Prospects for Conservatives: A Compass for Rediscovering the Permanent Things by Russell Kirk, with a new introduction by Bradley J. Birzer. Imaginative Conservative Books, 2013.
Russell Kirk’s most spirited work, Prospects for Conservatives is a vigorous defense of an authentic, elevated conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke, John Adams, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Written in part as a response to early critics of his 1953 The Conservative Mind, Prospects reveals the inner mechanics of a conservatism that is at once firmly rooted in the West’s cultural past yet wholly applicable to contemporary life. Poetic language and appeals to the power of myth make Prospects a unique work of social commentary. Prospects is remarkable because it channels Kirk’s youthful energy and compelling tone (he was thirty-six at the time of its composition) without compromising the gravity of his message. Kirk knew, in the words of his friend George Scott-Moncrieff, that “the world about us is not merely ours. We possess it only because our predecessors appreciated and cherished it.” Thus, it became Kirk’s mission to preserve what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things”—those “enduring truths” and “standards of order” upon which our civilization is based. For these ideas, Kirk focused the full power of his artillery.
Throughout Prospects for Conservatives, Kirk excoriates armchair philosophers and coffee-shop metaphysicians, or those to whom historian Paul Johnson applies the label “intellectuals.” Kirk believed that “the scholar and man of principle deserve to be cherished mightily by us all, for no society has enough of them. But the intellectual and the ideologue deserve to be cast into the outer darkness by gods, men, and booksellers.” Kirk’s distaste for “intellectuals” and ideologues is by no means the product of misplaced cynicism or boorish snobbery; rather, it is tied to his conviction that an authentic conservatism is closely tethered to the rejection of ideology. With Christopher Dawson, Kirk believed that ideology and faith are substantially different, but that they often “fulfill the same sociological functions.” Accordingly, Kirk believed that conservatives must resist the temptation to understand conservatism as merely another ideology in the catalogue of ideas.
Prospects for Conservatives reveals the humble nature of Kirk’s conservatism in that it rejects the concept that a particular political program can provide the answers to all of the complexities of modern life. Despite the insistence of radicals and liberals that these answers reside within the lofty heights of a sophisticated ideology, Kirk convincingly argues that conservatism is not a salvific cure-all nor an inert roadmap for the perpetual improvement of society. In fact, Kirk readily admits that “conservatives always differ a good deal, among themselves, as to the better solution of any particular problem.” He continues: “What they have in common is a similar view of human nature, of the ends of society, and of the most nearly satisfactory methods for seeking the common good.” Conservatism, then, is not a uniform program of political thinking; rather, it is an approach to life that embraces genuine, natural diversity and a view of existence consistent with the reality of human nature.
Given conservatism’s elusive definition and its rejection of ideology as a philosophical basis, what are its prospects in the beginning years of the twenty-first century? As Kirk argued, a reflective conservatism “is the proper antidote to the conservatism of apathy; and this conservatism of reflection cannot be conjured up by the politician and the publicist unaided.” Something more is required than the efforts of party leaders and editorial boards, although both remain important. The reinvigoration of a reflective conservatism must be based, in large part, upon the restoration of the primacy of duty, honor, and loyalty, or what Burke called the “spirit of a gentleman.” Kirk knew well that the “profound causes of our discontents lay elsewhere than in the fury of popular passions.” The battles waged by Kirk, and those fought by other conservatives of sober mind and imagination, are fought on behalf of the principles and traditions that form the basis of civil society.
In Kirk’s view, “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 vows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can ever 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 learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love.” Far from being Paradise, our fallen world provides an opportunity for men to “struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love.” Kirk believed that we are put into this world to “live like men, and to die like men.” Thus, the conservative aspires to rise beyond the bonds of “perpetual childhood” and struggles ceaselessly against confusion and vice in this the world of “gorgons and chimeras,” and his task is never complete either within himself or within his community. The corporeal world will be the conservative’s battleground, but absolute victory is beyond his grasp, as the end of history lay within God’s hands and not within the clutches of the political schemer. The conservative’s task is eternal, while his philosophical antagonists seek triumph in the mundane present.
