“The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” wrote eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, in a humorous articulation of conservatism. Nineteenth-century American satirist Ambrose Bierce, in his notorious Devil’s Dictionary, carried on this witty tradition in defining a conservative as one “who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” William F. Buckley, a leading light of twentieth-century conservatism, similarly defined the conservative in 1955 as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
It would seem, then, that the best means of determining a robust definition of conservatism in 2019 is to look the past. Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, largely forgotten after its original publishing in 1957 and now re-released by Regnery, offers perhaps the best (and likely shortest, at 103 pages) definition available.
An Essential Conservatism
Kirk’s guide is an impressive feat, presenting conservatism’s essential tenets in 12 chapters, all less than ten pages. Religious faith, conscience, individuality, family, community, just government, private property, power, education, change, and the republic are all addressed in pithy, yet accessible language.
Like Bierce and Buckley, Kirk’s conception of conservatism centers on what Edmund Burke called the “contract of eternal society,” or what G.K. Chesterton termed the “democracy of the dead.” It is suspicious of revolutions, top-down societal engineering, and technocratic sneering that views the traditionalist as ignorant and backward. As intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes quipped, “conservatism is the negation of ideology.”
Nevertheless, Kirk in his first chapter, “The Essence of Conservatism,” presents what he views as the “chief principles” of American conservatism. Apart from a bow to the wisdom of the past, conservatives recognize a universal moral law that finds its origin in God — something that shouldn’t be controversial, given the Founders’ insistence in man’s rights “endowed by their creator.” Conservatives also prize variety and diversity over “uniformity and absolute equality,” meaning respect and safeguarding of alternative opinions in the public square.
Conservatives prioritize justice and equal rights, “but not to equal things,” a sentiment reminiscent of Jordan Peterson’s eschewing of “equality of outcome.” Conservatives prize property and freedom, while seeking to preserve checks and balances in political power. They recognize the need for true, deep community. They set an example for the world, rather than trying to remake it in America’s image. Conservatives are “suspicious of all utopian schemes,” and believe, with Lord Falkland, that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
Conservatism and Religion
“The true conservative,” writes Kirk, “at heart is a religious man.” He cites a long list, including Washington, Adams, Madison, and Lincoln, among many other American statesmen, who all in their own way were deeply religious. Edmund Burke labeled religion “the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and all comfort.”
Kirk, in turn, says conservatives see “human society as an immortal contract between God and man,” that men are created in God’s image, and that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” There is a utility to this reasoning: A society denying religious truth “lacks faith, charity, justice, and any sanction for its acts.” As scholar Arthur C. Brooks discovered more than a decade ago, conservatives, and particularly religious conservatives, are the most generous and charitable demographic in America.
Yet there is more to the argument. A religious society recognizes the transcendent quality of life and community more broadly, seeking to reflect, albeit imperfectly given our sinful natures, the eternal justice of the divine. Only proper recognition of the divine moral law can help us approximate a just society. Moreover, we are all ultimately going somewhere beyond here, meaning materialist, utopian, this-worldly answers to our problems won’t obtain. We can’t make our world perfect by “world planners, and civil servants and enactments.” We have to await God to fully realize a new, perfect world.
This search for justice focuses not on amorphous categories of “people,” or “the masses,” but on individual persons. As Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann observed, atheist socialist movements focus on impersonal societal categories; Jesus calls Christians to love this person, the man or woman in front of you.
Conservatism thus must inculcate a healthy conscience that possesses a loyalty to individual persons, rather than the more vague “society at large.” Indeed, it is foolhardy to expect impersonal laws or obligations to inculcate virtue. Rather, when man views the persons around him as individuals created in the image of God, he is more likely to love them and feel a certain obligation towards them.
Conservatism and Community
This necessarily broadens the conversation to contemplate the broader community. Although individual persons must regulate their behavior through informed consciences, this does not negate the obligations placed upon the citizen. This begins, says Kirk, with the family. He writes:
The conservative feels that the family is the natural source and core of any good society; that when the family decays, a dreary collectivism is sure to supplant it; and that the principal instrument of moral instruction, ordinary education, and satisfactory economic life always must remain in the family.
The family is our very first “little platoon,” in the favorite Burkean phrase. Although Kirk writes more than 60 years ago, his reflections on the family could have been penned yesterday. Progressives attempt “to have the political state assume nearly all the responsibilities which the family once possessed.”
We observed this in the increasing number of stories of state intervention in parents’ decisions regarding their children’s sexuality, and the heightened tension between the sexes as women publicly — and with warm societal approval — deride their own husbands. Yet the family is not a “simple arrangement for the gratification of sexual impulses, and more than a mere housing device.” It is, rather, where we are taught “the meaning of love and duty, and what it is to be a true or a true woman.” Erode the family, and you inevitably erode the nation.
Indeed, the familial catechesis of children enables them to participate in their communities, as individuals learn to practice the love and sacrifice they have been taught in the home. Again prophetic, Kirk warns of “the centralization of production and distribution, the decay of rural patterns of living, the excessive mobility of population, the standardization of amusements and customs, the well-meant (though mistaken) drift in many quarters toward consolidation of local political and charitable functions into state and federal bureaucracies.”
Much of this can be blamed on allowing centralized power to assume the burdens of local community. This disastrously removes decision-making further away from the communities affected by those policies. Although it is “vexatious to serve on local school boards or to have to attend the meetings of private charitable societies, or to pay for local improvements out of local funds,” the alternative is to undermine the very existence of local communities.
Conservatism and Government
This is not to say that government, even the federal government, is evil. As Kirk writes, “government is a necessary good — so long as it is just, constitutional, balanced, restricted government. Justice, order, and freedom are dependent upon a satisfactory balance between government authority and private rights.” Indeed, Kirk adroitly argues that the American political experiment is a conservative melding of Jewish morality, Roman law, and Christian dignity, while also a careful preservation of centuries of English law.
When a French reformer claimed America had created an entirely new thing based on abstract principles, John Adams retorted: “Fool! Fool!” Conservatism promotes subsidiarity, or what American political theorist Orestes Brownson called “territorial democracy,” the tenet that whatever political functions can be managed lower down the chain of power, all the better.
Given the weaknesses of human nature, conservatives recognize that all men and women “always will seek power.” Thus, power must be restrained through a political balance that avoids consolidating it in one branch or one level of government, while promoting ethical instruction and good laws.
This also extends to foreign policy, limiting political leaders’ attempts to wield various arms of power — the military, economic and political influence, U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations— to remake the world in America’s image: “It is better not to do a thing at all than to do it by means which may imperil the whole complex civil social order.” Sadly the “conservatives” behind many of the global conflicts of the last twenty years have neglected this principle.
As should be evident, Kirk’s “manifesto” is a powerhouse of succinctly crafted articulations of conservatism. His excellent chapter on education, for example, includes the haunting lament that “many college graduates today cannot write a simple letter as well as a sixth-grade student would have written it fifty years ago.” This was written in 1957.
Kirk’s guide has aged remarkably well, and remains a powerful summation of conservative principles and a warning if these principles are abandoned. Kirk witnessed their erosion at a time many conservatives wish we could return to. How much further must we fall before we heed Kirk’s warnings?