When I finished The Conservative Mind for the first time, I remember thinking quite clearly that Russell Kirk had gotten so close to truth, but, then, just when he had the chance, he failed to promote freedom—the proper answer to every single thing…
I often look at, hold, and peruse my first (first to me, that is) copy of The Conservative Mind. Sometime in 1989, I ended up with a brand-new hardback copy of the Regnery Seventh edition, revised, complete with a really hideous industrial-green dust jacket. It was the same shade of green that once adorned my public grade-school walls back in Hutchinson, Kansas. I write “was” because I long ago ripped away and threw away that cover. I normally keep my dust jackets, but this one deserved a death long ago. Whether it was death by simple discard or burning, I remember not. Whatever the case, it is long gone.
I do not even remember how I came by the book. I grew up in what can only be described as a Barry Goldwater household (though long after Goldwater’s presidential run), and I had been reading Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Ringer, and Henry Hazlitt since ninth grade, but I had never read anyone associated with a Kirkian type of conservatism. To my mind, conservatives were allies, but they were certainly only secondary thinkers compared to great men such as Milton Friedman.
If I’m remembering correctly, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute must have sent me this gratis copy of The Conservative Mind sometime in 1988 or 1989. I would guess that they did so when I signed up to receive Campus magazine, the Intercollegiate Review, and Modern Age. I couldn’t testify to the absolute truth of this memory, but I do believe it correct.
The Conservative Mind, regardless, came into my possession and here it remains. And, it remains in fairly good shape despite the million moves and billion readings since 1989. Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much. Opening the book and perusing it never fails to give me a sense of nostalgia as my marginalia have now created layers upon layers of notes in the book. My first marginalia are hilarious, tangible evidence of a bright, but not-so-bright, twenty-one-year old libertarian struggling mightily to argue with Kirk. I also circled every word that I did not know and had to look up in the dictionary. As you might imagine, there are a lot of circled words—almost always with an arrow leading to a definition hastily written in the margins: “neoterist,” “meliorism,” “antipodes,” “energumen,” “saprophyte,” “chthonian,” “surcease,” and others. As I look at this essay, as I’m typing it, I see that Microsoft is not so happy with the words either. Maybe the Intercollegiate Studies Institute should have sent Bill Gates a copy of The Conservative Mind back in 1989 as well. Out of pride, however, I must note that none of these words gives me pause now, but I’m assuming this is only because I absorbed them when first reading Kirk.
The date I first encountered this book and read it is important as well: 1989. As Hungary opened its borders, as Poland abolished its communist party, and as the Berlin Wall was about to come down, I was reading and intensely studying Kirk’s patrimony and lineage of conservatives in the Anglo-American world, Burke to Kirk. Somewhere in Zahm Hall at the University of Notre Dame, I was devouring The Conservative Mind while millions of dissident allies across the Atlantic and on the other side of the soon-to-be-gone Iron Curtain were non-violently and rather romantically claiming victory against their oppressors. Heady stuff.
My opening note from 1989 tells me that I considered the book a “hagiography,” something I still believe twenty-eight years later. Other marginalia run from the profound to the absurd. Generally, if I’m reading my twenty-one-year-old self correctly, I was trying to find a common ground between Kirk and Friedman. Given that my frame of reference then was either toward libertarianism or science fiction, these reactions make sense. When Kirk, later in the book, explains that “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” I have big circles and exclamation points with words such as “yes!!!” written next to it. When Kirk, however, proclaims that man’s first instinct is to be sinful, I have not disbelieving question marks but hesitant ones written in the margins. Sure, men sin, but is this really the default position of human existence? In 2017, I agree completely, but, in 1989, I was rather uncertain. I was and remain quite taken with Kirk’s repeated insistence, however, that man was not made for uniformity or conformity.
When I finished The Conservative Mind for the first time in that fateful year of 1989, I was both intrigued and repulsed by it. I remember thinking quite clearly that Kirk had gotten so close to truth, but, then, just when he had had the chance, he had failed to promote freedom—the proper answer to every single thing. At least I thought so then. I ended up writing a lengthy response to Kirk on three of four sheets of yellow legal-pad paper, explaining exactly where I thought he was wrong and what he could do to fix the eighth edition of the book. How very much like the Brad of 1989, and how utterly sophomoric, presumptuous, and stupid. To this day, I both regret and don’t regret having not sent that letter. What would Kirk have said to this stupid but interested undergraduate libertarian who knew exactly how to fix the world? Now that I have had the chance to study Kirk in depth, I would assume he would have been gracious to me, inviting me to Mecosta for a program or two.
My own libertarianism, however, became even more entrenched during the following years, and even bordered on anarchism. Not until I read a foundational piece on the Kirkian understanding of culture by Gleaves Whitney in late December 1991 did I finally realize what Kirk had been trying to state and what I had failed to understand two years earlier. I would be dishonest in claiming that any of that libertarianism or even anarchism of my high school and college years is gone from my mind or soul, even in 2017. But, there’s also no doubt that Kirk deepened my understanding of the human person, of human societies and cultures, and of God greatly back in 1989, even if it took me several more years to realize.
As I look back at my original edition of The Conservative Mind, I do find an intriguing piece of marginalia from my first reading of the book. On page 480, I had written: “Maybe I am a conservative. At least in history.” I can even remember exactly what I was thinking when I wrote this in 1989. I was more than satisfied with libertarianism when it came to explaining the problems of modern America. Yet, even then, I was unsatisfied with the way libertarians had written history. There seemed to be too much wishful thinking regarding those of the past. Some libertarians, for example, praised the “enlightened despotism” of the eighteenth century; others called for supporting all revolutions in history as anti-authoritarian; and still others despised men such as Alexander Hamilton. From my own perspective, none of this seemed fair or made sense. I did not want an enlightened despotism, I wanted a republic. I certainly did not think the French Revolution morally equivalent to the American Revolution. And, whatever his failings, I thought (and still think) Hamilton an amazing and critical figure, a patriot, even if misguided on this or that belief.
Well, whatever I thought of Kirk in 1989, he stayed with me, and stayed, and stayed, and stayed. Now, in 2017, I can’t but thank God for everything Russell Kirk wrote and did. Certainly, he and his books changed my life dramatically and, let’s hope, for the better. When I die, and if I make it to Heaven, I hope to meet Kirk. And, I also hope he will approve of my own intellectual trajectory.
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