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From ideology to imagination: How Russell Kirk brought me back to conservatism

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This is the third in a series celebrating the work of Russell Kirk in honor of his 100th birthday this October. Read more from the series here.

As a young college student entering the fray of campus debates, I became enthralled with a particular variety of libertarian thought. Though once a conservative, I began to pack my brain with the likes of Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard. I grew confident in my opinions about policy and was proud of the ideological consistency that held them all together.

Then I read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and the years of intellectual tension began. Soon enough, I would be moved to call myself a conservative once again.

The bulk of my actual “positions” would remain largely unchanged, but Kirk had managed to stir up the soil from which they sprung. My attention had shifted from ideology to imagination, from the strictly political to the broadly cultural. I realized that it wasn’t just about resisting the revolutions of central planners and shrugging at whatever came next (so long as we were “free”!). It was about caring about and cultivating something distinctly better and more beautiful in its place.

“The conservative is concerned with the recovery of true community, local energies and co-operation,” Kirk writes, “with what Orestes Brownson called ‘territorial democracy,’ voluntary endeavor, a social order distinguished by multiplicity and diversity. Free community is the alternative to compulsive collectivism. It is from the decay of community, particularly at the level of the ‘little platoon,’ that crime and violence shoot up.”

That community, of course, begins with the family—a place where the idols of “choice” are quickly revealed as base selfishness and features such as sacrifice and obligation are shown to be mysteriously woven into true and authentic freedom.

Through what proceeded, Kirk prompted me to reconcile my principled individualism with a principled communitarianism, giving me a faith and a confidence that such a marriage was, indeed, possible. “True individuality is desperately needed in our age; and so is real democracy,” he writes. “Not unitary democracy…but the democracy that means genuine participation of the citizen in communal affairs.” He illuminated the value of a liberty fully understood, defined not by the exultation of choice, but by that peculiar mix of morality, generosity, community, and a freedom bound to duty and love. He encouraged me to, in Burke’s words, “learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.”

Kirk accomplished this through his own compelling thoughts and poetic words. But he also did it by connecting me to a greater movement and history of ideas, from Burke (of whom I had not yet heard) to Tocqueville to Hawthorne to T.S. Eliot. In my college dorm room, amid the heat and fury of cable news and talk radio, it was a compass. “If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society,” he writes. “If it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.”

More practically, I was searching for a richer filter through which to think about and respond to the world. On this, while Kirk insists that “conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma,” he nevertheless articulated six canons which I still believe to be conservatism’s best distillation:

1. 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. A narrow rationality . . . cannot of itself satisfy human needs… True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.

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; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society. . . .

3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives have often 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.

4. 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 progress.

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. 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, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence…

Many, if not most, of these features may be lost in the modern movement, yet each still serves as a striking marker to help us assess our thought and action, tying it to something beyond our narrow ideological or political priorities. They draw our attention to the bigger picture of human flourishing, allowing our imaginations to align and adapt. It presents a clear vision of freedom that bypasses modernity’s more typical distortions and temptations.

For me, personally, that was Kirk’s greatest influence: pointing me to the permanent things while fostering an imagination that reconciled individual with community, liberty with order, and progress with the wisdom and experience of ages past. Whatever that looks like and wherever we might depart in actual application, that resistance to “armed doctrine” and “the clutch of ideology” is something worth hanging on to. Indeed, as Kirk notes in the book’s conclusion, it serves as the conservative’s more basic promise.

“If men of affairs can rise to the summons of the poets, the norms of culture and politics may endure despite the follies of the time,” he writes in the concluding sentences of the book. “The individual is foolish; but the species is wise; and so the thinking conservative appeals to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” Against the hubris of the ruthless innovator, the conservative of imagination pronounces Cupid’s curse: ‘They that do change old love for new / Pray gods they change for worse.’”

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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