Russell Kirk reminds us in his most famous work, The Conservative Mind, that conservatism is not a program or ideology. It is an approach, an attitude that gives us a fixed point to meet the ever changing circumstances of history. His book is, as he describes it, “a prolonged essay in definition.” In it he seeks to answer the questions, “What is the essence of British and American conservatism? What sentiments, common to England and the United States, have sustained men of conservative impulse in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation ever since the beginning of the French Revolution?”
The reality is that while the rest of Europe was caught up the upheaval of revolutionary movements, along with all the negative consequences that flowed out of them, England and America alone did not experience such disorder. Only Britain and America, among the great nations, have escaped revolution since 1790. And even the American Revolution, substantially, had been a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation.
That period of revolutionary waves sweeping over Europes was an era that “clutched at Rousseau, swallowed him whole, and demanded prophets yet more radical; a world smudged by industrialism, standardized by the masses, consolidated by government; a world crippled by war, trembling between the colossi of East and West, and peering over a smashed barricade into the gulf of dissolution.”
Russell Kirk sees the stability of British and American societies in these operative principles that spared it the dark stains that blotted so many Europeans countries.
Six canons of conservative thought
- 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.
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human man existence, as opposed to the narrowing 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.” 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 judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.
- Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.
- 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.