The Truly Celestial Captain Kirk
I’ve been asked to speak later this month at the Roseville Library about the history of American conservatism from Bill Buckley to Donald Trump or thereabouts. When I mentioned to my host some of the scholars and other writers I’d be referring to she asked, “What about Russell Kirk?” To which I said (already sheepishly) I had left him off the list because I had never warmed up to him, not that I had ever given myself an adequate chance to do so.
It was at that point I realized I better heat up pretty fast as she seemed rightfully amazed that I would not be talking about Kirk’s immense contributions to American conservatism, especially in his masterwork, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, first released in 1953.
Bad television and radio commercials sometimes end with a voice promising, “You’ll be glad you did.” When it comes to seriously reading Kirk – albeit tardily for someone in my line of work – I’m pleased to report, “I’m glad I’ve started.”
Russell Kirk, who lived between 1918 and 1994, was an American historian, essayist, and novelist among other things. The Conservative Mind was just one of his 32 books, though it was the one in which a colleague wrote of how Kirk “almost single-handedly rooted American conservatism in the rich loam of the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, and thereby gave it the philosophical heft of a world-view.” On a five-star scale, reviews like that are a nine or ten.
What follows below are excerpts from The Conservative Mind which I’ll cite in my presentation, followed each time by a few words of annotation.
The Conservative Mind [Kirk himself writes in the Foreword] describes a cast of intellect or type of character, an inclination to cherish the permanent things in human existence. On many prudential questions, and on some general principles, conservatives may disagree from time to time among themselves; so this book offers a certain diversity of opinions. Yet the folk called ‘conservative’ join in resistance to the destruction of old patterns of life, damage to the footings of the civil social order, and reduction of human striving to material production and consumption.
Me: Please note that nothing in this key passage says anything about litmus tests as commonly understood and used.
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 earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another. Precisely that has come to pass in a great part of the world, during the twentieth century.
Me: For hellish “ideologues of one stripe or another,” think first in the Twentieth Century of Hitler and a succession of communist leaders.
Elsewhere in the book, Kirk cites John Adams who writes excoriatingly of “ideology”: “Our English words, Idiocy or Idiotism, express not the meaning or force of it. It is presumed its proper definition is the science of Idiocy. And a very profound, abstruse, and mysterious science it is.”
I’ve always assumed my eventual gravestone would read, “For an Ideologue, His Favorite Color was Plaid.” Please remind me to rethink this.
For solitary man in search of spiritual peace, for society in search of permanent order, Providence has furnished means by which mankind may apprehend this moral universe. Tradition and description are the guiding lights of the civil social man; and therefore [Edmund] Burke elevates to the dignity of social principles those conventions and customs which, before the eighteenth century, most men accepted with an unreflecting confidence.
Me: This passage brings to mind what historian and journalist Sam Tanenhaus wrote about Whitaker Chambers and his seminal book Witness: “Chambers was not just a witness against Alger Hiss, but also was one of the articulators of the modern conservative philosophy, a philosophy that has something to do with restoring the spiritual values of politics.”
Any informed conservative is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases. . . . Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma, and conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the times. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.
Me: I suspect Kirk might have had heartburn with sound bites.
Near the end of the Foreword of The Conservative Mind’s “Seventh Revised Edition,” Kirk, in 1986, wrote,
This book presents to you a body of conventional wisdom. Sophisters, economists, and calculators of our era often employ derogatorily this phrase “conventional wisdom” – as if both convention (that is general agreement) and wisdom (that is, good judgment based on experience) were contemptible. This book holds otherwise – agreeing with Robert Frost’s observation that,
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favor.
Me: Son of a gun, if this doesn’t apply to much of my work regarding families over the last 27 years.
I originally imagined (I’m overstating here a bit) that the Center, every six weeks or so, would succeed in devising a brilliant and novel way of taking advantage of free markets and conservative ideas to fix some previously unfixed problem. I quickly learned, however, that brilliant and novel ideas were not readily to be had. More specifically, I quickly came to realize that the largest contribution American Experiment could make in certain instances would be to restate old truths which had fallen “out of favor” for reasons including our nation’s near nervous breakdown in the 1960s and 1970s and the waves of political correctness which both accompanied and survived those upheavals. Ideas such as children tend to do significantly better when they get to grow up with both their mother and father, not one or the other, with all under the same roof.
Or, as my friend David Blankenhorn put it a couple of decades ago, the kinds of proven ideas that his Mississippi grandmother, who never got out of high school, better recognized and appreciated than did tens of millions of better credentialed zeitgeist shapers.
Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.