28 September 2011

Russell Kirk On What Defines Conservatism

"Ten Principles of Conservatism"
by Russell Kirk


"First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it; human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent."

"Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity", not slavishly, for he recognizes room for improvement in all things human, but humbly, for he recognizes also that wisdom grows slowly through ages, and because he prefers the devil he knows to the devil he doesn't know.

"Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription ["that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary"]. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time."

"Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity" -- or kind intentions.

"Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.... The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling must lead, at best, to social stagnation."

"Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility.... To seek for utopia is to end in disaster.... All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention and prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order.... The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell."

"Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all."

"Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.... In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some...are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger."

"Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.... A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic."

"Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.... The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression.... He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old."

Kirk's brilliant insight into what it means, philosophically, to be a conservative makes it quite obvious why there can be little compromise with the American left. I started to emphasize a few choice phrases, but found myself wanting to emphasize the whole post. Kirk's words also make it crystal clear why the interpretation of history is so important in influencing one's political views, rather the other way around, as we so often see today. Moreover, his reasoned explanation of conservatism reveals the lack of depth and intellectual honesty among many on the left - in other words, their intellectual bankruptcy demonstrably so evident by simply observing history. You can read the unedited list here. Highly recommended.

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