One of the single most important reasons the conservative movement became a movement is because it had writers of the highest caliber. They presented their ideas so convincingly and so pleasingly that even their most ardent critics had to take notice.
Given my association with The Imaginative Conservative as well as with Hillsdale College, I am frequently asked for a list of books which might provide an introduction to conservatism. Usually, at the moments I’m asked, my mind is a million miles away or on a specific topic. I rarely can come up with more than one or two books dealing with conservatism as a whole. Or, perhaps, I’m just slow.
Now, in a moment of calm and with the ability and time to reflect, I’d like to offer my favorite ten books (yes, a “top ten” list!) dating from the middle of the last century, 1924 to 1954. I offer them in the order of their appearance in that most dreadful of time periods, as the ideologues armed with a deadly verve and reckless, inhumane ideas terrorized an ill-prepared world.
First, Irving Babbitt’s only book dealing with politics, Democracy and Leadership (1924). No one would accuse Babbitt of writing well. Equally true, however, no one would accuse the man of thinking poorly. Reading Babbitt sets one on edge, as his razor sharp logic slices through everything around him. The book itself is an intellectual journey, filled with beauties and wonders, as well as with sobering prophecies. In thought and structure, especially, it guided Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, itself a worthy and much better written sequel to Democracy and Leadership. The greatest thing a man can do, Babbitt argued, is restrain himself. But, he can only do this through the assertion of will.
Written on the death bed of Paul Elmer More on the edge of spring, 1937, Pages from an Oxford Diary might be one of the best of the best listed here. It’s not long, and the original (it’s never been republished) does not even utilize page numbers. From the opening word—a poetic embrace of Oxford—to the end—a plea to God for forgiveness of things undone—Pages from an Oxford Diary reveals a brilliant man at his best and, paradoxically, at his worst. From his earliest awareness, More wanted to create a “system” to explain the natures of free will and predestination, ignoring the traditions which he had inherited. Pages reveals every stumbling block he encountered and submission to grace and mystery. Though I’ve probably read this book 20 or so times, it never ceases to reduce me to tears.
Rather famously (or infamously), Russell Kirk recommended that President Richard Nixon read T.S. Eliot’s Culture and Christianity in the early 1970s. Nixon had pressed Kirk for only one book recommendation, and the Michiganian had complied. Listing this book is a bit of a cheat, as it first appeared as two separate volumes: The Idea of Christian Culture and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Eliot rather blatantly took from the work of Christopher Dawson, giving him full acknowledgement for ideas and inspiration. In the book, Eliot forcefully argues for the centrality of culture to all thought, somewhat dismissing politics, law, sociology, etc. as ephemeral manifestations of culture. Eliot also claimed that America had fallen in 1829 and the West in 1898.
Originally titled The New Leviathan, which Dawson’s publisher dismissed as too obscure and intellectual for an American audience, Christopher Dawson published his blandly entitled Religion and the Modern State in 1935. Dawson preferred to write on almost anything but politics, but the rise of fascism, communism, and national socialism promoted him to write an entire series: The Modern Dilemma (1930); Religion and the Modern State (1935); Beyond Politics (1939); and The Judgment of the Nations (1942). It was the 1935 release in which Dawson revealed his greatest skepticism of the modern nation state. It was, he claimed in a de Tocquevillian manner, ready to coddle us to death.
If his 1935 book made Dawson look like an anarchist, the final book of his political series, The Judgment of the Nations, revealed his most intense Christian Humanist side. Dedicated to Christendom, should it survive the war, Judgment proclaimed the Nietzschean fetish of the will as the cause of the current evils in the world. For Nietzsche and his allies had loosed “the powers of the abyss—the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization.” Once released, the evils would spread and multiply in ways unimagined.
In 1950, Ray Bradbury published his most beautiful of novels, The Martian Chronicles. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, science fiction existed as a genre with little more respect than pornography. Indeed, the “pulp” releases of other worlds actually sold next to periodicals and books wrapped in brown paper on the drug store shelves. A man endowed with seemingly infinite imagination, Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles as a critique of western imperialism and conformity. The book, in no uncertain terms, promoted the good, the true, and the beautiful. Aldous Huxley pronounced it “poetry.”
Taken from his Walgreen lectures at the University of Chicago, Eric Voegelin published The New Science of Politics in 1952. Inspired by a footnote to a book translated and edited by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Voegelin dedicated his scholarship from the late 1930s to the end of his life to the exploration of the 20th-century manifestations of Gnosticism. All of modernity, he feared, carried with it the wicked notions of knowledge and certainty at the expense of faith and mystery. In his drive to understand all things, man simply deconstructed the world, leaving it at the mercy of powers rather than ideals.
The eighth book, The Quest for Community, came from the hands of a Marine, a scholar dedicated to the preservation of American and western civilization, a professor of sociology, Robert Nisbet. The Californian believed one could understand the modern world as actually embodying “two worlds of allegiance and association. On the one hand, and partly behind us, is the historic world in which loyalties to family, church, profession, local community, and interest association exert, however ineffectually, persuasion and guidance. On the other is the world of values identical with the absolute political community—the community in which all symbolism, allegiance, responsibility, and sense of purpose have become indistinguishable from the operation of centralized political power.”
In 1953, Russell Kirk published his dissertation as The Conservative Mind, and, a year later, he answered his critics of that book with the white heat of another, A Program for Conservatives (later re-titled Prospects for Conservatives and made available again from Imaginative Conservative Books). The two books fit together perfectly. While the former offered a hagiography and lineage of conservative thought from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot, the latter proclaimed in mythic and poetic terms the meaning of love.
Looking back over this list, I cannot help but see the obvious. One of the single most important reasons the conservative movement became a movement is because it had writers of the highest caliber. They presented their ideas so convincingly and so pleasingly, that even their most ardent critics had to take notice.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Librarian” (c. 1850-1866) by Georg Reimer (1828-1866), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.