Friday, August 14, 2009

The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk

I can't believe that it has taken me this long to get around to reading Russell Kirk's masterful: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (7th ed. Regnary, 2001). It is all that the reviewers said it was: clear, comprehensive, and penetrating. Kirk's ability to synthesize schools of ideas and summarize the thought of complex thinkers is pure genius.

But what struck me what how relevant the book is to the present-day situation. Immediately, the first sentence grabs you: "The stupid party": this is John Stuart Mill's description of conservatives." After watching the last presidential campaign unfold, one observes that the liberal talking points have not changed much. J. S. Mill could have been a welcome guest at CBS or any of the other networks during the last election. "The stupid party" is precisely how coastal liberal elites like to think of their enemies in the red states; it is a comforting thought no less comforting for its falsity. And the falsity of this dictum is what Kirk's book demonstrates elegantly.

It is apparent to all that the battle of ideas has not gone swimmingly for conservatives in the Western world during the modern age and the bloody, violent, dark Twentieth century was the outcome of the abandonment by the West of its philosophical and religious patrimony during the 18th century Enlightenment in France and Germany, and in the Anglo-Saxon world in the 19th century. But the conservative tradition has experienced something of a revival in the midst of Twentieth-century America, in no small measure due to this book and it author.

In chapter 1, "The Idea of Conservativism," Kirk lists six canons of conservativism. (pp. 9-10)

1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.

2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.

3. Conviction that a civilized society requires orders and classes as against the notion of a 'classless society.' . . . If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill up the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic leveling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

5. Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.

6. Recognition that change may not be salutory reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence. 1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.

I find this list intriguing for two main reasons. First, the belief in a transcendent order and providence are clearly the basis for the prudential holding back from trying to reform everything all at once and the headlong gallop into potentially disastrous social experimentation, such as occurred in industrialization of the Soviet Union. The impatience born of the belief that this world is all there is, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the source of many social disasters and much suffering in this world.

Second, I find the distinction between the idea of equality before the law and equality of condition to be of crucial importance. I believe that most people naturally believe in the former but not the latter. However, radicals often persuade those who cannot make this distinction adequately for themselves to support schemes for the latter by appealing to the former, that is, people who believe in equality before the law are misled into thinking this requires economic leveling or else there is no "justice." This is dangerous deception.

Kirk also lists five of the major opponents of conservatives in this introductory chapter.
  1. The rationalism of the philosophes.
  2. The romantic emancipation of Rousseau and his allies.
  3. The utilitarianism of the Benthamites.
  4. The positivism of Compte's school.
  5. The collective materialism of Marx and other socialists.
He notes also that the thought of Darwin has been used to advance one or another of these agendas in many instances. Some of the leading ideas uniting these various radicals that conservativism has combated include: (p. 10)

1. The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism. Radicals believe that education, positive legislation, and alteration of environment can produce men like gods; they deny that humanity has a natural proclivity toward violence and sin.

2. Contempt for tradition. Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as guides to social welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors. Formal religion is rejected and various ideologies are offered as substitutes.

3. Poilitical leveling. Order and privilege are condemned, total democracy, as direct as practible, is the professed radical ideal.

4. Economic leveling. The ancient rights of property, especially property in land, are suspect to almost all radicals; and collectivistic reformers hack at the institution of private property root and branch.

5. As a fifth point, one might try to define a common view of the state's function; but here the chasm of opinion between the chief schools of innovation is too deep for any satisfactory generalization. One can only remark that radicals unite in detesting Burke's description of the state as ordained of God, and his concept of society as joined in perpetuity by a moral bond among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born - the community of souls.

I would suggest that in the last half-century the convergence of monopoly capitalist, liberal democratic and socialist ideas in support of the all-powerful state (statism) can be seen as the fifth point here common to all the radicals.

There are many kinds of conservativism and this book helps to clarify the intellectual roots of the various kinds. I look forward to posting more as I go through the book.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

This may enrage some anabaptists, but it strikes me that every text they use to prove the NT is pacifistic could just as easily prove that it is conservative in a Burkean sense. And it much more easily explains the "pro-state" elements of the NT, let alone its continuity with the OT.