This week’s selected media: March 24, 2024: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot

March 24, 2024 by Joshua
in Tips

This week I finished:

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot, by Russel Kirk:

I learned of this book from the Conservatism 101 course I wrote about in last week’s selective media post. I read the book partly to learn, partly to see what of conservative values, history, and philosophy might resonate with sustainability. It turns out plenty.

I read some online but mostly listened to twenty hours of its recording. It was hard to read. Kirk’s writing is erudite, not simple. At first I read and reread, listened and re-listened, but after a while I had to get the overall gist since I’d never finish at that pace. I got annoyed at the complexity of the writing, but figure I’ll reread or re-listen to it another time and will retain more then. Come to think of it, its breadth and relevance tell me I’ll return to it for reference often.

Most of his six canons of conservatism sounded more appealing than how conservatives that get the most media attention act:

  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the “variety and mystery” of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize natural distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
  6. A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Kirk’s book made it into the manuscript for my upcoming book. Here is a passage, mostly just quoting Kirk and Burke:

Often called the founder of conservatism, Edmund Burke wrote on respecting tradition instead of jettisoning values like stewardship, and, warning of the dangers without it (from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1990)): “One of the first and most leading principles” for laws is lest people “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation”

Russell Kirk, in his landmark The Conservative Mind, commenting on that passage, reinforced its relevance today: “If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, of their own contemporaries, and indeed their very own capital … The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts, recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continual revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors.”

I heard many conservative principles I didn’t learn growing up from family, school, or mainstream culture. I hadn’t asked what made someone vote for candidates or watched news shows representing views I didn’t get, but wish I had earlier. A lot of actions I saw made more sense from his view. I enjoyed putting myself in the mindset of the people he described—that is, empathizing with them to see the world differently.

Kirk missed critical things on which the societies he valued rested and caused suffering: energy, nature, and people colonized to feed the British and American empires. I see material conditions contributing more to culture than he acknowledged. Without considering their depending on people who couldn’t freely consent suffering, he’s missing core parts of the culture he praised.

I also felt the people he wrote about imagined that any leveling of society would wreck it with more inevitability than I would expect.

A quicker Kirk read are his Ten Conservative Principles. Someone put the headers of that piece into this picture:

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