by: W. Wesley McDonald

RUSSELL KIRK, author of The Conservative Mind and A Program for Conservatives,has been regarded as one of the foremost figures of the post-World War II revival in conservative thought. While numerous commentators on contemporary political thought have acknowledged his considerable influence on the substance and direction of American conservatism, no analysis of his social and political writing has dealt extensively with the philosophical foundations of his work.

In this provocative study, W. Wesley McDonald examines those foundations and demonstrates their impact on the conservative intellectual movement that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Kirk played a pivotal role in drawing conservatism away from the laissez-faire principles of libertarianism and toward those of a traditional community grounded in a renewed appreciation of man’s social and spiritual nature and the moral prerequisites of genuine liberty. In a humane social order, a community of spirit is fostered in which generations are bound together. According to Kirk, this link is achieved through moral and social norms that transcend the particularities of time and place and, because they form the basis of genuine civilized existence, can only be neglected at great peril. These norms, reflected in religious dogmas, traditions, humane letters, social habit and custom, and prescriptive institutions, create the sources of the true community that is the final end of politics.

Although this study does not challenge Kirk’s debts to a predominantly Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition of natural law, its focus is on his appeal to historical experience as the test of sound institutions. This aspect of his thought was essential to Kirk’s understanding of moral, cultural, and aesthetic norms and can be seen in his responses to American humanists Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt and to English and American romantic literature.

Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology is particularly relevant because of the growing interest in Kirk’s legacy and the current debate over the meaning of conservatism.McDonald addresses both of those developments in the context of examining Kirk’s thought, attempting to correct some of the inadequacies contained in earlier studies that assess Kirk as a political thinker.

This book will serve as a contribution to the commentary on this fascinating figure.

IN HIS REVISED EDITION OF Conservatism in America, Clinton Rossiter, who described his own philosophical position as “in principle well removed from Dr. Peale in the direction of Dr. Niebuhr and well removed from Russell Kirk in the direction of Walter Lippmann,” agreed that America’s political tradition is liberalism. On the one hand, to reject it would be, “to move outside the mainstream of American life.” Conservatism, on the other hand, he called the “thankless persuasion,” because it was committed to the delicate, ever precarious task of preserving while allowing for reform necessary to the continued viability of society. This middling position is difficult to occupy, in Rossiter’s opinion, “because there are no sure theoretical landmarks that help men to find a ‘point’ located flexibly somewhere between under-adjustment and over-adjustment to the imperatives of the new America.” Rossiter could find little merit in the efforts of some conservatives, especially those like Kirk, to recover the ideas that have sustained conservatives in bygone generations. The solution to America’s problems, he felt, was not to embrace the principles of Burke, Coleridge, and John Adams. “This, it seems to me, is especially bad and useless advice-bad because it asks the conservative to commit political suicide, useless because what it asks is in reality inconceivable,” Rossiter wrote. “America is different, both in history and present state, and the full Conservative tradition simply will not flourish on this soil.”

TWO OTHER TACTICS were employed to disparage conservatism as a creditable alternative to liberalism. One group of critics held that conservative expressions were mere symptoms of probable mental maladjustments; other critics defined conservatism as an ideology of the privileged and wealthy business classes.

As a result of a combination of psychological and political-opinion tests, surveying those who identified themselves as conservatives, Herbert McClosky concluded in an article on conservatism and personality that conservatives, as a group, possessed a wide variety of abnormal and irrational personality traits. The conservative is, he wrote, “psychologically timid, distrustful of differences, and of whatever he cannot understand. He fears change, dreads disorder, and is intolerant of nonconformity. The tendency of the prototypic conservative to derogate reason and intellectuality, and to eschew theory, seems in some measure to be an outgrowth of these and related elements in his personality.” Hostility, suspicion, and the exhibiting of compulsive-obsessive traits are, he concluded, the principal components of the conservative personality.’ The conservatives’ extreme emphasis on duty and order and their fetish for community, McClosky felt, was a direct consequence of their personality attributes. The implication of McClosky’s seemingly scientifically objective research was that conservatives are really very unpleasant characters. Their case need not be examined because the mentally healthy individual would not be inclined to espouse any of their beliefs.

