‘The Conservative Mind’ at 60, by Jeffrey O. Nelson

President Barack Obama’s decisive electoral victory this past November caused panic in some conservative circles. Questions about the continuing relevance of conservative first principles are common fodder for the chattering classes, both right and left.

But there is not much that is really novel in this latest conservative setback. Some 60 years ago, the chief role of conservatives was to resist and oppose, even as a Republican assumed the presidency. And almost 50 years ago, conservatives suffered an even more complete catastrophe at the polls.

One landmark book published in the spring of 1953 by a young Michigan State College professor began to change all that. Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” contributed to the re-imagining of American politics by countering the prevailing liberal narrative that there was no such thing as a conservative tradition in America.

Kirk did so by sketching intellectual portraits of key writers and statesmen from the 18th century to the present, each of whom had added to the deposit of conservative thought.

The 60th anniversary of Kirk’s book is a good opportunity to reflect on the prospects for conservatism today. For the past half-century, generations of conservative thinkers, journalists, and politicians have been moved by Kirk to confidently assert a new conservative vision. That vision was enough to elect presidents and congressional majorities.

So what does “The Conservative Mind” still have to teach a new generation struggling once again to find an authentic and convincing American conservative voice?

Below are a few ways in which Kirk’s book is more than a touchstone of a bygone era and instead remains a vital resource for conservative renewal.

Kirk was fond of quoting Napoleon about the power of the imaginative faculty. In the new world of electronic images, and now social media, the sway of abstract reason and discussion has declined and “the age of sentiments,” in Kirk’s words, has replaced it.

Kirk’s book was an extended exercise in the narrative application of imagination. He did not just outline an Anglo-American conservative genealogy, he imaginatively constructed, some say even invented, one.

What lingers with conservatives after reading Kirk is the striking impression of an encompassing spiritual standpoint; the disposition Kirk communicates is just as important as the particular arguments he advances. Well before today’s cognitive behaviorialists, Kirk understood that people are moved to act principally by feelings, intuitions and affections.

He also knew that such feelings proceed directly from thoughts, and so he set out to reframe popular thinking about conservative ideas in a positive way, and to elicit intelligent conservative action from his readers.

He often did so by evoking ideas expressed in literary and artistic works that appeal to the very sentiments Kirk believed conservatives were obliged to renew.

This approach is why optimism even in the face of defeat is so integral to Kirk’s vision. Kirk’s “imaginative conservatism,” as he termed it, still provides the best guide to constructing a positive vision that appeals to both mind and heart.

Successful conservative politics in America has always resulted from a balanced approach to economic matters and social concerns. The Clinton-era “It’s the economy, stupid” battle cry proved so tempting to business-minded conservatives that they adopted it with the aim to cast contentious social issues aside for good.

But in the face of events at home and abroad, conservatives are having to learn again that issues related to community and culture are the most intractable in politics. They will not go away. And seizing on the right social issues, with tact, is often what gives the conservative his winning edge in politics.

Strong social framework

Kirk championed a conservatism that embraced the dynamic economic power of markets within a larger, more stable social framework. Kirk believed that if the core institutions that comprise civil society — family, church, school, civic associations, hospitals, volunteer organizations — are strong and vibrant and left free from government interference to pursue their natural ends, then economic freedom would also flourish.

He also believed that economic prosperity would, in this arrangement, advance more evenly and with much less of the dislocation and disruption that has frightened the middle classes away from conservative policy positions in recent years.

Great Society-style politics may be booming just now, but studies demonstrate over and over that a bust is on the horizon. Conservatives have the opportunity—and the obligation—to prepare for the coming burst of the entitlements bubble by fashioning a compelling and workable alternative, which will inevitably rely upon economically independent and morally vibrant communities.

Kirk believed that a people flourish when their communities do. When civil society is strong, the national interest is advanced almost as a matter of course.

For conservatives to reclaim the allegiance of the middle class they will need to rise above the rhetoric of mere individualism, even as they resist, or turn back, the advance of the federal government in our lives. Conservatives will need to rediscover the language and policies of a political movement that puts communities first.

Read the complete article in The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130221/OPINION01/302210321#ixzz2MekNduVJ

Ten Conservative Books Revisited, by Gerald J. Russello

In 1986, Russell Kirk gave a lecture titled “Ten Conservative Books” in which he identified ten important books that distilled or expressed conservative principles, from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to T. S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the book Kirk pressed upon the hapless Richard Nixon. The essay is worth reading not only for the book suggestions but also for what Kirk has to say about the role of books in the culture; as a bookish person himself, Kirk valued tomes highly, and having been in his library—a converted factory near his ancestral Piety Hill home—there is no question that Kirk was a bibliophile.

Yet Kirk recognized that “It is possible for books to comment upon custom, convention, and continuity; but not for books to create those social and cultural essences. Society brings forth books; books do not bring forth society.” Cultural renewal must occur at the level of the person, family, and community; books can help that process, but wise books come from societies that value and reflect upon wisdom; rarely the other way round.

