"a loathsome Plague Called Reaction": Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought

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D.The Burkean Standard

Now having identified Burke’s three core tenets of Burke’s fear- intangibility, loss of tradition, and chaos- one can begin to truly understand the root of his conservatism. Burke is concerned not only with what is happening in France, but with society and humanity as a whole. There is great wisdom in tradition, but it is not solely the old that must be preserved. Change is allowed, but must be gradual and considered- institutions should not be rattled by brief gusts of new ideas, but slowly formed by the prevailing winds. Burke’s fear of intangibility derives itself from both a distrust of academia as well as a distrust in general theoretical conceptions. The loss of tradition, meanwhile, comes from something much more tactile- the loss of the structures and beliefs that he maintains holds society together. This leads naturally into his final concern, that which fixates on the effects of these changes- chaos. These three fears taken as components of one great distrust of change, one can begin to evaluate other thinkers in terms of Burkean fear.

III.Russell Kirk- The Quintessential Prescriptive Conservative

This discussion of Burke leads naturally to his self-identified successor, Russell Kirk. Kirk, one of the founding members of the American New Conservative movement, is often referred to as a modern Edmund Burke- Clinton Rossiter once described him as “born one hundred fifty years too late and in the wrong country.”81 His writing reflects that conception- Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, the 1953 book that even Rossiter describes as “one of the most valuable contributions to intellectual history,” places Burke as the subject of its first chapter.82 Kirk’s writing style is also evocative of Burke- both are at times loquacious and never afraid to offer strongly worded advice to their opponents. Still, the importance of The Conservative Mind in its own right should not be understated. Historian George H. Nash describes it as “not only a huge, 450-page distillation of the thinking of 150 years of the intellectual right; it was also a relentless assault on every left-wing panacea and error imaginable.”83 A reviewer for Time put it even more bluntly- “The Conservative Mind was the most important book of the 20th century.”84 Kirk was among the trail blazers in sparking a return to intellectualism in American conservatives post war, and his importance in rearticulating conservative opposition to liberalism cannot be understated. This makes Kirk an excellent comparison to Burke, and thus a wonderful place to apply the standard of Burkean fear.

The Michigan native’s biography paints him as typical of his generation- enlisting in World War II and finding himself on the battlefield. Born in Plymouth, Michigan, 25 miles west of Detroit, on October 19th, 1918, Kirk entered the world just as it exited from the First World War. Growing up during the Great Depression, he earned his B.A. from Michigan State and an M.A. from Duke- where he discovered his love for John Randolph of Roanoke-before enlisting in the military during World War II. 85 After the war, he stayed abroad, earning his doctorate at St. Andrews University in Scotland. It is here that he rediscovered many of the British authors here revered so much, Burke chief among them.86 According to scholar Gerald J. Russello, it is in Scotland that he gained a “fascination with the occult and the gothic,” and the “aristocratic and antique trappings” of Scotland appealed to his old world sensibilities.87 He returned to Michigan State to teach upon graduation, but found the university system distasteful. After the fame he reached with The Conservative Mind he left his post and began focusing solely on writing and lecturing around the country, based out of his home in upstate Michigan. It was here that he wrote much of his more famous scholarship, and developed into one of the foremost personalities in 20th century conservatism. He died as he lived, quietly at home in Mecosta, Michigan, in 1994 at the age of 75. However, knowing Kirk’s penchant for the adoration of those voices who have faded into history, he would probably argue that his writings are even more relevant today than they were while he was still active.

Kirk outlines his definition of conservatism clearly in the beginning of his 1953 treatise with six “canons”: 1) a belief in a transcendent order, 2) an appreciation of the mystery of life, 3) confidence in classes and order, 4) understanding that freedom and property are linked, 5) faith in tradition, 6) skepticism of change.88 Forty years later, this definition changed only slightly- his final book, 1993’s The Politics of Prudence, listed ten principles.89 Only two principles constitute considerable additions- that “conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism,” and that they “perceive the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.”90 Most central to Kirk’s belief in Conservatism is that it is “neither a religion nor ideology” but instead a state of mind.91 By the end of his career, Kirk wrote that the phrase “prudent politician” is “synonymous, virtually,” with the word conservative.92

Given this explanation, is it possible that The Conservative Mind is riddled with fear? Certainly many of these canons are easily connectable with the fears Edmund Burke felt so deeply. No.’s 1, 3, and 5 all clearly fit themselves into Burke’s fear of losing tradition, and that the structures that have held society together for so long ought to be maintained. However, Burke’s other two fears may seem on the surface less apparent. No. 4- the link between freedom and property- can be viewed just as easily as endorsing an acceptance of abstract concepts instead of rejecting them, and No. 2- appreciating the mystery of life- seems to be embracing chaos, not fearing it. Nevertheless, upon closer examination, Kirk actually fits quite comfortably into the mold left by Burke. This section of the paper will go through each of Burke’s three sub-fears- intangibility, losing tradition, and chaos- and apply them to the political theory (although he may not like that term) of Russell Kirk.

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