The Jury Talks Back


Selections from The Conservative Mind

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fritz @ 3:13 pm

Selection from The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk

I think that there are six canons of conservative thought:

1.Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience…

2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems…

3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society”…

4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked…

5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

6. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress…

Any rethinking of the meaning of conservativism, for the benefit of the Republican Party and its platform natch, must come to terms with these propositions.


  1. This is why I’m not a conservative. I don’t agree with #3; I think I mean something different by #1 than most conservatives would; I disagree with #4; and while I’m sympathetic to the warnings against the lust for power in #5, I have little faith in prescription.

    Comment by aphrael — 11/21/2008 @ 3:31 pm

  2. I think #3 could be worded better, but I can’t word it better myself. I’ll have to think about it…

    As for #4, I think that it’s quite correct… Ownership of property suggests economic freedom, which can be directly tied personal freedom… I have more options the more money I have, in every sense.

    For #5, I think that blatant, plain-text rules that leave little to no wiggle room go a long way to prevent abuses of power, or the theft of personal liberties (1st and 2nd amendment, for example)…

    Comment by Scott Jacobs — 11/21/2008 @ 4:02 pm

  3. To expand on Kirk’s #3:

    With reason, conservatives often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgement of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

    Comment by Fritz — 11/21/2008 @ 4:11 pm

  4. Isn’t #3 a recognition that while people may have equality of opportunity, they won’t have equality of outcome?

    Comment by DRJ — 11/21/2008 @ 5:16 pm

  5. This is why I’m not a conservative. I don’t agree with #3

    Of course you do agree with 3. The entire Democratic argument against the Republicans rests on class grounds – that you guys are the intellectual class and that people like Palin and the GOP base are inbred hicks with a peculiar belief in religion. That’s an explicitly classist argument.

    Comment by Subotai — 11/21/2008 @ 5:18 pm

  6. I believe that #4 is crucial, perhaps one of the most important tenets of conservative thought. I wrote this in a previous essay, but I believe that it bears repeating here:

    This leads us back to the question implied in the title of this section. Why does property matter? There is more to property than houses and money. The founding fathers understood that the right to property means the right to be free in one’s self and that rights themselves are properties owned by all. This is the basis for taxation, wherein man “finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.” This is why all people are expected to contribute taxes during times of war. The military is established not only to protect our physical property, but our rights as well. But under an imperfect government our rights can be taken as quickly as our wages or our homes. It is important to remember, however, that some property is more valuable than others. It is never wise to surrender our rights in favor of protecting our things.

    Comment by tjwilliams — 11/21/2008 @ 5:47 pm

  7. Not to pick but shouldn’t there be a personal responsibility number in there somewhere?

    Along with fiscal and belief sides of things; everyone owning up to their own mistakes is a big thing for most conservatives.

    Comment by Lord Nazh — 11/21/2008 @ 7:13 pm

  8. Too many long words. I could not make heads or tails of it.

    Comment by nk — 11/21/2008 @ 7:41 pm

  9. I’m with nk. To the limited extent that I can make it out, I disagree, except with number four.

    A guy who writes in 1953 that classes need to be maintained…. well, that might have an attraction to some folks I’d prefer not to hang with.

    This is asking for a Luddite theocracy. I’ll have none, thanks.


    Comment by JRM — 11/21/2008 @ 8:23 pm

  10. My mother is related to Russell Kirk. I am not exactly sure how, but I still see his widow at family functions. I was young when I met him, and never really understood what kind of thinker he was. Wish I could go back …

    Comment by JD — 11/21/2008 @ 8:42 pm

  11. If you don’t have #4, you don’t have anything! Without private property and its protections in law, nobody is free. Some liberals call this the “I’ve got mine” principle, which is major evidence they are idiots.

    Comment by gp — 11/22/2008 @ 9:32 am

  12. Subotai: can you please point me to anywhere where I’ve said that? If you can’t, please do me the service of not imputing beliefs to me which I have not expressed. :)

    DRJ, Fritz, et al: I read #3 as being an affirmation of the principle that some people are inherently better than others, and that people should know their place and accept it, and that generations-old ossification of class into caste is desireable. I understand and agree that there will not be equality of outcome; and I understand and agree that people with different interests and different skills will specialize in things and become better at the things which match their specific interests and skills than other people are … but that strikes me as being a very different claim than is being made by “civilized society requires orders and classes”. The quoted statement, to me, as an air of baroque aristocracy.

