Skip to main content

You are here

The Politics of Prudence

Winter 2014 - Vol. 56, No. 1


This editor's note appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


The urgent controversies of the day, which are the principal business not only of the news media but also of many weeklies, biweeklies, and even monthly publications, are not usually the immediate concern of articles in Modern Age. Nevertheless, it is rather difficult not to notice current affairs when they are discussed and conducted with such febrile agitation as has characterized the late summer and early autumn of 2013, when these words are being written. In foreign policy there is the question of intervention in Syria—if, to what extent, and with what goal in mind? On the domestic front, there is a recurrence of our intermittent but never-ending budget/national-debt crisis, which must leave most ordinary Americans feeling as if they were standing at the foot of a snowy mountain in the path of an oncoming avalanche—only the avalanche seems to be moving at glacial speed.

The quarrelsomeness with which the campaigns for rival policies have been waged is surely the most notable feature of these altercations. (“Deliberations” hardly seems the appropriate word.) The rancor is not confined to exchanges between opposing political parties and factions. Strife and exasperation also prevail among those national figures who identify themselves as conservative and who are so perceived by the wider public. This aspect of the current political situation is most pertinent to the mission of Modern Age, for many of the participants in these internecine conflicts regard their particular recommendations as the uniquely conservative solution for each of these troubling problems.

And it is this aspect of these controversies that has evoked our recourse to the title of a book by the founder of this journal. The Politics of Prudence may be Russell Kirk’s most compact and pointed summary of conservative principles—of what identifies conservative political action. His six principles of conservatism will not be listed here, much less the Modern Age domestic and foreign policy programs. According to Kirk’s vision, the conservative has firm, perennial principles; he does not have a master plan to counter the progressive’s ideological template. The accumulated wisdom of the past, the prescriptive tradition, is not a bag of political tricks guaranteed to meet every contingency arising in the unfolding of time. Prudence—the key term in Russell Kirk’s political lexicon—requires that we acknowledge the complex, unpredictable, and often inscrutable realities of the human condition. Given the limitations of our nature and the constraints of our historical situation, there may well be no wholly satisfactory solution to every problem. Conservatives must, therefore, be wary either of relying upon abstract rationalization to supply “quick fixes” for politically charged issues or of allowing any particular policy to become the exclusive test of conservative credentials.

None of the essays or reviews in this issue of Modern Age deals directly with the budget or the national debt; but some of them do take up issues of current concern, and many deal with the nature of a properly conservative response to a public crisis. Peter Lawler’s “Libertarians vs. Liberal Learning,” for example, calls our attention to a dangerous temptation currently dangled before conservatives: MOOCs (massive open online courses) as the solution to the escalating cost of higher education and the substitution of indoctrination for teaching along with the corruption of curriculum by progressive faculty entrenched in most colleges and universities. Lawler makes a good case that what may appear to be an ideal “free market” solution will be devastating to liberal education, which is integral to the conservative cultural vision.

Two of our essays warn us to beware of figures who seem to contribute to the consolidation of a conservative intellectual view or to represent a rapprochement between conservative and liberal positions. Julian Korab-Karpowicz suggests that we be wary of Jürgen Habermas’s apparent moderation with respect to the role of religious traditions in society, and Quentin Taylor alerts us to the folly of accepting at face value H. L. Mencken’s early and influential account of Nietzsche. The lesson is that we must be circumspect in our assessment both of ideas and of men. As Russell Kirk, following the lead of Edmund Burke, consistently reaffirms, society, like a living organism, must change or die; but since every change is fraught with unforeseen consequences, renovation and reform must be undertaken with discretion, perhaps even reluctance.

Prudential political action is positively on display in an account by the late George Carey and Greg Weiner of conservative deliberations of the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention. In most histories of the Convention, stress is laid upon the disagreements among the Founders as they forged an altogether novel polity. Carey and Weiner, conversely, demonstrate with careful scholarship and subtle reasoning that the Founders were in agreement on most critical issues and that most of their decisions were rooted in decades of colonial political experience as well as the long-standing wisdom of Western civilization. Our Constitution is, then, a thoroughly conservative document.

The numerous students and the colleagues who have benefited from George Carey’s wisdom and charity are the greatest monument to his memory. His beneficial influence on conservatism, especially in the academic world, will nonetheless be greatly missed. He was also for many decades an outstanding contributor and reliable friend of Modern Age. The publication of what we believe to be his last essay is undoubtedly the best tribute we can offer, and we are grateful to his collaborator, Greg Weiner, for offering it to the journal and preparing it for publication.

The “politics of imprudence” are also very much on display in the architecture of public monuments in the United States over the last several decades. Catesby Leigh’s commentary on this subject is informed and pointed but looks ahead to improvement in this sphere by means of sustained efforts by men and women across the political spectrum. His essay also offers us the opportunity to welcome this distinguished art and architectural critic to the editorial board of Modern Age.

The reviews and poems presented in this issue of Modern Age are also very much worth the reader’s attention, but I wish to close this introductory note by calling attention to the short story by Paul Ruffin, who provides a very oblique but still very poignant perspective on the relationship of conservatism to public policy without so much as mentioning it. We do not like poetry, says John Keats in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, that has “a palpable design upon us,” and the same can be said for stories. Readers of Paul Ruffin’s “Delta Woman” will be above all preoccupied with the formidable personality of his title character, by turns defiant and rueful, who dominates her story in the manner of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Nevertheless, lying behind her troubles and the unsettling “policy” that she would deploy in dealing with them is an awareness of the failure of masculinity in the contemporary world: too many men are no longer even mediocre providers, or responsible agents in any sense. This is a problem bedeviling our society more than any maladjustment of the economy, and it is difficult to imagine what new administrative initiative or regulatory regime could even recognize the malaise for what it is. —RVY