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The Conservative Mind After Forty Years: An Interview with Russell Kirk


The Conservative Mind After Forty Years: An Interview with Russell Kirk

by Russell Kirk, William H. Mulligan, Jr. and David B. Schock
January 9,2013
Russell Kirk was a major figure in American intellectual history. His second book,
The Conservative Mind, was a landmark historical study of conservative thought. The book captured a wide readership and stimulated interest in conservative ideas.Q: I know it can be hard sometimes looking back at something that was done forty years ago, but I would like to go back today and discuss how you came to write The Conservative Mind. As you started on the project, what did you hope to accomplish intellectually?

Kirk: When I was an instructor at Michigan State University I reflected that there had been no published book on American conservative thought and I began thinking of preparing an anthology which I meant to call The Tory’s Home Companion. That passed through my mind. I was thinking of getting a doctorate and writing on some such theme and I decided to go to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and write a doctorate on the thought of Edmund Burke. That book on Burke eventually developed into The Conservative Mind, a book about Burke and his followers and his long tradition of thought both in America and Britain. So all this came about without any very deliberate designs and changed the complexion of American thought.

Q: What type of audience did you expect the book to attract?

Kirk: Well, I hadn’t really meditated on that question. I assumed it would be successful, well received, but I didn’t expect nearly so large a readership as it obtained.

Q: So the initial response was a surprise.

Kirk: Oh, yes.

Q: How did it feel to see your work reviewed in the New York Times and Time and Newsweek and some of the other major national magazines?

Kirk: That was fairly gratifying, and they were much more cordial than those papers and magazines would be now. In part it was helped by the triumph of Dwight Eisenhower in the presidency. There was a certain friendly—or at least a neutral—feeling toward conservative drift in America and I shared more or less the popularity of Eisenhower for a brief period.

Q: The book began, as you mentioned, as your doctoral dissertation at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Who were some of the people at St. Andrew’s—faculty members or others—who helped you crystallize the approach the work finally took?

Kirk: Really, nobody. Except Professor John William Williams, who called himself an old Whig, and like me he liked Burke. I hadn’t known that when I went there. He was an elderly man who had never published anything, but had a vast library with marginalia in all his books. He was very amiable. We used to sit in the parlor of his house, which was the medieval mansion of the archdeacons of the cathedral. There we would have whiskey under the sun and talk about a lot of things, although not about my book. From time to time I wrote a chapter and I brought it to him to look at and he put it on top of his piano. The stack of chapters rose higher and higher. They bore the marks of the whiskey glasses which had been placed on top of the latest chapter. One day Professor Williams said to me, “Russell, what with our conversations I know you are writing an excellent book and I will be glad to read it when it is in print. But do you know, I hate typescript. Why do you insist on bringing me these things? Just take them home with you.” That’s the only assistance I received.

Q: Writing can be a solitary pursuit, especially a dissertation. With whom did you discuss The Conservative Mind while it was taking shape, in addition to Professor Williams?

Kirk: Nobody at all.

Q: Nobody at all?

Kirk: No.

Q: So this was something that you had internally thought about and worked through yourself?

Kirk: Yes.

Q: The book is really a history of ideas rather than people or events. Was that a conscious choice and why?

Kirk: Not really consciously so; I found my way into it. Professor Williams said he hated the history of ideas. He didn’t lead me into it. But again, it was a matter of compression. How much can one say in a book of that length, unless one deals primarily with ideas? However, the ideas there enlivened the characters’ actions, so it was less abstract than most books of that sort.

Q: Now the subtitle, From Burke to Eliot, to me at least, suggests two questions: Why Burke? And why Eliot?

Kirk: The original title was different, From Burke to Santayana. I published the first edition under that title. Then T.S. Eliot brought out the London edition of my book through Faber and Faber. He mentioned to Henry Regnery, my publisher, that it seemed to him that Santayana, with whom Eliot had been on friendly terms, was not of sufficient stature to justify paralleling his name with that of Burke. I reflected on that and agreed, so, without telling Eliot, I changed the title to From Burke to Eliot.

