A Code of Conservative Thought (by Russell Kirk)

16 05 2008

In The Conservative Mind From Burke to Eliot (1985, 7th edition) Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, D.C., Russell Kirk (1918-1994) reviews the historical development of conservative thought. Kirk traces the development of conservative thought in political and social realms from Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) through American-English poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).

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Kirk identifies six canons (i.e., laws, rules or a code of laws) of conservative thought (pages 8-9). Following is a listing of these six canons and excerpts of Kirk’s explanation of each.

1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality…cannot itself satisfy human needs. (Conservatives believe) there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom. True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in the community of souls.

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  • Justice in this sense refers to God’s divine Justice and divine will

2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist ….”Logicalism” in society. This … has been called “the conservatism of enjoyment” – a sense that life is worth living….

  • Egalitarianism (derived from the French word égal, meaning equal) is a political doctrine that holds that all people should be treated as equals from birth, not just in a political or moral sense, but also in an economic sense. (Definition from wikipedia). Egalitarian philosophies and political systems include socialism, communism, marxism, and anarchism.
  • Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility in maximizing happiness or pleasure as summed among all persons. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome—the ends justify the means. (source: wikipedia)

3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes as against the notion of a “classless society”. With reason, conservatives often have been called “the party of order.” …. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

  • (Blogger’s comment) The U.S. constitution holds that “all men are created equal” both before God and before the law. However, it does not enforce economic equality among people through socialistic practices of taxation for the purpose of wealth redistribution. People are entitled to benefit from the fruit of their labors and their skills – they are not forced into economic equality by socialistic government systems.

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4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked; separate property from private possession, and “Leviathan” becomes master of all. Economic leveling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

  • (Blogger’s comment) “Leviathan” in this context is referring to an over lording socialistic government or political state.

5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

  • (Blogger’s comment) That “economists” are not highly thought of may be “troubling” to some, but in Edmund Burke’s day, liberal radical economists were instigators of ideas of “wealth redistribution” and “utilitarianism”. Collectivist forms of wealth redistribution and “greatest good” ideologies often took root in well intentioned but radically oriented economists.
  • The “innovator’s lust for power” can be understood as the all too familiar impulse and drive of liberal-oriented “innovators” or “change agents” to use governmental power to either redistribute wealth or institute their governmental reforms that sought to enshrine and protect their political power and control over others.

6. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

  • Prudence refers to the exercise of good judgment, common sense, and even caution, especially in the conduct of practical matters. Prudent thought would typically be in opposition to radical, tumultuous change for the sake of change in matters of politics and governance of a nation.

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Ideas Behind Radicalism (in Opposition to Conservatism)

Kirk goes on to list in “hasty generalized form” the grounds upon which radicalism since 1790 has attacked “the prescriptive arrangement of society”….(page 10)….

1. The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism. Radicals believe that education, positive legislation, and alteration of environment can produce men like gods; they deny that humanity has a natural proclivity toward violence and sin.

  • Meliorism is an idea in metaphysical thinking holding that progress is a real concept leading to an improvement of the world. It holds that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome which is an improvement over the aforementioned natural one. (source – wikipedia) (Blogger note: the idea of “political progressivism” seems related to this concept of meliorism.)

2. Contempt for tradition. Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as guides to social welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors. Formal religion is rejected and various ideologies are presented as substitutes.

  • (Bloggers comment) The thought system of materialistic determinism only accepts scientific, quantifiable, materialistic explanations for human behavior. Darwinism and positivism (i.e., if we can not see something or measure it via scientific investigation guided by the scientific method, it does not exist) appear to be associated this train of thought. Most definitely, thoughts of God as creator and mankind as children of Almighty God with moral, spiritual realities to deal with in life and after this life (i.e., that mankind will all stand to be judged before this Holy God) are “not welcome” to this train of thought.

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3. Political leveling. Order and privilege are condemned; total democracy, as direct as practicable, is the professed radical ideal. Allied with this spirit, generally, is a dislike of old parliamentary arrangements and an eagerness for centralization and consolidation.

  • (Blogger comment) Can you say “the French Revolution“, socialism, communism, fascism, and centralized “big government” control of national economies and individual people’s lives? Ditto for economic leveling presented below.

4. Economic leveling. The ancient rights of property, especially property in land, are suspect to almost all radicals; the collectivistic reformers hack at the institution of private property root and branch.

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Kirk also indicates that a fifth point could be made regarding the common radical view of the state’s function. Although much variance of opinion regarding this point exists among radicals, they unite in detesting the conservative belief and understanding that the state is “ordained by God”. Radicals also detest the idea that a country, or a group of people are united in purpose and in life over time or over generations, i.e. the past, present and future.

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As Kirk says, “radicals are in love with change“.


The writings and thoughts of Russell Kirk regarding conservatism are relevant to today’s political discussions and presidential campaigns. Specifically…

  • The idea of “change” is central to the themes of the presumptive democratic presidential candidate.
  • The environmentally oriented “cap and trade” schemes being supported by both republican and democratic candidates for president are a form of “economic leveling” in my estimation – an over reaching effort to control the use of energy producing assets and the overall U.S. economy to achieve “green” political ends.
  • Contempt for tradition – recent events regarding same-sex marriage in California reinforce this point in our day.
  • Contempt for the idea that the state is ordained by God – witness the ACLU’s work in seeking to strip away any mention of God from public life, from currency to nativity scenes to the teaching of creationism to prayer in public / school events.

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Kirk’s thoughts are relevant today as we see radical liberalism seek to tear away and destroy the conservative and religious foundations of our society.

What are conservatives to do about this situation and the literal battle of ideas and ideologies? Thoughts on that at a later time.


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