In another effort to pigeonhole the American Right, a number of liberal critics described conservatism as a class-based ideology reflecting the interests only of the rich and wellborn. “To write about conservative politics in America,” wrote Gordon Harrison in 1954, “is to chronicle the political performance of American business.” The “conservative function in politics has been performed by the party chiefly representing the business point of view. More than ever is that true today. There is no indication that it will be less true in the future.” If one wants to under- stand political conservatism, he concluded, then one “must look primarily to the attitudes of business.” Arguing in the same vein, Ludig Freund held that the “underlying common feature of conservatism, which seems to bridge all national and other differences of its varied expressions is one criterion, and one alone: the defense of a long-established order and of the privileges of the ruling class therein, or, if this order is gone, the desire for either the total restoration, or the restoration of essential parts, of that order as well as the special class structure which characterized it. This means that in the Western world, conservatism has always involved a defense of the position of the ‘rich and well-born’--that is, of those who are one or the other or both.”

During the year The Conservative Mind was published, a “Vital Center” liberal, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., offered some gratuitous advice to “the New Conservatives” who were beginning to become a visible force in American culture and politics. He concurred with Hartz’s soon-to-be fashionable interpretation of the American political tradition (Hartz’s book was published two years later). Given America’s nonfeudal political tradition, a conservatism expressed in terms of aristocratic responsibility would be a “hothouse growth” here. instead, he suggested, a distinctly American conservatism should be based upon “the actual circumstances of American society” and “the concrete life of the American people.’ American conservatism should adopt a business mentality, he counseled. and become a philosophy of plutocracy. The business community “must be the central fact in American conservatism. The dominant concrete condition which an authentic American conservatism must interpret is the politics and ideas of the American business community.” He challenged conservatives such as Kirk and Peter Viereck to “stop pretending that the business community does not exist, or that it is bad form to talk about it,” and to “recognize that conservatism is a meaningless conception in American political life except as a label for the ideas of politics of American business.” Such “advice” smacked of intellectual dishonesty-a disingenuous, and perhaps cynical as well, attempt to preserve liberal advantage by intellectually disemboweling conservatism. If conservatives had adopted Schlesinger’s recommendation, they would have marched off compliantly en masse into political obscurity. As he surely knew, his prescriptions would have enfeebled conservatism as a political and intellectual movement. Schlesinger was asking conservatives in effect to revert to the widely discredited atomistic individualism of Jeremy Bentham, Herbert Spencer, and the Manchester school of economics. These doctrines failed because they lacked warmth, a recognition of values that transcend narrow economic self-interest, and a sense of community in which the person finds self-identity and purpose. Schlesinger no doubt appreciated these facts.

The tendency of liberal critics to equate conservatism with a business-oriented ideology was patently self-serving. By describing conservatism as merely a free-market ideology and identifying it with the economic interests of the American business community, they could facilely dismiss this straw man as a shallow and unappealing alternative to liberalism. Such a narrowly focused doctrine would amount to little more than an impotent disgruntled protest to the prevailing liberal dogmas. An ideology of privilege for the wealthy would present little threat to the dominant classes. Schlesinger began his article by chiding conservatives for possessing a weak intellectual tradition and for having never “dared to articulate a broader social philosophy.” Apparently, Schlesinger hoped that they would remain intellectually moribund and politically ineffective.

In summary, conservatism’s liberal adversaries attempted to discredit its intellectual substance and diminish its strength as a potent political force by: (1) arguing that it was politically incompatible with American traditions; (2) declaring it a product of the politics of irrationality; (3) describing the object of an “intelligent conservatism” to be to conserve liberal gains; and, lastly, (4) defining it as an ideology devised solely to defend the economic interests of the business community.

Chapter 1 - Kirk and the Rebirth of American Conservatism. (pgs. 25-27)

                The faith in one’s natural goodness is a

                constant encouragement to evade moral


Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism



                We are conscious of our self as both the inner

                check and the flux, one and the many, the

                same and different.

