August 18, 2013


The Joyful Conservative : Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60 (JAMES E. PERSON JR., Summer 2013, The University Bookman)

Writing sometime after the publication of The Conservative Mind, Kirk wrote that the principled conservative believes "that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can ever reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death."

Further, Kirk wrote, the wise conservative "has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons of chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that "they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate."

The spirit of Edmund Burke pervades The Conservative Mind, which is much more than an historical artifact to be revered. Much has been written on the significance of this work, this "exercise in the history of ideas," for its role in giving form to conservatism, particularly to that element of the movement known as traditionalist conservatism. Beyond this, it is a document whose strength lies in Kirk's articulate reminders that man is much more than a political and economic creature who is entirely fulfilled when his creature comforts are satisfied, or an organic machine that can create an earthly Paradise if conditioned just the right ideology. Kirk affirmed, in fact, that man is also and primarily a spiritual being who seeks meaning and purpose that cannot be found in wealth and comfort alone. Despite his bent toward error and sin, man is a being that is meant for eternity and beloved by his Creator. (This view of man characterizes what Kirk called "the moral imagination.") Man is a player in the drama of history and part of a community of souls, formed in character by his forebears and also a shaper of generations yet to come. Man has a purpose, and this is a source of joy that is both a comfort and a challenge.

A man who was happy in the hour of his death, Kirk wrote that without an object of allegiance, a sense of rootedness in the land, a body of tradition to give context to one's life, a foundation of hope and joy, and the small, voluntary communities of family and neighbors with which to fellowship, man is given over to boredom and aimlessness, and the society of which he is a part slides into decadence. Therefore the great test of the modern conservative is to restore "a living faith to the lonely crowd, how to remind men that life has ends," making for order in the soul and order in the commonwealth. In words that run entirely counter to the prevailing political outlook of our times, T. S. Eliot once told Kirk, in a letter, "I think it is very true to say of any country, that a decline in private morality is certain to be followed, in the long run, by a decline in public and political morality also." This, too, is of a piece with the essence of The Conservative Mind.

The high value of this work lies in its power for reminding the reader of what Kirk and Eliot called "the permanent things." By this he meant those timeless, normative truths--the rightness of honor, courage, and mercy, the importance of high character, the essential beauty of chastity, and other norms recognized since time out of mind--those first principles grounded in prudence and wise tradition by which humanity lives, and which it ignores at its peril--truths that will endure so long as brass is strong and stone abides.

Kirk wrote, "In essence, the body of belief that we call 'conservatism' is an affirmation of normality in the concerns of society." He added, "There exist standards to which we may repair; man is not perfectible, but he may achieve a tolerable degree of order, justice, and freedom; both the 'human sciences' and humane studies are means for ascertaining the norms of the civil social order, and for informing the statesman and the reflecting public of the possibilities and the limits of social measures."

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Posted by at August 18, 2013 5:02 AM

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