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The Particular and the Universal: Kirk's Second Canon of Conservative Thought

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Fall, 2006 - Vol. 35, No. 1

Since the nation's founding a salutary tension has informedAmerican political thought—a tension between the abstract,universal truths expressed in the first part of the Declaration ofIndependence and the particular, experience-based prudence ofthe Constitution. The one establishes moral imperatives (anddefines a just government) while the other establishes a new orderout of the lessons of the past wedded to the cultural conventionsof the American people. While the tension itself has fostered someof the most productive political thought in the American tradition,the pressure to end the tension, to simplify the Americanideal, and to articulate to ourselves and a listening world adefining principle, has led to a notable imbalance. From the right,perhaps more than from the left, we hear that America is a nationof ideas, by which they mean the abstract natural rights articulatedin the Declaration of Independence, and these ideas supplythe defining meaning of our collective identity, the single cordthat binds the nation together. Not an ethnos, not even a patchworkof peoples wedded together by a common history and by thecords of affection that come from generations of reciprocity, theUnited States is an idea.

To the degree that this one side of our identity eclipses theother, America as a nation becomes less important. The idea ismore important than the nation that it birthed and the nationserves as a useful vehicle for establishing in practice these ideals,first domestically and then globally. The very universality of theseprinciples, disconnected intellectually from a constraining context,makes the expansion of these ideals, insofar as it is possible,a moral imperative. This moral imperative has justified a goodmany changes in our Constitution (and interpretations of ourConstitution), to say nothing of the growth of the federal government.Equally important, the natural rights ideals of the Declarationserved as the stated reason for entering into World War I andhas, ever since, played a very important rhetorical role in ournation's foreign policy.

In part because of the simple clarity of the natural rightsappeal, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, aswell as an enduring belief that all humans are created equal, havebecome axioms in our democracy. The other side of the tension—the one that emphasizes particular and unique cultural conventions—does not, by contrast, reduce to self-evident propositionsand, indeed, can appear to be at odds with the universal principlesthat seem so self-evident. To make matters worse, those who havebeen the most ardent supporters of the more particularistic viewof American identity (such as some of the Southern States Rightsadvocates) have been on the losing side of some of the nation'smost defining struggles. The resulting trajectory of the Americanright has been toward a conservation of the natural rights tradition,and with it the appeals to an expansive freedom thatcomports well with an increasingly democratic electorate. RussellKirk, better than any other American thinker, warned about thisdanger.

The danger to conservative principles is not the preservationof our nation's natural rights tradition but rather the defense ofnatural rights in their simple, axiomatic form, absent the complexview of human nature in the context of a providential plan dimlyunderstood. But the cultural and philosophical context that hasdefined, refined, and chastened the American understanding ofnatural rights requires long cultivation and a willingness, rarelyevident in democracies, to think beyond slogans. Russell Kirk'sgreatest gift to American political thought is his brilliant articulationand cultivation of a rich cultural patrimony that helpsdefine the meaning of our most cherished ideals from within acontext that is both historically textured and open to the transcendental.Fifty years ago, near the middle of a century of dramatic,often violent, change, Kirk penned America's greatest work ofpolitical and cultural preservation.

The great task before Kirk then, and before us now, is thecultivation of conservative thoughts, dispositions, and, most ofall, affections in conservatives. The appeal to liberty, so central toany construction of the American self, has, for contemporary"conservatives," increasingly come to mean liberation from thepast (and the prescriptive role of tradition, habits, inheritedculture) and a corresponding emphasis upon the power of humanreason. While contemporary conservatives usually possess a fearof concentrated power, an enduring suspicion that the individualneeds some form of restraint, and even a willingness to acknowledgea creator, their political appeals share in the utilitarianintellectual currency of our time. They have accepted the twinmoral objectives of our age, equality and freedom, and they haveembraced an increasingly global uniformity—a standardization inpolitical culture and economic systems.

In short, contemporary conservatives do not possess thedispositions or the ideas of conservatives, simply understood. OfKirk's original six canons of conservative thought, none sound soalien to contemporary ears as the second, which reads, in part:"Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of humanexistence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism,and utilitarian aims of most radical systems."1 Because this"affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of humanexistence" is so uncultivated while the "uniformity, egalitarianism,and utilitarian aims" of our own system are so unquestioned,we are in more desperate need of The Conservative Mind todaythan we were half a century ago. What was then more readily anact of preservation has become today an act of recovery.

