The Conservative Mind At Sixty

Timothy Goeglein marks Russell Kirk’s 1953 “minor-classic,” one of the founding texts of post-WWII American conservatism:

With precision and finesse, Kirk illustrates that, beginning with the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century, there is an identifiable, unique, and manifestly conservative 476px-Kirk_1962. tradition in the arts, letters, morals, manners, and politics that is, if not ideologically consistent, singular in its own excellence of shared first principles. Kirk’s conception of tradition is quite distinct from the Whig view of history as a natural, inevitable progression toward centralization and consolidation in a variety of spheres, including government. According to Kirk, this conservative tradition has its own intellectual and imaginative architecture, born of ardor and brilliant writing and thought. It springs from the natural law, integrating variety and mystery with hierarchy and order. The conservative tradition emphasizes the close associations between property and liberty, and custom and prudent change, that favor reform over rebellion or revolution.

The cast of conservative luminaries that filled Kirk’s narrative:

Kirk was particular in choosing his canon, selecting not only Burke, Coleridge, and Eliot, but also a veritable cavalcade of worthies: John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Walter Scott, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Henry Newman, James Fenimore Cooper, and Samuel Johnson. Kirk also included two now-obscure Harvard professors, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt; the students influenced by these professors constitute a veritable Who’s Who of American political and literary leadership. Not the least of these students is Eliot himself, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Kirk etches finely wrought mini-biographies of all these great men, with a special emphasis on their ideas.

Bradley J. Birzer emphasizes that Kirk’s conservatism put culture before politics:

Kirk presented almost nothing about defense policy, economic policy, or educational policy.  Instead, throughout the book, he created a list of conservative venerables, from Edmund Burke through George Santayana.  In his definition of conservative, the poetic, literary, and theological superseded the political.  As Kirk explained to [publisher Henry] Regnery in a personal letter in 1952, he did not think a writer or publisher should “exclude political essays.”  Instead, he continued, the author and publisher should “recognize the greater importance, in literature as in life, of religion, ethics, and beauty.”

After the first reviews began to appear, Kirk grew frustrated with the political analysis and emphasis on The Conservative Mind.  Not even the followers of Irving Babbitt had laid “stress enough upon the ethical aspect of” The Conservative Mind, he worried.  “Politics, I never tire of saying, is the diversion of the quarter-educated, and I do try to transcend pure politics in my book.” … Kirk’s attempt to put politics back in its proper sphere was, to say the least, admirable, but even he could not convince the innumerable advocates and reviewers of his work to follow him down a non-political path.  Kirk gave them poetry, history, and philosophy, but they wanted cold, utilitarian social science.

And he was right.

(Photo of Kirk in 1962 via Wikimedia Commons)