March 7, 2013


Ten Books That Shaped America's Conservative Renaissance (Jeffrey O. Nelson, 3/07/13, Intellectual Conservative)

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. --Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind
The above words were written, of course, with reference to the great inheritance of conservative thought in the West, the long drama of lived experience as glimpsed by poets and novelists, social philosophers and practical statesmen. But these words could also be applied to a more particular conservative experience, that of post-World War II America. If we are to know and rebuild a conservative civil social order in this country, then we need to "rake from the ashes" of recent American history the books that influenced a generation of conservative scholars and public figures, books whose message resonated with much of the American populace and resulted in astonishing political triumphs.

At the time these books were published there was no conservative movement, only a belief among a disparate group of thinkers that conservative ideas had something to say to a society sated with liberalism. As Frederick D. Wilhelmsen put it, the only thing conservatives had was their vision. Today, conservatism has become so much a part of American life that it is difficult to comprehend what an astonishing achievement it was to lay the foundations of a movement that was, as the publisher Henry Regnery once remarked, not only an "opposing force to liberalism, but a vital force in its own right." With all the opportunities and outlets now available to conservatives it is easy for us to forget that the movement which arose at the century's midpoint came after a long reign of doctrinaire liberalism, and was greeted, according to Regnery, almost as an escape from bondage.

William Bennett observed that one of the primary concerns of conservatives should be to re-articulate a philosophical case for the kind of conservative government and society we advocate and oppose it to the one advanced by activist liberals. The first step in this effort must be to reacquaint ourselves with the tradition--the books, the figures, and the ideas--that enlivened conservatism, that made it "a fact and a force" on the American political and social landscape. [...]

One of the great classical liberal journals was the Freeman, founded by Albert Jay Nock. An incisive author who deserves to be studied more often today, Nock was read by many of the key intellectual figures of the burgeoning conservative movement, profoundly influencing the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet. Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, passionately read as it was by most post-war conservatives, left its mark on the shape the movement was to take. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man is no confessional autobiography, but rather "an autobiography of a mind," an extended musing on Nock's life and strongly anti-statist prejudices. According to Nock, the state is "our enemy," aggressively interfering with the economic and social life of its citizens and arrogantly assuming the right to direct human affairs. He believed that "custom and agreement," rather than "conquest and confiscation," were to be the means by which government could be changed. In an influential essay entitled "Isaiah's Job," Nock invoked the biblical prophet to suggest that societies dedicated to freedom and individualism must be kept alive by a "remnant," by those people, as Charles Hamilton put it, "who were capable of transcending mass culture, materialism, and political opportunism in order to seek a more humane life." ought to be Nock.

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Posted by at March 7, 2013 7:54 PM

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