The Conservative Mind | Russell Kirk

Summary of: The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
By: Russell Kirk


Welcome to the captivating world of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot by Russell Kirk. This illuminating book examines the history, principles, and foundations of conservatism as a political and social philosophy. As you journey through these pages, you’ll discover how conservative thought has its roots in strong religious beliefs and acknowledgment of intellectual and individual differences. You’ll gain insight into the conservative stance on democracy, the connection between property and power, the natural aristocracy, and the careful management of societal changes.

The Conservative Belief in God’s Influence

The conservative movement began with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which made people aware of conservative arguments. The movement believes in a higher power, usually the Christian God, who manifests in our actions. Conservatives believe that God’s will can be seen through human history, and every action that endures the test of time is an expression of God’s will. For conservatives, God’s influence extends over all our actions, providing a higher moral order even in business contracts, reminding us of the importance of a higher power in our lives.

The Harmful Idea of Equality

In his book on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke challenges the notion of equality. While it’s true that people have distinguishing features that affect their lives, the concept of everyone being equal is harmful and even deceptive. Conservatives recognize that acknowledging these differences is critical as it gives people a realistic view of life and prevents false hope. For instance, telling a mediocre actor that he has the same chance of winning an Oscar as a talented actor is misleading and will only lead to disappointment. This idea also applies to the soil, which is well-suited for some plants and not for others, despite being made of the same earth. Disregarding the reality of differences in people’s abilities and circumstances is the foundation of conservative thought. The book delves deeper into how this belief shapes conservatives’ views on democracy.

Striving for Absolute Equality

The book argues that conservatives view striving for absolute equality as misguided and dangerous. Instead, progress comes from a desire to achieve a better-than-average life which is only possible with inequality. Ability, not just work, is important in driving progress and creating inequality. In systems with absolute equality, there is no incentive for individuals to use their abilities to the fullest as there is no reward for doing so. This can lead to frustration and a lack of progress for everyone, not just those with abilities. It is therefore important to understand that absolute equality is not desirable as it stifles progress.

The Role of Leadership in a Society

In this book, the concept of equal society and natural aristocracy is discussed. An equal society, where there is no societal group with more power or influence than others, is deemed an impossible and undesirable society by conservatives. They believe that people need leaders, and some individuals are better suited to lead than others. Conservatives believe in a natural aristocracy, where a smaller leading class develops within society to lead the larger group. Without such leadership, society is left with natural equality which for conservatives translates to savagery and constant danger with no institution providing security for the masses. According to early conservative thinker John Adams, many factors aside from birth can play a role in determining why people might follow a certain leader. In essence, an “aristocrat” is just the name conservatives give to an individual who is (by virtue of his abilities) well-suited to lead others.

A Conservative View on Democracy

Some conservatives have reservations about the democratic system as they believe that it values equal involvement over good governance. They argue that the representation of important interests is uncertain when left to the majority because the majority may not know what’s important. Instead, they propose that the public is represented, and the government functions well. Different societal groups in democratic systems are not represented according to their significance, but instead by their voting power. This means groups that are crucial to a properly functioning society can be outvoted when their numbers are small, leading to potential long-term financial ruin for the government. Conservative British Prime Minister George Canning summed up this point succinctly when he said that men shouldn’t seek to govern themselves, but instead, seek to be governed well.

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