Paul Elmer More, Definitions in Dualism

FUNDAMENTAL T0 KIRK’S POLITICS is the conviction that the order of the soul and commonwealth has been severely shaken by a growing indifference and hostility to the moral teachings of the Classical and Judeo-Christian tradition. A “new morality” professing a radical new vision of the human condition and moral reality has arisen to challenge this older moral tradition. Consequently, it has become, he noted, “fashionable to deride authority and prescription.” Authority has come to imply “arbitrary restraint,” and prescription “has been equated with cultural lag and superstition.” These “emancipated notions” have created a “generation of young people reared according to “ permissive’ tenets” who have “grown up bored, sullen, and in revolt against the very lack of order which was supposed to ensure the full development of their personalities.” If people are to associate peacefully at all, Kirk stressed, then “some authority must govern them; if they throw off traditional authority, the authority of church and precept and old educational disciplines and parents, then very 5soon they find themselves subjected to some new and merciless authority.”’ In reaction to modern moral nihilism and relativism, therefore, Kirk sought in his work to rediscover, articulate, and defend those enduring moral norms, now blurred in our consciousness, by which civilized peoples have governed their conduct.

To explain and critically assess the ethical position upon which Kirk’s defense of order and authority depends, I will rely heavily on the contributions of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), the Harvard literary scholar and cultural thinker; Paul Elmer More (I 864-1937), the American essayist and critic; and Swedish philosopher Folke Leander (1910- 1981). who have given definitions of “dualism” and “inner check.” two concepts central to my explication. The themes of Babbitt and More are useful for understanding Kirk, not least because he is clearly allied with their “New Humanism” in the development of his own ethical position. Leander, for his part, was involved for the last thirty years or more of his life in the critical interpretation and explanation of Babbitt’s and More’s concepts of imagination, ethical dualism, and the inner check. A certain degree of philosophical imprecision exists in Kirk’s thought that complicates the explication of his ideas. Kirk was not a philosopher in the technical sense of that word (as he readily admitted), and therefore was not concerned in his work with the formal analysis of basic philosophical concepts.

Although the concepts 1 have named are wholly consistent with his teaching, he never attempted to develop them systematically. The works of Babbitt, More, and Leander. then, are indispensable aids toward understanding Kirk’s moral principles in areas where he is least precise. This chapter will define in a preliminary fashion the concepts of duality of human nature and the inner check, which will take on additional significance in later chapters as they are related to Kirk’s position on the moral imagination, the ethical role of tradition, order in soul and commonwealth, community, and education.

Chapter 2 - The Moral Basis of Conservatism - (pgs..42-43)

This distrust of human nature is closely connected

                     with another and more positive factor of conservatism—

                     its trust in the con trolling power of the imagination.

Paul Elmer More, Aristocracy and Justice

THE ROLE OF LITERATURE AND HUMANE LETTERS in reawakening the normative consciousness grew integral to Kirk’s social and moral thought by the I 960s. His work began to exhibit an evolving appreciation of the moral imagination” and its significance apropos of revival of reflective conservative thought. No doubt his growing interest in the moral principles of T. S. Eliot opened this avenue to him. Kirk’s ethico-aesthetical approach first played a central role in his literary and social criticism in Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969), and would become his most distinctive and enduring contribution to modern conservative thought.

Kirk described the moral imagination as “that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment,” especially “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” A uniquely human faculty, not shared with the lower forms of life, the moral imagination comprises “man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events.” Without “the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty--inexplic- able if men are assumed to have an animal nature only--of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.”’ In any civilized society, the moral imagination reigns supreme. When it functions in an impaired manner or ceases to function altogether, communication between generations becomes difficult and distorted views of human nature arise and moral character erodes. The result is moral decadence throughout society.