With that in mind, there is some merit in supplementing Kirk’s list a quarter century on, so herewith my choices for ten conservative books.

1. Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. In his list, Kirk abjured fiction, although in passing he recommended some authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Radetzky March covers the period leading up to the dissolution of the old European Order before, and as a result of, World War I. Like Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Roth is clear-eyed about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its many flaws, but equally clear-eyed about what he calls the “bestial” promise of an order that had ripped aside its traditions.

2. Patrick Leigh-Fermor, A Time for Gifts. Leigh-Fermor, who died recently, was in some sense the highest product of the tradition whose destruction Roth lamented. A polymath, courageous soldier (he led a British commando unit in occupied Crete during World War II), and elegant writer, Leigh-Fermor as a young man walked through Europe to Constantinople, just as Nazism was rising on the Continent. This book, the first volume of two covering the journey, describes a pre-Internet, pre-EU Europe of deeply local customs and perspectives, a collage of nations that is almost impossible for us to imagine; almost, because Leigh-Fermor’s prose makes such imagination possible.

3. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. The Europe Roth and Leigh-Fermor describe was a disparate set of people bound together by a common faith. How that faith—which itself came from outside Europe, bearing with it the markings of Israel and the Near East—came to shape Europe is described in this book, written by one of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian historians.

4. John Lukacs, Last Rites. After Dawson Lukacs is perhaps the historian every conservative should read. Lukacs—a Hungarian refugee to the United States—has written a series of books articulating a defense of European and specifically Anglo-American civilization. He is no mindless defender of right-wing orthodoxy—far from it. But his perspective on patriotism and the moral nature of history, among many other subjects, makes this book—a follow up to his amazing first volume of memoirs, Confessions of an Original Sinner—a perfect introduction to his other works, including the indispensable Historical Consciousness, which explodes every progressive myth about historical thinking you can imagine.

5. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind. Although Kirk did not include his own works in his listing, now, some five decades on, his masterpiece, The Conservative Mind, needs to be read by anyone seeking to understand the conservative tradition. As David Frum once wrote, Kirk as much created as discovered the conservative intellectual tradition, which he traced from Edmund Burke to Eliot. And it is that tension between preservation and innovation that lay at the heart of Kirk’s project, a tension that Kirk navigated through reverence for the past but also the consistent application of imagination to the problems of the present

Read the complete article in The University Bookman

Mr. Kirk, please meet Mr. Burke: 1950

In the fall of 1950, Russell Kirk turned the ripe old age of 32. He had been publishing articles and reviews (and soon his M.A. thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke through the University of Chicago) since 1936. Even during college, academic journals had accepted his undergraduate work, assuming him to be a tenure-track professor.

Throughout his earliest publications, Kirk full explored the ideas of tradition and liberty, attempting to balance the sometimes tension-filled influences of Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Albert Jay Nock, and Isabel Patterson. Indeed, he immersed himself in any and every work imaginable, but he kept returning to these four.

When Kirk had written his M.A. thesis on John Randolph a decade earlier at Duke, he had encountered Burke as an intellectual inspiration. Almost certainly, Kirk had encountered Burke even earlier through his beloved New Humanist undergraduate literature professor, John Abbott Clark. From his first encounter with the Anglo-Irish statesman, Kirk probably had liked Burke. Certainly, there’s no evidence to indicate the opposite. While an undergraduate at Michigan State, he also encountered the works of T.S. Eliot, but he’d dismissed his Anglo-American contemporary as a “fraud.”

Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: the Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville, by Bruce Frohnen

Conservatism lives. It continues to exercise its power over bright young minds. It also shows us a way of life, how to live. For these assertions there could be no better evidence than Bruce Frohnen’s Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism. Conceived as a doctoral dissertation at Cornell University and midwifed by a university press, this book holds a promise of its own to find a long life on the short shelf of indispensable landmark studies of modern conservative thought. Frohnen’s fresh articulation of conservatism, telling old verities to a fin de siècle audience, does for his generation something akin to what Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind did for his.

This phenomenon is all the more remarkable in that there is scarcely a more outré word in today’s academy than conservative. It is used almost uniformly as a term of opprobrium to castigate anything that offends against our day’s regnant intellectual orthodoxy. (Latest flash: Jeffrey Dahmer, Milwaukee cannibal, represents conservative backlash against subversions of patriarchal family.) Frohnen gives our orthodox intelligentsia something really to hate with a whole heart; this is the real thing. One can scan university-press catalogs a long time without finding a single book having the rhetoric of this one. (And it is, in passing, a wonder of wonders that a university press has allowed into print a book routinely using the generic masculine; perhaps someone there knows what our Politically Correct do not: that sometimes there is no “gender-inclusive” translation which keeps the nuances of meaning exact.)

