The Politics of Prudence, by Russell Kirk (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1993)

Russell Kirk

Dr. Russell Kirk observes in this book that “the greatest works of politics are poetic.” The rationalistic formulae set forth by most contemporary philosophers will not endure because they are not poetic; they divorce politics from religion, from imaginative literature, and from tradition, and therefore they do not speak to the souls of their audience. Indeed, contemporary philosophers revel in their spiritual irrelevance. They alternately engage in crass forms of practical politicking and spin “new” theories that are couched in language incomprehensible to even an intelligent uninitiated reader. For over forty years Kirk has shown himself as a master poet speaking to the hearts as well as to the minds of his readers. Using parable, allegory, and analogy, he has sought to teach men “their true nature, their dignity, and their rightful place in the scheme of things.” He has combined theory and practice in the only consistent, meaningful way possible: by connecting them with and interpreting them through spiritual knowledge, belief, and experience.

The task of the poet is at heart pedagogical. He must teach his readers to lead good lives by showing them that happiness does not lie in mere sensual pleasures, but rather in the prudent maintenance of customary relations and affections. In The Politics of Prudence, Kirk is at his pedagogical best. He discusses topics of concern to contemporary conservatives, from the now-endangered “survivors of the original intrepid band of Neoconservatives,” to foreign policy, to the dangers of bureaucratic centralization. And he does so in a manner which makes absolutely clear the importance of such issues in the battle to sustain the moral imagination.

Kirk’s intent in this book clearly is to provide both the rising generation and the general reader with guidance and encouragement in their quest for spiritual sustenance in the wasteland that is the contemporary academy. To this end he discusses not only the character of Neo-conservativism but also the politics of T.S. Eliot, not only practical politics but also conservative principles, as well as the stories, events, and personalities that have shaped the conservative mind. He also includes recommendations for further reading, given through short summaries of works that even many who claim to be educated have not yet read. In short, Kirk himself presents to us here a precise introduction to his own work—and to conservatism in general.

With his usual insight, Kirk examines the roots of our current disorder, and of the order we may yet regain. His strongest criticism is reserved for those “scientific” thinkers whose rejection of transcendent standards has left them prey to the heresies of Darwinian biological and sociological determinism. Ironically, even the “scientists” themselves have been surprised at the uses to which their “discoveries” have been put.

Quite as eighteenth-century optimism, materialism, and humanitarianism were fitted by Marx into a system which might have surprised a good many of the philosophes, so nineteenth-century utilitarian and Manchesterian concepts were the ancestors (perhaps with a bend sinister) of mechanistic social planning. The old Jacobins scarcely realized that their centralizing tendencies were imitative of the policies of the Old Regime; so it is not surprising that recent humanitarian and collectivistic thinkers forget their debt to Jeremy Bentham. Yet the abstractions of Bentham, reducing human beings to social atoms, are the principal source of modern designs for social alteration by fiat.

During the past 300 years, the “anti-cult of scientism” has been undermining the religion that is the basis of our civilization. With its “false gospel of automatic and ineluctable progress,” liberal scientism promises to construct heaven on earth if only we will give up our belief in the next world and thereby surrender our humanity. Marxist mass murderer or humanitarian social engineer, the liberal scientist degrades human beings by treating them as mere cogs in his machine of progress.

Unfortunately many who oppose scientism in its overtly collectivist forms often succumb to the ideology of progress. Thus, Kirk observes, those who seek to make the world safe for “democratic capitalism” indulge in “the most unrealistic of visions.” “To expect that all the world should, and must, adopt the peculiar political institutions of the United States” is to claim that one has discovered the sole best form of government. It is to deny that “the most suitable form of government necessarily depends upon the historic experience, the customs, the beliefs, the state of a culture, the ancient laws, and the material circumstances of a people.” It is to deny the existence of the variety of human existence which makes possible man’s greatness. It is to deny that “science” is limited in its ability to discern, let alone produce, the good life. It is also to deny that men, looking to natural law through tradition, prescription, and prejudice, ought to seek the good rather than surrender to the market or the “political process.”

This is not to say that we have no principles by which to order our politics. However, the greatest danger to a well-ordered polity comes from those who believe that centralized planning and regulation make us safe from one another, and from our own folly. Such planners have extended their control even to matters as minute as the administrative details of state meat inspection programs. The Agriculture Department, for example, even wishes to mandate that meat and poultry producers instruct consumers on how to prepare their products so as to avoid contracting food poisoning. (Surprisingly enough the answer is to cook them.) The yearning to make us incapable of harming ourselves or others saps the strength of the conservative community, and thereby of the conservative spirit, by making all of us wards of the government.

