The Priority of Culture: Russell Kirk’s “Concise Guide to Conservatism”
After Russell Kirk published his dissertation in 1953 under the title The Conservative Mind, it became a best-seller. Among the ranks of Robert Nisbet and Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk became known as a father of post-war traditionalist conservatism and a prominent public intellectual. The Conservative Mind was an important book, especially insofar as it helped… The post The Priority of Culture: Russell Kirk’s “Concise Guide to Conservatism” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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After Russell Kirk published his dissertation in 1953 under the title The Conservative Mind, it became a best-seller. Among the ranks of Robert Nisbet and Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk became known as a father of post-war traditionalist conservatism and a prominent public intellectual. The Conservative Mind was an important book, especially insofar as it helped provide respectability and an intellectual lineage to Anglo-American conservatism.[1]
Kirk showed that conservatism in America is nothing new or foreign but part and parcel of the American experience and tradition. Moreover, there is a strong tendency to preserve ancient wisdom running throughout the Anglo-American tradition which Americans have long been engaged in since the first colonialists settled in North America. This tendency was clarified in the modern world by Edmund Burke, who gave birth to modern conservatism in his critique of the French Revolution. By means of revolution, argued Burke, France had cut itself off from the Western tradition. In its place, the revolutionaries in France embraced “the first forms of ideology, an earthly attempt to create paradise by using secularizing religious symbols for the sake of utopia.”[2] The conservative tendency within the Anglo-American tradition continued long after Burke, emerging especially in thinkers like John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Henry Newman, George Santayana, Irving Babbitt, and, in his second 1954 edition, T.S. Eliot.
A few years and a few books later, in 1957, Kirk published The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism, a title that ironically played on George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. This little book was different from ones he had published until that point in time, namely A Program For Conservatives (1954), St. Andrews (1954), Academic Freedom (1955), and Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1956). As Kirk’s biographer Bradley Birzer writes, many readers thought that The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism had a somewhat “superficial feel, especially when compared to other Kirk books.”[3] After he published this book in 1957, Kirk continued to pen classics such as Eliot and His Age (1971) and The Roots of American Order (1974). Many of Kirk’s later books became classics, but his little book from 1957 was mostly forgotten and eventually went out of print.
Readers, however, need not worry, thanks to the publication of an edition released by Regnery Gateway with the new title Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism (2019). With an introduction by historian Wilfred M. McClay, this book is a wonderful introduction to certain elements of Kirk’s thought. It should be noted, of course, that this is only a general overview, not a comprehensive exploration of Anglo-American conservatism. Kirk acknowledged the simplicity of this book in the preface to the original edition, noting that he hopefully wrote without “sacrificing candor and accuracy to vulgarization.”[4] Even if it is not a thorough introduction to Kirk’s teaching, the newly republished Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism is a well-written and insightful text that is worth reading for anyone interested in Kirk.
If there is any one theme that can be traced throughout Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, it is the importance of culture and imagination over practical politics. Readers will likely notice that this is a distinction between traditionalist conservatives in the Burkean tradition and the overtly political conservatives of today. In fact, the priority of culture and imagination over practical politics is a principle that goes all the way back to Kirk’s earliest writings. Within the first pages of The Conservative Mind, for instance, Kirk argued that “society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.”[5] The problems of the world cannot be solved by political action alone. To the contrary, “political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”[6] Conservatives should not seek to engineer society through politics as though the social order were an old machine to be updated, or as if it were a creation of legislation.