Here is a quick sample of Frohnen’s unfashionable rhetoric. In opposition to the academy’s studied avoidance of anything religious, Frohnen avers, “To act rightly, to do as God wills in one’s own life, is to act virtuously,” and for this “[o]ne needs the guidance of revelation.” In his view, “The French Revolution, like its Marxian progeny in Russia and elsewhere, was essentially an attempt to substitute man’s will for God’s.” One who embraces the sandal of conservatism will not shrink from the scandal of the cross. But how alien will this line of thought be to my friends on the so-called Christian Left, who think that their faith requires cozying up to socialism and who look almost exclusively to the right to locate their enemies. And how this next sentence will rankle our classracegender intellectuals: “Nature dictates a hierarchical structure for society.” Why, Frohnen even resorts to the ancient imagery of the Great Chain of Being. But this move comes readily to one who thinks that, “rather than trusting independent wisdom, we should trust the wisdom of the ages.”

Read the complete article in The University Bookman

Russell Kirk on Cultivating the Good Life, by Bruce Frohnen

When Russell Kirk passed away he was surrounded by his loving family, in the house he built on his ancestral land. This was fitting for a man who always wished to lead a life of “decent independence.” He had sought to provide for his family while remaining free from compromising entanglements. He did not want gratitude to some benefactor to cloud his judgment or tempt him to defend the “Permanent Things” with less than his full vigor.

Kirk knew the value of economic liberty. Living by his wit and wisdom he could support himself only in a free economy. Only a free market could produce the publishing houses and other organizations that helped him put his views before the public. Only economic liberty allowed the public to accumulate disposable time and money to spend considering his ideas.
But Kirk’s goal was never wealth. It was economic independence. It was the freedom to do what was right without fear of the taxman, the bank repossessor, or an angry patron.
Money is a necessity of life, and economic effort should be rewarded. But we must not mistake the pursuit of money for the pursuit of a good life. Kirk sought to preserve his life in Mecosta and this required, among other things, money. But he who pursues money for its own sake will lose his Mecosta—his ties to his ancestors, his ability to love and be loved by his family, his understanding that it is in a moral life that man is free, not in a life chained to the constant pursuit of short-lived, worldly pleasures.
The pursuit of money for its own sake constitutes the deadly sin of avarice; a sin with which our age is all too familiar. As Kirk argued,
Avarice has been the exacting passion of society for more than a century. In every age, for that matter, avarice—like the other deadly sins—is incalculably powerful; but societies governed by moral tradition always have endeavored to keep this rice wader by the employment of countervailing farces and impulses, if only by the power of satirical admonition. Our modern lime, however, has seen the relaxation of nearly every curb upon avarice. Avarice, naked or veiled, now is popularly acclaimed a virtue.
We have mistaken greed for industry, sin for virtue, a comfortable life for a good life. Those who find in free markets the key to happiness have fallen under the same spell of ideology that controls Marxists and other worshippers of the state. They seek a ready, universal mechanism—be it market or state—that will solve all life’s problems. But there is no mechanism that can produce utopia. And the attempt to build one produces only misery. Any decent life requires that we seek to protect and enrich our culture—the historically given institutions, beliefs, and practices that make up our way of life.
Kirk’s magnum opus The Conservative Mind forged a conservative movement that has lasted forty years precisely because it was a work of cultural conservatism. It gave no ideological blueprint for the “good society.” Instead it told the story of our conservative patrimony—of seers who have set forth important visions of the good life. It pointed readers not toward abstract philosophy or mechanistic institutions, but toward the eternal standards of natural law and our inheritance of custom and prescription.
Today cultural conservatism is criticized as irrelevant, dangerously reactionary, or worst of all banal by “sophisticated” observers. And not just by liberals, but also by many within the conservative movement. The past is past, we are told. We must look forward to an age in which we will construct, for ourselves, a freer, more prosperous life. We will maintain social peace with rules and contracts of mutual benefit, secure in the knowledge that we can satisfy our deepest longings if only freed to do so. Certain customs may be useful, on this view, but we must not enslave ourselves by holding onto an unjust (“racist, sexist, and homophobic”) and irretrievable past.
This rejection of tradition rests on the conviction that what makes us distinctly human (if anything) is our ability to decide for ourselves what kind of life we should live, and to put such decisions into action through our choice of career, sexual conduct, and political life. The key word, of course, is ‘choice.” We must be free to choose our own lifestyle and character.
But when we see choice as itself the proper goal of life, or even politics, we feed into liberal materialism and moral relativism. Kirk did not argue that choice is in itself evil. Instead he pointed out that our true choice is between a life of authentic freedom, in which we seek to serve God, and a life in which we enslave ourselves to our own base appetites.
Taken by itself, choice is essentially empty. Choice means freedom to choose. Freedom to choose means a lack of constraints. And, unfortunately, freedom from constraints has come to mean freedom from all constraints—including religious sanction, custom, and material scarcity or poverty.
Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

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