6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Once upon a time, there was something worth conserving�
An associate once said of Russell Kirk that he had the heart of a liberal which he kept in a jar on his desk. Yet "The Conservative Mind" is not stodgy nor is Kirk's view of the human condition stagnant. It is surprisingly both "liberal" and "conservative" in the traditional sense of the words. Kirk seeks to reconcile the conservative values of respect for tradition,...
Published on Jan. 14 2003 by Jack Maybrick
0 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't you hate oxymoronic titles?
This book should be relegated to the category of exploded myths.
Published on Dec 12 2003 by Giordano Bruno
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Once upon a time, there was something worth conserving�,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)An associate once said of Russell Kirk that he had the heart of a liberal which he kept in a jar on his desk. Yet "The Conservative Mind" is not stodgy nor is Kirk's view of the human condition stagnant. It is surprisingly both "liberal" and "conservative" in the traditional sense of the words. Kirk seeks to reconcile the conservative values of respect for tradition, custom, order, hierarchy, as well as awe of the divine (though he includes the freethinker Santayana in his analysis) with the liberal values of innovation, growth, and reform.
Slow change is a means of conservation, Kirk explains. A conservative is never so noble as when he acquiesces to unwanted change for the sake of general conciliation. The great 18th century philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke, is the locus of conservative philosophy, with whom Kirk opens his study and he repeatedly compares Burke's successors with the original lodestar.
And it is noteworthy that the hidebound Tory was a staunch supporter of self-determination for the peoples of India, Ireland, and North America. This was not a break with conservatism; Burke simply felt that the same respect for liberty, as well as local tradition and custom, due British aristocracy was also due these peoples. As Kirk says, "Burke was liberal because he was conservative".
And while American liberals like to claim the American Revolution as their own, Kirk shows that it was actually a conservative rebellion against royal hegemony, in accordance with precedents set by British nobles of earlier generations.
Burke and most of his successors largely distrust democracy. Government by aristocracy is preferred, though the definition of an aristocrat is startlingly broad: anyone who can command the vote of another besides his own. It's confusing that any conservative would dignify the demagogue and the political boss with such a phrase. Kirk's yearning for aristocratic government seems to anticipate the restoration of an Adams dynasty; what he would later receive would be the enthronement of the Kennedys. Clearly, aristocracy is not always synonymous with conservative caretaking.
The post-Burke history of conservatism is largely a gloomy one. In England, industrialization, technology, massive population movements, and increased literacy shake traditional landed aristocracies and old loyalties. Popular attacks on property rights are fueled, as Marx attempts to incite radical discord.
Into the fray steps Benjamin Disraeli, whose conservative reforms alleviate material shortages and enlarge the franchise sufficient to stem the revolutionary tide while preserving as much as possible of old ties. But time marches on, and the American Civil War, in particular, does irreparable damage to the state of the nation and to the Southern half that is its repository of tradition. Kirk denounces slavery in ringing tones, acknowledging it to be a monstrous cause for the Confederacy to have based its own declaration of independence.
But Kirk is still at his clumsiest when discussing Southern conservatism. He attempts to memorialize the eloquence of antebellum conservative, John Randolph, and the ice-cold zeal of his successor, John C. Calhoun on behalf of Southern independence, while distancing himself from their viewpoints on race. In so doing, he fails to adequately address the hypocrisy inherent in Southern agitation for minority rights on a federalist scale, even as the agitators were engaged in denial of same on a local scale.
Still the Union victory produces a smug and interfering Puritan leadership class, as well as the era of the robber baron. As conservatives, Kirk and his sources are vigilant in defense of property ; yet he finds the 19th century capitalists unwholesome. The landed aristocrats that he admires, taking their wealth for granted, exercise it in a way beneficial to their rural communities. The capitalists simply engage in unlimited acquisitiveness for its own sake without regard to consequences. One can imagine how Kirk would regard today's CEO's and dot.com millionaires.
As the book draws to a close in 1953, Kirk perceives two dangers to conservatism in general and to society at large: the expansion of the managerial state (borrowing from James Burnham) and a post-war era in which gratification of the physical senses without regard to moral context becomes the predominant ethic. He sees bases for optimism that these trends will reverse, but unabashed pessimism would have proved more prophetic.
