In the material prosperity of post-war America, as crackpot realism has triumphed in practical affairs, all sorts of writers, from a rather confused variety of viewpoints, have been groping for a conservative ideology.
They have not found it, and they have not managed to create it. What they have found is an absence of mind in politics, and what they have managed to create is a mood.
The psychological heart of this mood is a feeling of powerlessness—but with the old edge taken off, for it is a mood of acceptance and of a relaxation of the political will.
The intellectual core of the groping for conservatism is a giving up of the central goal of the secular impulse in the West: the control through reason of man’s fate. It is this goal that has lent continuity to the humanist tradition, re-discovered in the Renaissance, and so strong in nineteenth century American experience. It is this goal that has been the major impulse of classic liberalism and of classic socialism.
The groping for conservative ideas, which signifies the weakening of this impulse, involves the search for tradition rather than reason as guide; the search for some natural aristocracy as an anchor point of tradition and a model of character. Sooner or later, those who would give up this impulse must take up the neo-Burkeian defense of irrationality, for that is, in fact, the only possible core of a genuinely conservative ideology. And it is not possible, I believe, to establish such an ideology in the United States.
Russell Kirk’s “prolonged essay in definition” (The Conservative Mind) is the most explicit attempt to translate the conservative mood into conservative ideas. His work, however, does not succeed in the translation it attempts. When we examine it carefully we find that it is largely assertion, without arguable support, and that it seems rather irrelevant to modern realities, and not very useful as a guideline of political conduct and policy:
1: The conservative, we are told, believes that “divine intent rules society,” man being incapable of grasping by his reason the great forces that prevail. Along with this, he believes that change must be slow and that “providence is the proper instrument for change,” the test of a statesman being his “cognizance of the real tendency of Providential social forces.”
2: The conservative has an affection for “the variety and mystery of traditional life” perhaps most of all because he believes that “tradition and sound prejudices” check man’s presumptuous will and archaic impulse.
3: “Society,” the conservative holds, “longs for leadership,” and there are “natural distinctions” among men which form a natural order of classes and powers. When we hold these points close together, we can understand each of them more cle...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.