Skip to comments.TEN CONSERVATIVE PRINCIPLES by Russell Kirk
Posted on 01/09/2007 4:12:47 PM PST by shrinkermd
Recently, NYT Columnist David Brooks wrote a column titled, GOP Needs To Woo Back Folks Like Me. Brooks states he once voted Republican but now does not. He gives a laundry list of gripes including opposition to stem cell research, free trade, micro policies that are tantamount to selling ones soul and failing to be problem oriented. His article can be found: HERE.
Mr. Brooks once voted Republican but he is not a conservative. He may believe he is, but his complaints argue against this claim.
In 1953 or thereabouts Russell Kirk completed a scholarly book on the history of conservative thought. He titled his book, The Conservative Rout He had trouble finding a publisher but he eventually found Henry Regnery who published his book with the requirement that the title be changed to The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot. Conservativism was not routed, it was only awaiting someone to plead its case. That person was Russell Kirk and his success can be measured by simple minded opinion polls that find twice as many conservatives as liberals.
His original book, The Conservative Mind was and is a hard read for me. Twice through and I can still pick it up and find things I have either forgotten or never appreciated. Doctor Kirk, however, was not only brilliant and in command of his subject but he could write simple, crystal clear prose when it seemed necessary. The title of this FR post is that of one of his essays reprinted in the book, The Politics of Prudence (1993) ISI Books. What follows is a brief summary of this very well written and clear essay.
II. Basic Concepts and Assumptions: Conservativism contrary to Mr. Brooks opinion is neither a religion nor an ideology. While it is not an ideology it does have underlying principles derived from two centuries of conservative writers and leaders.
We would be more correct to use conservative as an adjective than a noun. Conservativism is a way of thinking not a body of chiseled in stone beliefs. Conservativism is a way of looking at civil social order. Who is and who is not a conservative depends on a self definition. If you believe you are a conservative you are one.
Also, contrary to Brooks conservatives recognize the necessity for change and like Burke see change as a necessity for preservation.
While it is not possible to draw up a laundry list of conservative positions, there are some general beliefs that most conservatives will ascribe to. The next section lists these. Quite naturally, I have ruthlessly summarized them in the briefest form.
III. Ten Underlying Conservative Principles:Which of these principles conservatives will emphasize varies with circumstances and time. The following ten articles of belief or assumption reflect the concerns of American conservatives in the modern era. When you read these, anything in quotes indicates a direct quote from Russells essay.
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is part of the human endowment and these moral truths are permanent. Order is synonymous with harmony and a society so governed by a strong sense of right and wrong is a good and just society. Government machinery may be used to sustain justice, honor, right vs. wrong but these things are part of the human cultural and biological endowment. People who do not ascribe to this view are not only unhappy but usually suffer lawlessness as a consequence.
Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention and continuity.The common culture has customs that permit people to live in an orderly fashion with one another. These customs are ancient and have resulted from trial and error over centuries of use. Besides that these customs link us to not only the past but to the future. As Russell puts it, conservatives prefer the devil they know to the devil they dont know..
It is not that conservatives are against change. What they want is prudent change that is gradual and based on satisfactory outcomes and never completely unfixing old ways or traditions.
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.We are dwarfs on the shoulder of giants, able to see farther than our ancestors only because of their great stature. Conservatives emphasize prescriptionas a means to understand the whys and wherefores of our culture. Prescriptions are principles of living and belief established in times past.
Prescriptions of immemorial usage include private property rights as well as morals. Our morals are basically prescriptions that antedated Christianity. In my way of thinking, the best pro life argument can be found in the Hippocratic Oath written in 400 B.C. and taken by most US physicians until 25 January 1973. The species cannot endure if birth can be terminated by whim and convenience.
Russell summarizes thusly, the individual is foolish but the species is wise as a Burke quote. The human species has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far beyond any group ideology or private predilection. The species cannot endure if birth can be terminated by whim and convenience.