And Kirk, who lived until 1994 and never allowed a television set into his home, presumably came to realize this. If in 1953, he regarded jazz on the radio and comic books in the drugstore as cheap demoralizing sensations, one can imagine how he would regard hip-hop and unexpurgated raunch displayed in TV and movies, and their attendant consequences on human conduct.
Few conservative candidates would dare attempt today, Adams-like, to affirm the moral nature of society, as Kirk urges; for that matter, few clerics attempt to do so, their theology having been annexed by this newer creed. So much for Kirk's faith in American religious institutions. The last politician to attempt to seriously discuss values was laughed out of office. Today Republicans compete with Democrats for the MTV vote.
And the managerial state achieved its conquest with the advent of the Great Society, effectively declawing the conservative administrations which followed. The last presidential election featured the nominally conservative and liberal candidates debating over just how much the social security Ponzi scheme should expand, whose national prescription drug plan was the most efficacious, and how much wealth the state should appropriate from its subjects.
Kirk seems to be as distrustful of counterrevolution as of revolution, and as a result, he fails to leave conservatives today with a blueprint on how to respond when the hammer has fallen and Sansculotte has fully taken over. But he would regard today's world in much the same way he regards, in the first chapter, the living Irish orators in Burke's birthplace of Dublin proclaiming through amplifiers their success in increasing widows' pensions. He would sadly shake his head and deliver the epitaph of the West, proclaiming, as Burke once did, "What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!"
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moral Absolutism and Natural Aristocracy,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)You don't have to be a Conservative to like this book. I found it very useful in understanding the basic worldview from which a Conservative might operate; and from that, one can make good assumptions as to how Conservatives view Liberals. Kirk's thinking is profound, his reading extensive, and his arguments well-written. The major points I took away from this discussion are:
1) The Conservative assumes that the design of the world is not by accident, but by transcendental purpose. Metaphysical, permanent standards of Right and Wrong exist: moral standards are not relative. Similarly, the structure of society is not arbitrary. We should not attempt to alter society using science or social engineering, because we are strictly human, and our understanding is limited. Change, when it happens, should be modulated in such a way as to limit its effects on society.
2) A "natural aristocracy" exists in any society. It consists of the best and brightest individuals, and perhaps those born with reserves of wealth. No legislation or voter majority can eliminate it. John Adams defines a member of the natural aristocracy (in a Democracy) as anyone who has the power to influence at least one vote other than his own.
3) Individuals are born with certain Natural Rights, consisting primarily of property rights. Government should always act to protect property rights, especially in a Democracy, where the poorest elements of society may employ their voting power to redistribute the possessions of the wealthy few. A Democracy that gives unmitigated power to the people quickly deteriorates into the worst kind of tyranny.
4) Instincts and prejudices frequently have meaning: the individual may be foolsh, but the species is wise. The thinking of a few bright persons should not take precedence over tradition.
Most of this comes out of Edmund Burke. The Natural Aristocracy theory is primarily from John Adams. The dozens of other conservative thinkers that Kirk discusses tend to modify or enhance the thinking of Burke and Adams. De Tocqueville, for example, sounds the alarm over the potential "Tyranny of Democracy", but that seems to follow from Burke's thinking on natural rights.
I had a few exceptions with some minor points. Kirk argues, for one, that the American Revolution was somehow a "conservative revolution"; but I think you could make a more convincing case that it was in fact an Enlightenment-Liberal revolution. Also, he has a tendency to lump all of the different Liberals and Leftists together into a single agglomeration of "Benthamites" (after the British utilitarian/socialist philosopher Jeremy Bentham).
On the whole, however, I can recommend this one to any reader interested in understanding how people think politically.