    Comment by aphrael — 11/22/2008 @ 11:49 am

  13. So we all agree that some people are inherently better than others. Before God and before the law, of course, we are all equal, but in every aspect of life we are different. Whether this necessarily leads to the creation of “generations-old ossification of class into caste” is a different question, and you would do well not to read your prejudices into Kirk’s statement. Please don’t imput beliefs to Kirk which he has not expressed.

    Comment by Fritz — 11/22/2008 @ 12:09 pm

  14. Fritz: I haven’t said anything about some people being inherently better than others. I’ve said that some people are better at doing a particular task than others. That speaks to their skill at a task; being good at a thing does not make you an inherently better person than someone who is not good at a thing.

    To make this clear: I’m a college graduate, a computer programmer, and a law student. But that doesn’t make me better than the high school dropout who cleans the office where I work; and the notion that it does strikes me as offensive.

    Comment by aphrael — 11/22/2008 @ 12:18 pm

  15. I haven’t said anything about some people being inherently better than others

    But if that is not the case, then would there not be equality of outcome?

    Comment by Scott Jacobs — 11/22/2008 @ 12:33 pm

  16. Scott: no.

    One person, for example, finds that he really enjoys business management, and is driven to become wealthy; another person finds that he really enjoys teaching and is driven to help people understand things.

    These two lives will wend down different paths, and they will have different outcomes. But neither person is better than the other.

    Comment by aphrael — 11/22/2008 @ 12:58 pm

  17. Of course some people are better than others. It depends on how you define “better”. The best Man ever to walk the earth was a penniless mendicant without a roof of His own to sleep under, Who was tortured and executed as a common brigand.

    Comment by nk — 11/22/2008 @ 1:09 pm

  18. While it might be déclassé to state that you’re better, and it certainly wouldn’t do to lord it over anyone, what is it about being better than someone else that bothers you? Isn’t human being a kind of activity, and not merely membership in a species? Since we’re stipulating God and the law as being areas of absolute human equality, what is it about brute material fact that offends you?

    When I think about being better or worse than someone, I think of it in distinctly Aristotelian terms, i.e., the notion of flourishing. There’s something about the characterizations of a Jane Austen novel, where there are people who are better or worse than others, who are more or less hypocritical when it comes to social virtues, that it seems to me obvious that you would have to make distinctions, without anyone being necessarily or particularly vicious, that I think is to my point.

    Comment by Fritz — 11/22/2008 @ 1:14 pm

  19. Saying you are better than someone else makes many people nervous but it’s a fact of life, and an important fact at that. It’s the basis for believing that hard work should be rewarded with more pay, that education makes one more valuable to society, and that helping one another has tangible and intangible benefits.

    Comment by DRJ — 11/22/2008 @ 1:41 pm

  20. I agree with DRJ: Some people are better than others. Knowing who they are can be difficult, but I absolutely think I’m a better person – I add more value to society – than some others.

    The law treats people differently, just as society does. If you work hard and are nice to people, you get more money and more friends. It’s the same in law: If you rape children, you have a reasonable likelihood that you’ll go to prison on the extended stay program. If not, you won’t (for that crime, anyway.)

    If Fritz is saying that the law shouldn’t treat people differently, but others should, based on some “class” designation that isn’t flexible – and that sure seems like what Kirk is saying – I’m not for that at all. I don’t care if you were born rich, or born smart, or born with a propensity for hard work.

    I care what you’re doing. A caste system is grossly offensive to the American ideal that people are free to achieve their maximum potential.

    I’m still having none, thanks.


    Comment by JRM — 11/22/2008 @ 7:23 pm

  21. I’m no expert on Kirk’s philosophy but I don’t see anything in his 10 Conservative Principles or his theory of the Essence of Conservatism that sounds like class warfare. In fact, it sounds like just the opposite.

    Comment by DRJ — 11/22/2008 @ 9:23 pm

  22. DRJ beat me to it.

    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. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

    Comment by Fritz — 11/22/2008 @ 9:27 pm

  23. As citizens of the Republic, we are all equal under the law, no better or worse.
    However, no rational person would think, or have the stupidity to say,
    that Charles Manson is the equal of William Buckley.
    The paths of life that we choose determine, to a large degree, how we rank within a society of equals.
    Even the richest amongst us still has to call a plumber now and then (which reminds me of a book that was written several years back about society before the widespread advent of indoor plumbing called “The Seat of Democracy” about out-houses).
    It’s not that some are “better” than others, we just are all different – not counting the sociopaths such as the previously mentioned Mr.Manson.

    Comment by Another Drew — 11/25/2008 @ 9:02 am

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