Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:34

"The Conservative Mind" Turns Sixty

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"The Conservative Mind" Turns Sixty

Tim Goeglein

Tim Goeglein is Vice President, External Relations, of Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to "Helping Families Thrive." Its web site is at

One of the foundational texts of the conservative movement, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, has just hit a milestone: It was published 60 years ago.

His magnus opus remains widely regarded as one of the seminal tomes of mid-century American conservatism, in the same iconic pantheon as Frederich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, William F. Buckley Jr.'s God and Man at Yale, published in 1951, and Whittaker Chambers' Witness, published in 1952.

The Conservative Mind, published in 1953 by the Henry Regnery Publishing Company of Chicago, instantly became one of the most unlikely overnight publishing sensations of the latter half of the 20th century, not unlike Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind nearly 35 years later.

Kirk's original title, The Conservative Rout, was slightly altered by Regnery himself, giving the book a new if less dour name. Kirk had written the book as his doctorate of humane letters thesis at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1952. It had been accepted by a major New York publishing house, but when one of the chief editors demanded that the young author cut significant portions from the manuscript, Kirk demurred, looked elsewhere, and inked a deal with Regnery, commencing a lifelong friendship.

Kirk's first book mirrored the author himself: high principles, a probing intelligence, and an integrity of ideas that was unimpeachable and unassailable. There would be no wistful sentiments or misty nostalgia conveyed about the central figures and ideas of conservatism.

The Conservative Mind achieved a kind of minor-classic status almost from the beginning, and it launched the young Kirk into a spotlight that shone for the rest of his long life. Time magazine devoted its entire book review section to Kirk's tome, Henry Luce having been personally smitten by its erudition, scholarship, and popular appeal.

The book was widely reviewed and roundly praised even by most of the major liberal publications in mid-century America. The president of Kenyan College, Gordon Keith Chalmers, reviewed the book in The New York Times, calling it "very readable, brilliant, even eloquent."

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Lionel Trilling, and Daniel Boorstin acknowledged the significance of Kirk's central thesis even if they did not give full ascent to its rightness or youthful confidence. Great writers themselves, they knew Kirk abhorred formulaic rhetoric, spectacle, and above all, ideology. He was canny and talented, personifying permanence and excellence in a century that had known chaos and alienation after two world wars.

The center of the book was Kirk's path-breaking assertion that there existed an Anglo-American conservative intellectual tradition that was distinct from its better-known liberal counterpart. This bold thesis contradicted the regnant left-wing narrative that had come to dominate most of American scholarship, and much of college and university campus life by the early 1950s.

The Conservative Mind was a tour-de-force - lyrical in its lucidity, alluring in its assertions, and rooted in a kind of soulful intensity and ethical depth. Kirk was eager about evoking and reintroducing for a new era a host of political and intellectual worthies, many of whom had been forgotten in the mists of time. Kirk saw them as vital, timely, and relevant for a new era.

With precision and finesse, Kirk poignantly illustrated that, beginning with the Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke in the 18th century, there was an identifiable, unique, and manifestly conservative tradition in the arts, letters, morals, manners, and politics that was, if not ideologically consistent, singular in its own excellence of shared first principles.

He showed how this tradition was separate from what was roundly viewed as the Whig view of history - the natural, inevitable progress toward centralization and consolidation in a variety of spheres, not the least of which was government. He said this conservative tradition had its own intellectual and imaginative architecture, borne of ardor and brilliant writing and thought. Its seedbed was natural law, a combination of variety and mystery, hierarchy and order, the close association between property and liberty, custom, and prudent change that favored reform to rebellion or revolution.

Kirk's compelling narrative echoed one of his conservative icons, the British poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge: That every country, culture, and civilization had a kind of philosophical personality. The liberal worldview was comfortable with theory and speculation and tended toward secularity while the conservative counterpart found greater comfort in experience, practice, and a religious and spiritual sensibility. The former was litigious and legislative in its natural development while the latter was inclined more toward morals, manners, and habituated virtue.

The Conservative Mind, which has never been out of print, has gone through seven editions. In the same way a great painter might add a finishing brush stroke from his palette or a poet might craft an extra stanza, Kirk continued to revise his original manuscript throughout his lifetime of wide reading and thinking. In some instances, there were significant changes. He extended the conservative sensibility well into the mid-20th century, culminating with the poetry and literary/social observations of his friend T. S. Eliot, with whom Kirk had developed an important epistolary friendship across the Atlantic.