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding read,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)This book should form the cornerstone of every Conservative's library. A breathtaking book enabling the reader to "stand on the shoulders" of giants. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ultimate Guide to Conservative Worldview,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)"The Conservative Mind" made a bigger splash than anyone expected when published. By pulling together the thought of great conservative thinkers from across the ages, Kirk conclusively proved that a philosophy of conservativism did exist and that it was a worthy alternative to the once-dominant liberal line of mid-twentieth century America. That may not sound like a spectacular feat, but at the time many wondered whether there was any such thing as a conservative mind, much as many now wonder whether an evangelical mind exists. Because Kirk mines centuries rather than decades, this is a book that doesn't go out of style.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Conservative Pantheon,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)The book is a sort of intellectual history, each chapter summarizing the thought of one to three conservative thinkers, more or less chronologically beginning with Edmund Burke and running through poets of the mid twentieth century (T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost, among others). The thinkers discussed include intellectuals, clergymen, politicians and poets, all thinking, working and writing in the Anglo-American sphere (most are in fact British or American, but the exceptions -- Tocqueville and Santayana -- wrote in America or for American audiences). A good working knowledge of British and American history from the French Revolution through World War II is therefore a helpful prerequisite to understanding many of these thinkers.
The summaries are interesting and informative as description. Many of them (the chapters on Burke and John Adams, for instance, or the section on John Henry Newman) make great introductions to figures whose work can't be read in comprehensive political treatises and many provide intriguing introductions to writers you have probably never heard of (Sir James Fitzjames Stephen) or to the thought of people whom you don't know as political thinkers (say, John Randolph or Arthur Balfour).
Among the wealth of description, a little prescription creeps in. Kirk's heroes don't "argue" -- they "know," they "perceive," they "realize," they "understand." Kirk is highly sympathetic with the ideas he summarizes, and it is no coincidence that his final chapter, on twentieth century poets, is called "Conservatives' Promise" and contains some of the most hopeful writing in the book. "If men of affairs can rise to the summons of the poets," he writes, "the norms of culture and politics may endure despite the follies of the time." He ends upbeat, with a call to action of sorts.
Not to be missed is Kirk's first chapter, "The Idea of Conservatism," in which he spells out the fundamental tenets which unite the belief of the writers whose work he describes, as well as their photographic negative, the tenets of radicalism.
The book dovetails perfectly with George Nash's _The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American after 1945_, which, of course, begins with Kirk himself and which carries on a similar discussion (though Nash omits from his narrative the British half and focuses on intellectual figures, to the exclusion of practical politicians like, say, Goldwater).
4.0 out of 5 stars Necessary background info for the Conservative Minded,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)Russell Kirk has done a masterful job of presenting an in depth historical look at the foundations of "The Conservative Mind." I read the hardback version which was a gift from a friend.
Of coarse as with so many other books of this length and intensity, one must take care not to nod-off, as they become engrossed in the rich philosophical treasures inculcated in it. Not because it is boring to be sure, but more so because of its' shear length and the mental necessity to take in and absorb each important word, phrase and paragraph. There is simply so much essential knowledge and awe inspiring wisdom and information presented here that one can easily overload themselves, if they try to take in too much at once. So my advice would be take your time and make this one of the long running adventures in your life, with a few smaller less intense books in between, like "Bias" or "The Final Days" for mental relaxation and vacation.
If the reader is like myself, they will spend a great deal of time highlighting, circling, underlining and writing comments in the margins of each and every page, making critical notes in the front and back of the book on the blank pages. This also extends the amount of time necessary to complete this magnificent book. A book that I place on par with Barbara Tuchman's, "The March to Folly" and William J. Federer's, "America's God and Country" among others.
One could spend many paragraphs trying to relay to others the vast amount of fascinating scholarly material within Mr. Kirk's book. But it is sufficient to say that for any student of history, the conservative movement and even one of a liberal persuasion this book is informative, enlightening and helpful in formulating philosophies, rebuttals and basic political ideals.
It seems terribly interesting to me, that in so many of these great philosophical works. The vast majority of societal problems we continue to encounter have been foretold and predicted by the great thinkers of the ages for centuries and even millennium, but we never seem to heed their warnings or avoid them. We just, strike out and step right onto the most negative paths possible with our eyes wide open. In short radical liberalism is incompatible with real civilization, yet we continue down the path anyway to corruption, deviance and self-induced social disintegration.