The second canon begins with an affirmation, but one thatstands in contrast to the others, for Kirk did not write thatconservatives believe in (or even affirm) the variety and mysteryof human existence, but rather that they have an affection forvariety and mystery—conservatism is less ideology than aesthetics,less about beliefs than the imagination that orders thosebeliefs.2 Kirk understood this affection to be life-affirming,emerging out of an inherited and powerful vision about humannature and divine purpose, about life as it comes to us rather thanthe life that we might engineer. It is the love of a creature for thecreation in which he participates and in the context of which hegets his purpose, his reason for being. It is the joy of the spiritualoutdoors—boundless, beautiful, and incomprehensible—ratherthan the delusion of a materialist paradise where the creature hasbecome creator of a rather pinched world.

Humans are complex, possessing natures that are alike acrosscultures and time, but shaped into unique persons. Each distinct,but none independent, these humans participate in a single story,a providential plan, while finding their roles in the smaller storieswhich they help write. They belong to a closed universe, with fixeduniversal ideals like beauty and truth, and yet they are free agentswho live for themselves and act according to their own choices.They have dominion over the earth, and the things of the earth,but the earth is not their home. Kirk's anthropology depends onunderstanding both the universality of human nature and thevariety of human culture.

If, as so many moderns affirm, we come to know what is mostessential about humans by abstracting humans from any taintingor complicating social or political context and thereby isolatingtheir desires and fears, then a rational, constructivist approach tobuilding both social and political institutions is quite plausible andattractive. Humans, thus abstracted from their context, becomemore or less interchangeable, making possible a prescription forthe best social and political institutions that is tailored to thisstripped down human and universally applicable. But Kirk and theconservatives reject this reductive and rationalist construction ofhuman nature. Humans are social. This is not merely a tendencytoward being with one's own kind; it is rather the means ofindividual development of one's humanity. It might be moreprecise to think of humans as cultural beings rather than simplysocial beings, for it is not the working together toward commonor communal ends or the pleasure of social intercourse thatmakes us distinctively humans. We are who we are as individuals(as humans) because of the cultural forms we inherit. We learn alanguage that structures our perceptions of our world and makepossible deliberation about the Good. We inherit customs, rituals,and institutions that express symbolically the meaning for ourindividual and collective lives. It is not the natural man where onefinds human meaning or human purpose—meaning and purposeare felt by the individual through his participation in a livingculture. While the cultures vary and the customs, rituals, institutions,laws, and goods differ, it is through a particular culture thatany human has access to the defining and universal characteristicsof human nature. Unlike other animals, humans must express themeaning of their existence even as they struggle to understand therole they should play in the drama of existence. All humans do thisthrough particular, concrete cultural forms since there is no"natural" or instinctual way to answer these basic human needs.

It need not follow, however, that a culture cannot be universal.If one stresses a set of universal principles, like natural rights,equality before the law, or any set of abstract principles that oneproposes to be universally true, then one might hope to establishuniversal acceptance of the principles as well as the political andsocial institutions that foster or express these principles. Perhapsthen we could live in a global village. But for Kirk and theconservatives the problems with this are many. First, whilehumans live under a universal or natural law, they recognize itdimly through very limited and necessarily particular experience.Any abstracting of these principles, shorn of their cultural context,leaves a very thin normative residue—too thin a foundationupon which to establish a universal culture. Second, even thetruth that a culture universalizes has its articulation in a culturallyencrusted idiom, blending the normative insight inextricably withthe particular experience of a living culture. Third, and mostimportant, humans gain their orientation, develop distinctivepersonalities, and understand their lives to have temporal andtranscendent meaning, by participating in a rooted communitywhere they understand themselves to be part of a larger and yettangible story.

