Thursday, July 4, 2013

Russell Kirk's Founders and the Unwritten Constitution




2013 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of one of the most consequential books of the 20th century.  I am privileged to have been asked to contribute to a number of forums this year discussing Kirk and his work and am particularly thankful to Liberty Fund and Richard Reinsch for inviting me to contribute to this one.  As I considered what I would write and thumbed through The Conservative Mind, I hit upon some things I had never spent time thinking about and my essay represents one strand of that new thought on Kirk's ideas.

I hope you enjoy this section of my essay and will read the full version at the website listed at the bottom.

The Conservative Mind at 60: Russell Kirk’s Unwritten Constitutionalism
A consideration of Kirk’s founders, both missing and rediscovered, lead us to an understanding of Kirk’s conservatism that would surprise many who consider themselves contemporary heirs of the movement he helped found.  Kirk is concerned with institutions, including those of the U.S. Constitution, to the degree that they are aligned with two more critical under girding phenomena: human nature and political culture.

Throughout The Conservative Mind, authors and statesmen are upheld to the degree that their understanding of human nature is in accordance with the inherited vision of Judeo-Christian revelation and human experience.  Human beings are flawed, incapable of perfection, and suffer profoundly from original sin.  To the degree that political institutions are structured to account for this overriding fact and meliorate its most negative consequences, they are found to be worthy of praise.  Here the United States’ Constitution is good as it rests on just this basic understanding and accounts for the corruption of power by separated and checked institutions.

Though John Adams fought hard against the philosophes and their abstract accounts of human nature untethered to imperfectability, he admitted some degree of change possible within the human species.  Such change is manifest in the political culture.  As the virtues, values and ideas of a people change so will their political prospects, making any constitution only as useful or as pernicious as the culture that underpins it.  Of course, with Adams and all of Kirk’s conservative minds, any change is bounded by the fact that we are created somewhere between the beasts and the angels and are destined to always stay in that zone of humanity.

To understand and learn from Russell Kirk’s magnum opus, then, we must understand an overriding fact of human existence: sin and culture trump politics and planning. This is why Kirk, unlike so many contemporary conservatives, point us in the direction of the poets and not the politicians; the unwritten more than to the written constitution.  It is in this way that we might more properly consider our “founders,” not the framers of the Constitution in 1787 but those who shaped the minds and imaginations of the culture that produced it.  The Constitution of 1787 will survive as something more than parchment only to the degree that it is supported by the prevailing political culture of America.


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