Enduring Wisdom for Any Year

In 1991, Russell Kirk (venerated especially among traditional conservatives; I don’t know what neocons think of him) gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation, large portions of which are too good not to pass along at the start of a new year:

It is possible to describe certain attitudes that make up America’s conservative mentality, even though not all Americans could express coherently their belief in such general principles, and although some conservatives would dissent from one or more of the general assumptions or principles I now mention.

First, belief in some transcendent order in the universe, some law that is more than human: a religious understanding of the human condition, if you will; a belief in enduring moral norms. As the national pledge of allegiance puts it, “One nation under God…. ”

Second, opposition to totalist ideology and the totalist political order. The American conservative rejects the notion of a future earthly paradise — which the ideologue promises to attain.

Third, confidence in the American Constitution — both the written national Constitution and the intricate fabric of custom, belief, and habit that makes up the underlying “unwritten” constitution of a nation-state. Many decisions of the Supreme Court in recent decades are bitterly resented; nevertheless, attachment to the Constitution itself remains strong.

Fourth, maintenance of the rights of private property and of a free or competitive economy, as contrasted with a directed or socialist economy. This healthy prejudice persists despite the increasing consolidation of business and industry into large conglomerations or oligopolies.

Fifth, suspicion of central political direction, and preference for state and local powers: insistence upon private rights.

Sixth, a deep-rooted patriotism, joined to uneasiness at “entangling alliances”; this latter attitude, nevertheless, modified by determination to resist totalist powers that menace the American national interest.

Seventh, an awareness that change is not identical with healthy improvement; a relish for the American past; a genuine preference for the old and tried.

Such is the consensus of that very large body of Americans who choose to call themselves conservative in their politics. Within this crowd of conservative citizens exist various factions, each emphasizing some aspect or another of the general conservative attitude. There exists no “party line” to which conservatives of one persuasion or another are compelled to conform.

There have been ages when custom and inertia have lain insufferably upon humankind; and such an age may come to pass again; but such is not our age. Ours is an era when the moral and social heritage of many centuries of civilization stands in imminent peril from the forces of vertiginous indiscriminate change. Resistance to the folly of such change is the primary duty of the … conservative.

The critic Eliseo Vivas wrote once that “It is one of the marks of human decency to be ashamed of having been born into the twentieth century.” Spiritually and politically, the twentieth century has been a time of decadence. Yet, as that century draws near to its close, we may remind ourselves that ages of decadence often have been followed by ages of renewal.

The Roman Stoics taught that some things in life are good, and some are evil; but that the great majority of life’s happenings are neither good nor evil, but indifferent merely. Wealth is a thing indifferent, and so is poverty; fame is a thing indifferent, and so is obscurity. Shrug your shoulders at things indifferent; set your face against the things evil; and by doing God’s will, said the Stoics, find that peace which passes all understanding.

I am heartened from time to time by a stanza from Chesterton’s long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse. Chesterton is describing the prophets of doom, who tell us that nothing in life is permanent; that all is lost, or is being lost, in our culture; that we totter on the brink of an abyss. Such prophets of doom think themselves wise. Chesterton has in mind the typical intellectuals of the twentieth century, but he calls them the wise men of the East. Here I give you Chesterton’s lines:

The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

Such despairing souls, though possessed perhaps of much intelligence, in truth are not wise.

[T]he best way to insure a[nother] Generation of intelligent young conservatives is to beget children, and rear them well: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. As Edmund Burke put it, “We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” The institution most essential to conserve is the family.

I conclude with an exhortation which Orestes Brownson, that redoubtable conservative reformer, scholar, and journalist, delivered at Dartmouth College in 1843. His topic was “The Scholar’s Mission.” He concluded, as follows, his charge to the rising generation:

Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs, not what it will reward, but what, without which, it cannot be saved; and that go and do; and find your reward in the consciousness of having done your duty, and above all in the reflection, that you have been accounted to suffer somewhat for mankind.

You may find even brighter gems should you wish to read it all.

Happy New Year.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.