Fourth Conservatives are guided by their principles of prudence. Burke, Plato and many others considered prudence a principal virtue. Public measures should be judged on long run consequences even beyond the current generation. Liberals and radicals as well as David Brooks all want immediate changes and immediate results. To be popular is as Randolph says pleasing to the devil because the devil always hurries.
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.Contrary to what many liberals believe conservatives celebrate variety and do everything possible to preserve it.
Orders, social classes, inequalities of ability and wealth and all sorts of other differences must be supported and championed.
The only two types of real equality must be: (1)Before the law; (2) And, before god. All other attempts of leveling will lead to social stagnation. Leveling and other attempts to achieve egalitarian goals invariably lead to squalid tyrants and another form of inequality.
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Call it original sin or human frailty human nature suffers from serious faults. Since man is imperfect no perfect social order can be devised. Claims to the contrary should arouse suspicion. To seek for a utopia is to end in disaster We are definitely not made in perfection for perfect systems of governance.
We may seek and achieve prudent reform if we preserve tolerable order. If we neglect traditional safeguards then man being imperfect results in chaos and destruction.
Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.Destroy the holding of private property and the state rules all in every conceivable way. As a corollary, economic leveling is not economic progress and neither is getting and spending the chief aim of human existence.
Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community and oppose involuntary collectivism.Americans are noted for a sense of community. Charitable and other voluntary community efforts are important to maintain and protect the vulnerable.
When these efforts are usurped by the government they fail to achieve their goals. Further, these government efforts standardize human beings and destroy freedom and dignity. For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed.
Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and human passions. Politically speaking power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the will of ones fellows if only few or one dominates we call that despotism.. Contrariwise, when everybody does what they want society falls into anarchy. The conservative does an imperfect and changing effort at avoiding both despotism and anarchy.
Radicals always see power as a good thing destined to force others into his way of thinking and behavior. While power cannot be abolished it can be controlled and that is precisely why conservatives so jealously guard their freedoms. Conservatives also know not to simply trust human benevolence or claims thereof. They also know humans are capable of good and evil and restraints against overweening will and appetite are necessary.
Tenth, the understands permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social progress. Although he doubts whether there is any such force as mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. Where something progresses something else is usually in decline.
Russell then quotes Coleridge who opined that a healthy society is influenced by two things: permanence and progression. Permanence occurs by enduring interests and convictions and this results in stability and continuity. Progression occurs when we are urged on by prudent reform and improvement.
Without stability society ceases. Without progression as society stagnates. Conservatives highly treasure progress but in a prudent and deliberate fashion.
III. Russells Final Thoughts In This Essay: As described here conservativism transcends most of American voting blocks according to wealth, ethnicity, religion, education and the like. What conservatives want is progress with stability with a goal of cultural survival and achievement. Conservatives are not laboring for simple economic advantage or short term power. Like some of Rush Limbaughs recent shows conservatives are currently concerned with the deterioration of our culture, mores and morals more than any thing else.
My final thoughts: Reading Russell, the Apostle Paul or Jose Ortega y Gasset sometimes results in an uncanny feeling. That feeling is these individuals have a passion and a literary style that raises them from the dead. No question, this is a little nutty and idiosyncratic but look at this Russell quote and think about meaning:
How to restore a living faith to the lonely crowd, how to remind men that life has endsthis conundrum the twentieth century conservative faces. Along with the consolation of faith, perhaps three other passionate human interests have provided the incentive to performance of dutyand the reason for believing that life is worth livingamong ordinary men and women: the perpetuation of their own spiritual existence through the life and welfare of their children; the honest gratification of acquisitive appetite and the bequest of property; the comforting assurance that continuity is more probable than changein other words, mens confidence that they participate in a natural and moral order in which they count for more than the flies of summer. With increasing brutality, the modern temperfirst under capitalism, then under state socialismhas ignored these longings of humanity. So frustration distorts the face of society as it mars the features of individuals. The behavior of modern society now exhibits the symptoms of consummate hideous frustration.
