The Conservatism of Russell Kirk: Introduction to the Project

There are few figures as towering in contemporary American conservatism as Russell Kirk. To be a conservative in a philosophical, rather than political (or perhaps electoral) sense is to be grounded, at least partially, in the writings of Kirk. In the years following World War II, when the American conservative movement was still in its embryonic stages, Kirk did something invaluable in giving shape to the movement that has become arguably the most coherent and influential political philosophy in America. Conservatism has been given many definitions, and it’s hard to pinpoint which one we should use, because it is not only an ideology, but also an attitude. This series will look at conservatism as an ideology, as given definite shape by Russell Kirk.

G. K. Chesterton, in his 1929 book The Thing, wrote that the difference between reforming and deforming a thing comes from an understanding of why a thing was implemented.

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

He wrote about this attitude of wanting to change things for the sake of changing it in Chapter 3 of Orthodoxy as well.

It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change itself his object or ideal. But as an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable. If the change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must be sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt gaily with the ideal of monotony. Progress itself cannot progress.

People today, even among those who claim to be conservatives, all too easily fall into the attitude of “change-worshipping.” People have lost sight of ideals they are striving towards, and instead promote progress for progress’s sake. They demand that the fence be torn down simply because it was built by people who aren’t around anymore, without any thought to whether the fence still serves an important purpose.

We believe that there are still ideals that we should base our political organization on: principles and values that are not tied to any particular politician, party, or era. From our perspective, these are what Russell Kirk distilled as “ten articles of belief [that] reflect the emphases of conservatives” in his essay Ten Conservative Principles. Many of them also find exploration in the introduction to The Conservative Mind as the “six canons of conservative thought.” We firmly believe that if our society embraces these ten principles, we will see many of the challenges of today become much easier to address.

These ideals of conservatism are:

1) Belief in a transcendent and enduring moral order.

2) Adherence to custom, convention, and continuity.

3) Faith in prescription, and “distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.”

4) Holding to prudence as the chief political virtue.

5) Affection for the “proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life” over “the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”

6) Belief in the ultimate imperfectability of human nature.

7) “Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.”

8) Upholding voluntary community and opposing involuntary collectivism.

9) Acknowledging the need for prudent restraints on power and human passions.

10) Careful reconciliation of permanence and change in society.

These ideals seem obvious to many people (including, I expect, most of our readers), yet they are rejected in increasing numbers by more and more college students. Questions about issues that were agreed upon by nearly everyone just a few decades ago are now derided as outdated, wrong, and even bigoted.

Starting today and going every Friday until Good Friday, we will be publishing articles expounding on each of these ten principles, exploring what on Earth Kirk meant when he wrote them and how this idea is treated today. Specifically, we’ll be looking at what college students tend to think about this idea, how a re-embrace of this idea might serve to remedy some societal ills and why college students should move to adopt the ideal even in the face of cultural opposition. These ten articles will be longer than most of the other things we’re publishing, and that’s intentional.

We believe that, as Chesterton might have put it, most fences in our world are still needed. Maybe some need repair or updating, but very few ought to be torn down entirely. Over the next ten weeks, our writers will be giving an excellent defence of these ten ideals that define conservatism. It might seem like an overly ambitious project, and you might doubt whether a bunch of college students have anything useful to add beyond what Kirk himself wrote, but I think we can bring these ideas to new audiences and reframe them for a new time.

The first article in the series will be published next Friday, written by Maddie D’Iorio on the truth and importance of believing in a transcendent and enduring moral order.

Author: Luke Ayers

Luke is a Senior at Trinity University, majoring in Economics and Public Policy with a minor in Latin. He is the founding President of Tigers for Life, the Trinity chapter of Students for Life of America, and co-founder and former President of the Young Conservatives of Texas at Trinity University. He is the Editor in Chief for The Tower for the 2018-19 school year, focusing on increasing the size and quality of the publication articles, as well as the influence on campus and around San Antonio.

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