Russell Kirk, an author, political theorist, and professor, was indisputably the father of modern American Conservatism. Kirk wrote many books on the subject of Conservatism during his lifetime, including The Library of Conservative Thought and Prospects for Conservatives. One book in particular stood out in Kirk’s collection and provided the American Conservative movement a core set of beliefs. That book is The Conservative Mind. Not only does The Conservative Mind provide a set of principals for the Conservative movement as a whole, it also examines how some of history’s greatest men believed in its core beliefs, focusing on one thinker in particular, Edmund Burke. Also examined is Kirk’s impact on the current America political scene.

Book Analysis

The Conservative Mind could be described as the “Conservative Manifesto”. Written in 1953, Kirk’s book lays out the foundation of his beliefs in what he calls the “Six Cannons of conservative thought” (Kirk 7). They are as followed:
1. Belief that a divine intent rules society
2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life
3. Conviction that civilized society requires order and classes
4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected
5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators”
6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress
(Kirk 9).

Kirk’s conservatism is derived from Ireland’s Edmund Burke. Burke, an author and member of the House of Commons, was the leading member in England’s Whig party. Kirk’s best explanation of Burke comes about when describing Burke’s personality. “All his life, Burke’s chief concern had been for justice and liberty, which must fall or stand together. He(Burke) had defended the liberties of English men against their king . . . Hindus against Europeans. He had defended those liberties because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immortal usage. Burke was a liberal because he was conservative” (Kirk 19). The above quote shows that even though one is conservative, with a belief in justice and liberty, one also is a classical liberal. The term liberal itself derives from liberty. The men Kirk surveys for the book are from differing nationalities as well as differing occupations but still similar political alignments. Some of these men include Walter Scott, John Adams, George Santayana, and Benjamin Disraeli. Kirk ends his book by posing a simple question: What is a real conservative? Kirk’s answer is as followed: “some of the stereotypes are dull, boorish, bigoted…the enemy of imagination and youth. The true conservative may be a resolute and strong-minded clergyman, or a warn father, or a truck driver . . .” (Kirk 441). Kirk is showing that employment or station have little to do with one’s political alignment. That type of attitude helped propel Conservatism into the new millennium and led to a larger following.

People Profiles

Kirk mentions many important men in his book who have contributed largely to America and her politics. From John Adams to Thomas Paine, Kirk shows that many men have ascribed to Conservative beliefs. Alexis De Tocqueville, a Frenchmen, has had a large effect on American affairs since the publication of his book Democracy in America. Kirk believes that Tocqueville, a student of Burke, shows his conservatism through two strong beliefs; democracy without liberty is baseless and a conforming population brings about evil. Kirk begins his study by quoting from a letter written by Tocqueville. “By what saddens me is not that our society is democratic, but that the vices we have inherited and acquired have made it so difficult for us to obtain or to keep well-regulated liberty. And I know nothing so miserable as a democracy without liberty” (Kirk 179). Tocqueville believes that in order to have a democracy, there must also be liberty. A democracy exists on the foundation of liberty, and without a strong foundation, democracy fails. Loosing ones individualism and conforming is also a concern of Tocqueville’s. “As men grow more alike, each man feels himself weaker in regard to all the rest; as he discerns nothing by which he is considerably raised above them or distinguished from them . . . not only does he mistrust his strength, but he even doubts of his right” (Kirk 180). Tocqueville sees that a democracy that makes you conform and not promote the highest ideals is a dangerous one. Kirk, like Tocqueville, believes “society ought to be designed to encourage the highest moral and intellectual qualities in man; the worst threat of the new democratic system is that mediocrity will not only be encouraged, but may be enforced” (Kirk 180). Kirk believes that without intelligence or the “natural aristocracy”, society will be at the hands of despots. Tocqueville truly touched and shaped Kirk’s views. No matter how old the belief system, “Conservatism, “like cattle under the English oaks”, keeps on ticking” (Kirk 1).

Kirk’s Importance

When it comes to Kirk’s importance in the American political sphere, his influence is very hard to see. The conservatism of Kirk’s day and the conservatism of the modern day are two very different beliefs. The conservatism of Kirk’s day was aimed at living the traditional life, with family and God being mainstays of the home. With that being said, the conservatives of old were neither Libertarians nor Neo-conservatives. Money and business were not big issues to Kirk. The following quote is from Kirk on the subject of Libertarianism; “To complete the rout of traditionalists in America, an impression began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests are the conservative interest…that conservatism is simply a political argument in defense of large accumulations of private property, that expansion, centralization, and accumulation are the tenets of conservatives” (Kirk 239). Kirk denies that money has anything to do with conservatism. Neo-conservatism was also not true conservatism to Kirk. Kirk once said, “not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” (Kirk). Kirk is saying that a belief in Israel isn’t ground zero for one being labeled a true conservative, its deeper than that.

Closing

The conservative movement in America has been anything but “old” and “never changing”. Kirk, though not living, is still very alive today through his writings and will continue to inspire all who reads and believes in his cause. Conservatism is, as Kirk says, “the preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity” (Kirk 7). I believe that everyone has some sort of conservative belief system, whether that be political or religious. Only time will tell if true conservatism will make a come back.

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Kirk, Russell The Conservative Mind

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