On this subject Kirk's thinking borrows heavily from EdmundBurke. Too rich with subtleties to explore adequately in the spaceallowed us here, we might understand the sinews of Kirk's thoughtby examining briefly a few texts to which Kirk returned often toexpress his meanings. One is apt to find in Kirk's writings,sometimes without much elaboration or even attribution,affirmations of the "little platoons"—a reference to a passage inthe Reflections where Burke wrote: "To be attached to thesubdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is thefirst principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is thefirst link in the series by which we proceed toward a love of ourcountry and to mankind."3 Burke emphasized here at least twothings. First, that affections or love, so important to a healthysociety and polity, issues from belonging, from being attached orbound to, a small part (or subdivision) of society. A certain kindof love comes from being thus bound—it is the love of duty, thesense that the real, flawed people with whom one has continuousdealings, are yours. These affections are not fleeting since theyare not products of preferences or agreement but spring fromthe continuous reminders that these people have shaped one'sself. For all the distinctiveness of individual personality, livingin the little platoons of society reminds the individual that he isnot who he is by his own effort—that he owes his being, histastes, affections, and his very personality to a complex socialorganism.

Second, Burke stressed that the love we have for moreabstract entities like nation and humankind are properly cultivatedthrough local affections. It is love of a real neighbor, withall his flaws and peculiarities, that makes it possible for one to loveone's neighbor (understood abstractly) as one's self. It is affectionfor one's community that makes it possible to love one's nation,recognizing by participation in the part that it, in turn, participatesin a greater whole. For Kirk, it is important to keep beforeus the understanding that it is THROUGH the part that we canunderstand and feel affection for the whole. Those who seek toreverse it, by proclaiming that they are citizens of the world, lovean abstraction without feeling any kinship with the particularhuman standing next to them. To love mankind abstractly makesindividual humans expendable. But more to the point here, to liveamong the peculiar people of one's own platoon, to grow byimperceptible degrees to have affections for those one may notlike, is to cultivate a love of variety and difference and a particularkind of tolerance that springs from the real connectednessbetween real but unlike people. By contrast, to cultivate a love foran abstract concept of humans, human potential, and humancommunity, is to breed intolerance for those who fit not themould. To love the particular person, with his many idiosyncrasies,breeds less of a desire for wholesale change while to love theabstract "man" necessitates that transformation of real people tofit the ideal.

Of course these little platoons, to say nothing of the largercultures of which they are a part, differ in important ways fromother platoons, other cultures. In one sense, then, they are notnatural. Each one is rooted in experiences, different in importantrespects from others, going back generations. Out of thoseexperiences people have attempted to satisfy human desires andto secure natural rights through human "contrivance." Governmentis just such a contrivance as are the many institutions,habits, and prejudices that give a particular coloring to a culture.Their artificiality is hardly a deficiency. These cultural artifactsadorn a people—the best cultures craft artifices that makethemselves more beautiful, that inspire virtue, that encouragegentleness and fair dealing toward their fellows. The naked self,the person utterly bereft of the customs and prejudices thatgovern exchanges between people, is a sorry animal indeed—small, selfish, and crude. Burke, while railing against the revolutionaryforces then burying the chivalric code, wrote, famouslythat "all the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All thesuperadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moralimagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifiesas necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature,and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be explodedas ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated."4

The section in which this passage is located is complicated andrhetorically sophisticated, deserving an analysis extending manypages. What is important here is Burke's understanding of humannature and human dignity. Human nature needs covering. The"decent drapery of life" is not, however, just for hiding, though itdoes that, but for elevating us. Our traditions, our prejudices—our culture—give a dignity to us that we cannot have in a state ofnature or through the ideas of a single individual. Institutions, andthe habits and ideas they cultivate, shape us into the little platoonsand give us purposes higher than ourselves.

The higher purposes toward which these cultural forms pointpartake in both the variety and the mystery for which Kirkexpressed such affection. One catches a glimpse of this point ina passage from Burke that Kirk quoted at length. I've provideda bit more of the passage than did Kirk to establish better thecontext.

