The Conservative Mind – From Burke to Eliot
On June 29, 2010 At 6:32 am
Category : Books: Society, Extremism, Cults, The Culture War; Social Issues
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4 Stars One of the Founding Works of the Modern American Conservative Movement
Whether he is liked or disliked, Russell Kirk's intellectual influence in the twentieth century cannot be disputed. Many have credited him, along with William Buckley, as a founder of the contemporary American conservative movement. Whereas Buckley has traditionally been considered the movement's organizer and engineer, Russell Kirk, with his classics The Conservative Mind (1953) and The Roots of American Order, has been seen as the mind behind the movement.
In The Conservative Mind, Kirk makes the case for the six canons of conservative thought: (1) "Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience"; (2) "Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrow uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems"; (3) "Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a `classless society'"; (4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked"; (5) "Faith in prescription and distrust of `sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs"; and (6) "Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress" (pp. 8-9). Having defined the conservative movement with these canons, Kirk proceeds to critique those notions that oppose them, such as economic egalitarianism, and presents the thoughts of writers such as Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot in their favor.
It is interesting to note that both of the writers mentioned in the title of the original 1953 publication, Edmund Burke and George Santayana, as well as T. S. Eliot, who is mentioned in title of later editions (The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot), were European citizens (Eliot became a British subject later in his life). Many of the thinkers discussed in the work, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman, were similarly European. Is the conservative mind American or European?
5 Stars Absolutely essential reading
Although I have only finished the first three chapters of this book, I still want to give it a rave review, at the same time as I wonder why I was never exposed to it, at any time during my American education. I read plenty of books by liberals, but somehow this brilliant work by Russell Kirk was regarded as something like the deadly nightshade.
Not so! And I will repeat the same complaint again: after reading the chapter on Edmund Burke, I wonder again why no teacher, and no course, ever even *mentioned* Edmund Burke, certainly one of the most profound thinkers of the last five centuries.
And this book acquires even more importance when put with Melanie Phillip's The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power, because I suspect that she has not read it. She should read it, because some solutions to her problems appear in these profound pages.
As Kirk summarizes Burke: the moral order among men is only a reflection of the moral order of God. Governments are instituted among men primarily to provide for safety — safety from the marauding Saracen without our borders, and safety from the mob within our own borders. From this, Burke deduces his own, extremely interesting list of the rights of man, which to my mind rivals the list of natural rights listed in the Founding Documents of America. "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" — yes! But Burke adds: freedom to participate in an ordered, organized and intelligent society [not his words, I paraphrase].
After trying to summarize Burke, Kirk turns to the equally difficult task of trying to summarize John Adams, until recently our most-overlooked Founding Father. This "dour Federalist" is most likely the man responsible for our Federalist system of government, with its three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial). He accomplished this by "simply" writing an immense three-volume lawyer's brief, which surveyed and examined an immense range of successful governments: A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America Against Attack of M. Turgot in His Letter to Dr. Price, Dated the Twenty-Second Day of March, 1778. Fortunately, David McCullough has been resurrecting the life and career of this brilliant man, John Adams — and the life of John Adams is now available on DVD: John Adams (HBO Miniseries).
There are lots of books on the market "explaining" liberalism, which usually teach such dubious doctrines as the Perfectibility of Man (Condorcet) and the Natural Equality of All Men. For the Conservative side, Russell Kirk's book is the heavyweight champion.
On the negative side, Kirk strikes me as much too fond of religion and much too critical of economic progress. If we were to take him at his word, we would wind up with a much poorer America absolutely devoted to the Virgin Mary. If Kirk understands that a strong economy can pay for a strong military, he doesn't say so. Myself, I'm pretty comfortable with a strong and free America, with enough money to go around for everyone.
If you want to have a balanced and informed view of the 21st-century political debate, this is a book which you must take into account.
5 Stars A great book and a decent Kindle edition
First, regarding the Kindle edition: On the plus side, it is well formatted, with almost no typos and a linked table of contents (including links to the chapter sub-parts). Also a positive is that this is the last edition before Kirk's death. On the minus side, the source notes are not linked, and two or three of the substantive notes appear to be cut off in midstream (e.g., there's one in the discussion of Cardinal Newman that says, in effect, "here are some other relevant observations:" with nothing after the colon).
