Book Write-Up: The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk.  The Conservative Mind.  BN Publishing, 2008.   See here to purchase the book.

Russell Kirk was a twentieth century conservative thinker.  The Conservative Mind was originally published in 1953.  In this book, Kirk profiles conservative thought in Britain and America from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century to George Santayana, who died in 1953.   Some of the names were unfamiliar to me, but some were familiar.  John Adams and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter, are featured in this book as conservatives.  The nemeses of conservatives include the utilitarians, such as John Stuart Mill.

What is a conservative, according to Kirk?  Certain aspects of the conservative mind recur throughout this book.  Conservatives believe in the importance of tradition and continuity with the past.  The wisdom of the past should guide people as they attempt to solve problems, and people have an intuition based on tradition that should guide them.  Preserving the traditional aristocracy is also healthy.  Natural equality is a myth, and the propertied aristocrats serve a role as the capable leaders of society.  Classes provide people with a sense of duty, responsibility, and loyalty, a place in society, if you will, as does religion.  Change is not necessarily bad, per se, but it should organically flow from the past rather than being radical.  Kirk maintains that slavery deserved to be abolished, for example, but he does not agree with how the abolitionists went about it, as it dramatically shattered the structures in the American South; as far as Kirk is concerned, slavery was becoming increasingly criticized and could have left the scene without a major war.  Popular democracy is an ill because the masses would covetously vote to deprive the propertied classes of their property in order to enrich themselves, becoming, in effect, a mob.  Some tyrants or elites would fill the void, but they would lack the character and the traditional sense of obligation held by the aristocratic propertied class.  Traditional diversity would be compromised, as people would all be pressed into a mold.  National character would be undermined, as people would receive wealth through electoral plunder rather than by working for it.  For Kirk, John Adams did well to insist on limitations on the government, so as to protect the propertied classes.  In Kirk’s eyes, conservatism leads towards the happiness of society and has provided people with liberty.

A lot of times, modern American conservatism, of the Buckley and Reagan variety, and British conservatism of the Thatcher variety are presented as classical liberalism: people have natural rights to life, liberty, and property, government was formed to protect those rights, and government should not do much beyond that.  In Kirk’s telling, however, what many of us understand as conservatism actually flows from classical Burkean-style conservatism, and yet the two diverge from each other, in some areas.  The conservatism that Kirk profiles believes in limited government and disdains redistribution of wealth and utopianism, which are key components of conservatism today.  Salient elements of modern conservatism (i.e., the religious right) value such traditional structures as family and religion, and such an approach is consistent with classical conservatism.  Kirk appears to be rather ambivalent about capitalism.  On the one hand, industrialization upended traditional structures and diversity by making people into homogenized worker bees.  On the other hand, Kirk points to capitalism as an example of how respect for private property created increasing prosperity for a large number of people, offering a preferable alternative to utopian government tinkering in addressing economic concerns.  Some of the conservatives whom Kirk profiles distanced themselves from laissez-faire capitalism, maintaining that local communities should have a say in what industries do, as the communities are affected by industry.  Kirk is also critical of foreign interventionism, as he maintains that the West should respect the traditional structures of other societies and should interfere in them only reluctantly.

This book got somewhat into the particularities of the different conservative thinkers.  John Adams, for instance, had some disdain towards traditional Christianity and embraced Unitarianism, and the American experience rejected the traditional concept of a state-established church.  That diverged from classical conservatism, yet Kirk seems to think that America should stick with the distinct traditions that it has developed rather than, say, repudiating the First Amendment by establishing a state-established church.  Alexander Hamilton and John Calhoun both had conservative tendencies, but they manifested themselves in different ways.  Hamilton favored industrialization and hoped that the capitalist class could act as the leaders of society, like the traditional propertied aristocracy.  Calhoun, however, favored the aristocracies of the South, which Northern industrialization sometimes challenged, through protective tariffs, for example.  Although the book covered some of what made the conservative thinkers distinct, it was rather repetitive in that it continually hammered home the same themes, about the importance of property and classes, the ills of democracy, and the healthy social effects of tradition and religion.  This made the book clearer, such that a reader could not get lost in Kirk’s extravagant writing-style, but the book was also a bit monochromatic.

The book that I read, published by BN Publishing, did not have a scholarly introduction.  It just dived into Kirk’s text!  Some may like that; others, however, may prefer more background information, about Kirk’s life and the significance of his thought.

I checked this book out from the library.  My review is honest!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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