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


B.Fear of Losing Tradition- Kirk’s Conservative Idols



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B.Fear of Losing Tradition- Kirk’s Conservative Idols


For whatever failings Kirk may have had as a contemporary observer, he more than made up for them with his enthusiasm towards retelling his own history of political thought. From here, one can begin to see where his Burkean admiration of tradition takes hold, and his concerns about what may happen if the lessons of the past are forgetting become apparent. Throughout his writings, Russell Kirk consistently holds up a handful of men to his conservative pantheon, and the way he speaks of his heroes is instructive in his overall philosophy. First and foremost among these historical figures is Edmund Burke, who he believes is the grandfather of all conservatism. However, several other characters begin emerge as well- John Adams, T.S. Elliot, John C. Calhoun, Benjamin Disreali, and Alexis de Tocqueville chief among them, each imparting their own character on Kirk’s story.

Still, Kirk writes more about Edmund Burke than anyone else, intentionally so. The second chapter of The Conservative Mind, which seeks to give a comprehensive intellectual history of modern conservatism, is dedicated to Burke, entitled “Burke and the Politics of Prescription.”122 In the chapter, Kirk’s central thesis is easy to understand: Burke’s willingness to counter the 18th century radicals and articulate a conservative doctrine inspired generations and paved the way for all who came after him. This claim is not particularly novel- perhaps the only person who might argue this would be Burke himself, who would likely defer credit to the ancients he so adored. Nonetheless, Kirk’s argument is Burke’s favor is strong- he holds that Burke was among the first thinkers for whom it was not a contradiction to be both liberal and conservative. Kirk explains it thusly:

All his life, Burke’s chief concern had been for justice and liberty, which must stand or fall together- liberty under law, a definite liberty, the limits of which were determined by prescription. He had defended the liberties of Englishmen against their king, and the liberties of Americans against king and parliament, and the liberties of the Hindus against Europeans. He had defended those liberties not because they were innovations, discovered in the Age of Reason, but because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immemorial usage. Burke was liberal because he was conservative.123

This combination of a love of freedom and a love of tradition had existed before, but Kirk holds that it was Burke who built this legacy for many of the conservatives to follow. By wedding freedom to tradition, the beginnings of the uneasy alliance of social conservatives and libertarians is born. This explains a few of contradictions of Burke- supporting revolution across the Atlantic but not across the Channel- and creates a standard of prescriptive conservatism draws its power from both the law and tradition.

However, when weighing law and tradition, it seems Kirk more heavily emphasizing Burke’s love of the latter over the former. The second half of his chapter on Burke focuses on the question of religion, and the reliance of society on a transcendent order. The greatest feat of Burke’s work according to Kirk is his ability to thoroughly refute the dominant ideologies of his time- “utilitarianism, positivism, and pragmatism, as well as an attack on Jacobinsim”- with an endorsement of a transcendent order.124 Kirk seems to see Burke as the strongest example of his first canon of conservatism, and sees Burke as uniquely potent in his connection of politics and tradition. Kirk writes that Burke thought “This temporal order is only part of a larger, supernatural order; and the foundation is social tranquility is reverence.”125 He also holds that Burke saw that “the first rule of society is obedience- obedience to God and the dispensations of Providence,” but after that is “an order of spiritual and intellectual values.”126 Finally, Kirk argues that Burke understood that the only thing preventing complete anarchy is “general acquiescence in social distinctions of duty and privilege.”127 Understood simply, Kirk thinks Burke builds an order of 1) religion, 2) social values, and 3) nobility and social structures. I differ slightly here in my interpretation of Burke- swapping religion and social structures in order of primacy- but certainly Burke’s love of tradition shines through throughout his work.

Indeed Kirk remembers a Burke far more obsessed with God than the one who appears in Reflections. While religion is a key theme in Burke’s book, it comes secondary to class and constitutionalism in terms of focus. As mentioned in the section on Burke’s fear of losing tradition, it is really what comes after religion that scares Burke, yet Kirk is absolutely certain Burke offers a rousing endorsement of Christainity. Kirk published a revised version of his chapter on Burke from The Conservative Mind in the Journal of the History of Ideas, with the key difference being the subtraction of Burke’s biography and a reinvigorated emphasis on Burke’s view of religion.128 In it, he writes things such as “There is a God; and He is wise; and this world is His design; and man and the state are God’s creations- such is Burke’s philosophical principle.”129 Additionally, Kirk authored an entire biography of Burke, entitled Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, which is centered on enlivening the conversation around his idol.130 Here he agrees that Reflections was written with “written with white heat,” and it “burns with all the wrath and anguish of a prophet who saw the traditions of Christendom and the fabric of society dissolving before his eyes.”131 Instead of rambling, Kirk sees a Burke that “winds into his subject like a serpent.”132 More importantly, the book’s opening chapter is titled “How Dead is Burke?” with the obvious insinuation that Burke has faded from the mind of most.133 He calls for a return to Burke, “not for what he did, but for what he perceived.”134 In this regard, Kirk is referring to Burke’s concern over radicalism, and warning that if we forget Burke we run the risk of losing his lessons in a time- rife with “communism” and “atomic waste”- when we may need it the most.135 As he concludes Burke’s chapter in The Conservative Mind:

Our age, too, seems to be groping for certain of the ideas which Burke’s inspiration formed into a system of social preservation. Failing these or some other genuine principles, our own epoch of concentration is sure to descend into sardonic apathy and fatigued repression.136

It is important not to let Kirk’s love of Burke overshadow the other conservatives he holds up on high. In The Conservative Mind, he dedicates his third chapter to John Adams, the early American statesmen who was instrumental in the early days of revolution as well as serving as the country's second president.137 Having enjoyed a run of popularity recently, most notably with an HBO mini-series, it may be difficult to imagine that he was once an overlooked founder. It may be even more difficult still to picture him as a "conservative," given that among his most well-known traits are a short temper and a bombastic demeanor and a legacy that involves suspending the constitution for the sake of the national interest. Still, in 1953, he was still very much the forgotten founder, and Kirk sought to call attention to Adams as a political thinker. He maintains that Adams’ Federalists were “the first conservative faction in an independent America,” and were combatting their own radicalism- both from the philosophes in France and from Jefferson’s “agrarian republicans.”138 Of all the founders, Kirk holds Adams foremost: “between the centralizing and inquisitive principles of Hamilton and the beetling defiance of Ames stands John Adams, the real conservative.”139 The most valued principle of Adams, similar to that of Burke, is that legal equality and natural equality are separate. Adams saw that men possess “moral equality” from God and “judicial equality” from the state, but Kirk believes he thought “that they are so many equipollent physical beings, so many atoms, is nonsense.”140 His embrace of a natural aristocracy supported Kirk’s opposition to any abstract sense of equality.

It also allowed him to seamlessly segue into his next two thinkers, John C. Calhoun and John Randolph. Randolph, “the single greatest man in American history,” was a Congressman from Virginia who, though formerly allied with Thomas Jefferson, led the conservative southern delegation in the early 19th century.141 Joined by John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina politician famous for his stance on nullification, Randolph is who Kirk argues is chiefly responsible for ensuring the discussion around slavery was entangled with the notion of states-rights.142 He argues that their choice to attach slavery to less tangible questions of federalism was intentional- it enabled them to build a coalition that otherwise may not have been willing to discuss these fundamental issues of American governance.143 “Human slavery is bad ground for conservatives to make a stand upon; yet it needs to be remembered that the wild demands and expectations of the abolitionists were quite as slippery a ground for political decency.”144 This theme of memory continues when he turns his focus across the Atlantic to British conservative Benjamin Disreali, who was “determined to resuscitate the virtues of an older order.”145 Writers James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and T.S. Eliot are lauded for their ability to capture moments that encapsulate what it means to be an American conservative.146 All the historical figures he admires so much all build to this sense of collective memory that is critical to retain.

More compelling than the more popular historical figures on the list is Kirk’s penchant for highlighting more obscure characters. Of Adams, he writes: “Nowadays, Adams is not read; I was the first man to cut the pages in the ten big volumes of my set of his works, although they were published a hundred years ago.”147 It is difficult to ascertain today who was well known while Kirk was writing in 1953, but one could imagine that names like Walter Bagehot, Paul Elmer More, and W.H. Mallock may have received blank stares from much of Kirk’s intended audience. Still, in some ways that appears to be his point- this wondrous conservative tradition exists, and society has pulled away from it. Kirk is hoping to act as a beacon back to this intellectual history, to dust off the decrepit volumes and rediscover what it means to be a conservative. If this tradition is left disregarded, Kirk argues that we stand to lose the great wisdom offered therein.



This fear is not as “fire-and-brimstone” as Burke’s, but still takes the same shape- if society fails to learn from the past, they may be doomed to repeat it. “Conservatives have been routed,” he says, “but not conquered.”148 Conservatism remains strong to Kirk, with the exception of one domain- the burgeoning prospect of collectivism. As Kirk writes in his sixth edition of The Conservative Mind, Communism is a specter abroad moreso than in the United States and Britain. Still, Kirk observes that traces of socialism have begun to undermine liberalism in Britain, and warns that the U.S. is in danger of a similar threat.149 He does not see Americans slipping into communism as reflect in Russia, but still he envisions a nation that may unknowingly be doing irreparable harm to itself. As Edmund Burke himself said, “Rage and frenzy will take down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”150




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