Q: In what way does Burke represent a beginning for a conservative intellectual tradition?

Kirk: Burke acted and wrote about the time of the breaking up of the old order of Europe and the triumph of the French Revolution. Almost all of our arguments in politics originated in that titanic struggle. Before that, issues were different from what they are now. The coming of democracy and industrialism, a host of social difficulties, began, really, in 1787 to 1789, and we are still dealing with those vast and difficult questions.

Q: Tell me about Burke and his idea of innate rights.

Kirk: Well, Burke opposed the theory of natural rights brought forward by Rousseau and his disciples. Burke replied that there are indeed certain genuine rights of men, which he said take the form of the chartered rights of Englishmen or other rights in other countries, the results of long human experience. And he mentioned among them a right to instruction in life and to consolation in death. By instruction, not meaning free public schools, but meaning religious instruction and religious consolation in death. Burke set this up against the French Revolutionary notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The rights which we inherit are the product of a give and take, a long discussion over years, and they are real rights, as opposed to what he called the pretended rights of man, described by Rousseau.

Q: Now, in the book, you discuss quite a few individuals and their ideas. Of them all, which ones have been most important in the continuing development of your thinking over the years as you have gone back and reread them?

Kirk: In England I would begin with Burke; Disraeli is really second most important. In America we begin with John Adams. I think Adams and John C. Calhoun are the most eminent American political thinkers. Many of these people have, of course, been neglected and their works are not readily available. I’ve been engaged in getting some of them published again in my Library of Conservative Thought.

Q: You mentioned Disraeli as a particularly important British figure. What about him do you find instructive for more recent times?

Kirk: The power of imagination, of which many people have thought conservatives deficient. Disraeli had a very flashy imagination which not only won him elections, but enlivened the whole party, which he headed. Paul Elmer More, the American literary critic remarked early in this century that conservatives tend toward a gloomy view of existence in the sense that they know that everything has been tried before and nothing has worked very well in the past, and probably won’t work very well in the future. But he says this is atoned for by a certain conservative power of imagination, which asserts itself in the emergency; and he mentioned Disraeli as a notable instance of this. Later in Britain, Winston Churchill had the same power of imagination, which expressed itself in literary as well as political forms.

Q: You link John Adams and John C. Calhoun, who really come from different perspectives in America. What about John Adams in particular do you find intriguing intellectually?

Kirk: He had a realistic view of nature and society, a rejection of what is called “the example of progress.” Adams said, among other wise things, “Every man must have first his dinner and then his girl.” These are the primary objects of mankind, and one must take those into consideration. Man in general is not bent upon perfection. He has certain wants, which he tries to satisfy.

Q: Calhoun is a figure who has not attracted a great deal of attention. What parts of his career or his writing do you find particularly instructive or valuable now?

Kirk: His analysis of minorities and the ways to secure some degree of protection for minorities, and the need for what he called a concurrent majority for deciding national policies.

Q: We’re going to shift focus a little arid go back to the writing of the book. You wrote The Conservative Mind, at least the first draft, in Scotland. What role did being in Scotland play in how the book took shape.

Kirk: I’d read at an early age Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, so I’d always entertained a powerful interest in Scottish life and history, and my imagination was waked by that land especially in the medieval town of St. Andrews, where I lived. Where they say the stones cry out. The ruins of the castle and cathedral and streets lined with houses going back to medieval times made me aware of the great continuity of the history in Britain and how, as conservatives, we are engaged in the task of preserving a legacy of hundreds — indeed thousands — of years of experience. That’s something you can’t acquire in a typical American college town.

Q: Are there any other places in Scotland, in addition to St. Andrews, that you wrote or lived in while you were thinking through the problems and the issues in the book?

Kirk: I came to know Edinburgh well. And, indeed, I tramped almost all over Scotland, almost all the counties, traveling on foot, on the way to the Hebrides, the Western Isles, and up to Orkney and Shetland. All this experience greatly improved my health as well as my imagination.

