The Ten Conservative Principles of Russell Kirk

This post was originally posted at the Heritage Foundation.

Russell Kirk was a prolific author, essayist, lecturer, and critic best known for The Conservative Mind (1953).

kirk_optKirk made conservatism intellectually respectable in the modern era and christened the conservative movement with its name. In the following speech, delivered at the Heritage Foundation in 1987, Kirk enumerates ten principles of conservatism. The list, which he did not intend to be exhaustive, emphasizes an attitude—not a “fixed doctrine”—toward tradition, private institutions, and prudence which he calls “the negation of ideology.”

Kirk’s first point is that “the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order”—all things are not relative.

As such, he emphasizes “custom, convention, and continuity,” for conservatism is “an attitude sustained by a body of sentiments,” in other words, a “persuasion.” At the same time, “conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.” This enables a healthy balance between the possibilities of the past and the future.

Kirk stresses that conservatives “pay attention to the principle of variety” and its benefits in private institutions. On a related note, conservatives understand the importance of “voluntary community” as the alternative to big government and espouse the belief that “freedom and property are closely linked.”

Kirk returns time and again to the imperfectability of human beings, which renders utopian schemes of government impossible. Given the obdurate permanence of human nature, “the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” While conservatives reject progress for the sake of progress, they do understand that “permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”

Kirk’s sobriety and skepticism indict as dangerous folly the historical evolution propounded by Progressivism as well as of all ideological thinking and utopian planning. There lies the great division of modern politics. Opposed to the willful ideologues are those who “recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties to the order spiritual and the order temporal.”

To read the speech, click HERE. 

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