Kirk was particular in choosing his canon, selecting as the greatest conservative minds not only Burke, Coleridge, and Eliot but also a veritable cavalcade of worthies: John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Walter Scott, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Henry Newman, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Johnson, and two now-obscure Harvard professors, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt, whose influence on students in the next two generations would read like a Who's Who of American political and literary leadership, not the least of whom was Eliot himself, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Kirk etches finely wrought mini-biographies of all these great men with a special emphasis on their ideas.

The Conservative Mind made deep impressions, conveying a conservatism imbued with moral purpose and alive to modernity. Kirk's flinty intensity and heart animated a prodigious life, and he worked with an almost monkish energy. He wrote a regular column for National Review for the next 25 years called "From the Academy"; he was a widely sought speaker on every major campus in the United States and abroad, speaking at nearly 500 universities and colleges; Barry Goldwater actively cultivated his support and counsel in his run for the presidency in 1964; and Kirk's weekly newspaper column for The Los Angeles Times syndicate was among the most popular in the country.

Thirty more books and hundreds of reviews, essays, and short stories would flow from Kirk's typewriter in the little Michigan village of Mecosta across the next 40 years. His oeuvre is animated by a tone and style of humility and gratitude, confidence and joy. He was a commanding prose stylist in an antiquarian sort of way - his commitment to design and craft is everywhere present on the page.

His exquisite writing after The Conservative Mind developed with more depth and probity Burke's central assertion that healthy civilizations are defined by the strength and courage of what Eliot called "the permanent things" - religious faith, the natural family, the centrality of mystery and transcendence, duties and obligations, and the ability of each succeeding generation to cohere confidently in defense of liberty, the free society, and the foundations of private property and free enterprise.

Kirk received the Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan, and at a dinner honoring the distinguished thinker and writer, the president said:

Dr. Kirk helped renew a generation's interest and knowledge of "permanent things," which are the underpinnings and the intellectual infrastructure of the conservative revival of our country.

In a famous 1966 essay written for The New York Times, Kirk had deftly predicted that Reagan's election as governor of California would usher in a conservative era in American politics which indeed came to fruition when Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1980. The Reagan years were conservatism's political and intellectual apotheosis, and Kirk's gentility, humility, and well-bred manner played no small role in that traditional resurgence.

He was a man of culture and deep piety, subtle and serene by temperament, yet astonishingly prolific. Kirk's big book was viewed as both a catechesis and a colossus of the American conservative movement, evoking the intersection of past and present. A veritable gem, The Conservative Mind proved that conservatism and intellectual elegance were not incompatible and could be of a piece. Its author was a cultivated and formidable writer, and the book's power and appeal confirmed philosopher Richard Weaver's view that "Ideas have consequences."

The book was so central to the burgeoning conservative movement, and its coming clash with the Left, that it further defined for the rest of the century the idea of what it meant to be an American conservative. Kirk's esthetic, religious, and moral principles were elemental to his Burkean worldview, and with great suppleness and dexterity, he defended them with a hopeful conviction that negated despair at almost every important turn of history. His was a sublime, elevating view, and his great book was a kind of bravura celebration of what conservatism was and could be for a new epoch of post-war Western culture.

Kirk wrote:

The conservative . . . is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character - with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.

The Conservative Mind is evergreen, animated by stylistic grace and eloquent poignancy. Sixty years on, Kirk's sparkling masterwork abides, its cadences of rich prose and deep learning as refreshing as ever.

The following are cogent quotes from The Conservative Mind:

Nothing is but thinking makes it so. If men of affairs can rise to the summons of the poets, the norms of culture and politics may endure despite the follies of the time. The individual is foolish; but the species is wise; and so the thinking conservative appeals to what Chesterton called "the democracy of the dead." Against the hubris of the ruthless innovator, the conservative of imagination pronounces Cupid's curse: "They that do change old love for new, Pray gods they change for worse."
The conservative is concerned with the recovery of true community, local energies and co-operation; with what Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy," voluntary endeavor, a social order distinguished by multiplicity and diversity. Free community is the alternative to compulsive collectivism. It is from the decay of community, particularly at the level of the "little platoon," that crime and violence shoot up. In this realm, misguided "liberal" measures have worked mischief that may not be undone for decades or generations, especially in the United States. *
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Timothy S. Goeglein

Timothy S. Goeglein is Vice President of External Relations for Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to “Helping Families Thrive.” Its web site is at
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