We were required to read this book for Wilson's Politics class, and here is the review I offered.
The endeavour of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is to demonstrate that a stable tradition of principles called “conservatism” have maintained themselves among a long lineage of great thinkers for the past 175 years. Unfortunately, the only really stable fixture that he demonstrates in this tradition is the singular eloquence of all its adherents, a trait which he also manifests impressively, and which reveals just how deplorable the state of civil discourse is in society today.
Other than this, though, conservatism does not seem so much to be an intellectual tradition as a vague disposition. Among the thinkers surveyed in this book, some stand for Christian orthodoxy, others for a vague deism, others for outright atheism; some stand for big central government, others for small local government; some stand for urban and industrial interests, others (the majority) for agrarian interests; some stand for mercantilism, others for capitalism; some stand for imperialism, others for peace; some stand upon principle, others on the needs of expediency; some are optimists, others pessimists or even fatalists.
This book seems at times to effectively demonstrate the jibe that conservatism is merely the shadow that follows liberalism, that conservatives are as content as liberals to drive off a cliff, as long as we take the time to do it decently and in order. The one constant among all these “conservatives” that Kirk surveys is resistance to the spirit of the times, but what they cling to instead is a constantly shifting target; the central pillars of conservatism in 1880 would’ve appeared as the far frontiers of liberalism in 1830, and these pillars were out of sight in the rear-view mirror by 1930.
Inasmuch as we can identify a fixed ideology of conservatism in Kirk’s work, it must be named for what it is: a false religion. Conservatism has generally stood for a strong sense of morality, bolstered by a faith in a vague Providence, a submission to the order of the world which this Providence has decreed, a general cynicism about the sordidness of the world and the likelihood of its improvement, and a praise of the educated individual who has cultivated such a morality and submission to the realities of the world. As such, conservatism, especially in the form of some of its most chief representatives, like Burke, bears far more resemblance to ancient pagan Stoicism than it does to Christian orthodoxy. Inasmuch as it bears the distinctive stamp of Christian teaching, it is generally from the heresy of “Christianity,” in which general principles of the faith are abstracted from their true home in the Church, and applied selectively to politics in order to help bolster the status quo of society.
This is not to say that conservatism is antithetical to the Christian faith—certainly not. But where it is right, it is usually only ever half right. The gospel faith asserts the equal importance of adherence to the ancient landmarks and of bold creative transformation—of loyalty to the past and to the future. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith simultaneously upholds the importance of hierarchy and structure, as well as radical equality and concern for the lowest strata of society. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith affirms the need for property and also the need for all things to be held in common. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith demands loyalty both to local traditions and to worldwide agendas. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith preaches both the radical depravity of man and also his stunning capacity for improvement and glorification. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. By all means, let us plunder their camp of its riches, but let us not ourselves be trapped in their midst, on one side of a man-made chasm.
In any case, the most striking feature of the portrait of conservatism in Kirk’s book is the startling unrecognizability of today’s so-called conservatism, which seems to have quite apostatized from most early incarnations of the conservative mind. The two most prominent features of conservatism today—an almost blind faith in free-market capitalism and a hawkish stance in favor of empire, militarism, and “national security” are not only absent from Kirk’s portraits, but in general, contradict them. The issue of foreign policy plays a rather small role in Kirk’s survey, and indeed, some of the great conservatives were imperialists, such as Disraeli, but certainly on the issue of economics, the contrast is almost laughable. Most of Kirk’s conservatives discerned that the advocates of the free powers of the market, of the unrestrained pursuit of profit and prosperity by each individual, were among the host of the enemy, as the offspring of utilitarianism and the bedfellows of the progressives, with their materialistic dehumanization of society. Now the champions of “conservatism” clamor to have the Prometheus of the market unbound, so that he may continue to spread light and warmth to mankind, and that the titans of industry may pursue their sacred quest for wealth unshackled.
The conservative mind is certainly a chameleon, whatever else it may be.