Q: Nowadays, very few dissertations get published, and I’m sure that was true in the ’50s. How did you first make contact with your publisher for The Conservative Mind?

Kirk: I first sent the typescript to Alfred Knopf whose editor liked it, but Knopf himself said that it was too long and I should reduce it in length by half, which I thought a foolish idea. So I immediately called it back again, which apparently offended Knopf. He never forgave me because he counted on publishing it. I sent it to Henry Regnery, who at once accepted it and it was one of Regnery’s early successes.

Q: Now originally, I’m told, the book was supposed to be called The Conservative’s Rout?

Kirk: Yes.

Q: But that the title was changed to The Conservative Mind, and it sounds like there is an interesting story there.

Kirk: Actually, I thought of the long history of conservative parties and factions as one of defeat, defeated by the forces of what we tend to call modernity. But Henry Regnery thought the title was too gloomy and said “Couldn’t we call it The Conservative Mind?” So I decided on that, and it was indeed a wise choice. It’s gotten a great deal more attention as an examination of a mentality than as an examination of a defeat.

Q: Your book attracted a great deal of attention. It made you a star, being in all of the national media. Did you really expect that the book would attract interest outside of the academy, or did you think of it as more of an academic book?

Kirk: Well, I thought it would have some general interest, not the degree it acquired. In part that is the result of accident. Time, on July the 4th, gave its entire book section to a long review of The Conservative Mind. Time goes to the offices of doctors and dentists, and people come to these offices and read while they are waiting for their appointment. So I had a large following among conservative doctors and dentists, and among their customers.

Q: That’s a sizable percentage of the population, certainly. Some have argued that the book was an important catalyst in renewing conservatism in America or at least in giving clear voice and focus to the tradition. Was this one of your goals, even as a remote possibility?

Kirk: I had something of the sort in mind. I think William Rusher commented a few years ago that when that book appeared it was a voice that seemed to come from nowhere. I had no connections anywhere, although a few had heard my name; I had no money and no distinguished academic post, yet here was a voice they had been looking for; someone who expressed these ideas suddenly had appeared from nowhere.

Q: Over the years, a lot of terms have been used to describe those who share a conservative vision. It seems the language has changed quite a bit, Tories and Whigs. Do you have any thoughts on the semantics of conservatism?

Kirk: This word, conservative, is a fairly old one. It became a term of politics only in the early years of the nineteenth century, appearing first in France, to describe those politicians who wanted to reconcile the best of the old order with the necessities of the new age—and who had read Burke usually. And then the term passes to England early in the nineteenth century, and was presently embraced by what had been the Tory party, which took their new title of Conservative party, meaning that they represented a fusion of the so-called Portland Whigs—followers of Burke—with the Tories who held office. And then it passed to America in the 1840s. It was first employed in America by John C. Calhoun and Orestes Brownson, the Catholic writer, and has lasted until the present time. Metternich, when he lived in England as an exile, suggested to Disraeli that he ought to continue to abandon the term “Tory party” and call it the “Conservative.” And with that powerful endorsement it so remained. Of course there is some talk (nowadays) of having some new term. And, indeed, terms of politics do change as circumstances change. There is a small group of people who like to speak now of “Nationalism” rather than conservatism. Nationalism, as it is displayed at present in Bosnia, is not a very attractive prospect.

Q: Obviously you had a clear sense of what conservatism is intellectually before you wrote the book, and I’m sure that has developed over the years. How would you summarize, briefly, the essence of conservatism or the conservative intellectual tradition today?

