“In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” Lionel Trilling famously declared in 1950. There was truth in what Trilling said, but not the whole truth. Three years later a young professor from Michigan State University conceded, “For a century and a half, conservatives have yielded ground in a manner which, except for occasionally successful rear-guard actions, must be described as a rout.” Yet the very book in which this concession was made proved to be a major force for conservative ideas in the second half of twentieth century America. The Conservative Mind continues in print to this day and continues to inspire those who love enduring verities.
The book discusses “British and American thinkers who have stood by tradition and old establishments,” particularly from the time of Edmund Burke. But if you think that this means a blind faith in the status quo, then you really need to read this book. Kirk argued,
Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata; conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors…; they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.
Kirk delineated six cannons of conservative thought (which he later expanded to ten).
- Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems….True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrow uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems….
- Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society”….
- Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.
- 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.
- Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue…is prudence.
If these cannons have any purchase on your soul, then you just might be a conservative! Reading this book will deepen your love for the garden of life that you have inherited, as well as your ability to cultivate it well. But even if you are not a conservative, reading this book will serve you well by freeing your mind from bondage to the contemporary “right” and “left” parties, pointing you toward the Truth which endures beyond all immediate issues.