Russell Kirk and a Return to Principle, 1956

“Ever since the Civil War, political thought has languished in the United States. For original political theory almost always is developed out of a time of troubles, when thinking men, forced to examine their first principles, seek means to avert the imminent collapse of order, or to restore some measure of justice and security to a wounded society. The political writings of Plato and Aristotle came out of such an age. So did Cicero’s works, and Dante’s, and Machiavelli’s, and Hooker’s, and Hobbes’s, and Locke’s, and Burke’s, and Marx’s. The nature of the confusion which provokes the exposition of political theory may be the inadequacy of an old order, morally and administratively.” (142)

“No political philosopher of any great stature appeared during the last third of the nineteenth century, and the bulk of what passed for political thought in this country was simply the reflection of various English and German liberal ideas, adapted to the American climate of opinion. There seemed to be no need for reference to first principles; Things were in the saddle, and most men seemed to be satisfied to let Things ride” (142).

“Yet Things galloped on; the New Deal, fortunately perhaps, was the expression of vague humanitarian aspirations and positive grievances, not of any coherent ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’ system of thought. Nor was America’s part in World War II governed by any body of general ideas: caused by the combination of moral indignation with fear of Germany and Japan, American intervention stood bewildered for want of theory when the problems of peace had to be met.” (143)

“Yet there may come a time in the history of nations when the previous security against foreign intervention is destroyed, and when the tradition established usage are so weakened that they cannot stand unaided against the assaults of ideology. Such an era seems to be America’s in the middle of the twentieth century.” (143)

“Conservatism in the United States, by the end of the 1940’s, had almost lost the power of language. Very often, men of conservative prejudices expressed themselves apologetically in the phrases of nineteenth-century liberals; sometimes they even echoed the slogans old-fangled anarchism.” (144)

“Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanent and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.” (145)

“For politics, like science, like art, comes out of belief in a transcendent religion; and when the first belief decays, politics decays, and the fancied terrestrial paradise becomes a very real terrestrial hell.” (146)

“It would be presumptuous to endeavor to summarize the whole of Mr. Voegelin’s work before his six fat volumes have appeared. My present purpose is to suggest that such principles as Mr. Voegelin expounds are the principles which increasingly are being recognized by thinking American conservatives as the foundation of their beliefs. The names of Bernard Iddings Bell, R.S. Nisbet, Leo Strauss, Ross Hoffman, and Reinhold Niebuhr may suggest the range of conservative views founded upon belief in a transcendent order, in an unalterable human nature, and in a natural law.” (148)

“Conservatism begins with the premise that we must be obedient to a transcendent order which has given us natural law. The nature of man being complex, no simple set of positive laws, universally applied, will suffice to make him happy or good. And the nature of man being flawed, the evil part of his nature, lusting after power and aggrandizement, envious and violent, must be restrained by custom, authority, and balanced government which checks power with power.” (148)

“Populism and the New Deal merely aped the spurious utopia of business enterprise, without having any concept of a fundamental change in the quality of American life; the New Dealers, indeed, were glad to escape into the war and so avoid any re-examination of their own principles.” (149)

Source: Russell Kirk, “Return to Principle in Politics: Conservatives and Liberals Take Thought,” Southwest Review 41 (Spring 1956): 142-152.

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