Kirk firmly believed that conservatism was not confined to any single group, for “what gives the true conservative his strength in our time of troubles is his belief in a moral order which joins all classes in a common purpose, and through which men may live in justice and liberty.” An elevated conservatism is not the pawn of big business or “special” interests; rather, it belongs to all who care for the preservation of a tolerable social order. In particular, the power of political conservatism is only realized when its leaders evoke the vocabulary of right and wrong—when ideas and policies are treated as a moral enterprise understood through the prism of history. An elevated conservatism, in this view, is endowed with a moral purpose and conducive to the erection of an ordered, just, and free society.
In that regard, an elevated conservatism embraces the state as an institution ordained by God, “intended to enable men to live a life, through willing cooperation, which they could not possibly enjoy in a state of anarchy.” While the conservative is not a sentimental humanitarian, Kirk argued, “neither is he a swaggering nihilist, jeering at the state, the duties of men in society, and the necessities of modern life.” The authentic, imaginative conservative understands the necessity of the state and that its abolition is a step toward anarchy and the destruction of the community.
“Those things which console and cherish us, after all,” Kirk wrote, “are products of the heart, not of the mind: love, and community, and continuity, and a sense of abiding truth.”
Kirk believed that the maladies confronting the contemporary West were caused by our rejection of the “unbought grace of life” as an intellectual and moral force—a rejection of honor, duty, loyalty, and courage. The restoration of our culture is more than an intellectual task, however, as the intellect cannot alone transform individuals or cultures. Echoing St. Augustine, Kirk insisted that “the thinking conservative perceives that pure intellect, of itself, cannot bring peace, or certitude, or love.” It is the error of the rationalist in philosophy and the liberal in politics to ignore this seminal point. “Those things which console and cherish us, after all,” Kirk wrote, “are products of the heart, not of the mind: love, and community, and continuity, and a sense of abiding truth.” St. Paul writes that Love is the foundation of all, for Love is the substance of the Father from which everything in creation flows, and as Pascal taught, love is not an intellectual endeavor, for “the heart has reasons that reason knows not.” Thus, an authentic conservatism embraces a fuller understanding of human existence than that advanced by rationalists and does not reduce the human person to a shallow being animated by the intellect unaided.
Acknowledging that persons are more than intellectual creatures, Kirk understood the menace of social boredom engendered through the neglect of the soul when he wrote that “boredom, sloth of spirit, is a vice; and the most deadly boredom brings on the appetite for the most forbidden diversions.” Convinced that the endless pursuit of material and sensual gratifications are the product of systemic social boredom, he sought to distinguish slothfulness from the contemplative leisure required to sustain civil society. Rejecting Marx’s notion of leisure as a display of the ostentation and luxury of the privileged classes where men idle with little purpose, Kirk embraced the concept of leisure championed by Josef Pieper, which roughly equates to contemplation. “True leisure is not idleness,” wrote Kirk, yet to the modern progressive, leisure means nothing more than freedom to do nothing. Conversely, a dynamic social order requires men and women of imagination and intellect to possess the leisure to think and create; thus, a healthy society promotes opportunity for its working classes to save and acquire property, limits the power of the state, and encourages individuals to overcome their inner deficiencies. Further, true leisure allows individuals to spend time with their families, to engage in their faith communities, and to improve their homes. Oppressive taxation, anti-clericalism, and an outright war against the family undermine the concept of leisure that is necessary for the cultivation of a dynamic culture. For the conservative, to condemn the concept of true leisure is to embrace barbarism over civilization.
Today, in an age where popular conservatism is often divorced from the historical and philosophical predicates of traditional conservatism, the question of the relationship between the individual and the community is paramount. At the outset, if popular conservatism is to embrace an elevated and imaginative character, conservatives must reject the notion that individual freedom constitutes the highest social good. Thus, authentic conservatives understand the substantial importance of the community to the creation of a tolerable social order and acknowledge that the intrinsic value of the human person is not measured by an individual’s ability to do as he pleases. Conservatives believe that each human person possesses an innate, inviolable dignity; however, such dignity is not premised upon the unmitigated right of an individual to act without incurring the judgment of the community.