Regarding the book itself: It's easy to see why "The Conservative Mind" caused a stir when it first came out and why it's become a classic. To borrow Kirk's own term, it's an "extended essay" in intellectual history, dealing with a particular thread of thought running through Anglo-American history from the late eighteenth century to the 1980s, when the last edition appeared. By examining the works of numerous English and American (and one French) thinkers, some well known and some forgotten, Kirk offers a worldview significantly different from modern liberal conventional wisdom. I really can't improve upon what some of the other reviewers have said, particular Bibliophile (Dec. 14, 2008).
A great achievement. At a minimum, anyone with an interest in modern politics should read this book.
4 Stars A clarification of worldviews
Regardless of what you believe politically, this book is worth your time.
It stands head and shoulders above the offering that will serve up 'why
this country is in the handbasket' or 'why the liberals are ruining our
country' soundbytes. It is important to understand WHAT the conservative
worldview is, and how it is has evolved. Many people do not understand
what conservative, liberal, communist, socialist and fascist really MEAN.
This clarifies conservativism. It may serve to point out what in the present
day is labelled as conservatism and yet sharply departs from it.
That said this is not light reading. Some material is worthy of several revisits.
I would recommend this to conservative and liberals so they are well rounded.
I particularly enjoyed John C Calhoun on minorities and the Disraeli material.
I re-read chapter three on the John Adams-Hamilton-Jefferson period because
it is so interesting historically and also when viewing present day politics. It
is fascinating to see we are revisiting certain debates and the important well
thought out points that were raised two centuries ago, i.e. Hamilton as a strong
proponent of a central government and the federal government compromise.
Sadly the top notch book that describes the liberal worldview or the intellectual
history of liberalism as well I have not found. Yet.
1 Star Not a Good Polemic; Not a Good History; Not a Good Exposition. What's Left?
I came to this book with very high hopes of hearing a well-presented literary history, and argument for, what Kirk calls the "conservative mind." Unfortunately, the book proved to be neither a good argument (Kirk hardly argues for anything, rhetoricizing not being the same as argument). His historical recounting is appalingly bad. And, as others have noted, he is quite mistaken in the thought that his attempts at literary turn of phrase make for a tedioius read.
As history, the chapters focusing on early American history are scorchingly bad. He suggests that the American revolution was a conservative revolution. To do this, of course, he ignores such facts as that, for the first time, a nation was premised on the absence of royalty, feudalism was quite abolished, and a written constitution that only slightly resembled the Magna Carta was produced. (For a great argument that the American revolution was radical rather than conservative, one can consult any number of books like The Radicalism of the American Revolution).
Kirk calls Alexander Hamilton the "most vigorous organizer" for "a federal government." The rest of us, of course, see this distinction as belonging to Madison, the primary author of the constitution and Federalist Papers, and president. Unfortunately, Kirk readily ignores this, which makes him quite the revisionist historian.
Neither can I be sure that Kirk intends to argue for the consevative position becuase, if this was his intent, he does about as bad a job as anyone could possibly do. Most of his arguments consist of quoting a figure who said what he wants to argue, and recapitulating the position in his own words. If he ever does tackle objections, he does little more than dismiss them out of hand without argument. I dare anyone who doubts this to read his redundant chapters on Burke and find one ARGUMENT againt one of Burke's detractors. (So that everyone knows, I am not saying that there are not good arguments against Rousseau, Condorect and the like; just that Kirk provides none.)
Anyway, rather than read this muddled piece in order to understand the conservative view, I would highly reccomend that one read Sowell's A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. It is better written and argued than Kirk. Sowell not only presents many of the same ideas as Kirk more clearly and convincingly, but his grasp of what is and is not a fact is much better than Kirk.
If your goal is to learn about, or hear a defense of, the conservative viewpoint, don't spend money on this volume because it will be money lost.