Dr. Edward Peters 

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11 jan 2013

Review of Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind [1953] (BN Pub, 2008) 468 pp.

Edward Peters, Review of R. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, in Reflections (Winter 1987) 15.



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My first encounter with The Conservative Mind was after a used book sale many years ago at which I had purchased a badly worn paperback copy for ten cents. That evening, as I began to read this book with an intriguing title, I noticed that the first few chapters had been heavily underlined and that the margins were filled with detailed notes.


Most of these comments, written by an obviously liberal previous owner, were rather thoughtful questions and probing challenges to whatever Dr. Kirk had just said. But in almost every instance, no sooner had an issue been raised in the margin of one page, than Dr. Kirk addressed that very issue on the following page or so, and completely answered his anonymous critic's points. These answers, too, were at first honestly noted as such by that original reader.


As I moved through the pages of the book, however, the underlining became rarer and the marginalia progressively degenerated from thoughtful questions to irate quips and sarcastic jibes. Even the handwriting deteriorated. That liberal's frustration at Kirk's balanced, relentless logic and acumen, shattering myth after modern myth, was painfully clear. Finally, about midway through the text, an expletive scrawled at the bottom of the page marked the end of the fascinating ghostly dialog. So far as I could tell, the rest of the book remained unread.


As fond as I may be of this story, I can't help but think that Dr. Kirk himself would be saddened to hear it. Insofar as I have ever had the honor of speaking with Russell Kirk or the good fortune of studying his works, I have never known of a case where Kirk ever deliberately attempted to defeat an opponent as utterly as that unknown interlocutor was crushed. Dr. Kirk's life and work have always been dedicated to persuasion, not rebuke. His goal has been to preserve sound thought and true principles, not to destroy sloppy thinking or misdirected ideas.


The Conservative Mind appeared in 1953. Since that date, no other book has had as much impact on the development of the Western conservative intellectual movement or on the recovery of a conservative praxis in government as has Kirk's masterpiece. For the first time since John C. Calhoun American conservatives had an apologist who could articulate for them their innate love of land and home, their respect for religion and tradition, their distrust of centralized governments and burgeoning bureaucracies, and their fear of unbridled materialism and the leveling reductionist trend of modern society. With the advent of Kirk, and the tremendous number of fine minds he has formed or influenced over the years, conservatives could feel justly proud again.


It should immediately be noted that one need not be an academic to gain from Dr. Kirk's book, although the more one brings to the work the more one will, of course, bring away. Kirk's style (not to mention Regnery's graceful edition) makes The Conservative Mind a quite manageable "first" book for study or an equally profound final review -- a very rare accomplishment indeed.


Among many highlights, I might mention the discussions of Burke, Adams, Randolph, and Calhoun; Newman, Brownson, and the Catholic tradition; the English influence, the rise of modern political errors, the current state of conservatism, and opportunities and dangers for the future. Any one of these, and so many others besides, would be a gold mine of ideas and reflections.


This is the seventh and presumably final edition of the most important socio-political study ever written in the United States. Now, in all my years of book reviewing, I have never referred to any book as a "must-read." But I break with that tradition now: if one wishes fully to understand and appreciate the conservative opportunity in America, then one simply must have read The Conservative Mind. Without it, one's formation and preparation is plainly incomplete.