Kirk’s (Russell, not Captain) Ten Conservative Principles

Apropos of nothing–er–except conservatism, here’s a conservative lesson for the day. Why, you may ask? Well, every once in a while we need to be reminded, don’t we? So, please open your primer to Russel Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles. (Regarding the post title, maybe I should try to come up with Captain Kirk’s own list…or not).
First, Mr. Kirk’s explanation of “conservatism.”

Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries….
The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.
In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers. But of course there is more to the conservative persuasion than this general attitude.

In fine, the diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era. The following ten articles of belief reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays {circa .

Here is Kirk’s list (follow the link for lengthier explanations):

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. “A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.”
Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. – “Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. – “…that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part.
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.“Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity….Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.”
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.“They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.“Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things.”
Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.“Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling…is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired.”
Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.“In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger….A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities.”
Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.“Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.”
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.“The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.
Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression….The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.
Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.”

“The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.”

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16 years ago

Not to derail a perfectly serious topic, but I’d say that Captain Kirk would…

  • Elevate point #6 to the point where it frequently eclipsed point #2,
  • Chuck points #4 and #9 completely, replacing them with some Rousseau-like romantic notion about going where your intuition tells you to and letting the chips fall where they may, and
  • Declare point #7 obsolete because of the abundance of material wealth available due to Federation technology.
16 years ago

It’s funny, or perhaps illustrative of the fallibility of such a credo, but I (a godless liberal!) agree with most of these points.
1, 3, 4, 7, 9, and 10 are points I could sign up for with very little hesitation.
Can one of you explain what “the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems” means? I clicked through for the longer version, and found this, which is horrifying to my sensitivities: “For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality.”

Justin Katz
16 years ago

What’s funny is that you proclaim fallibility in the statement of principle for the curious matter of your agreement, rather than wondering whether it is your self-identification as a “godless liberal” that requires assessment.
Toward that end, I’d suggest that Kirk doesn’t intend that “horrifying” phrase as a conservative principle, but rather as a statement of reality. A healthy civilization requires a diversity of roles to be filled, and those will tend to perpetuate “orders and classes” (neutral terms), as well as differences in wealth and inevitable inequalities. This is true whether the society is libertarian in nature or led by well-meaning socialists. The difference is that the latter — our “squalid oligarchs” and “tyrants” — consolidate power as a necessary component of “managing” the society, which invests individuals, rather than circumstances (or God, if you’ll allow me to suggest it), with the power of assigning status. A society that seeks to manage such differences out of the equation will, through “narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism,” stagnate and harm everybody within the society (except, you know, those at the top who thought it would be worth the risk to try).

16 years ago

“Fallibility” was imprecise. I meant that they didn’t all seem distinctively conservative. I’m pretty sure that neither you nor anyone else would characterize me as anything other than godless or liberal.
What horrifies me about the sentiment is not the acknowledgment that, as a matter of reality, there will always be richer and poorer, educated and uneducated, successful and struggling. Indeed, it’s the worst kind of new-agey claptrap (or worse, socialism!) to talk about a happy rainbow land in which we all sing songs hand-in-hand.
If this is a warning against Utopian communism, then I don’t disagree. However, I’m troubled by the disdain for egalitarianism, which seeks to provide everyone with equal opportunity; I’d understand disdain for conformity, which seems to provide everyone with equal outcomes.
A political philosophy that sneers at egalitarianism and embraces the existence of “orders and classes” seems like it could be used to justify apathy in the cause of social justice. “That’s just reality,” my hypothetical philosopher might say, “so there’s no need to help the poor.”

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