Russell Kirk1985 edition The Conservative Mind page 492 paperback edition.
If David Brooks missed anything he missed the depth and sincerity of most conservative thinkers. His political interests were too small, too finite and too unhinged from the needs of the common culture. I do hope we both agree that man counts for more than the flies of summer.
#5 (equality before the law) ought to be first, at least to the extent that conservatism means a love of liberty.
I pulled the first one by accident. Sorry.
Thanks for the redo. It's more important to read Kirk's original thesis than hear a muse from the NYT's favorite "conservative," M. Brooks.
That doesn't make any sense at all. Russell Kirk is required reading for anyone who wants to know what conservatism is really all about. President Reagan had the greatest respect for Kirk and his writings.
It was posted and pulled by mistake a few minutes ago, and then re-posted.
no mention of Green Slave girls or Saurian Brandy? Oh wait, that Capt. Kirk's principles.
Who is and who is not a conservative depends on a self definition. If you believe you are a conservative you are one.
I be one................
I don't recall exactly what Brooks's points were, but they are not inconsistent with this admittedly deeper statement of conservative principles. Thus the right to life is consistent with belief in a permanent moral order and the importance of tradition. Belief in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, ditto. And so on down the list.
Russell Kirk Ping!
Nicely done. -- You put this together?
I was thinking of somebody else's conservative list that I read here the past day or two. You're right, Brooks is a lightweight.
No I served as a factotum for Kirk. He was a brilliant writer when he chose to be.
He over-defines conservatism, in that there are different forms of conservatism, and not all he ascribes can be attributed to all conservatives all the time. Conservatives themselves often vary as to which form of conservatism they currently use, based on their current prerogatives. And some embrace only some parts of conservatism, disliking other parts he includes.
For example, a "religious conservative" is far more concerned with morality and religious respect than is what I call a "secular conservative", who disassociates religion and politics as usually not intersecting for most business, though reserving the right for religion to be involved in politics. That is, they see no reason to introduce religion into an otherwise secular discussion of ordinary government business; but have no objections if a religious point of order is raised.
Another type of conservative not exclusive to these two would be the "libertarian conservative". They may have strict morals, but abhor any government efforts to coerce or improve morality in the public. They just generally abhor most government interference and see government as little more than a necessary evil, best kept at a distance.
Then there is the "business conservative", who is far more interested in keeping a conservative business climate because it is good for business. He truly believes what Calvin Coolidge said, that "The business of America is business." These people can sway from being staunchly conservative to wildly liberal, based on their self-interest.
Yet another type are the "status quo conservatives", who are generally content and want the government to stop dashing madly about changing and adding law after law. They are annoyed by Washington moving in any other direction than pure maintenance of what is. For example, they have not seen proof that 99% of the post-911 legislation has done anything at all; so are aggrieved that it was passed in the first place. Many feel that it could be almost completely undone, and the US would be no less secure.
They are similar to the unnamed conservatives who just want government to go ahead and do its job, and just LEAVE THEM ALONE. They do not want to be disturbed by government at home, or on the job. Substantial in number, the only time they want to hear about the government AT ALL is in time of emergency.
This is far from being an exclusive list--there is a great divergence of opinion among conservatives.
Conservative principle #1 is to fold when you sense opposition.
Ronaldus Magnus had very high praise for Kirk:
As the prophet of American conservatism, Russell Kirk has taught, nurtured, and inspired a generation. From . . . Piety Hill, he reached deep into the roots of American values, writing and editing central works of political philosophy. His intellectual contribution has been a profound act of patriotism. I look forward to the future with anticipation that his work will continue to exert a profound influence in the defense of our values and our cherished civilization.Kirk's views about the "permanent things" deserves a frequent hearing, particularly when sleazy guns for hire like Brooks can pass for conservatives.
In fairness, they mistakenly erased it. They did not pull it for cause. An old man like me does things like this all the time, but I am less forgiving of anyone younger.
Excellent. I am currently reading. I have to keep a dictionary handy and that's a good thing.
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