Magazine article New Criterion

Conservatism & the Politics of Prudence

Magazine article New Criterion

Conservatism & the Politics of Prudence

Article excerpt

All profound political movements draw their strength from some earlier body of belief: twentieth-century socialism from the Marx of the middle of the nineteenth century; Russian revolutionary violence from French Jacobinism; radical liberalism from Rousseau, whom Burke had called "the insane Socrates of the National Assembly." Kirk's source of wisdom was Edmund Burke.

--Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (1995)

No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other. The same danger approached the same man from different directions and in different forms, and the same man turned to face it with incomparable weapons, drawn from the same armoury, used in a different quarter, but for the same purpose.

--Winston Churchill, "Consistency in Politics" in Thoughts and Adventures (1932)

Now and again, Burke praises two great virtues, the keys to private contentment and public peace: they are prudence and humility, the first pre-eminently an attainment of classical philosophy, the second pre-eminently a triumph of Christian discipline. Without them, man must be miserable; and man destitute of piety hardly can perceive either of these rare and blessed qualities.

--Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953)

No student of the thought or statesmanship of Edmund Burke can ignore the contribution of Russell Kirk to the renewal of Burkean wisdom in the twentieth century. As Kirk freely acknowledged, Burke was largely the source of Kirk's own political wisdom, and Kirk, from the early 1950s onward, did much to draw out the conservative resonances of Burke's thought and action. Kirk first wrote about Burke in the summer of 1950 in a Queen's Quarterly article tellingly called "How Dead is Edmund Burke?" Kirk very much believed that Burke was relevant to addressing modern discontents and that the Anglo-Irish statesman's wisdom and "moral imagination" (a Burkean phrase from Reflections on the Revolution in France much beloved by Kirk) could play a central role in renewing Western and Anglo-American civilization. This was at the beginning of the Burke revival marked by the scholarship and advocacy of Ross J. S. Hoffmann, Thomas Copeland, Francis Canavan, Peter Stanlis, and Robert Nisbet, among others. Kirk was at the center of this Burkean constellation even if he was less a Burke scholar than a learned and eloquent partisan of Burke's contribution to the sustenance and renewal of the conservative mind. Kirk's own writings on Burke are particularly sparkling and have their share of Burke-like aphorisms and bon mots. They are memorable and eminently quotable and are among the part of Kirk's work that will surely endure.

Like Winston Churchill, himself a profound admirer of Burke, Kirk fully appreciated the unity and consistency of purpose underlying Burke's thought and action. As Kirk writes near the beginning of The Conservative Mind, Burke was at once a liberal as well as a conservative--"the foe of arbitrary power, in Britain, in America, in India" (and, one might add, in Ireland, where the Catholic majority of the late eighteenth century was still subject to brutal repression under the increasingly archaic Penal Laws). Kirk reminds us in several places that in 1789, Paine, Mirabeau, and others expected Burke the liberal, the critic of arbitrary power, to lead the fight for a regime of pure popular sovereignty in England and to express robust sympathy and support for the French Revolution as it attempted aggressively to destroy all remnants of the old regime.

They did not understand that Burke, the conservative-minded liberal, adamantly opposed the intrusion of abstract theory into practice (like the "little catechism of the rights of men" that dominated French Revolutionary doctrine and rhetoric with increasingly destructive results), and the brutal assault on the inherited wisdom of the ages. …

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