As noted in the previous chapter, Kirk’s social and political thought presupposes the reality of ethical universals beyond the economic calculus of private advantage. The most important guide to living in accord with these universals is the imaginative absorption of the totality of man’s experience. Man possesses a higher self, of which the imagination is a big part, that allows him to apprehend intuitively that which is the source of his enduring good and happiness. This awareness of the ulti- mate good common to all mankind forms the basis of the final end of politics, namely, genuine community. Kirk insisted that personal experience and individual rationality, whether separately or in combination, cannot account for the most important things in life. It is the non-conceptual and non-definitional power of the moral imagination, not the faculty of reason, that gives rise to the ultimate norms by which the soul and commonwealth are ordered.

Donald Atwell Zoll was the first of Kirk’s critics to recognize in print the central importance of the moral imagination and its aesthetic components to his thought. “The roots of conservatism, as seen in The Conservative Mind,” Zoll noted in a lengthy essay examining Kirk’s social and political thought, “are to be found in high humanism, a release of what Burke called the ~moral imagination.”’ More than Kirk’s previous critics, Zoll understood that Kirk’s pronounced aesthetic orientation was not a literary affectation but rather an integral part of his social and cultural criticism. The “heart of his social philosophy is ultimately aesthetic,” Zoll explained. Kirk’s “historical commentary, quite apart from his literary criticism shows that his basic judgmental criterion is an aesthetic one; those whom he admires most in the history of social thought are those imbued with an intense aesthetic orientation and a corresponding artistic talent.”2 Zoll recognized that central to Kirk’s social and political commentary was the conviction that ethical and normative truths are often best conveyed through a symbolic veil, as found, for example, in the medium of great poetry, rather than by the means of discursive explication. Regrettably, ZoIl only briefly mentioned the moral imagination and failed to examine its importance to Kirk’s ethical position as an alternative to the narrow abstract reasoning of the utilitarians of both the Left and the Right.

The present chapter goes beyond Zoll’s study by clarifying the concept of the moral imagination and demonstrating its central importance to Kirk’s moral and social thought. To these ends, I draw upon Burke, who coined the phrase “moral imagination”; Babbitt, who raised it to a conceptual level; and Leander, who borrowed from Burke and Babbitt to further develop it. Various intellectual threads come together in this chapter’s six sections. The first section examines the definition and application of the moral imagination in Kirk’s work. The second describes its original use by Burke and later development by Babbitt. In the third section, 1 analyze the relative roles of “reason” and “intuition” in Kirk’s moral thought. The fourth section distinguishes between the moral imagination and the natural-law tradition and demonstrates why the ontological basis of Kirk’s moral position precluded him from fitting comfortably within the natural-law tradition. The final section of this chapter explores different aspects of utilitarianism’s baleful effect on the moral imagination’s wellspring. Here I explicate Kirk’s critique of the morally and socially corrosive consequences of the “rationalism” typified by ideo-logies of both the Left and the Right and examine his critique of the scientific utilitarian reasoning employed by the behavior alist movement in the social sciences.



The moral imagination forms the core of Kirk’s ethical teaching. While one may argue that he did not significantly expand Babbitt’s theory of the moral imagination, Kirk did apply the principle in an innovative fashion to counter the pseudoscientific formulations of contemporary.ideologues, for example, the neo-Benthamite libertarians, the social engineers, and the behavioralists. Kirk further recognized its importance to the revival of an enduring conservatism in an age of “Mass, Speed, and Whirl” when the very sources of imaginative inspiration were withering. If conservatism were to become an enduring intellectual, moral. and political force against the discordant impulses of our age, Kirk-------(to be continued by you)

Chapter 3 - The Moral Imagination, Reason, and the Natural law. (Pgs. 55-57)

Even though Kirk consistently maintained during the last forty years of his life that the moral basis of conservatism was composed of natural law principles, he never explicitly defined them nor explained how man apprehends the dictates of natural law. Kirk appeared satisfied that the moral principles embodied in the natural law tradition are compatible with and supportive of what he calls “the permanent things.” He never devoted himself to the task of deciding whether the moral imperative, as he ordinarily understood it, is consistent with natural law precepts conceived as a body of immutable rules. In respect to natural law, the episternological problems raised by the concepts of “intuition” and “reason” did not deeply concern him.