It is almost as if the radical or fanatic left leaning politicians and social elitist pick up these books of warning, which are so full of a prophetic wisdom. Then creep off into a cave somewhere and huddle like a bunch of "Lord of the Rings" trolls, deciding to make every error and mistake within them. In fact the platform for the lefts political parities and special interest group supporters seem to be a conscience determination not to follow the sage advise within the covers, but to take the well warn path of error and depravity.
An important read for one interesting in the foundations of social, political, economic and spiritual philosophy. Mr. Kirk is to be commended.
5.0 out of 5 stars Conservatism seems to have changed remarkably,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)It is truly astounding how little Kirk's vision of conservatism resembles the versions heard most often in contemporary politics.
One repeated note throughout this book is that markets and economic forces are disruptive and need to be tamed. Alternative sources of human values, other than what they command in a wide-open economy, must be preserved. The market, left unchecked, has the potential to overrun settled ways of life, to undermine religious faith, and to coarsen standards of behaviour. While this is not Kirk's only point, it is the one that seems most conspicuous today.
This is a remarkable insight, especially coming from someone who obviously rejoices in the name of Conservative. We are used to seeing "conservatves" as the money party, a body of apologists for entrenched financial interests, interested chiefly in free markets and free trade, and somewhat heedless of the human costs. Upward mobility is more important than social stability. Indeed, this viewpoint is so deeply engrained in the United States that it is hard to imagine what form a political challenge to it could take at this stage.
The chief difficulty is that conservatism of this sort becomes largely a matter of -taste-. Human relations take precedence over economies or formal hierarchy. Understatement, mercy, and discretion are as important as any programme of laws. How to translate this question of taste into something that can play in a democracy, especially a democracy whose electoral processes are so in thrall to financial powers already, is something I cannot begin to answer.
5.0 out of 5 stars A landmark book in conservative thought,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind (Audio Cassette)Kirk provides insight and analysis into the proud British and American traditions of limited governemnt, deference to the practices of tradition, prescription, custom and convention as understood by those who would resist the "leveling fancies" of today's government-oriented socialists. His loving discussion of Burke, John Randolph of Roanoke, etc., is insightful and memorable. The Blackstone recording is also excellent, and if you listen with the book nearby, you can mark memorable quotes. Also, speeches Kirk mentions by John Randolph are re-printed in another Kirk book, John Randolph of Roanoke, available through Liberty Press. The Conservative Mind is a book everyone must read.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Landmark in the History of Ideas,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Conservative Mind (Audio Cassette)This is the finest extant one volume introduction to the conservative thread in English language political thought. This tradition is unjustly ignored in North America. About the only references to it in mainstream journalism are an occasional mention of Burke by George Will. If you want to know why Edmund Burke is one of the greatest political thinkers of all time and do not have the patience to read Burke himself, read the first 80 odd pages of this book. If you want to know what British humanistic luminaries such as Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Disraeli and Macauley thought about politics and society, there is no better place to start than here.
Kirk also rescued a number of dead American writers from oblivion, for which we should be grateful: John Randolph, the political writings of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorn, Orestes Brownson, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, to name some. While Henry Adams and Santayana are not in danger of neglect, Kirk helps keep the flame of their reputations alive.
If the book has a flaw, it is because Kirk goes for breadth and insight rather than for a deeper analysis of any given figure. I also disagree with Kirk's assertion that the modern British Conservative Party embodies Kirk's conservatism. That party has not been conservative since at least 1918. Under Margaret Thatcher, it frankly became a 19th century liberal party. Finally, this book is VERY beautifully written. We could all profit from studying and imitating Kirk's style.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book Every Conservative Must Read,
This review is from: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Paperback)"The Conservative Mind" is the book that created the modern conservative movement and is a book that every conservative should read. It isn't an easy read, it does deal intimately with the nuances of conservative thought all the way back to the 18th Century Whig politician Edmund Burke, but at the same time it explains in depth why conservatism developed the way it did and what the philosophical roots of conservatism are.
Even those who aren't conservative but have an interest in truly understanding conservative political philosophy would do very well to read this book.
In order to be an effective advocate for or against any position, it is critical to first understand what the position is. "The Conservative Mind" is a seminal look into conservatism as an ideology and as a political movement, and is critical to an understanding of what conservatism really is.
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The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot by Russell Kirk (Paperback - Sept. 1 2001)
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