Kirk’s major concern, nevertheless, is not to condemn. Instead, it is to provide hope, particularly to those who may yet “redeem the time.” He provides this hope (as well as subtle instruction) by portraying conservatives who produce affectionate remembrance, and perhaps a sense of longing, among those not entirely corrupted by contemporary ideology. The appeal, then, is to the soul and not to the calculating part of the mind:

The person attached to America’s popular conservatism is a person who reads The Reader’s Digest. He is practical, not very imaginative, patriotic, satisfied for the most part with American society, traditional in his morals, defensive of his family and his property, hopeful, ready for technological and material improvements but suspicious of political tinkering.

Consider, too, Kirk’s discussion of the “humane” economics of Wilhelm Röpke:

The best type of peasants, artisans, small traders, small and medium-sized business-men, members of the free professions and trusty officials and servants of the community-these are the objects of his solicitude, for among them traditional human nature still has its healthiest roots, and throughout most of the world they are being ground between ‘capitalistic’ specialization and ‘socialistic’ consolidation.

Particularly in light of the neo-aristocratic pretensions of some conservative thinkers (and the vast bulk of their liberal and radical counterparts), Kirk rightly points out that ordinary folk habitually lead lives as good as or better that those of “opinion makers.” As he notes, “The sources of a conservative order are not theoretical writings, but rather custom, convention, and continuity.” The man of letters in particular has a duty to defend the life of the mind and the inherited understandings of the people from the ravages of ideology. But one must also remember that “[i]t is possible for books to comment upon custom, convention, and continuity; but not for books to create these social and cultural essences. Society brings forth books; books do not bring forth society.”

The life to which the conservative is properly attached is one of social interaction as much or more than one of quiet contemplation, one in which eternal standards of right and wrong are translated into practice through customary institutions, beliefs, and practices. Thus, Kirk praises Röpke’s proposal to combat economic specialization with a return to greater local self-sufficiency, to an economy such as Switzerland’s in which “the industrial worker…if necessary, can find his lunch in the garden, his supper in the lake, and can earn his potato supply in the fall by helping his brother clear his land.” A mass return to the land clearly is not just around the corner. But the Swiss may teach us that we need not sacrifice everything in pursuit of a “progress,” which in fact leaves us prey to the whims of economic mechanisms often beyond our control. Decentralization – a return to old notions of federalism and local control-could only help in encouraging the kind of self- and local reliance necessary to resuscitate true independence and well-ordered liberty.

Were one forced to find something to criticize in this fine book, one might quibble with Kirk’s apparent confidence in the common decency and good sense of the general public. In explaining why America has a conservative electorate and yet continues to elect a liberal Congress, he argues that “The first reason is that the United States today does not suffer from what Tocqueville dreaded, ‘the tyranny of the majority’; rather, America labors under the tyranny of minorities-but minorities aggressive, intolerant, well-financed, and cleverly directed. I mean the feminist minority, the black-militant minority, the welfare-rights minority….”

It is true that the Republic as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, in which varied communities could co-exist in peace, has degenerated. It has become a centralized system in which antagonistic groups fight over the spoils of the administrative and welfare state. Yet this degeneration was made possible in large part by the pervasive “general idea” (to use Tocqueville’s phrase) of egalitarian materialism. The belief that material equality is good in itself has become an omnipresent majority opinion-concerning which few Americans will brook dissent. This is why the “desire for fairness” has gained such enormous power in the hands of those seeking government money and influence. And this power is sustained in part by the greed of the electorate. Kirk is correct to point out that liberal politicians often fool their constituents into thinking that they are in fact conservative. But the electorate abets this fraud because of its unwillingness to give up its “entitlements.” This complicity itself stems from the generally held belief (recognized by Kirk as the bane of our age) that government is responsible for producing more equally distributed material prosperity.

But such observations need not long detain us. Kirk is fully aware of our failings. Few who have lived or traveled among ordinary Americans would deny that there is a vast reservoir of decency and good will in the nation. Perhaps, too, the poet must leave aside sniping at human frailties so that he may concentrate on the more permanent things.

As for our practical problems, we must neither underestimate nor overestimate their difficulty. We have fallen into corrupt ways. But we may yet rediscover the right path. As Kirk asks, “Is it so difficult to convince Americans that simplicity may be preferable to complexity, modest contentment to unrestrained sensation, decent frugality to torpid satiety?”

This book is no jeremiad on greed and envy. It is something for which we have a much greater need: a guide for those who seek to develop the moral imagination in themselves and foster its growth in their fellows.

Books by Russell Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the gracious permission from Modern Age (Volume 36, Number 1, Fall 1993). 

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