Consequently, Kirk’s self-identification with the natural law tradition makes for some exegetic difficulties. Zoll, for example, expressed his uneasiness with Kirk’s natural law assertions by arguing that neither Kirk nor his mentor, Burke, were proponents “of an orthodox conception of natural law.” To deduce “a corpus of theological orthodoxy as a philosophical foundation” for their social and ethical positions would be unwarranted. Kirk’s views were “only in part the logical offspring of his Catholic or neo-Thomist metaphysics.” Although one of the major themes in Kirk’s moral thinking that “remained relatively constant” throughout all of his works was his “preference for a natural law orientation,” he “devotes little time to the ontological character of value, with its obligatory aspects, but, rather, provides a historicistic defense; like Burke, he is a teleologist who assumes that moral models emerge as representative of the underlying valuational character of existence.” Zoll regrettably stopped short of drawing a distinction between Kirk’s stress on the historicity of moral value and the moral legalism typical of conventional natural law theory.

For Kirk, Zoll continued, an “ethical mandate emerges from moral actions of notable men in which a certain consistency and continuity can be witnessed.” In other words, moral values are seen as deriving from the unfolding of history in which originate those images or models of perfection that give evidence of what Zoll variously calls a “moral tradition,” “historical ‘decorum,’” or a “pattern in the civilized experience.” While Zoll’s interpretation of Kirk’s moral position is cor- rect insofar as it goes, it leaves the false impression that Kirk was a crude historicist who equated the good with what history has wrought. Although history and tradition enrich the imagination, as Kirk always stressed, they cannot speak with final authority on the content of the ethical ultimate. The lessons of history can serve as a guide, or authority to our conscience, but they are incapable, if severed from the intuitively perceived sources of enduring truth, of imparting certitude regarding moral imperatives. As Burke wrote, “History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles.” The past, as Vigen Guroian pointed out in a discussion of Burke’s insight “instructs us in the relativities and contingencies of political life.” History “is the record of human existence under God,” Kirk explained, “meaningful only so far as it reflects and explains and illustrates the order in character and society which emanates from divine purpose.” The “ends of man and society,” he affirmed, “are not to be found in history: those ends are transcendent, attaining fruition only beyond the limits of time and space.” Zoll noted that Kirk’s ethical reactions were “aesthetic at root,” meaning that for Kirk ugliness and vulgarity “loom as the personifications of moral corruption.”3’ But Zoll did not elaborate on the crucial relationship in Kirk’s thought between aesthetic judgments and moral convictions.

Kirk’s preference for natural law explanations of his moral position can perhaps be attributed to three factors. First, there was what Zoll called his “unabashed theism.” Kirk was “often content to defend a premise by reference to its compatibility with Christian principles or concepts.” His conversion to Catholicism in 1964 probably strengthened his already strong sympathy for its doctrines and institutions. His well-known regard for the Catholic Church’s historic role as a civilizing force certainly helps to explain his willingness to accept neo-Thomistic natural law formulations. Second, Peter I. Stanlis’s Edmund Burke and the Natural Law, for which Kirk wrote the foreword, probably reinforced this leaning. Any inclination in Kirk to read into Burke’s observations a full-blown natural law tradition seemed confirmed by Stanlis’s arguments.32 Third, Kirk’s assumption about the indistinguishability of the moral imagination and the natural law made him even more receptive to the natural law tradition. The last two explanations deserve further comment.

In response to the view that Burke worshipped only the expedient and denied the existence of abiding ethical norms, Stanlis contended that Burke was an exponent of the natural law tradition of Richard Hooker, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Cicero. From “at least 1857-1861, when Buckle’s The History of Civilization in England appeared, until the present, it has been the almost universal conviction of utilitarian and positivist scholars and critics that Burke had a strong contempt for the Natural Law,” wrote Stanlis, “and that the ultimate basis of his political philosophy was to be found in a conservative utilitarianism.” Stanlis, on the other hand, argued that “Burke regarded the Natural Law as a divinely ordained imperative ethical norm which, without consulting man, fixed forever his moral duties in civil society.” Against the charge that Burke was a relativist, Stanlis defended him as “one of the most eloquent and profound defenders of Natural Law morality and politics in Western Civilization.” Kirk came to endorse this thesis.