Kirk: In The Conservative Mind I listed certain canons of conservative thought, which I still abide by. But by and large, I’d say a conservative is a person who prefers the devil he knows to the devil he doesn’t. He knows there are always ills and devils in the world, and he would rather get along with present imperfections than dash into some ruinous and impossible scheme of perfectibility. Then, there is the definition given by Abraham Lincoln, who in an election address of 1860, said, “What is conservatism? Is it not preference for the old and tried over the new and untried?” And Lincoln replied that yes, it was, and that therefore he, Lincoln, should be considered a conservative. Then there is the remark of Ambrose Bierce, whose work of reference I often consult. In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defines the word conservative as follows: “Conservative, a statesman enamored of old evils, as compared with the Liberal, who would replace them with other evils.” That is a diabolical definition. John Randolph, about whom I wrote in my first book, once sprang up on the floor of the House in Washington, and cried, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, I have discovered the philosopher’s stone. It is this: never, except under the greatest of necessity, to disturb a thing that is at rest. Let sleeping dogs lie.” These are all popular expressions of the conservative impulse or mood. Beyond that, to speak a little more seriously, I suppose a conservative is a person who is a guardian of the permanent things. There are certain permanent things in society: the health of the family, inherited political institutions that insure a measure of order and justice and freedom, a life of diversity and independence, a life marked by widespread possession of private property. These permanent things guarantee against arbitrary interference by the state. These are all aspects of conservative thought, which have developed gradually as the debate since the French Revolution has gone on.

Q: Your book sparked a lot of interesting reactions, and also a lot of scholarship and re-examination of many of the people of whom you wrote and called attention to. In particular, how would you characterize some of the recent scholarly work on Edmund Burke, who is really one of the key figures in both the book and your other works?

Kirk: Curiously enough, there never has been a scholarly edition of Burke’s works until the series being brought out by Oxford University Press, which is wretchedly edited. This is a great pity. They charge $150 a volume for it, but it is not worth buying. We endure ideological and fantastic interpretations of Burke, very shoddy. Connor Cruise O’Brien, with whom I don’t very often agree, agrees with me on this: the scholarship was very bad and the series ought to be redone. He just published a book called The Great Melody, which is a lengthy life of Burke, in which however, he tried to prove that Burke was really a liberal not a conservative at all, which can be done only by a kind of tongue-twisting. At any rate, this gentlemen, who in the past has been a rather extreme liberal, if not a radical, is now a devotee of Burke and defends Burke against those who criticized Burke for opposing the French Revolution.

Q: Since its publication, there have been a number of editions of The Conservative Mind. The latest was the seventh edition. How has the book changed over time?

Kirk: I keep thinking of how I can phrase things better, and add a little toward the end as to recent developments and thought. But there’s been no radical change. At one time I tried to reduce it in length for a paperback edition. I took out James Russell Lowell, and I think someone else, but I decided that was unfair and I put them back again in the next edition.

Q: Have people or events played more of a role in the book’s development, or is it just a product of your own rethinking or thinking through the issues?

Kirk: It’s mostly a result of introspection.

Q: You knew Eliot personally, and many other important writers. How important to your thinking and your writing have these friendships and relationships been over the years?

Kirk: They didn’t have much to do with The Conservative Mind because I didn’t know these people at the time. But since then, of course, they have enlarged my interests in all kinds of things. I wrote a book about my friend Eliot and have known a good many well-known men of letters who appear in some of my other books and have generally confirmed me in my conservative prejudices.

Q: Do you think the contemporary conservative moment is well grounded in the intellectual tradition you outlined in The Conservative Mind and your other works?

Kirk: It’s still the central body of opinion among American conservatives. I hear from them all the time the influence of this book upon them. Of course there are all kinds of other factions. There’s the faction of the Libertarians, who’d like to virtually abolish government and are philosophical anarchists. Others call themselves conservatives, although there’s not much they would conserve except private property. And there’s the faction of so-called “neo-conservatives” who are situated mostly in Manhattan and whose interests are mostly in economics and foreign policy. They have relatively little interest in what I call the “permanent things.” And there are various other factions. So people talk of the conservative crack-up or the breaking up of the conservative movement. That hasn’t happened, because there never was an integrated conservative movement. And we aren’t to expect it. The conservative impulse is a kind of alliance of people who oppose the leviathan state, and who are oppressed by heavy taxes and burdens of various kinds, and these result in temporary alliances to elect certain candidates. Mr. Reagan profited by that. Mr. Bush failed to do so.

