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  • Writer's pictureThe Political Forum

A Tribute to the Great Thinkers, Part I

Russell Kirk

The primary purpose of this web site is to “educate and enlighten” – just as it says at the top of the home page. Being both conservatives and realists, we know that there is nothing new under the sun, or at least nothing new that we might impart. It is our goal, therefore, to frame the issues of the day in terms of the great ideas from the past, in an effort to provide clarity.

As part of that effort, we will, from time to time, acquaint our readers, or reacquaint them as the case may be, with some of the most brilliant thinkers of the near and distant path, citing those whose actions, speeches, writings, and aspirations collectively form the foundation of our beliefs. Our hope is that this will strengthen, reinforce, and yes, refine political discourse as it exists today.

With this goal in mind, we present today the first of these tributes, starting with one of the greatest thinkers of the recent past and one of our favorites, Russell Kirk, a legendary figure among modern-day American conservatives.

Kirk was born in 1918, earned his B.A. at Michigan State University, M.A. at Duke University, and, in 1953, became the only American to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He began his critical study of New Deal liberalism shortly after the leaving the U.S. Army at the end of World War II and continued his withering assault on the Left in America until his death in 1994. Kirk wrote over 30 books and hundreds of essays, reviews, and columns in defense of what he called the “permanent things,” i.e., “all that makes human life worth living, particularly the bedrock principles that have traditionally supported and maintained the health of society’s central institutions: family, church, and school.” According to George Nash, author of the authoritative book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, Kirk’s iconic book, The Conservative Mind, “dramatically catalyzed the emergence of the conservative intellectual movement.” Nash described the book as follows:

Here was a handbook – the ideas not just of one man but of a distinguished group of men, covering nearly two centuries. Other traditionalists had constructed genealogies of evil men and pernicious thoughts; here, at long last, was a genealogy of good men and valuable thoughts. No longer could it be said, as John Stuart Mill had once jibed, that conservatives were the “stupid party.” Thanks to Russell Kirk they could claim an intellectually formidable and respectable ancestry. Kirk had demonstrated that conservatism should be taken seriously; he had, as a friend later put it, “devulgarized” conservatism. Like Friedrich Hayek, Kirk had made it respectable again to be a man of the Right. . . .

Kirk’s text was not only a huge, 450-page distillation of the thinking of 150 years of the intellectual right: it was also a relentless assault on every left-wing panacea and error imaginable. The perfectibility of man, contempt for tradition, political and economic leveling – these were, in Kirk’s view, the most prominent among post-1789 attacks on social order. Liberalism, collectivism, utilitarianism, positivism, atomistic individualism, leveling humanitarianism, pragmatism, socialism, ideology (“the science of idiocy,” said John Adams) – these were some of Kirk’s targets . . . The dust jacket on the Seventh Revised Edition notes the following.

Commencing with Edmund Burke and John Adams, this is a history and a criticism of conservative thought and policy in American and Britain, down to the present hour. It has to do with statesmen, poets, judges, theologians, journalists, novelists, philosophers, all in the setting of their times. “Aphorisms burst like bombs from Kirk’s pen,” wrote a socialist reviewer of the book.

So, with that said, here are a few lines from The Conservative Mind.

Any informed conservative is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases; he prefers to leave that technique to the enthusiasm of radicals. Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata; conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.

Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors (this phrase was Strafford’s, and Hooker’s, before Burke illuminated it); they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln inquired once. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” . . . For the conservative, custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order. Men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthy hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another . . . .

Recognition of the abiding power of sin is a cardinal tenet in conservatism . . . . For conservative thinkers believe that man is corrupt, that his appetites need restraint, and that the forces of custom, authority, law, and government, as well as moral discipline, are required to keep sin in check. One may trace this conviction back through Adams to the Calvinists and Augustine, or through Burke to Hooker and the Schoolmen and presently, in turn, to St. Augustine – and, perhaps (as Henry Adams does) beyond Augustine to Marcus Aurelius and his Stoic perceptions, as well as to St. Paul and the Hebrews . . . . Few peoples have been so complacent about evil in their midst as have the Americans since the Civil War, and no people have been so ready to deny the very existence of evil. Twentieth-century America presents the spectacle of a nation tormented by crime, urban vice, political corruption, family decay, and increasing proletarianization; and amid this scene the commanding voice is not a Savonarola’s, but the chorus of sociologists and psychologists and neo-positivists in pulpits, proclaiming that sin does not exist and “adjustment” will heal every social cancer . . . .

Society’s regeneration cannot be an undertaking wholly political. Having lost the spirit of consecration, the modern masses are without expectation of anything better than a bigger slice of what they possess already . . . How to restore a living faith to the lonely crowd, how to remind men that life has ends – this conundrum the twentieth-century conservative faces. Along with the consolations of faith, perhaps three other passionate human interests have provided the incentive to performance of duty – and the reason for believing that life is worth living – among ordinary men and women: the perpetuation of their own spiritual existence through the life and welfare of their children; the honest gratification of acquisitive appetite through accumulation and bequest of property; the comforting assurance that continuity is more probable than change – in other words, men’s confidence that they participate in a natural and a moral order in which they count for more than the flies of a summer. With increasing brutality, the modern temper – first under capitalism, then under state socialism – has ignored these longings of humanity. So frustration distorts the face of society as it mars the features of individuals. The behavior of modern society now exhibits the symptoms of a consummate hideous frustration....

Conservatives have retreated a long way since the French Revolution burst out; now and again they have fled headlong; but they have not despaired when defeated in the field. The radicals have been able to rouse the appetite for novelty and the passion of envy among modern peoples; the conservatives have been able to fortify themselves within the inertia and the tradition of man; and these latter are powerful walls still.

As they say in the blogging world: read the whole thing. We promise you’ll be glad you did.

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