In his review of the book, he approvingly cited a passage in which Stanlis equated Burke’s moral imagination with the Thomistic natural law tradition: “Acceptance of the Natural Law made Burke’s moral imagination transcend sectarian differences. He is the perfect bridge between utilitarians or positivists and Christians, and between Catholics and Protestants. Essentially a Thomist in his political philosophy he is the embodiment of all that is best in the Anglican tradition. For a vast number of people, therefore, Burke is a restorative of the Christian-humanist wisdom of Europe, based on Natural Law.”

Chapter 3 – (pgs. 71-73)

Chapter 5 – Order in the Soul and Commonwealth 

                Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact

                proportions to their disposition to put moral

                chains upon their own appetites.

                ___ Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

               The first of the soul’s needs, the one which

                touches most nearly its eternal destiny is


                            —Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

RU55ELL KIRK HAD a “philosophical dream” once. It was a “curious dream,” the only one of its sort in his life, he recalled, in which “a vision with some symbolic meaning” came to him. He dreamed that he was seated with members of a men’s club debating “the question of whether God is just.” Several conflicting opinions were heard. Then, one member, an egalitarian humanitarian, declared that if God had made men unequal—and this seemed a reasonable premise since some men are damned and some are saved—then either God does not exist or else He is “a capricious tyrant.”

Suddenly, in a flash, the men’s club room, in which all had sat conversing so enjoyably, was “suspended—like Mahomet’s coffin—between Heaven and Earth.” Outside, there “lay the terror of infinite space... . We were marooned forever in nothingness.”

Even so, the situation was not entirely disagreeable. All that was required of these men is that they be content to live within the constraints that their present circumstances imposed on them. After all, there were plenty of amenities, such as unlimited time for pleasant discourse, an endless supply of books, magazines, and fine Scotch. They could “spend eternity pleasantly enough in their tidy changeless-ness.” But a few malcontents in the group, unhappy with the restraints and limitations of this little world, rebelled and immediately suffered the unhappy fate of being “flung into infinity” where they were “swallowed by nothing ness,” the very definition of hell. These restless souls damned themselves by their actions. By rebelling against the divine order, they brought about their own unhappiness and misery. Kirk had a “symbolic glimpse of eternal order.”

This allegorical dream succinctly encapsulates the essence of Kirk’s teaching on the nature of order. If we live in accordance with the eternal order, we can live in reasonable happiness and peace. If, however, we “demand more from life than life can give,” then we will pay an enormous price. Anarchy, misery, and eventual destruction inevitably ensue.

All political doctrines, even anarchism, posit some vision of order. None sanction disorder as an end for its own sake. Kirk’s defense of social and moral order did not imply that he attributed a preference for disorder to his adversaries. His goal instead was to understand the causes of disorder and the principles upon which civilized order depends for its existence. To fully explore Kirk’s position requires that several interrelated issues he examined. Pursuant to this end, I have divided this chapter into four sections. The first defines and explicates Kirk’s concept of order. Section two deals with his concept of justice, its foundational principles, and their ramifications for social order. The discussion here leads into Kirk’s stance on the natural aristocracy and the problem of who should rule. Section three examines the relationship between order and freedom. How are moral and legal restraints upon the will of the individual justified? Does genuine freedom, as opposed to mere license, presuppose the existence of moral and social order? To what extent have ideologies, with their doctrines of universal emancipation, contributed to disorder in our time? The final section discusses Kirk’s reaction to a development he considered a major threat to contemporary social and moral order: technological innovation.

