Russell Kirk (October 19 1918 – 29 April 1994) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post-World War II conservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving special importance to the ideas of Edmund Burke. Kirk was also considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism.
- There are six canons of conservative thought:
- 1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. "Every Tory is a realist," says Keith Feiling: "he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom." True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.
- 2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls "Logicalism" in society. This prejudice has been called "the conservatism of enjoyment"--a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot "the proper source of an animated Conservatism."
- 3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society." With reason, conservatives have been called "the party of order." If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.
- 4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.
- 5) Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.
- 6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.
- Rousseau and his disciples were resolved to force men to be free; in most of the world, they triumphed; men are set free from family, church, town, class, guild; yet they wear, instead, the chains of the state, and they expire of ennui or stifling lonelines.
- The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of the 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.
- Even the wisest of mankind cannot live by reason alone; pure arrogant reason, denying the claims of prejudice (which commonly are also the claims of conscience), leads to a wasteland of withered hopes and crying loneliness, empty of God and man: the wilderness in which Satan tempted Christ was not more dreadful than the arid expanse of intellectual vanity deprived of tradition and intuition, where modern man is tempted by his own pride.
- Burke, could he see our century, never would concede that a consumption-society is the end for which Providence has prepared man.
- Either order in the cosmos is real, or all is chaos. If we are adrift in chaos, then the fragile egalitarian doctrines and emancipating programs of the revolutionary reformers have no significance; for in a vortex of chaos, only force and appetite signify.
- Man's rights are linked with man's duties, and when they are distorted into extravagant claims for a species of freedom and equality and worldly aggrandizement which human character cannot sustain, they degenerate from rights to vices.
- The mass of mankind, Burke implies, reason hardly at all, in the higher sense, nor ever can: deprived of folk-wisdom and folk-law, which are prejudice and prescription, they can do no more than cheer the demagogue, enrich the charlatan, and submit to the despot.
- Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors; 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.
- True conservatism rises at the antipodes from individualism. Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit.
Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971)
- The conflict is not really between royalty and democracy. It is between both and plutocracy, which, having destroyed the royal power by frank force under democratic pretexts, has bought and swallowed democracy.
The Roots of American Order (1974)
- The natural law is an instrument for progress, not a weapon of revolution.
Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries (1981)
- What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.
- Conservatives have no intention of compromising with socialists, but even such an alliance, ridiculous though it would be, is more conceivable than the coalition of conservatives and libertarians.
- When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis, but not until then.
Economics: Work and Prosperity in Christian Perspective (1989)
- Global environmentalists have said and written enough to leave no doubt that their goal is to destroy the prosperous economies of the world's richest nations.
The Politics Of Prudence' (1993)
- In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.
Quotes about Kirk
- Kirk was an artist, a visionary, almost a prophet.
- David Frum, “Russell Kirk” in The New Criterion (1994:16)
- Kirk's understanding of conservatism was so unique, idiosyncratic, transcendental, elitist, and in certain respects premodern and European, that it bore little resemblance to political conservatism in the United States. Conservative Mind successfully launched an intellectual challenge to postwar liberalism, but the variety of conservatism Kirk preferred found few takers, even within the American Right.
- Drew Maciag, review of Bradley J. Birzer’s Russell Kirk: American Conservatism (2015) in The Journal of American History 103#4 (March 2017)
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