The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
© 1953 Russell Kirk
534 pages (7th Edition)
For most of human history, change has been a glacier — slow to move, retreating as much as it advances. Since the scientific and industrial revolutions, however, change is less a glacier and more a snowball, moving with rapidity, becoming ever more drastic, and picking up speed. Russell Kirk would remind modern readers that snowball modernity is moving, like other snowballs, downhill. In The Conservative Mind, he collects and comments on the thoughts of those who, since the Pandora’s box of revolutions was opened, have tried to clap it shut again. It is a large, thought-provoking work, often melancholy considering its authors are ever lamenting the loss of order, privilege, and the ‘permanent things’ against the advance of equality, democracy, and ideology. It attempts to demonstrate an intellectual conservativism, one based on more than an instinctual aversion to change. It succeeds in part, but its ideal audience is the half-converted, for modern readers who do not share its views are unlikely to be convinced by, or even warm appreciably to, authors who spend so much time attacking concepts like democracy, individual judgment, and equality which we hold dear.
The Conservative Mind begins with Edmund Burke, writing against the French Revolution, and continues to leapfrog between Britain and the United States for a century and a half thereafter, as the world continue to change beneath the feet of those who yearned for stability. Such changes were first material, then cultural, and finally political: as industry and commerce eroded the base of the old agricultural economy, farmers displaced by mechanization streamed into the cities, becoming ‘proletarians’ in the process — landless, resourceless men whose skills, along with those of artisans, were no longer needed, and whose only strength was in their numbers. Converting those numbers into political power, they pressed on the reigning powers and pressed for changes that might relief their burden — for if they had been denied the ability to provide for themselves, the state could be turned to do it for them; and if the new economic powers wanted to oppress them, they would turn the tables and put into force laws that checked the excesses. As the great tug of war pulled the national fabric hither and on, the men featured here fretted that said fabric was coming apart at the scenes.
Though I have scorned conservatism in the past for being bereft of its own ideas, incapable of doing anything other than resisting any kind of change at all, what I take for weakness, Kirk posits is a strength, and one of the themes uniting his authors’ work. Conservatism is not an ideology, he writes; it is an exercise in pragmatism, of recognizing that rapid changes in anything as complex as society or the economy will have unexpected consequences, and if experience is any guide, most of those consequences will be unfortunate. His ideal conservatism is or should be the voice of rational prudence, keeping passion from doing anything too silly. But while some of his featured authors’ complaints can be appreciated as being sensible (not necessarily correct, but a perfectly rational view given the facts at hand), others are firmly in the camp of irrational reaction. One English author protests the 1832 Reform Bill for eliminating a handful of ‘rotten boroughs’, or election districts which no longer held populations worthy of seats in Parliament, or populations at all: these granted certain M.P.s a say in the nation’s doings without their having any person at all to be responsible to. The writers’ protest was that one such seat had been the home of many a distinguished M.P, and to abolish their seat to fulfill some ideal of efficiency was outrageous. The starting point of the French Revolution is an ideal example of the value and limits of this conservative approach: while the Revolution was in many respects a catastrophe for France and Europe’s stability, it did unleash positive forces. It gave lie to the fact that the people of Europe had to remain subjects to self-serving lords and priests; it gave them a reason to believe they could take command of their own fortunes, and better them in the process. As lamentable as the fire of revolution that destroys everything in its path is, so to is a conservatism that squelches all flames before they cause any kind of disruption. Superior would a flame of change that puts a fire under the seat of reactionary forces and prompts them to get out of the way of ‘progress’.
At the same time, a criticism of conservatism as being nothing but a break or a nay-voice is not quite right, for Kirk maintains that his impaneled authors do believe in certain things, in protecting or restoring them. They believe, for instance, in the principle of prescriptivism, that people by and large ought to defer to the received wisdom of their elders and institutions, for the great reservoir of experience passed down from generation to generation is a far better guide to truth than any one individual, regardless of their belief in the power of objective Reason. It’s an argument one can find sense in — collected knowledge will surely outweigh any individual knowledge, and reason without evidence can fall into debates over how many angels can dance on the head of an Ideal Form of a pin — but an individual may be in possession of facts that collected knowledge simply does not know. If an astronomer identifies a source of light in the sky and posits that it is is approaching the Earth rapidly, the fact that the collected wisdom of the ancestors contains no accounts of astronomical bodies flying into the Earth does not negate the possibility. Collected beliefs are no more removed from the prospect of error than any new thought formed of reason. This is why science is such a valuable tool, for it combines free reason with the experience of evidence. But scientists obtain their knowledge through trial and error, by performing experiments that rule out certain ideas and support others. The conservatives in this work, so keenly engrossed by the idea of man as a fallen creature who had to be kept from chaos and barbarity by stern rules and moral authority, would doubtless oppose experimenting with anything as volatile as human society, especially given that they consider some of the values of humankind to be valuable in their own rights, apart from us. Religion is at the heart of Kirk’s conservatism, and he maintains that those who see it as simply a convenient curative to fix moral failings of people are doing it wrong. Religion is a dedication to Higher Things, and if people do not acknowledge the supremacy of God over the world, if they do not submit entirely to Divine Will, they will err time and again.
This is not a happy book. It is a work of reproach and lamentation, of distress, argument, and grievance. I think it valuable in terms of the history of political philosophy, for it offers the perspective of those who fought against changes like universal suffrage that we take for granted. Barring the collapse of civilization, it is unlikely that universal suffrage will reversed; at the same time, I find it useful to ponder the consequences of said acts, and to wonder: did they live up to the expectations of progress, or did they diminish the body-politic by putting power into the hands of people who have neither the time nor the inclination to gather facts, reflect upon them, and decide on the wisest course of action. What has expanding the power of central governments done to the effectiveness of those governments, and to the engagement of citizens? Do we live up the the ideal of the self-empowered Citizen, contributing to the well-being of our nations while pursuing our own individual interests, or are we simply consumer-citizens, our only act of participation being which product we choose to buy in the election booth: Blue or Red? The conservative mind is too damning of the species, too quick to defer to the tyranny of tradition and authority, but all the time…perhaps it is a mind that ought to be considered, if only to ward off the possibility of modern hubris with a little humility.