To that end, conservatives must not reject “community” out of a misplaced fear that it too closely resembles Marxian dogma. Conservatives must accept that government has a legitimate purpose without abandoning the fact that the true bonds of society are forged from voluntary associations that constitute a free community. These associations include churches, civic groups, and universities. The community represents human persons engaging in natural relations with one another throughout the ages, while collectivism is little more than a euphemism for modern, state-sanctioned serfdom. It is a difference that conservatives cannot afford to ignore.
Among the other subjects Kirk addresses in Prospects for Conservatives, and one closely related to the idea of voluntary community, is social justice. For Kirk, “the sincere Christian will do everything in his power to relieve the distresses of men and women who suffer privation and injury; but the virtue of charity is a world away from the abstract right of equality which the French radicals claimed.” He believed that charity, like community, is voluntary. Just persons understand that men differ in strength, intelligence, energy, discipline, talent, and inheritance, but they do not decry these differences as unfair. The heirs of Rousseau and Marx, driven by intemperate and avaricious egalitarianism, seek a society reduced to its lowest common denominator—a society in which all partake in an artificial, debased equality. In this view, equality in hell is preferred to inequality in Heaven—an essentially nihilistic position. Conversely, with Burke and Adams, Kirk believed that the Christian faith “does not command the sacrifice of the welfare of one class to that of another class; instead, Christian teaching looks upon the rich and powerful as the elder brothers of the poor and the weak, given their privileges that they may help improve the character and the condition of all humanity.” The Judeo-Christian tradition, which animates the conservative’s understanding of justice, seeks an elevated society, not one defiled by petty avarice and ripped asunder by class warfare.
Kirk labored to show that the apologists of radical egalitarianism operate under the delusion that their version of justice will not end “beneath the weight of a man or a party to whom justice is not more than a word.” Kirk understood that “without inequality, there is no opportunity for charity, or for gratitude; without difference of mind and talent, the world would be one changeless expanse of uniformity; and precisely that is the most conspicuous feature of hell.” Conservatives know, through the lens of history, that society is not a machine but a delicate “growth or essence,” and that men are not “cogs in a machine, but the life blood or life-spirit of society.” It is not labor, but ability, that elevates man “from savagery to civilization,” and while labor can be compelled by an omnipotent state, “ability can be secured only through a system of adequate rewards.” In essence, the just society respects the idea that each man is entitled to those things which are his own and rejects the seductive embrace of an abstract justice “which never existed and never can exist, and which would be hateful to the radical if it ever did arrive.”
Despite modernity’s embrace of uncompromising radicalism, Kirk reminds us that a healthy society is never wholly old and never wholly new, and that the wisdom of our ancestors must be used to understand and confront new social and political difficulties. It would do liberals and so-called “progressives” well to acknowledge that “real progress apparently consists in improvement of private and public morality, private and public intelligence, the increase of justice, order, and freedom, and of those material conditions which contribute to human happiness.” Contrary to the cries of the political left, change without reference to tradition and made for the sake of aimless alteration must result in anarchy and nihilism. Because “tradition is the means by which humanity filters out its mistakes from its progressive discoveries,” the passionate fury of the ideological devotee and political fanatic must be rejected in favor of deep reflection and sound statesmanship.
The most important spokesman of the post-war conservative tradition, Kirk provides the rising generation of conservatives with a framework in which to develop new ideas and reconcile conservation with cultural change. Kirk’s conservatism is not the static conservatism of the status quo, a defense of business interests, an apology for unfettered individual liberty, or a justification for the worldwide spread of democratic capitalism. Rather, Kirk’s conservatism seeks to restore the moral imagination to a world now dominated by dull, abstract, and dehumanizing ideas that work mischief in every facet of life. To the authentic conservative, Kirk is an indispensable guide.