Every now and then you read book that blows the cobwebs out of your head, that enables you not only to see clearly, but also to never see things the same way again. For me, those books have included the likes of Tolstoy’s Diaries, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step. Another such book is Russell Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives.
If you worry that the fabric of our civilization is unraveling and are we heading toward a vaguely ominous future, then Kirk’s book should open your eyes — both to what is causing our problems and how, in terms of our attitude and approach to the fundamental problems of government, education, and culture, we can achieve true and profound fulfillment as individuals and as a society.
The book is full of observations and explanations that perfectly describe and diagnose the current state of affairs. What makes this all the more impressive is that Kirk wrote this book in the mid-1950s. More than half a century later, his analysis is even more on point and more urgently needed than it was then. Almost all of his forecasts have come true, and many of them far more disastrously than even he himself envisioned.
It’s not an easy read, because practically every sentence of the 200-plus page book contains subtle and often profound ideas. I’ll give you a few samples by which you can, I hope, begin to judge the quality and usefulness of his thought.
About globalism: “He [the conservative] knows that the whole is no greater than the sum of its parts, and if no nation has yet achieved perfect justice and security and freedom within its boundaries, no newborn world state is going to do anything of the sort.”
About tradition: “The passage of time brings into existence new acquisitions; but unless men know the past, they are unable to understand the distinction between what is permanent and what is transient in their lives.”
About progress: “Change without reference to tradition runs the risk of aimless alteration for alternation’s sake, terminating in anarchy or nihilism. Real progress apparently consists in improvement of private and public morality, private and public intelligence, the increase of justice, order, and freedom, and from those material conditions which contribute to human happiness.”
On education and culture: “[The average student is] impelled by a vague and shallow curiosity, bored with the slightest delay or difficulty, treating everything in heaven and earth alike, upon the assumption that all objects and topics possess equal value, all things holy or profane, and that they exist simply to engage, for a moment or two the impatient interest of the rising generation. All creation, then, is very like the contents of one of our picture-magazines, to the majority of young people: a jumble of political exhortation, exhibitionism, appeals to concupiscence, reproductions of works of sacred art, representations of murder and rapine, advertisements for creature-comforts, denunciation of our opponents abroad, and adulation of motion-picture actresses. This, I think, brings on a disorder of the mind which is a preparation for disorder of the spirit and of civil society.”
- “The passion of Marx was to assimilate all of humanity to the proletarian condition; the object of the conservative is to lift all men up from proletarian degradation.”
- “Community and collectivism are at opposite poles. Community stands for variety and intricacy; collectivism, for uniformity and arid simplicity.”
- “The proletarian is a rootless man, a social atom, without traditions, without enduring convictions, without true home, without true family, without community, ignorant of the past and careless of future generations.”
These excerpts don’t do justice to Kirk; they are mere sound bites connected to intricate arguments that form a clear vision of what it means to be conservative in thought and action, and why the application of conservative principles would be so restorative, individually and societally.
Among Kirk’s chief concerns is how the urbanization of America has not only weakened our connection to our traditions, it has grown hostile to those traditions and the value of tradition in general. He emphasizes again and again that in our true nature, we are custodians of tradition — the collective, humanly enriching and proven wisdom of our ancestors — and that we are responsible for adapting it to the demands of our day for the benefit future generations. When our link to the past is cut, and our concern for posterity has vanished, then we fall victim to personal and communal decadence that leads almost inevitably to a totalitarian state.
Speaking of totalitarianism, it is interesting and perhaps quite shocking to note that Kirk sees very little difference between capitalism, communism and fascism, because in the most fundamental sense all three are materialistic philosophies. If our sales pitch against communism is that capitalism provides more material comfort than communism, then we are reducing ourselves to consumers. If we defeat Nazi Germany by the same murderous tactics (Kirk is discussing our atomic bombing of Japan in this connection), then we are hardly showcasing a more just and more human ideology.
Kirk comes back again and again to Edmund Burke’s notion of the unbought grace of life — in Kirk’s words, “those intricate and subtle and delicate elements in the culture of the mind and in the constitution of society which are produced by a continuing tradition of prescriptive establishments, reflective leisure, and political order. I mean also the sense of duty, the feeling of honor, the concept of ordination and subordination, and the adherence to the classical definition of justice which grow out of the spirit of a gentleman.”
Kirk believes strongly that our culture (or any culture) needs an elite, an aristocracy, to continually nurture the unbought grace of life, that essential thing that makes civilization possible for all citizens. Today, of course, we generally distrust and disdain elites, but that is largely because our elites — as Kirk points out repeatedly — are failing to meet their weighty responsibilities, whether from greed, moral decay, or some other base motive.
There is much more to the decay of elites than that, however. Kirk notes that centralization of power in America has grown (and grown at a much faster pace in recent years) and is a corrupting influence. Centralization, along with a leveling of society that comes with centralization, has produced an elite intoxicated with power and a public with no sense of social order and a great reluctance to acknowledge superior talent, gifts or position.
It’s pretty grim picture that Kirk paints, but he implores conservatives to press on and fight the good fight, despite knowing they will be laughed at and marginalized by a mass culture that seeks only entertainment and mediocre uniformity. We and future generations deserve better, but we will have to earn it, as any student of history knows is always the case.
(Image credit – Wikimedia Commons)