1975, but the large, solid, square brick house, surmounted by a cupola rescued from a demolished public building, which was nearly finished at the time of the fire, provides ample room for his charming, down-to-earth, energetic wife – the perfect wife for Russell – and their four daughters and for numerous visitors, and, appropriately, as the home of its most prominent citizen, dominates the village. A former wood-working shop some quarter of a mile away has been converted into a study, and there, surrounded by the books accumulated during thirty years of disciplined study, he does his work. A student or protégé is usually in residence, and groups of students come during holidays for study and discussion. The rather remote, obscure village of Mecosta has become an important intellectual center, and doubtless has more positive influence in the world of ideas than the huge “university” Kirk abandoned in its favor.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kirk‘s career has been its uninterrupted consistency. In a disorderly age he has tirelessly and eloquently made clear the necessity and sources of order; against the false prophets who proclaim that all values are relative and derive from will and desire, he shows their immutability; and to those who believe that man is capable of all things, he teaches humility and that the beginning of wisdom is respect for creation and the order of being.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on or by Dr. Kirk may be found here

This essay is reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 1977).


1. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, Chicago 1953, p. 3.

2. lbid., p. 7.

3. bid., pp. 7-8.

4. Ibid., p. 24.

5. Ibid., p. 32.

6. Ibid., p. 26.

7. Ibid., p. 295.

8. lbid., p. 296.

9. Ibid., p. 297.

10. lbid., p. 311.

11. Ibid., p. 313.

12. lbid., pp. 315-316.

13. Ibid., p. 325.

14. Ibid., p. 364.

15. Ibid., p. 316.

16. lbid., p. 372.

17. Ibid., p. 372.

18. lbid., p. 377.

19. Ibid., p. 385.

20. Ibid., p. 386.

21. Ibid., p. 400.

22. F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” reprinted as a postscript in The Constitution of Liberty, Gateway Edition, Chicago 1972, p. 398.

23. lbid., p. 401.

24. lbid., pp. 401-402.

25. Ibid., p. 402.

26. lbid., p. 400.

27. Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation, Chicago 1963, p. XI.

28. Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, A Study in American Politics, Chicago 1964, p. 1.

29. William F. Buckley, Jr., God and Man at Yale, Chicago 1951, p. 190.

30. Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom, An Essay in Definition, Chicago 1955, p. 3.

31. lbid., p. 4.

32. George A. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, since 1945, New York 1976, p. 145.

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  1. The Conservative Mind was a wonderful read, a meditation on the Permanent Things as Kirk would say. To this day I keep a copy on my night table, refreshing and enlightening as it always is.

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