Society is indeed a contract.... It is to be looked on with otherreverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservientonly to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishablenature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art;a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends ofsuch a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, itbecomes a partnership not only between those who are living,but between those who are living, those who are dead, and thosewho are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is buta clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linkingthe lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible andinvisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by theinviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures,each in their appointed place.5

Here is Burke's universalism and his particularlism wedded.First, the social contract concerns not just the protection ofindividual rights but is an expression of a partnership amonggenerations of a living culture. Among the peoples of the worldthere are many contracts and the nature of each contract, the lookof their partnership, differs according to the peculiar circumstancesand experiences of a given people. Because the specificcontract reflects distinctive and unreproduceable characteristicsof a culture, any attempt to impose the specific forms of thatcontract on another culture would be, well, unnatural. However,"each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the greatprimeval contract of eternal society." Just as there is no understandingof the precise nature of the contract governing one's ownculture since the culture lives for many generations and facesmany unforeseeable circumstances, so there is no full humancomprehension of the eternal contract, the providential plan bywhich God links the visible and invisible world. By means of ourmoral imagination, which helps us understand in some limitedfashion the whole of which we physically perceive a part, werecognize that the diverse stories of human history constitute, bymeans mysterious, a single story called History.

For Kirk the mystery of human existence is connected to hisfaith in Providence. We are struck by our very existence, by thefact of finite humans reaching out toward the infinite. The veryscope of one's own culture, the complexity of one's own time, eventhe deep unfathomability of one's own soul, leave one finallyperplexed about the nature of the immediate story in which oneplays a part. We cannot understand fully (and only partially withgreat effort) how the choices of distant ancestors shaped the kindof people we've become and the culture we embrace. But weembrace it, with its dark and mysterious origins and its tortuousprogress, as ours. And when we are at our best we feel as thoughwe have received a gracious gift of culture without knowingprecisely who to thank. So much more is the sense of thanksgivingfor the sensitive soul, like Russell Kirk, who recognizes thatbeyond these particulars which he can experience directly, thereis an even greater grace dispensed by a God who turns staggeringdiversity toward a common divine purpose. How could he whobelieves such a thing not express affection for the "proliferatingvariety and mystery of human existence?"


Because Kirk's conservatism was reactionary, because the contoursof his affirmations took shape out of confrontation withinnovations and ideologies with which he contended, a properexamination requires a study of his aversions. Indeed, his secondcanon of conservative thought includes an affirmation (varietyand mystery) followed by an aversion: "as opposed to the narrowinguniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radicalsystems." To understand better the contrast we might note apersistent dualism in Kirk's work between complexity (whichbreeds diversity) and simplicity (which breeds standardization).These contrasting imaginations are most evident with foundationalsubjects like human nature. For Kirk humans are made inGod's image and are therefore good, while nonetheless sufferingfrom a primordial fall that separated them from their God andplanted evil in their hearts. As fallen creatures of great ingenuity,humans need the structure of a strong social and political orderto instill habits and prejudices that inspire virtues. Moreover, associal and cultural beings, humans need the community, the city,the regime to actualize their moral and rational possibilities. ForKirk, following Aristotle, the community, the culture, is prior tothe individual.

By contrast, most modern anthropologies are distinguishedby a reductive clarity. Modern social contract theorists, forinstance, sought the unalloyed individual as he would appearabsent any institutions, and for the benefit of this individual—hiswants, his fears, and his rights—they would construct a politicalsystem. This system has no higher purpose than the needs, soconstructed, of the people. If human needs there are that cannotbe deduced from this hypothetical individual in a state of nature,they have no status in modern political systems. Of course, mostconspicuously, modern systems begin with the individual quaindividual. Beginning with this abstracted person, modern ideologuescould readily discover "rights" belonging to the individual(anywhere and anytime) found in a state of nature but mostlyabused through history by real political systems.

Kirk's Burkean emphasis upon the person in context ratherthan the abstract individual made him concerned with the casualuse of the language of natural rights. Kirk readily acknowledgedthat humans have natural rights so long as these applied to realhumans, in the context of a rich moral economy in which rights (aswell as liberties) find their particular expression consistent withcircumstances. Kirk wrote that "natural rights do not exist independentof circumstances; what may be a right on one occasionand for one man, may be unjust folly for another man at a differenttime."6 What protections humans get from violations of the moralorder come through institutions that have evolved over longperiods. Indeed, Kirk noted approvingly Burke's belief that"natural right is human custom conforming to divine intent."7Such a claim has no place in modern definitions of natural rightbecause it relies on something as non-rational as custom, whichis not organized around an abstract ideal.

