In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk sought to identify, elucidate, and cultivate the best of the Western tradition as the West itself weathered, rather roughly at times, the storms of ideologies. Conserve the past, yes, but Kirk also wanted us to rally to the standards of the past to leave an inheritance for our children…
As a conservative and as someone who has written extensively on the life and ideas of Russell Kirk, I am often asked the question: “Why The Conservative Mind?” I take this question to mean several things, but, most importantly, it wants to know how such a strange and unorthodox book caught on so quickly, defining a movement and a healthy orthodoxy that has lasted from the book’s publication in 1953 to this very day.
That the book did start a movement is beyond question. From the moment it first appeared on bookstore shelves in May 1953 until this day, it has gone through seven editions and has, as a title, sold well more than a million copies. Between 1953 and 1955, nearly every major periodical and newspaper in the English-speaking world reviewed it, sometimes twice and sometimes more than twice. It has never been out of print, and, at the time of this writing, both the first edition and seventh edition are available for purchase. It’s available in an audible version as well as a Kindle edition. Some company with which I’m not familiar even sells an “abridged” version, which I presume is unsanctioned and rather warped. Regardless, the book is out there and available in a variety of formats.
Frankly, from an objective standpoint, The Conservative Mind is a strange book. First, just imagine how many young conservatives and libertarians have opened it, hoping to find a wealth of secrets as how to win back government from the statists and the leftists? If so (probably more often than not), the young reader will come away, deeply disappointed. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk gave us nothing regarding specific political policies, whether or not the public should fund school lunches, or how many troops and missiles the United States needed to counter the looming threat of Soviet Communism.
Second, one might very well read the book as a series of vignettes and biographical essays tied together by nothing more than Kirk’s interest in those specific vignettes and persons. Aside from the introduction and the conclusion, Kirk added few details about how the man or woman of 1953 might make the world immediately better.
Third, the whole tone of the book is one not of advancement, but of decay. Starting with the ideas of Edmund Burke and John Adams, Kirk spends the rest of the book (excluding the conclusion) detailing the loss of those origins, or, perhaps more accurately, the re-interpretation of those ideas and their adaptation to the minds and circumstances of those who adopted them. Indeed, the entire book fits the norm of republican literature in the vein of Livy. There was a Golden Age and then everything fell apart as inconsistencies and moments rent Burke’s legacy into a fractured mess.
Fourth, Kirk himself believed the book answered few things. It might very well—and rather beautifully—discuss the lineage of a tradition that most in the Western world had ignored, but ignored it they had. As a historian, Kirk was looking at the past, barely at the present, and certainly not at the future. After all, true to his romantic sensibilities, Kirk had appropriately entitled the dissertation from which the book came, The Conservative’s Rout. The story itself was the essence of decay.
And, yet, while true at a surface level, the paragraph above misses so much about Kirk’s inherent optimism about the human person, whatever sin man had freely chosen in this world of sorrows.
As with most conservatives of the twentieth century, Russell Kirk sought to identify, elucidate, and cultivate the best of the Western tradition as the West itself weathered, rather roughly at times, the storms of ideologies. Conserve the past, yes, but Kirk also wanted us to rally to the standards of the past to leave an inheritance for our children. That a movement immediately formed around Kirk’s book shocked him profoundly, but he never doubted that some woman or man somewhere and sometime in the future would find the book and help remember the fundamentals about the dignity of the human person. Such ideas could be forgotten, ignored, mocked, or manipulated, but, being true, they could never truly die. One only had to remember what had always existed and what always would.
At first sight, then, the very structure of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind might seem disjointed, if not a bit chaotic. Three figures—Burke and Adams at the beginning and T.S. Eliot at the end—anchor the book. In between, twenty-six persons—from John Randolph of Roanoke to Irving Babbitt—get some kind of treatment. Most of those Kirk remembers, such as Walter Bagehot, have been almost completely forgotten by those of us living in the first third of the twenty-first century. Or, how about Arthur Balfour or W.H. Mallock?
Chaos, though? Not really. Kirk’s assorted vignettes and biographies serve both Kirk’s fundamental philosophy regarding human dignity and uniqueness. First, for a conservative to assume some kind of rigid determination to hold a body of common beliefs would not only be absurd, but dangerous. Few of these men whom Kirk writes about would even recognize themselves as allies. Yet, as Kirk saw them, they each added something to the conservative mind, to the very lineage that holds us together.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Kirk wants to remind us that we must honor our fathers, our mothers, our ancestors. Do we agree with all that our parents or grandparents did? No, of course not. But, even in our disagreement with them, we respect them by taking them and their ideas seriously. Kirk often quoted John Henry Newman, noting that Toryism was not being loyal to a set of ideological ideals, but to persons. The real conservative honors—even when understandably and necessarily disagreeing—his ancestors. We exist because they did. The Conservative Mind, while adhering to certainly fundamental Burkean principles, honors our mothers and fathers, even when disagreeing with their ideas or the manifestation of those ideas into action. Still, we feel—as we should—loyal to those who came before. If not, we would never care about those who come after us.
The next time you pick up the foundation of all modern conservativism, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, keep in mind that, by reading it, you are honoring not just Burke and his disciples through T.S. Eliot, but also yourself, and, if so blessed, your children, your grandchild, and your great, great, great, great, great-grandchildren. Now, that’s humbling.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.