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A friend of mine, whom we shall call Miss Worth, fell into a conversation with a neighbor—Mrs. Williams, let us say—who, the day before, had sold a fine old building, long in her family, to be demolished that a lot for used-automobile sales might take its place. Mrs. Williams had certain regrets; but, said she with finality, “You can’t stop progress.” She was startled at Miss Worth’s reply, which was this: “No, often not; but you can try.” Miss Worth did not believe that Progress, with a Roman P, is a good thing in itself. Progress may be either good or bad, depending on what one is progressing toward. It is quite possible, and not infrequently occurs, that one progresses toward the brink of a precipice. The thinking conservative, young or old, believes that we must all obey the universal law of change; yet often it is in our power to choose what changes we will accept and what changes we will reject. The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time. “To conserve” means “to save.” Consider Cupid’s curse:

They that do change old love for new,
Pray gods they change for worse.

A conservative is not, by definition, a selfish or a stupid person; instead, he is a person who believes there is something in our life worth saving. Conservatism, indeed, is a word with an old and honorable meaning—but a meaning almost forgotten by Americans until recent years. Abraham Lincoln wished to be known as a conservative. “What is conservatism?” he said. “Is it not preference for the old and tried, over the new and untried?” It is that; and it is also a body of ethical and social beliefs. The liberals, for a good while, have been drifting leftward toward their radical cousins; and liberalism, in recent years, has come to imply an attachment to the centralized state and the dreary impersonality of Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984. Men and women who sense that they are not liberals or radicals are beginning to ask themselves just what they believe, and what they ought to call themselves. The system of ideas opposed to liberalism and radicalism is the conservative political philosophy.

What is Conservatism?

Modern conservatism took form about the beginning of the French Revolution, when far-seeing men in England and America perceived that if humanity is to conserve the elements in civilization that make life worth living, some coherent body of ideas must resist the leveling and destructive impulse of fanatic revolutionaries. In England, the founder of true conservatism was Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France turned the tide of British opinion and influenced incalculably the leaders of society in the Continent and in America. In the newly established United States, the fathers of the Republic, conservative by training and by practical experience, were determined to shape constitutions which should guide their posterity in enduring ways of justice and freedom. Our American War of Independence had not been a real revolution, but rather a separation from England; statesmen of Massachusetts and Virginia had no desire to turn society upside down. In their writings, especially in the works of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, we find a sober and tested conservatism founded upon an understanding of history and human nature. The Constitution which the leaders of that generation drew up has proved to be the most successful conservative device in all history.

Conservative leaders, ever since Burke and Adams, have subscribed to certain general ideas that we may set down, briefly, by way of definition. Conservatives distrust what Burke called “abstractions”—that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances. They do believe, nevertheless, in the existence of certain abiding truths which govern the conduct of human society. Perhaps the chief principles which have characterized American conservative thought are these:

(1) Men and nations are governed by moral laws; and those laws have their origin in a wisdom that is more than human—in divine justice. At heart, political problems are moral and religious problems. The wise statesman tries to apprehend the moral law and govern his conduct accordingly. We have a moral debt to our ancestors, who bestowed upon us our civilization, and a moral obligation to the generations who will come after us. This debt is ordained of God. We have no right, therefore, to tamper impudently with human nature or with the delicate fabric of our civil social order.

(2) Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization. Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence. Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.”

(3) Justice means that every man and every woman have the right to what is their own—to the things best suited to their own nature, to the rewards of their ability and integrity, to their property and their personality. Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law, but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things. The just society requires sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.

(4) Property and freedom are inseparably connected; economic leveling is not economic progress. Conservatives value property for its own sake, of course; but they value it even more because without it all men and women are at the mercy of an omnipotent government.

(5) Power is full of danger; therefore the good state is one in which power is checked and balanced, restricted by sound constitutions and customs. So far as possible, political power ought to be kept in the hands of private persons and local institutions. Centralization is ordinarily a sign of social decadence.

(6) The past is a great storehouse of wisdom; as Burke said, “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” The conservative believes that we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions, the social experience, and the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The conservative appeals beyond the rash opinion of the hour to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—that is, the considered opinions of the wise men and women who died before our time, the experience of the race. The conservative, in short, knows he was not born yesterday.

(7) Modern society urgently needs true community: and true community is a world away from collectivism. Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion. Through churches, voluntary associations, local governments, and a variety of institutions, conservatives strive to keep community healthy. Conservatives are not selfish, but public-spirited. They know that collectivism means the end of real community, substituting uniformity for variety and force for willing cooperation.

(8) In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image. It is a law of politics, as well as of biology, that every living thing loves above all else—even above its own life—its distinct identity, which sets it off from all other things. The conservative does not aspire to domination of the world, nor does he relish the prospect of a world reduced to a single pattern of government and civilization.

(9) Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions. We cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell. We all are creatures of mingled good and evil; and, good institutions neglected and ancient moral principles ignored, the evil in us tends to predominate. Therefore the conservative is suspicious of all utopian schemes. He does not believe that, by power of positive law, we can solve all the problems of humanity. We can hope to make our world tolerable, but we cannot make it perfect. When progress is achieved, it is through prudent recognition of the limitations of human nature.