In the Anglo-American context the most vigorous simplifierswere the Utilitarians who, at least, displayed the virtue of rigorousconsistency. Discarding all thoughts of a non-material world, ofprovidence, of spiritual needs, the Benthamites could employ ananalytical madness, reducing human life to a series of pleasurableor painful events. Because humans are more or less alike, exceptingthe distortions of an inherited superstition, the Utilitarianscould design, by the dictates of reason, a society and polity bestequipped to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. They made afetish out of utility, out of function, discarding as rubbish alladornments that served no "rational" purpose, all technologiesand ways of living they deemed inefficient. Kirk captured theutilitarian spirit, and the danger of its apparently benign affectionswhen he wrote that "the Benthamites despised gothicirregularity and variety; they yearned after the utilitarian squaresand boulevards of social planning. The Utilitarians projected longand costly vistas; but at the end of every avenue, the Romanticsspied the gallows."8

Note Kirk's emphasis upon what these social planners "despised"and what they "yearned after." Theirs is a world modeledafter a machine rather than a living organism. Machines areproducts of human ingenuity, requiring continuous tinkering, butpossessing no mystery and pointing to nothing greater, to nohigher ideal than production and efficiency. By contrast theseplanners despise that which eludes complete human comprehension,that which produces wanton variety at the expense of acontrolled efficiency, and that which suggests a higher ideal thansterile pleasure. Kirk contrasted the planned community, thecreation of public space as the planner would have it, with theuncontrolled variety that issues from piecemeal change wherepeople seek to make something new without destroying completelythe old. The spirit of the planners leads to "the gallows"because their abstract ideal tolerates no diversity and cannotmake sense of the complexity of the human soul.

If a crude Benthamism is more or less dead, Kirk would arguethat the utilitarian spirit lives on, often in more sophisticatedgarb. It has become part of the fabric of our culture. But the greatdanger to the American order is democracy, which threatens toundo the complex cultural and political mechanism designed tosafeguard both order and liberty. Indeed, the American story fitstoo neatly the modern process of moving from complexity (whichfosters variety) to simplicity (which fosters standardization anduniformity), in ideas and ideals, in institutional forms, and inpolitical process. Kirk noted the pervasive fear among the nation'sfounders of democracy, the dangerous impulses of which theysought to check. None were so concerned as the fearful anddeeply conservative Fisher Ames. Kirk summarized Ames' politicalthought by emphasizing that the proper object of governmentis "the protection of property and the tranquility of society.Democracy fails on both these essentials; for democracy—puredemocracy, toward which he perceived America slipping—isfounded upon the quicksand of idyllic fancy."9 Ames, Kirk emphasized,feared the desire for simplicity that he associated withdemocracy. Kirk agreed with Ames that simplicity in politics isdespotism.

American leaders during the age of the nation's foundingrepresented a good many views, including those deeply influencedby Enlightenment dreams and those, like Ames', which reacted toalmost all innovation with dyspeptic consistency. But the institutionalorder this generation fathered was, to Kirk's mind, aremarkable accommodation of novel circumstances to both ancientwisdom and American experiences. And if this generationproduced a "conservative" political order it also produced America'sparadigmatic conservative, John Adams. It is hardly surprising,therefore, that the Adams that emerges from the pages of TheConservative Mind is much like Burke—indeed, Kirk sometimesfound Burke's words the best means of expressing Adams' ideas.But their differences were also important: "Where Burke talkedof prejudice, prescription, and natural rights, Adams attacked thedoctrine of perfectibility and the idea of a unitary state."10 TheAmerican national experiment very much depended on craftingand maintaining political and institutional complexity (focusingon checks and balances especially) while fighting the socialtendency toward equality and uniformity.