Wilfred M. McClay points out Kirk’s emphasis on culture in his introduction to this new edition. In doing so, he follows Kirk’s biographer and his colleague at Hillsdale College, Bradley Birzer, who similarly argues that Kirk’s conservatism transcended practical politics and was instead a call to preserve what is “dignified, humane, good, and beautiful.”[7] According to McClay, Kirk envisioned conservatism as “a body of wisdom that has stood the test of time, resisting precipitous and ideologically motivated change, countering the passions of abstract revolutionizing ideology with the concrete virtue of prudence.” In this way, Kirk’s conservatism “is a disposition of grateful wonder at the miracle of our existence, calling us to acknowledge the sources of our being and to strive to live in respectful and loving harmony with them.”[8] McClay implies that Kirk’s conservatism is something more significant than a list of policy positions. Winning political victories is helpful, but the transformation of culture is more important and lasting. Those interested in practical politics would do well to remember that the political liberty that Americans value can only be maintained on the foundation of strong cultural and civic institutions, which pass on the virtue necessary for political liberty to thrive. A political victory without a simultaneous strengthening of cultural and civic institutions, in the end, will be short lived and ineffective.
As McClay points out, Kirk would not totally ignore practical politics if he were alive today. This is clear from the fact that Kirk himself was involved in practical politics at several points in his life. Nevertheless, he would probably believe that current conservatism, insofar as it has become too focused on practical politics, is lacking. He writes:
[Kirk] might well complain, were he with us now, that conservatism has been impoverished in recent years by an overemphasis on ideological forms of politics and the neglect of the realm of the imagination and of the realm of culture more generally, realms in which the conservative sensibility had in the past been powerfully represented. Today we often hear that politics is downstream from culture, an observation that would have seemed obvious to Kirk. It may well be, then, that the transformation of a feckless, life-denying, and inhumane culture into something more consonant with our human endowment is the principal task facing conservatives and conservatism.[9]
These lines from McClay ring true. Contemporary society, indeed, is often “life-denying” and “inhumane,” and so the call to redeem the times requires a transformation of culture. For Kirk, then, the task facing American conservatives is the strengthening of the institutions of civil society — families, churches, schools, neighborhoods, charities, and other voluntary organizations. Indeed, Kirk’s suggestion that conservatives focus on the revitalization of civil society can be affirmed by a proper understanding of politics. Politics is a discipline that touches all areas of human life, but it is itself something shaped by deeper and more important influences. These include the above-mentioned institutions that comprise civil society as well as the deeper influences of culture, including literature, the fine arts, and religion.[10] McClay quotes Kirk in his introduction, who suggested that an over-emphasis on practical politics is a “diversion of the quarter-educated.” As a result, Kirk tried to “recognize the great importance, in literature and in life, of religion, ethics, and beauty.”[11]
The conviction that “politics is downstream from culture” is related to the traditionalist conservative understanding of society. According to Kirk, society is not the artificial creation of those who hold political power. The view that society is an artificial creation of the government is a great flaw of radicals and progressives and, with this flaw as a starting point, they use politics to impose their ideas onto everyone else. In contrast, Kirk believed that society is something organic, drawn together first in families and then in voluntary communities. As Aristotle famously wrote in The Politics, human beings are by nature intended to live in a political community.[12] Such communities begin with families, which unite to form villages. Numerous villages, then, unite to form a polis, which exists for the sake of the good life. The political community is formed not by top-down coercion but instead by an organic unification of families and villages for the sake of human flourishing. If it is true that society is formed from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, then it follows that federal legislation is not the most desirable way to enact reform. To be sure, good government will help in the process of making a good citizenry, and so conservatives should indeed try to elect statesmen to public office who will promote good government. Kirk’s position is not that practical politics is pointless, but rather than it is not enough by itself to renew Western and American civilization.
