Jack Kerwick
The name of “Russell Kirk” is heard seldom, if ever, in conservative circles today. This is tragic, and maybe even a bit scandalous, for as William F. Buckley—a person whose name is well known—once said, it “is inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without [Kirks’] labor.”

Given all of the current talk over the need for a reawakening to conservative “principles,” we are in need of Kirk’s guidance today more than ever.

The author of 32 books and legions of essays, this World War II veteran was a college educator, novelist, intellectual historian, and political theorist. At Buckley’s request, Kirk helped to found National Review, a publication to which he contributed for many years. He also founded his own magazine, Modern Age. Kirk gave over 60 lectures to the Heritage Foundation, where he was a Distinguished Fellow, and was very much involved with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. In 1989, five years before his illustrious life came to a close, Kirk was granted the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan.

Conservatism, Kirk explained, is neither a doctrine nor a dogma, but “a way of looking at the civil social order.” Still, from looking at the “leading conservative writers and public men” from “the past two centuries,” Kirk gathered ten principles that distinguish conservatism as the intellectual tradition that it is.

First, there is “an enduring moral order” of both “the soul” and “the commonwealth.” It is at our peril, conservatives insist, that we ignore this order.

Second, “custom, convention, and continuity” constitute the glue that keeps us together.

Custom “enables people to live together peaceably,” convention helps us “to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties,” and continuity “is the means of linking generation to generation.”

Third, prescription—“things established by immemorial usage”—is the stuff of which a flourishing civil society is made.

Since we are not likely “to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics,” since we are “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than [our] ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time,” we are best served by following the prescriptions of thousands of generations.

Fourth, prudence is a cardinal virtue.

Change is needed if society is to preserve itself, but prudence demands that we attend to it cautiously, and only after considerable reflection. “Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.”

Fifth, variety is both necessary and desirable.


Jack Kerwick

Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at jackk610@verizon.net or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.