Following Burke and John Adams, Kirk argued that:

Man being complex, his government cannot be simple. Thehumanitarian theorists who contrive projects of ingenious simplicitymust arrive, before long, at the crowning simplicity ofdespotism. They begin with a licentious individualism, everyman deprived of ancient sanctions and thrown upon his ownmoral resources; and when this state of things turns out intolerable,as it must, then they are driven to a ponderous and intolerantcollectivism; central direction endeavors to compensate for thefollies of reckless moral and economic atomism. Revolutionaryidealists of this stamp are faithful to simplicity, though tonothing else in heaven or earth. They cannot abide any mediumbetween absolute freedom and absolute consolidation.11

To the great credit of those who wrote the Constitution (a groupthat, conspicuously, included neither Jefferson or Adams), theUnited States possessed a government design that reflected abelief in the complexity of human nature, that supplied ingeniouschecks on all sources of power, that included no brief for radicalequality or individualism, and aimed at protecting the orderedliberty of the American people. Such a Constitution, Kirk argued,"has been the most successful conservative device in the historyof the world."12 Nonetheless, the United States was conspicuousby its relative absence of restrictive social classes, by its expansivesuffrage, and by circumstances that encouraged an expansive viewof both equality and individualism. How, in these circumstances,to guard against the tendency toward simplicity?

For Adams, probably more than for most of the otherconservatives who populate Kirk's book, one of the safeguards ofa republican form of government is the cultivation of virtue in itscitizens. Kirk leaves largely unexplored this component of Adams'thought. Whatever else it includes, the cultivation of virtuerequires social and local institutions that foster a recognition ofinterdependence, a devotion to inherited forms, a sense of honorthat makes one responsible to the opinion of one's community,and a desire to defer to those whose knowledge, experience, andcharacter better fit them for political leadership.

Probably more important to Kirk, since he devotes morespace to it, is Adams' emphasis on "prescriptive liberties." Adamschampioned liberties rather than Liberty. Recognizing the "diversityof human character [and] variety of human action"13 Adamsrejected a liberty that applies to the individual abstractly, emphasizinginstead that liberty "is made of particular local and personalliberties." Pushing further in his analysis of Adams, Kirk arguedthat the "prerequisite of just recognition of localliberties and interests and diversities and their safeguarding in thestate."14 These liberties, these particular and rooted (and thereforebound) liberties, are the real goals of a political system andit is "political complexity which shelters liberty." Moreover, anemphasis upon local liberties, rather than inalienable rights,forms part of the political complexity that prevents the tyranny somuch associated by the founders with the idea of "democracy." Atits genesis, and for more than a generation, the United States hadresisted the temptation toward an unmixed government, whichAdams believed would lead to despotism. But from the beginning,and ever since, the greatest danger to both liberty and order hasbeen the attraction of democracy shorn of the checks andbalances of a republican form of government.

For Alexis de Tocqueville no checks can prevent the Americandemocracy from forming a unitary power more ominous thananything found in Adams' nightmares. He dismissed the checks inwhich others put such stock, claiming that no meaningful differenceseparates representative and direct democracy.15 IfTocqueville was right, the American republic was, at heart, ademocracy. But the unitary or singular quality of this democracysprings from the mild totalitarianism of a ubiquitous social order.The society had become unitary in this democracy, subsuming thepolitical order. He wrote, for instance, that

Society acts by itself and on itself. Power exists only within itsbosom; almost no one is encountered who dares to conceive andabove all to express the idea of seeking it elsewhere. The peopleparticipate in drafting of laws by the choice of the legislators, intheir application, by the election of the agents of the executivepower; one can say that they govern themselves.... The peoplereign over the American political world as does God over theuniverse. They are the cause and the end of all things; everythingcomes out of them and everything is absorbed into them.16

Later, at the beginning of the chapter "On the Omnipotence of theMajority in the United States and Its Effects" he declared: "It isthe very essence of democratic governments that the empire ofthe majority is absolute; for in democracies, outside the majoritythere is nothing that resists it."17

Whatever Ames and Adams might have meant by the unitarystate, one senses that they never thought to push their analysis tosuch a Procrustean conclusion. Of course Tocqueville's classic,Democracy in America, is too rich a work to know only oneinterpretation, and indeed Kirk read perhaps more hope intoTocqueville's book than others might. But a few key argumentsabout both democracy as such and democracy in America areimportant relative to the fears expressed by Ames, Adams, andKirk about the elimination of political and social complexity andthe rise of a simplified order that fostered materialism, centralization,and standardization.18

