Kirk: The Six Principles of Conservatism

The following is taken from The Conservative Mind (pp. 7-9, 10), by Russell Kirk.

Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata; conservatives inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors . . .; they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think 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. . . .

I think that there are six canons of conservative thought–

(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 of itself satisfy human needs. . . . True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.

(2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society. . . .

(3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives have often been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. 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.

(4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not progress.

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

(6) Recognition that change may not be salutory reform: hasty innovation may be a 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. . . .

In a revolutionary epoch, sometimes men taste every novelty, sicken of them all, and return to ancient principles so long disused that they seem refreshingly hearty when they are rediscovered. . . . The true conservative thinks of this process [of historical change and conflagration], which looks like chance or fate, as, rather, the providential operation of a moral law of polarity. And Burke, could he see our century, never would concede that a consumption-society, so near to suicide, is the end for which Providence has prepared man. If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.

Go here for a good summary of Russell Kirk’s life and faith. (He was, by the way, an important benefactor of Touchstone magazine.)

2 thoughts on “Kirk: The Six Principles of Conservatism

  1. I hate to say it, but on the basis of the title of this post, alone, I was expecting “Only rattle your sabre when it will scare the Klingons.”

    Having said that, apart from equating “freedom” with property, (which causes me to be disturbed by his understanding of “freedom”) I think this is as good a secular credo as I’ve seen.

  2. Well after reading this entry and the one above I have decided I am neither a conservative nor a radical – at least not a radical as Kirk defines. 1. I’m becoming more and more Barthian, so I do not believe in natural law. 2. What is Logicalism? I think “radicals” or “liberals” seek to provide everyone with equal opportunities, especially for education and such. What people do with their opportunities is up to them. Wasn’t the civil rights movement a call for equality? You can have equality without “narrow uniformity.” 3. There does need to be more equality than just before God and the courts. Isn’t a lot of inequality in the world a direct result of the “haves” plundering from the “have nots”? 4. What do you think of the story in Acts about the early Christians holding all things in common? Does that have any meaning for us today? 5 & 6. Custom vs. change. Again, I’ll point out the civil rights movement. Christian ministers urged King to be more patient. Prudence is good, but if not for the anti-abolition movement, the suffragist movement, the civil rights movement, etc. would society have changed for the better?

    Now, against radicalism, I believe firmly in our natural proclivity to sin and in tradition. Order and privilege? Does that mean an aristocracy? If so, I’m definitely in favor of democracy over that.

    Your posts made me think seriously about what conservatism is, so thanks.

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