Q: Is there a rising generation of conservative writers and thinkers?

Kirk: Yes, a great many are appearing. There is a very recent book by young Bruce Frohnen, called Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism, that is excellent. I receive every week typescripts of chapters people are writing, in books of a conservative character. These are of a much higher quality of literary skill and knowledge than one would have encountered forty years ago.

Q: That’s a good sign. Since the publication of The Conservative Mind, you’ve done major works on both Burke and Eliot in addition to quite a few other books. To what extent are these works expansions on ideas originally presented in The Conservative Mind?

Kirk: I’ve done a good deal of publication specializing in certain people I had taken up there who had been pretty thoroughly forgotten, Paul Elmer More for one and also Irving Babbitt, the other great American critic of the 1920s, who was virtually forgotten until I got a section out in The Conservative Mind. Now we’re bringing out his works in volume after volume.

Q: Looking back on all that has happened since The Conservative Mind was first published, it’s been a very eventful and I’m sure enjoyable career for you over the last forty years. Are you happy with where the book stands in the American intellectual community or in the canon of American books?

Kirk: It’s had both a wider circulation and a more enduring influence than I expected, and apparently it’s going to go on for a good long time yet.

Q: You often speak of the importance of the permanent things as a real value structure and The Conservative Mind has certainly made more people aware of their value and the perils that they face. Are the permanent things more in danger of being lost today than they were forty years ago?

Kirk: A much greater danger now. The increasing collapse of the family structure, the triumph of strange notions and practices in sexuality, the increasing burden of taxation, and the crushing of more and more of the small men of business by great corporations. These have been some of the phenomena which mark a decadent civilization. The English professor of philosophy C. E. M. Joad defined this word decadence as a loss of an object, the loss of an object personally or publicly, and that’s what’s been happening among us, a loss of an object in life, except the accumulation of creature comforts and money. So, we now show the phenomena of disintegration parallel, quite closely parallel, with the decadence of the Roman Empire. The same causes are at work. And at the same time the means of spreading the conservative understanding of the permanent things are diminished. The very newspapers which gave The Conservative Mind enthusiastic reviews forty years ago are now dominated by people who were radicals of the Sixties. They compose the editorial staffs and the book staffs. And the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune, which then had conservative book sections, and have now been thoroughly liberalized or radicalized. That is also true of Time magazine and of the New York Times, where any book of a conservative character is never reviewed at all now. So, by and large, we have a hard row to hoe.

Q: I guess we do have to refer to some things that provide an alternative. Today I looked through the University Bookman, and I was impressed by both the quality and the scope of the reviews. Are there some things on the horizon that can keep the ideas of the permanent things fresh and present them to new generations?

Kirk: I try to let cheerfulness break in now and again. Yes, there is some revival of intelligent publication of that sort. There is my little quarterly University Bookman you mentioned and there’s a new quarterly, Humanitas, published in Washington, that adheres to those principles of the permanent things. And it’s true it takes a long time in either America or in Britain for ideas to germinate—at least a generation—and so the seeds that were sown forty years ago are beginning to sprout here and there, and I don’t despair.

Q: Well, good. Thanks for your time and I appreciate your sharing your ideas with us and congratulations on the fortieth anniversary of one of the major books of our time.

Kirk: I’m grateful to you, sir.

In 2013 we celebrate the 60th Anniversary of The Conservative Mind. This interview, conducted in the summer of 1993, is a look at The Conservative Mind after forty years. Mr. Kirk completed final editing on it just weeks before his death in April 1994. The two interviewers are William H. Mulligan, Jr., assistant editor of Continuity and Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Murray State University; and David B. Schock, a writer and video producer who earned his doctorate under Russell Kirk. The interview was originally published in Continuity: A Journal of History (Spring/ Fall 1994). Find Dr. Kirk’s books here.



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