The "generative fact" that shaped all social (and therebypolitical) relations in America, Tocqueville declared in a ratherbold opening paragraph, was "equality of conditions."19 Thedecisive change in history, looked at from a certain politicalperspective, is the rejection of inherent and meaningful inequalities.The belief inherent among democrats of equality has roots,no doubt, in the social contract theorists who stipulated that innature all humans have equal rights and that no person mayrightfully rule another without the consent of the person beingruled. In part, at least, Tocqueville meant to suggest that equalityof conditions entail the right to self-rule. A belief in equality thusunderstood separates people who in earlier societies had intimatebut hierarchical relationships involving ruling and being ruled,placing them together on an equal plane but having no obligationsexcept those duly agreed upon. This social condition of equalityleads to the other great principle of democracy, sovereignty of thepeople.

Given a belief in abstract equality, no person can accept asnatural the rule of another. However, as an equal part of the"people" one recognizes in the majority a legitimate exercise ofpower since one is obeying one's self. Recognizing the limitationsnecessarily imposed on an individual to understand complexpublic matters, one is bound to trust public opinion as the surestguide. In a democracy, Tocqueville argued, there is no challengingof public opinion, which operates as an invisible but unchallengeablepower in support of the regime. "As long as the majority isdoubtful," Tocqueville wrote, "one speaks; but when it has irrevocablypronounced, everyone becomes silent and friends andenemies alike then seem to hitch themselves to its wagon."20

The irresistible strength of the majority springs from thesocial power consequent of a belief in equality of condition. Theconsequences are many and complicated, but they include thetendency of an individual to see in the operation of the governmenthis own will writ large and to, as a result, tolerate noindependent entity. The people can tolerate a great many institutionsthat appear independent so long as the people have, in asense, granted it the appearance of independence.21 But a democracycannot allow the ancient liberties of church or guild or anyinstitutions that might have known, in an age of inequality, theirown sphere. The trajectory of democracies is, therefore, towardever greater centralization and standardization. A democracyeliminates variety in thought, sentiment, and action, though itdoes so without the external force of ancient tyrannies. The forcethat gives a democracy complete power is internal—social.

The equality and individualism of the democratic age bringpsychic costs. Identity is a more tenuous matter in a societywithout fixed relationships and inherited roles. One is equal withone's fellow, and one is like one's fellow, but who precisely is theperson in the mirror and what does his life mean? The anxiety ofthis life is heightened by a tendency in democracy to stress thematerial world and to reject the traditions, rituals, ceremoniesthat once expressed symbolically one's relationship with realmsvisible and invisible. Cut off from traditions, and from any sensethat the past has a purchase on one's life or its meaning, theindividual becomes preoccupied with success in the present.Material success is the only tangible marker of success in an ageof equality, making one's participation in the competitive marketcentral to one's sense of identity and purpose. The mysteriousincorporation of the living, dead, and unborn before an allpowerfulGod had dissolved into atomistic pursuits for materialgoods that, like the owner, will turn to dust.

Kirk read in Tocqueville his own hopeful aspirations. "Byforce of ideas democracy may be arrested in its descent towarddespotism," wrote Kirk.22 If he saw in Tocqueville a tidal wave ofhistory that would necessarily sweep away the old order and withit the sort of human who populated that order, Kirk chose not toaccept this part of his thinking. Instead, Kirk stressed the role ofreligion in mitigating the materialism of the democratic regime,the importance of laws and customs to limit the power of thepeople, and constitutions to help protect local liberties. But in onematter Kirk and Tocqueville clearly concurred, the threat of ademocratic regime is not its weakness, but its power. The greatchallenge for the democratic age was to supply a check on the onlyrecognized sovereign, the people.

