Thursday, December 21, 2006

the conservative mind, part three

here are the final three "canons of conservative thought" as laid out in the conservative mind (1953) by russell kirk, the dean of modern american conservatism."
(4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress. Separate property from private possession, and liberty is erased.
of course, private property is fundamental to many small-l liberalisms as well. the great irony, though, is that property, or that which is appropriated, is very often, as proudhon put it, theft. or at the very least taken by force and with bloodshed. and nowhere is this more true than the american continent. kirk equates property with freedom, but clearly this freedom is only enjoyed by the appropriator. native americans were certainly not freed or liberated by the europeans' conquest and plunder of their land.

note also the reappearance of the word "levelling," just after the previous, third canon: "The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at levelling lead to despair." again, some people are superior to others, and levelling is bad because it removes the inherent inequalities among people.
(5) Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters and calculators." Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite, for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man's anarchic impulse.
i can't pretend to know what kirk means by "sophisters and calculators," but the key concepts here are "prescription" and "prejudice." the relevant OED definitions of "prescription" are, i think, "The action of prescribing or appointing beforehand; that which is prescribed or appointed; written or explicit direction or injunction" and "Uninterrupted use or possession from time immemorial, or for a period fixed by law as giving a title or right; hence, title or right acquired by virtue of such use or possession: sometimes called positive prescription." in other words, the appeal to prescription is essentially one to tradition, to time-honored customs and practices, that "it's always been this way."

you won't find "prejudice" used this way much any more because of its negative connotations, but kirk is talking again about preconceived notions, opinions, values, etc. and indeed, these preconceived notions and time-honored values go at least as far back as plato: will, appetite and emotion are bad, irrational, and must be repressed. these are the things in people that make them bad.

(6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress. Society must change, for slow change is the means of its conservation, like the human body's perpertual renewal; but Providence is the proper instrument for change, and the test of a statesman is his cognizance of the real tendency of Providential social forces.
curious that kirk saves his most qualified pronouncements for last, but in doing so goes back to his starting point and relinquishes agency in human interaction and affairs over to the divine.

1 comment:

Mark Wallace said...

I've been reading a number of Kirk ghost stories, since my father has a collection of them, and while I won't go into huge detail here, I can now converse about them more effectively.

Let's just say that, while very intriguing at times, the stories sometimes succumb to a certain problem: if you're too didactic about the nature of mystery, then it ain't really a mystery, is it?