"The Conservative Mind" Turns Sixty

 
 

With optimism, precision, and intellectual elegance, Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” defined what it meant to be an American conservative for the second half of the twentieth century.

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One of the foundational texts of the conservative movement, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, is turning sixty this year. To commemorate its publication, the Philadelphia Society recently sponsored a three-day series of forums, lectures, and seminars in Atlanta. Kirk was one of the society’s most distinguished members.

The Conservative Mind, published in 1953 by the Henry Regnery Publishing Company of Chicago, instantly became an unlikely overnight publishing sensation. It is widely regarded as one of the seminal tomes of mid-century American conservatism, in the same iconic pantheon as F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God and Man at Yale (1951), and Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (1952). The text, which began as Kirk’s doctoral thesis at the University of St. Andrews, was initially accepted by a major New York publishing house. But when one of the chief editors demanded that the young author cut significant portions from the manuscript, Kirk demurred. He looked elsewhere for a publisher and eventually inked a deal with Regnery, commencing a lifelong friendship.

The Conservative Mind achieved a kind of minor-classic status almost from the beginning, and it launched the young Kirk into a spotlight that shone for the rest of his long life. TIME magazine devoted its entire book review section to Kirk’s tome; Henry Luce was personally smitten by its erudition, scholarship, and popular appeal. The book was widely reviewed and roundly praised even by most of the major liberal publications in mid-century America. The president of Kenyon College, Gordon Keith Chalmers, reviewed the book in the New York Times, calling it “very readable, brilliant, even eloquent.”

The content of Kirk’s first book mirrors the character of its author: high principles, a probing intelligence, and an unimpeachable and unassailable integrity of ideas. The book contains no wistful sentiments or misty nostalgia about the central figures and ideas of conservatism. Contemporaries such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Lionel Trilling, and Daniel Boorstin all acknowledged the significance of Kirk’s central thesis, even if they did not agree with his conclusions. Great writers themselves, they knew that Kirk abhorred formulaic rhetoric, spectacle, and—above all—ideology. He was canny and talented, personifying permanence and excellence in a century that had known chaos and alienation after two world wars.

The center of the book is Kirk’s assertion that there is an Anglo-American conservative intellectual tradition that is distinct from its better-known liberal counterpart. This bold thesis contradicted the regnant left-wing narrative that had come to dominate most of American scholarship, and much of campus life, by the early 1950s. Kirk was eager to reintroduce a host of political and intellectual worthies, many of whom had been forgotten in the mists of time. Kirk saw these great thinkers as vital, timely, and relevant for a new era.

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 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.

Kirk’s compelling narrative echoes the belief of one of his conservative icons, the English poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that every country, culture, and civilization had a kind of philosophical personality. The philosophical personality of liberalism readily accepts theory and speculation and tends toward secularism, while its conservative counterpart finds greater comfort in experience, practice, and a religious and spiritual sensibility. The former was litigious and legislative in its natural development, while the latter was inclined more toward morals, manners, and habituated virtue.

The Conservative Mind, which has never been out of print, has gone through seven editions. Kirk continued to revise his original manuscript throughout his lifetime of wide reading and thinking, and in some instances, there were significant changes. He extended the conservative sensibility well into the mid-twentieth century, culminating with the poetry and literary/social observations of his friend T.S. Eliot, with whom Kirk had developed an important epistolary friendship across the Atlantic. With this addition, the book’s subtitle was changed from the original From Burke to Santayana to its present form, From Burke to Eliot.

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.

The Conservative Mind made deep impressions, conveying a conservatism imbued with moral purpose and alive to modernity. Kirk’s flinty intensity and heart animated a prodigious life, and he worked with an almost monkish energy. For the next twenty-five years, he wrote a regular column for National Review called “From the Academy,” and his weekly newspaper column for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate was among the most popular in the country. Kirk was a widely sought-after speaker on every major campus in the United States and abroad, speaking at nearly 500 colleges and universities. Barry Goldwater actively cultivated his support and counsel in his run for the presidency in 1964.

Thirty more books and hundreds of reviews, essays, and short stories would flow from Kirk’s typewriter in the little Michigan village of Mecosta over the next forty years. His oeuvre is animated by a tone and style of humility and gratitude, confidence and joy. He was a commanding prose stylist in an antiquarian sort of way, and his commitment to design and craft is everywhere present on the page. After The Conservative Mind, his writing developed with more depth and probity Burke’s central assertion that healthy civilizations are defined by the strength and courage of what Eliot called “the permanent things”—religious faith, the natural family, the centrality of mystery and transcendence, duties and obligations, and the ability of each succeeding generation to cohere confidently in defense of liberty, the free society, and the foundations of private property and free enterprise.

In a 1966 New York Times essay, Kirk had deftly predicted that Reagan’s election as governor of California would usher in a conservative era in American politics, which came to fruition when Reagan was elected president in 1980. The Reagan years were, arguably, conservatism’s political and intellectual apogee, and Kirk’s gentility, humility, and well-bred manner played no small role in that traditional resurgence. He was a man of culture and deep piety, subtle and serene by temperament, yet astonishingly prolific.

Kirk received the Presidential Citizens Medal from Ronald Reagan in 1989. At a dinner honoring the distinguished thinker and writer shortly after Reagan’s election, the president said: “Dr. Kirk helped renew a generation’s interest and knowledge of ‘permanent things,’ which are the underpinnings and the intellectual infrastructure of the conservative revival of our country.”

Kirk’s big book was viewed as both a catechesis and a colossus of the American conservative movement, evoking the intersection of past and present. The Conservative Mind proved that conservatism and intellectual elegance were not incompatible. The book was so central to the burgeoning conservative movement and its coming clash with the left that it defined what it meant to be an American conservative for the rest of the century.

Kirk’s aesthetic, religious, and moral principles were elemental to his Burkean worldview, and he defended them with a hopeful conviction that negated despair. His was a sublime, elevating view, and his great book was a celebration of what conservatism was and could be for a new epoch of post-war Western culture. In Kirk’s own words:

The conservative . . . is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.

The Conservative Mind is evergreen, animated by stylistic grace and eloquent poignancy. Sixty years on, Kirk’s sparkling masterwork abides, its cadences of rich prose and deep learning as refreshing as ever.

Tim Goeglein is Vice President for External Relations at Focus on the Family.

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