Given the title of this book, many readers might expect the author to provide a “guide” to national policies that will advance the conservative cause. Kirk, however, did not do this, nor would he consider a practical guide of this sort to be worth his time. Instead, Kirk devoted his attention to cultural issues which remain relevant even today. For instance, in addition to discussing the significance of the family, he discussed the importance of religion. Conservatism, Kirk implied, must rest on a religious foundation. It should be no surprise that conservatism in the modern world is religious and that, relatedly, it is usually conservatives who are the most vigorous defenders of religion.[13] Kirk’s continuation of the theme of culture does not end there. The importance of individual conscience is also discussed at length.[14] So too is the importance of community and the problem of individualism.[15] Even the subject of liberal education is provided ample space. Liberal education is, at its core, a conservative endeavor. A good education is one that teaches old wisdom, providing the next generation the best that has been thought and said.[16]
Advancing the theme of transforming culture, Kirk also wrote about the nature of power, suggesting that traditionalist conservatives do not want to pass power into the hands of the good. Instead, they seek to destroy it:
Scarcely any political aphorism is more widely quoted today than Lord Acton’s observation that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely;’ yet the barriers against concentration of power — political power and economic power — are steadily reduced in our age, throughout almost all the world, with little effectual protest. The conservative, intent upon preserving order and justice and freedom, does what he can to remind the modern world of the truth of Acton’s statement, and to retain those checks upon arbitrary power which distinguish a free society from a servile society.[17]
Again, this contrasts with the overtly political conservatives of the late-twentieth and twenty-first century, who are more concerned with putting State power into conservative hands rather than dismantling it. This might seem perplexing that Kirk would write these lines in 1957, especially since Kirk would soon enter the most political stage of his career. Specifically, Kirk wrote this book several years before he began to write and strategize in defense of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign. Yet it is important to remember that Kirk did not envision transferring power into the hands of Goldwater and his allies. Kirk and Goldwater instead wanted to limit the power of the State, drastically reducing federal involvement in places like education and welfare. By the 1960s, the federal government had absorbed many of the functions previously performed by civil society. Rather than make the federal management of these functions less costly, as many late-twentieth and twenty-first century conservatives have attempted to do, Goldwater and Kirk wanted to return power back to civil society. They wanted to strip the federal government of its excessive power, not transfer this power into conservative hands for more efficient management.[18]
How wonderful that Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, after going out of print, is once again available. Within the pages of the new edition, readers will discover a conservatism that prioritizes culture and the imagination over practical politics. Far from being “superficial,” as some readers had thought when it was first released, this little book introduces readers in simple terms to a conservatism of imagination, beauty, and love. Kirk’s emphasis on culture is perhaps one of his greatest strengths as a writer. Although he wrote in a particular time and place, and although he is a thinker who can be situated in a particular historical context, so much of what he wrote has enduring value. Kirk’s conservatism was not a political fad relevant only to men and women of the mid-twentieth century, nor was it a now-dated list of policy positions. At its core, Kirk’s conservatism was a challenge to all who love the essence of the Western tradition to preserve it for future generations.[19]
 

NOTES:

[1] For more on the significance of Kirk’s magnum opus, see Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 2-6, 89-124; George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976; repr., Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2017), 67-74.
[2] Birzer, Russell Kirk, 97-98.
[3] Bradley J. Birzer, “Russell Kirk’s Forgotten ‘Intelligent Citizen’s Guide to Conservatism,’” The Imaginative Conservative, June 9, 2019, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2019/06/russell-kirk-intelligent-citizens-guide-conservatism-bradley-birzer.html. Birzer notes in this article that, originally, he was to pen the introduction to this book. However, the Kirk Estate decided to go with a different scholar and publisher, Regnery, the original publisher of The Conservative Mind as well as other early Kirk books.
[4] Russell Kirk, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1957), 8.
[5] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (1953; repr., Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway Editions, 2019), 8.
[6] Ibid, 8.
[7] Bradley J. Birzer, Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2019), 4.
[8] Wilfred M. McClay, “Introduction,” in Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism (1957; repr., Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2019), ix.
[9] Ibid, xi-xii.
[10] Michael Federici, “Reassessing Russell Kirk: Three Critical Views,” The Imaginative Conservative, April 27, 2014, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/04/reassessing-russell-three-critical-views-kirk-michael-federici.html. These lines about the relationship between politics and culture were influenced by the discussion of the late Gerald J. Russello’s The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.
[11] McClay, “Introduction,” in Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, xi.
[12] Kirk, Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, 39.
[13] Ibid, 9-16.
[14] Ibid, 17-24.
[15] Ibid, 39-44.
[16] Ibid, 71-79
[17] Ibid, 63.
[18] Ibid, 42-43.
[19] Ibid, 2.

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