(pgs. 115-116)

ONE OF THE EFFECTS THAT RUSSELL KIRK sought in his writings and lectures: during the 1950s and 1960s was to draw the then nascent American conservative intellectual movement away from its flirtation with the doctrinaire individualism of the libertarians toward a genuine conservative individualism. Although libertarians and traditionalists were united in their opposition to prevailing liberal dogmas, their fragile alliance was frequently disrupted by angry mutual denunciations. Libertarians, troubled by the growth of the modern Leviathan state and its concomitant threat to individual liberty, bemoaned Kirk’s reverence for prescriptive institutions and rights, organic society’, and inherited wisdom. Given their natural suspicion ot any constraints on freedom, libertarians sensed a statist bias in Kirk’s thought. Typically, libertarians such as the late Edith Efron, author of the widely read The News Twister, dismisscd traditionalists such as Kirk as “collectivists and statists “ who deny “the individuals right to think, value, and act freely, save in one relm: economic production.” The traditionalists’ position is little more, she claimed, than a blueprint for fascism.”’

At worst, Kirk replied, such individualistic doctrines are destructive to civilized social existence. At best, they reflect a naive view of the individual’s potential to act morally and rationally outside the confines of community. The genuine conservative, Kirk explained, has “always stood for true community, the union of men, through love and common interest, for the common welfare.” When emancipated from the traditional ties that bind them to family, kinship groups, church, voluntary associations, and all those other social groups that give meaning and purpose to their lives, people typically become anxious, frustrated, lonely, and bored. Our age is haunted, as the noted American sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) proclaimed, by the “specter of insecurity.” Nisbet (whose community conserving principles were greatly admired by Kirk) graphically depicted the disastrous consequences of the loss of community for the modern world: Surely, the outstanding characteristic of contemporary thought on man and society is the preoccupation with personal alienation and cultural disintegration. The fears of the nineteenth-century conser- vatives in Western Europe. expressed against a background of social dislocation, have become, to an extraordinary degree, the insights and hypotheses of present-day students of man in society.

          The widening concern with insecurity and disintegration is

          accompanied by a profound regard for the values of status,

          membership and community.


Libertarians, blinded by their narrow dogmatic individualism, are oblivious to these concerns. The “towering moral problem” of our times, the loss of community, was to them no problem at all. We are thus brought to Kirk’s central argument concerning the modern problem of community lost and community regained. The necessary preconditions for community are, he held, order, tradition, authority, diversity, localism, and hierarchy. Beginning in the later part of the eighteenth century. a series of social and ideological disruptions afflicted traditional communities. The drive toward collectivism, foreshadowed by the Jacobin ideology of the French Revolution, loosened the old ties that once bound people to family units, local neighborhoods, and numerous autonomous groups. This emancipation from group memberships paved the way for widespread anomie and the desperate and often careless quest for new community. An ineluctable slide toward a totalist state, brought about by the progressive atomization of American society, could only be halted, Kirk believed, if the requisite social and moral foundations of community are restored.


We begin by looking at the body of social and moral principles and the tradition to which they are attached that inform Kirk’s understanding of community. His diagnosis of the causes for the present loss of community and his remedies for its restoration are discussed in the following section. The last three sections deal with an issue central to the definition of conservatism. As previously noted, he and his libertarian adversaries struggled over the theoretical content of the postwar American conservative intellectual movement, in respect to his view on the nature of man, the transcendent nature of morality, and the role of the state, Kirk differed sharply with libertarian thinkers. The issues at stake in these debates over the nature and ends of community are described here. In the last section, 1 examine Kirk’s prescription for reconciling laissez-faire doctrines with sound social and moral principles.





ARISTOTLE AND CICERO FIRST GRASPED the normative principles that bind men into genuine community in a manner most relevant to contemporary concerns. They were later absorbed and transmitted by Burke. Alexis de Tocqueville, and finally the American sociologist Robert Nisbet. These thinkers, among others, form within Western political thought an intellectual tradition in which community in its moral and social dimensions is valued as indispensable to civilized existence. The conservative thought of Kirk is, in fact, a summary and development of this tradition applied to the contemporary problem of community.


Aristotle famously described man as a social animal. We desire the company of others for both survival and fellowship. A creature “who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient” could not be a man, but would have to “be either beast or a God.” An omnipotent god does not need others to survive, and nonhuman creatures rely largely on their instincts for survival. By contrast, man depends on others of his species to help clothe, feed, house, and protect him. Moreover, cut off from the fellowship of others of our kind, we would be unable to rise above the level of savagery to develop our full potential as humans. The notion, then, that man once existed outside society in a prepolitical state of nature would have struck Aristotle as inconceivable.