(10) Change and reform, conservatives are convinced, are not identical: moral and political innovation can be destructive as well as beneficial; and if innovation is undertaken in a spirit of presumption and enthusiasm, probably it will be disastrous. All human institutions alter to some extent from age to age, for slow change is the means of conserving society, just as it is the means for renewing the human body. But American conservatives endeavor to reconcile the growth and alteration essential to our life with the strength of our social and moral traditions. With Lord Falkland, they say, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” They understand that men and women are best content when they can feel that they live in a stable world of enduring values.

Conservatism, then, is not simply the concern of the people who have much property and influence; it is not simply the defense of privilege and status. Most conservatives are neither rich nor powerful. But they do, even the most humble of them, derive great benefits from our established Republic. They have liberty, security of person and home, equal protection of the laws, the right to the fruits of their industry, and opportunity to do the best that is in them. They have a right to personality in life, and a right to consolation in death. Conservative principles shelter the hopes of everyone in society. And conservatism is a social concept important to everyone who desires equal justice and personal freedom and all the lovable old ways of humanity. Conservatism is not simply a defense of “capitalism.” (“Capitalism,” indeed, is a word coined by Karl Marx, intended from the beginning to imply that the only thing conservatives defend is vast accumulations of private capital.) But the true conservative does stoutly defend private property and a free economy, both for their own sake and because these are means to great ends.

Those great ends are more than economic and more than political. They involve human dignity, human personality, human happiness. They involve even the relationship between God and man. For the radical collectivism of our age is fiercely hostile to any other authority: modern radicalism detests religious faith, private virtue, traditional personality, and the life of simple satisfactions. Everything worth conserving is menaced in our generation. Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Find more essays by/about Dr. Kirk here. This essay is excerpted from The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (1957) reprinted with the gracious permission of The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

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7 replies to this post
  1. Excellent article! Thank you for posting it. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    “”””(“Capitalism,” indeed, is a word coined by Karl Marx, intended from the beginning to imply that the only thing conservatives defend is vast accumulations of private capital.)””””

    From the article, this parenthetical brief fascinates me. In the main, I see a couple of things. It illustrates that nowadays so-called conservative thinkers continue to argue the merits of this philosophy using the radicals’ language and labels. “Capitalism” is a slur! Baffling that conservatives take a defensive stance. Radicals seek to undermine conservatism by disrobing it of its direct and uncomplicated multidimensional soul appeal. its nakedness, according to the radicals, is a cruel attitude of hoarding possessions to the exclusion of everything else. Secondly, it is well known that one of the tried and true tactics of radicals is projection. They adeptly accuse conservatives of that of which they themselves are guilt. And why wouldn’t they?! Theirs is an argument for an ideal based solely on sensuality and unadulterated selfishness. Sensuality and selfishness are truly expensive aims requiring of ever-increasing amounts of “capital.”

  2. My impression of Dr. Kirk’s definiation of conservatism and conservatives is the call for a government of theocracy rather than Republic or Democracy. When men govern by what they perceive to be the moral law you have a government like Iran and other Muslim countries. Our Founding Fathers and our Constitution strictly rejected a theocratic system of government.

  3. Some things need clarification here. First, what is conservatism? Well it is a religion to those who craft conservatism in such a way that it becomes the sole source of truth and solutions for our problems. Such is attributing an omniscience not to a person, but to a model of thought. Here, we should remember what Martin Luther King Jr. said about the West in his speech opposing the Vietnam War:

    The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just

    All one needs to do to see if conservatism is their religion is to substitute the word ‘Conservatism’ for the word Western and see if they then agree with King’s statement.

    Next, like it or not, one cannot both avoid the centralization of power and downgrade democracy. Democracy simply redistributes power. The less democracy, the more power is consolidated. The Conservative task has, therefore, become to show that that displacement in power is given to the individual. But if individuals do not have equal power, then you will see a consolidation of power by some and a loss of power by others. And since power follows wealth, we see that consolidation usually following economic lines. Another trick that conservatives must perform to distract people from the consolidation of power they recommend is to get people to believe that the centralization of power can only occur in government, in the public sector. Such a belief confuses authority and power. So we must realize that the centralization of power can occur in the private sector as well.

    We should note that the prohibition against collectivism is a denial of the interdependencies that exist in society and the economy. The more stakeholders there are in a venture, the more collectivism that is required otherwise we have rationalize theft. And all of this is done in then name of protecting property.

    Finally, the Constitution was written in response to an American rebellion. But that rebellion was not the American Revolution; rather, it was Shays Rebellion. Then, people rose up and acted out a widespread dissent against the suffering forced on them by the financial elite here. The Constitution was written to centralize power relative to what existed. In fact, the original Constitution made U.S. Senators unaccountable to the people. And so what we saw in the Constitution was what was partially contradicted in one of the points about Conservatism. The Constitution was written to maintain the status quo. So we should note that Conservatism defends authoritarianism depending on who is in charge.

