With a brief history of the origins of traditional or classical European conservatism concluded, I wanted to summarize a book that first popularized this kind of conservativism in the United States. I plan to post the first week of each month or perhaps every other month, depending upon time constraints, a book review. These reviews will consider books on conservatism and on history.)
The first conservative book review will start appropriately, where it all began, with Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.
Literary critic Lionel Trilling made the following observation of the American post-war political scene:
“In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Russell Kirk, along with William F. Buckley, Frank Meyer, Wilmoore Kendall, and James Burnham, set out to change all that by starting the modern conservative movement. They participated in establishing National Review magazine in 1955 to put conservative ideas into circulation. Although the movement became known as “the new conservatism,” the founders did not want promote conservatism as a movement without a tradition. Russell Kirk attempted to uncover the roots of conservatism in a paean he titled The Conservative Mind.
In his book, Kirk summarizes the views of select conservative thinkers from the 18th century to the 20th. (The book’s subtitle, From Burke to Eliot, suggests that Kirk may have got off on the wrong foot. Later we will see how.) He discusses the ideas of such men as Edmund Burke, John Adams, George Canning, Samuel Coleridge, John Randolph, John Calhoun, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Adams, and T. S. Eliot. As he surveys these thinkers, Kirk distinguishes them as “the true” conservatives or “the real” conservatives from others who traditionally bear that name. Kirk’s particular selection reflects his decision to follow “thinkers in the line of Burke.” Kirk’s discussion of Burke sets the theme for the remainder of the book. Unfortunately, this means he takes a leisurely stroll along a very small stream of conservative thought. Indeed, as Kirk unfolds his presentation, he gives the impression that he is unpacking his own version of conservatism and buttressing it through quote-mining from particular conservative thinkers.
Kirk explores on broad philosophical concepts such as religion and morality, law, liberty, equality, and democracy rather than specific political issues. In this he differs from more modern conservative books that contemporary hot-button issues. Because of his mode of presentation, Kirk provides no systematic analysis of these thinkers.
The superstructure of bulk of these broad conservative concepts rests on a foundation of religion. Christian motifs influence the conservative view of society. Paul in his epistles compared the church to a human body, a living organism with Christ as its head. Similarly, Burke saw society as an organic whole reaching across the generations, not an aggregate of individuals. Society, he wrote, is a “partnership not only between those who living but between those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” And it is the traditions of any society, maintained through prescription, prejudice, and presumption, that preserves both order and the liberties that its members enjoy.
Religion is part of that tradition. Although a supporter of the rights of religious dissenters, he supported a religious establishment. According to Burke, “Religion is so far, in my opinion, from being out of the province of a Christian magistrate that is and ought to be, not only his care, but the principle thing in his care.”
Kirk asserts a belief in natural law, a sense of morality based upon acknowledgment of God and Providence. All civil or positive laws rest upon natural law. According to Kirk, “we know God’s law only through our own laws that attempt to copy His.”
All individual rights derive from natural law. Kirk writes pejoratively of “abstract theories of rights” and “abstract and indefinable natural rights.” When separated from natural law, rights claims are simply “aspirations.” According to Kirk, Burke rejected the Lockean and Jeffersonian view on individual rights.
Burke--and Kirk, also reject their views on equality. They do not recognize the natural equality of all men. The only equality they recognize is the moral equality each human possesses in the eyes of God. They reject “Egalitarian proposals to accomplish the restoration of a pretended natural right of equality.”
Finally, Burke--and Kirk--also hold archaic views of class and democracy. Burke possessed no special affection for the aristocratic classes. His own background kept him from membership. Like our nation’s founders he thought more positively of a natural aristocracy of virtue and talents. But often he seemed to believe that the artificial aristocracy based upon birth and heredity was just as essential as a natural aristocracy of talent. In that he differed from our founders. Moreover, he opposed reforms of Parliament and expansion of the suffrage in Britain. He saw no great value to voting rights because of his long outmoded view of representation. Burke did not consider elected representatives delegates that received instructions on how to vote from their constituents. He saw them a representing the common interests of all Britain and who voted in that common interest regardless of the desires of the constituents. Consequently, all Britons are virtually represented. You may remember that Americans’ fought a war of independence over just that idea.
As Kirk surveys the remaining conservative thinkers, he bring their ideas in as they mirror these views of Burke and himself. Consequently, it is not surprising that his selected conservatives have no politicians among them from the period following the American Civil War. He includes only poets, essayists, and philosophers. No American politician could get elected espousing views resembling those of Burke and Kirk.
And that is when the significance of the book’s subtitle mentioning Burke and Eliot emerges. Burke and Eliot are British. Kirk’s essay really describes a British conservatism rooted in long standing traditions that set down only the shallowest roots in this country. Now tradition is an important idea in any type of conservatism. “The way things are” represents the accumulated wisdom of previous generations. That does not mean conservatism believe in never changing. It simply implies that good reasons must exist for change. British tradition and the conservatism that upholds it have had little meaningful impact on our political culture. Americans hold dear traditions that differ from those in Britain: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.