The Conservatism of Russell Kirk: Prescription

As college students, we go to class and hear our professors spout their opinions about what is wrong with the world and how to fix it. We watch our peers get swept away by pandering politicians at rallies. It seems as if in every corner of Coates Library, students are huddled together, sharing their ways to overthrow the system and reach utopia. We conservative students may find ourselves getting swept away with these ideas. In his third canon, Russell Kirk warns us against getting caught up in modern ideas and suggests we instead have faith in prescription.

We normally use ‘prescription’ to mean a recommendation from an authority. Kirk’s definition deviates just slightly; more fitting is “a claim founded upon ancient custom or long continued use.”  Kirk’s ‘prescriptions’ are “things established by immemorial usage,” meaning the old concepts of our ancestors. He’s referring to the traditions, institutions and overall wisdom our society has acquired through generations of trial and error. Since the beginning of time, people have been experimenting to find the best way to live. Through this process, we moved from hunter-gatherer societies to settled civilizations. We established governments, from monarchies to absolute democracies to totalitarian dictatorships, and over time arrived at the democratic republic Americans live in today. The traditions we abide by today are the product of thousands of years of development, evolution, and evaluation.

Conservatives trust that prescription is almost always a better authority on politics and society than any ideas modern people can think up. Many of the rights we cherish today are prescriptive, such as property rights; it is an ancient concept that one ought to have ownership of the land, money, and objects he worked to obtain. Societal norms and morals are also largely prescriptive. For example, the belief that a man and woman in love should marry and stay in a committed, monogamous relationship and produce offspring is prescriptive. It took thousands of years before this was a societal norm, until finally our ancestors found that monogamous, heterosexual marriage was the best institution to build families and societies upon.

In contemporary American society, many people, especially college students, seek progress at the expense of tradition. Traditions are popularly seen as shackles that hold us back. Marriage, sex being connected to procreation, and gender roles are all examples of prescription that modernity is trying to do away with. Kirk, however, urges conservatives to understand these traditions and institutions as social goods.

“We moderns” (as Kirk calls us) tend to tear down traditions before we even consider why the tradition was set in the first place. The institution of marriage is a prime example of a tradition that “we moderns” are destroying piece by piece. For almost all of western civilization’s history, marriage has been the monogamous union of a man and a woman. Plenty of past societies accepted polygamous marriages or homosexual relations. But over thousands of years and with a little help from some divine intervention, our ancestors settled on lifelong marriage as union between one man and one woman serving the main purpose of continuing society through procreation.

Momentarily setting aside the discussion of truth behind the institution, traditional monogamous marriage is also successful for a few reasons. Most obviously, heterosexual couples can produce and raise offspring. Men and women are different and serve as complements, occupying the necessary roles in the raising of children. But contemporary American society twisted the meaning of marriage into the governmentally-recognized union of people who love each other, completely disregarding the religious and rational prescription that a marriage is centered around honoring God and raising children. So when people with homosexual attractions began to want to obtain marriage licenses, contemporary American society viewed the traditional marriage (that conservatives hold sacred) as a mere bump in the road to progress and decided to legally and socially redefine marriage. Because marriage is now only about love and governmental recognition, divorce seems to be the obvious solution for couples who do not love each other anymore.

As a result of not following prescription, divorce rates have skyrocketed. 50% of all American children born in 2018 will have divorced parents before they turn 18. These children face far more emotional and psychological troubles. They are twice as likely to drop -out of high school, and almost twice as likely to attempt suicide. The US Census Bureau reports that 1 in 4 American children live without a father. These children are more likely to drop-out of high school, commit crimes, live in poverty, and be addicted to drugs and alcohol. As “we moderns” disregard sacred traditions like marriage, the family unit collapses, and society begins to collapse along with it.

Although Trinity students come from diverse economic and geographical backgrounds, we all attend an expensive liberal arts school and many of us have grown up in a bubble. A lot of us have never worked to support ourselves, we are not married (yet) and do not have kids (yet), and frankly, we were most likely raised with the same ‘participation-trophy’ values of the snowflakes we sit next to in class. However, most of our parents – consciously or unconsciously – lived lives based on prescription. We live in the greatest, freest country in the history of the world because our founding fathers built it with the traditions of their forefathers in mind.  We live in a country based on prescription and were raised by people who follow prescription, but our generation lacks understanding of what prescription is and why we should follow it. Because of this, it may be easy for us to take these values that shape our politics and society for granted. It may be easy for us to believe a politician when he tells us that the solution to poverty is more government handouts. It may be easy to believe a leftist feminist when he tells us that casual sex is empowering for women. We can be swept away into believing that we do not need to follow prescription, that radical solutions can easily fix the world’s problems.

College students today seem particularly likely to be swayed by politicians and their solutions to society’s problems. We directly experienced this at Trinity last year when Senator Bernie Sanders spoke on our campus and an auditorium filled with Trinity students – who had no prior political interest or knowledge – cheered and shouted for universal healthcare. Though my fellow Tower writers and I are not likely to be riled up at a Bernie rally, we might be by a Chip Roy, Ted Cruz, or Rand Paul event. I will admit I have thought a number of times that if Ben Shapiro could be president, all would be well in the world. We can support political candidates and modern ideas, as long as we do not expect them to solve every problem. When we support candidates, we need to exercise a healthy distrust and remind ourselves that the combined wisdom of our ancestors is far more valuable than that of any politician.

Kirk warns us of this very issue. He says we need to be wary of “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.” We need to exercise a healthy distrust of our peers, professors, and politicians, whether they are right- or left-leaning, and instead let the past keep us skeptical of the future. The traditions developed over thousands of years are almost always better than anything “coffee-shop philosophers” could come up with in one lifetime, much less one brainstorm session.

In college, most of our full adult lives have not yet begun. We are deciding our world view, our religion, our political stance, where our priorities lie, what we live for, and why we live. We are also making very direct decisions in our personal life: what to study, whom to date, what we do in our free time, and whether we will be law-abiding citizens. When we make these decisions, we should have the vast and rich history behind prescription in mind. We should think about the traditions and institutions our ancestors have set in place, and remember that they are there for a reason.

We college students tend to think we know everything. But we need to remember Kirk, who says “it is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality.” Before we destroy some tradition, social construct, or institution, we should consider that it’s there for a reason.

As conservatives we need to follow prescription not just for the sake of being traditional. We need to gain an understanding of why we follow certain traditions, and why our ancestors set up society the way they did. For example, we need to know why we believe marriage is between one man and one woman, reasons that go deeper than just longevity. While we learn about prescription and the deeper meanings behind the social and political constructs in place today, we also need to check to make sure we are following them. When politicians, our professors, our peers, or articles we read suggest radical changes to our society, we need to exercise restraint as to stand firm in our beliefs and not be swayed by modern ideas.

Prescription is as if thousands of years of human history looked us in the eye and said “this is what I think is the best way to live your life. I have made plenty of mistakes so you can learn from them and live a better life.” We must live out or at least deeply consider living the way our history has prescribed.

Author: Julia Westwick

Julia Westwick is a sophomore at Trinity University studying Economics and Public Policy and is the Vice Chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas at Trinity University. When she's not reading, writing, or talking about politics, she is singing in Trinity's choir.

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