    BTW, we should note that the ‘conservatism’ of our founding fathers did not think that America’s indigenous people and African Americans should have the same level of freedom that Whites, especially property owners, had. Thus we cannot recognize the rights given to Whites as freedom or liberty. Because freedom and liberty is what is equally guaranteed to all. Without that equality, freedom and liberty become nothing more than privilege, which is what we should expect from an authoritarian environment.

  4. Curt Day,
    I don’t see a ‘conservative’ religion anywhere in this article. I do see a set of principles and ideas true to human nature as it is, NOT as it is wished to be. The latter, the religion of liberals, tends toward the same utopian collectivism / central planning that justified the torture and murder of countless millions of non-conformists. The Conservative vision of human nature guided the authorship of the Constitution…thus making it foundational to an enduring social super-structure–a society free of tyranny (though liberalism is making it less so). AMERICA is a Constitutional Republic (not a democracy). This Constitution refutes most of your ideas…History, refutes the rest.

  5. I agree with with Robert. The authentic conservatism, that Kirk so aptly and succinctly describes, far from being a “religion”, would find the idea repugnant and contrary to the very principles he lays out for us. True conservatism is inherent in the respect it has for religious belief, organic societies, traditional families, and a deep suspicion of anything that purports to replace them. And to mikayle, Kirk references men like Adams and Hamilton for a reason. The Constitution that replaced the Articles of Confederation, and the Federalist Papers that advocated for such, were grounded in the conservative argument that all successful constitutions have elements of monarchy or central executive power, aristocracy, and democracy. Too much of one and not the other, anything greatly out of balance, and it will fail. They created a ‘republic’, not a democracy. We have, over the course of many years, become more of a democracy, hence a democratic majority often moving the state to abandon that which it should not, in the name of popular modernism.

  6. It is unclear to me why we should respect the past in the way that this delineation of conservativism proposes. We may not be able to make a heaven of earth, but we already have made a hell of it, many times over. Or, our ancestors have. And it’s a poor reading of history to say that the cause of this infernalization has always or even often been due to “progressive” social choices as we would define them today. So why, exactly, should we, as a general principle, respect the habits of the dead more than the ongoing insights of the living? Neither group is going to form utopia, but only the living still possess some chance to improve upon the present and future. And the options for the living are not solely “radical rapid unstructured revolutionary change” or “keep everything the way Edmund Burke liked it.”

    Lots of people in the past survived long enough to reproduce, and that is no small feat. But it is also the only truly enduring accomplishment they can claim. We’re all caught in history; we don’t know how any of this is going to turn out. Supposing that the decisions of the past must be respected is to assume that they were the right decisions, and that other decisions would have led to worse outcomes. Of course no one can actually know this, so the historical argument for conservativism falls apart almost immediately. What if survival- for individuals or nations- is more dependent on luck than any other factor? To cling to inherited tradition as virtue, to argue that it is necessary not to change except in exigent circumstances, is to elide all of the historical lessons about human societies and human nature; namely, that we get it wrong more often than we get it right, and that we probably aren’t getting it right at the moment.

    This is why even the most nominally conservative societies tend to not resemble themselves very well once you pull back scale to years or decades: there often really is very little reason to keep doing something a certain way just because it appeared to work in the past, no matter how counter-intuitive this might seem. Reinventing the wheel from time to time is not such a bad idea when you can say with certainty that all previous wheel designs have had serious, fatal flaws.

    The American Conservative statement of belief seems to be “We have finally invented the best wheel, and from here on out only very minor adjustments will be needed to keep the wagon rolling.” That’s not a statement based on any objective fact, especially not when one starts bringing “human nature” in as some sort of defined quality.

    This is the problem with “the democracy of the dead,” and particularly with the notion that “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” That’s a great soundbite, but is it true? Are there not innumerable examples of individuals whose words and actions showed them to be much wiser than the species as a whole? An individual person has some hope of conquering his human failings in a single human lifetime; the species at large does not. The most horrific human acts are rarely acts of an individual.

    Sometimes slow internal change is the means of preserving society; sometimes it leads to total social collapse. And of course the same is true of rapid internal change. But in any case, all societies must change, and all societies do change. That’s the one, true immutable law of reality: everything changes and is changed, often rapidly and without warning.

    Every explanation of conservativism I have ever encountered seems to boil down to “we would really prefer it not be the case that things have to change.” That’s an understandable, but ultimately rather useless and naive worldview, to me. Progressives might be wrong about how to change, or the real impact of proposed changes, or even what needs to be changed. But they are always right when they say change is coming. It always is, regardless of whether we choose to resist it or embrace it. Always. That’s the only abiding truth. So why build a political philosophy around resisting change? In an ever-changing world, conservativism as defined here just seems like a great way to amplify the alienation and cognitive dissonance we all experience anyway.

  7. And I also should say that, despite my disagreement with conservativism, I very much appreciate this article and website! It is challenging and full of interesting information.

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