Genuine community, though, serves higher purposes beyond passing fellowship and convenience. Among its ends, as Aristotle taught, is character formation achieved by inculcating moral habits. We become habituated to moral self-discipline by conforming to the laws and customs of society. Community, in its highest form, is an association of people united by common agreement Of ethical norms. It is a “human association under the guidance of ethical conscience,” Claes Ryn ex- plains. “Man’s true humanity is realized by being shared. It should be under stood that community is experienced between those who order their lives with reference to the same universal moral authority.” Insofar as we obey the directives of our higher will, we are in spiritual unity with others.


For obvious practical reasons, the members of a community must agree upon a basic code of right and wrong. Otherwise, they would be living in continual fear of in jury from others. Even among a band of thieves, to use Cicero’s famous example, justice must be observed. While robbers will practice their villainy and wickedness on others, they would never steal from another that belonged to the same confederacy” lest they would he “immediately expelled as unfit to be members of even a society of robbers; and should the leader himself not distribute their booty according to the measures of justice and honesty, he would either he murdered or deserted by his company.” A community, then, can be defined as an association of persons united by justice.


Necessity forces a band of thieves to deal honestly and truthfully with each other, If they are to succeed in their enterprises, then they cannot rob or cheat their associates. But such an association would amount to no more than an “uneasy peace” between its morally corrupt members. Criminal conspiracies are notoriously short-lived. Mutual suspicion and betrayal typically cause a breakup. A true community endures because its members are under the guidance of norms that transcend mere enlightened self-interest. For these norms to have enduring value and universal validity, Kirk understood, they must exist in their own right independently of any other justification and transcending all immediate self-interest. Genuine community cannot be sustained by a group of men “who lead ethically undisciplined lives,” Ryn explains. It “can emerge only in a society where the forces of egotistical interests are tempered by concern for the common good.” Voracious and sanguinary impulses erupt with ferocious intensity if not properly checked by the disciplinary power of transcendent norms. “Lacking an apprehension of norms, there is no living in society or out of it,” Kirk observed. “Lacking sound conventions, the civil social order dissolves.”


As embodied in the fundamental laws of the society, norms represent the unchanging element in social existence-that which unifies people into community. But social differentiation, both Aristotle and Cicero agreed, is also desirable. Aristotle defined the polis, the Greek political community, as an entity composed “of different kinds of men, for similars cannot bring it into existence.” No single person is either omniscient or omnicompetent, hence no one can claim total self-sufficiency.

Given this basic fact of human nature, it follows that the polis “is composed of different elements, mutually exchanging different services in virtue of different capacities.” This exchange of goods and services among the various elements of the polis enables the collective to attain a higher level of self-sufficiency than would he possible for any individual or family.


A polis, then, “by its nature is some sort of aggregation.” Imposing uniformity on a people by making them too similar would destroy the polis and transform it into a kind of household. Aristotle denounced Plato’s proposal for communizing wives, children, and property as a solution to the problems caused by divisive class animosities within the polis. “None of those evils.., is due to the absence of communism. They all arise from the wickedness of human nature.” To control the destructive consequences of social conflict, instead, the constitution of the polis must be constructed to check the inclination toward partisan and arbitrary behavior while enhancing the possibilities for social cooperation.


Aristotle proposed a mixed government, the polity, based on principles as old as Solon’s reforms of the sixth century BC Athenian constitution. The polity had as its final aim the reconciliation of the diverse interests composing the polis. Ideally, in such a state, none of the legitimate interests of any class, wealthy or poor, would be violated because each class would have sufficient power and resources to protect its vital interests. Similarly, Kirk praised the rich diversity, found in contemporary American society, as a guarantor of freedom and individuality. He strongly opposed pressures to supplant the federal structure of government, what Orestes Brownson called “territorial demoncracy,” with a centeralized “plebiscitary democracy.”


Chapter 6 – Community and Freedom

(pgs. 139-144)

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