In 1953, when Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, the reigning and virtually uncontested view of America among scholars and other intellectuals was that from the beginning America represented a break with the ancient traditions of Europe. America was not weighed down by feudal and aristocratic social structures and was born out of enlightened, progressive ideas. It had room only for varieties of liberalism. A couple of years after the appearance of The Conservative Mind that older view was encapsulated in and reinforced by Louis Hartz’s very influential The Liberal Tradition in America, according to which the ideas of John Locke were pervasively paradigmatic for America. That Hartz’s Locke was also a secular, proto-capitalist figure, breaking with medieval thought, served to emphasize America’s anti-traditional genealogy.
Kirk’s intellectually and historically original survey of a large number of prominent American historical figures, literary as well as political, demonstrated that the then-standard academic view of America was unacceptably one-sided. Many or most of America’s early leaders were formed by important elements of the classical and Christian traditions and showed it in their thought and action. They were steeped, specifically, in British culture, particularly British law and constitutionalism, which were indistinguishable from an old moral and religious ethos. These cultural affinities were evident among those who framed and debated the Constitution. Kirk did not deny that the Framers were influenced by more recent ideas or that they evinced considerable creativity, but he was able to show that they had an essentially or partly conservative disposition.
The Conservative Mind gave much attention to Edmund Burke. Burke is central to modern conservatism because of his recognition that tradition at its best is an indispensable support for morally and intellectually imperfect human beings who, without it, would be liable to superficiality, arrogance, and perversity. In Burke’s view, the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages” helps men discern the universal human good that also transcends history. Burke’s sympathy for the American colonists in their quarrel with King and Parliament was not coincidental. According to Kirk, the father of modern conservatism had a great deal in common with his American contemporaries as well as with later important American figures.
Moving closer to our own time, The Conservative Mind brought out the conservatism or conservative traits of many other leading Americans, including ones who had been unduly neglected. Of the writers in the generation just before his own with whom Kirk deals at least one might be mentioned here because he so strongly influenced the writing of The Conservative Mind. Three decades after the publication of that book, Kirk wrote of the Harvard sage Irving Babbitt: “He has influenced me more strongly than has any other writer of the twentieth century. It was through Babbitt that I came to know Edmund Burke, and Babbitt, as much as Burke, animates my book The Conservative Mind.” (George A. Panichas and Claes G. Ryn, eds., Irving Babbitt in Our Time, p. 20)
American conservatism is greatly indebted to The Conservative Mind for demonstrating in what sense the American tradition can be said to be conservative. After the appearance of the book, which attracted much publicity, a budding American conservative intellectual movement properly lionized Russell Kirk. Yet his historical knowledge and insight substantially influenced only a relatively small number of scholars. Many who in the years to come spoke favorably of Kirk and used his name never fully absorbed or understood his point of view or put it to significant intellectual use. What came to be known as “the conservative movement” turned out to be rather imperfectly intellectual. As affected by William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review, it had difficulty tearing itself away from what seemed to be its chief preoccupations, presidential politics and atomistic free-market economism. Indeed, a lack of philosophical and historical maturity made the movement susceptible to invasion by the very forces that The Conservative Mind had powerfully challenged: those who were uncomfortable with America’s actual, historical past, indistinguishable as it was from the classical and Christian traditions, and who were trying to give America a pedigree more conducive to the purposes of a rising new elite. The kind of reductionist interpretation of America that Kirk had refuted found its way into the conservative movement, though in a form adapted to the tastes of people lacking the progressive preference for big government.
Theorists who were rather paradoxically called “conservatives” argued that, in relation to the European past, America represented a radical, even revolutionary “innovation,” as Harry Jaffa asserted. The American “Founding” was derived not from classical and Christian traditions and British culture but from a belief in abstract principles. Leo Strauss and his disciples, including Jaffa and Allan Bloom, taught unsuspecting and philosophically and historically untutored Christians that real philosophers do not care about tradition and historical origins but only about what is right in the abstract. Almost from the beginning the so-called conservative movement thus incorporated an anti-conservative mind-set that undermined Kirk’s influence.
The Straussian disparagement of Kirk has little or nothing to do with disagreement over points of history. Straussians famously oppose “historicism” and regard historical evidence as immaterial to assessing the validity of ideas. They have little interest in Americans exploring in depth the actual thought and sensibility of America’s great figures. What they do offer are ideologically redacted, ready-made interpretations of them. A strong reason for the Straussian opposition to Kirk in the last six decades is that a book like The Conservative Mind might draw the attention of Americans to the actual, historical origins of their society and even generate a renewal of the old American political tradition. The abstractionist view of America points in a much different direction.
The present deep confusion within so-called American conservatism is due in part to the effects of Straussian anti-historicism on the self-understanding of putative conservatives. Granted, many Straussians in the lower ranks never really understood the philosophical upshot of their ahistorical view of America and how it contributed to he continuing evisceration of the home-grown American tradition. They imagine themselves to be charter members of team USA. A few of them are belatedly recognizing their mistake. Outside of these explicitly anti-historicist circles there is a growing realization that something is fundamentally wrong with what is typically called conservatism today. The Conservative Mind is a great accomplishment, a broad-minded, anti-ideological and synthetic historical work that is stylistically graceful as well as full of ideas. This modern classic can still alert open-minded Americans to who they were and who they might become.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This is one of a series The Imaginative Conservative is publishing in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Essays in the series may be found here.
Note: A detailed analysis of this topic by Dr. Ryn may be found here.