But with regard to the affections that Kirk associated withgenuine conservatism, Tocqueville's analysis poses even greaterchallenges than the ones already discussed. Tocqueville arguedthat democracies produce a taste for "general" or abstract ideas.Aristocratic societies, with their endless variety, produced, heargued, a distrust of general statements, finding so many particularexceptions. But in a democratic age, with its first abstract anduniversal claim to equality, the mind finds general propositions avery appealing way of understanding the world. "All the truthsapplicable to himself," Tocqueville noted of the democratic man,"appear to him to apply equally and in the same manner to eachof his fellow citizens and to those like him." Moreover, "havingcontracted the habit of general ideas in the one study with whichhe most occupies himself and which most interests him, he carriesthis same habit over to all others, and thus the need to discovercommon rules of all things, to enclose many objects within thesame form, and to explain a collection of facts by a single causebecomes an ardent and often blind passion of the human mind."23

An attraction to the simple and universal truth is symptomaticof our own age, of those on the left, right, or center. If Tocquevilleis to be believed, this fact it is not simply a matter of belief, but ofwhat people desire to believe—what ideas attract them. An olderorder relished the variety of human cultures and of individualhuman personality, a disposition made possible by an unequalsocial order which fostered complex human relationships thatentailed power, affection, duty, and areas of liberty. Now thatorder is effaced by a contractual order, which begins with theequality of conditions so central to Tocqueville's analysis.

There is hope. This is the great lesson of Kirk's book and hislife. Every analysis of decay he penned came coupled with signsof renewal and hope. The Conservative Mind is the story ofconservative sentiments and ideas surviving withering assaultsfrom nearly every modern intellectual army. Tocqueville has longsince passed, but conservative ideas still check the worst elementsof democracy. The advocates of one form or another of naturalismhave attacked religious sentiment in America, but the nationhas not lost entirely its recognition that the visible world participatesin a larger reality. Kirk would tell us today that love ofvariety and mystery still enlivens the souls and minds of animportant few.

But we might legitimately ask whether self-proclaimed conservativeshave affection for the variety and mystery of humanexistence or even if we have in public circulation the appropriatevocabulary for conceptualizing the social and cultural conditionsfor distinctive human personality. Too often the public conversationabout universal truths divides along rather sterile ideologicallines—between those who universalize a set of abstract "naturalrights" and those who find humans in an open-ended universewithout any providential purpose. Russell Kirk gave us a way ofunderstanding the particular and the universal that maintains thetension. However, the great warning implied in Kirk's argumentis that this is not really a battle of ideas, understood abstractly, buta battle of sentiments or affections. During the past 50 years wehave cultivated many passions and have encouraged many loves,but we have not developed an "affection for the proliferatingvariety and mystery of human existence." Kirk's book reminds usthat we ought to not only be fighting over ideas but we ought tobe shaping hearts.

Ted V. McAllister
Pepperdine University


  1. All references to Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mindcome from the Seventh Revised Edition (Washington, D.C.:Regnery, 1995) 8.
  2. Any extensive discussion of Kirk's book, and his ideas,requires some discussion of his use of the word "imagination,"which stands in some tension with his more reified label "mind."Among other sources, Kirk drew his understanding of this usefulword from Irving Babbitt (see his Democracy and Leadership[Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979]). Imagination is a human wayof understanding just as is reason. Especially important, humansmake sense of the whole, which they experience indirectly, inrelation to the part, through the faculty of imagination. The wholeis invisible to one's reason alone since reason is bound to existingthings. With regard to the arguments I'm making in this essayabout the relationship between the partial and the whole, theparticular and the universal, one must understand the way Kirkused "imagination" to bridge the gap.
  3. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France(Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987) 41.
  4. Ibid., 67.
  5. Ibid., 85; Kirk, Conservative Mind, 17.
  6. Ibid., 54.
  7. Ibid., 50.
  8. Ibid., 124.
  9. Ibid., 82–83.
  10. Ibid., 88.
  11. Ibid., 102.
  12. Ibid., 110.
  13. Ibid., 104.
  14. Ibid.
  15. See, for instance, Tocqueville's comparison of ancient andmodern democracies in Democracy in America translated andedited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2000) 201.
  16. Ibid., 55.
  17. Ibid., 235.
  18. See Kirk, Conservative Mind, 212.
  19. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 3.
  20. Ibid., 243.
  21. See, for instance, Tocqueville's discussion of the NationalBank, Ibid., 170.
  22. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 218. Kirk clearly stressedTocqueville's call for a new political science that could "instructdemocracy" (see Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 7).
  23. Tocqueville, Democracy, 413.