Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the Conservation of Liberty

My son recently announced that he was reading Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and wondered if I had ever read it.  I had, but it had been many years since that reading, so I decided to read it again so we could discuss it.  (Note:  He began reading this book as a ‘break’ from his preparation for the comprehensive exams phase of his Ph. D. program in Political Science.  How is this book a ‘break’ from Political Science?)

As you can probably tell if you read these rants of mine often, if you had to categorize my views they probably fall somewhere in the conservative to classical liberal range.  I have sometimes thought of myself as a libertarian, and I have even spoken at a Libertarian Party state convention.  But when I speak to libertarians long enough I realize that while we have much in common, I’m not exactly one of them.  (Though I must say that they have always been very cordial with me when I start preaching to them, as I almost always do, even though a significant number of them are of the atheist/agnostic view.)

Meanwhile, back to The Conservative Mind.  Kirk traces the history of conservative thought in the relatively modern world by examining the thought of some of its key proponents.  It is an excellent book to help you locate yourself in conservatism, so to speak.  I find the 18th century British conservatives interesting, but still a bit foreign to me.  (Didn’t really mean that as a pun.)

I find myself, somewhat surprisingly, attracted to the thought of John C. Calhoun.  Kirk reminds us that Calhoun at one time had presidential ambitions, and then adds:

But one moving conviction, which in Calhoun overruled all his other ideas and even mastered his burning ambition, intervened to convert him into the most resolute enemy of national consolidation and of omnicompetent democratic majorities:  his devotion to freedom.  This principle ruined him as a politician.  As a man of thought and a force in history, he was transfigured by it.

I find something noble, beautiful, moving, admirable in that attitude:  a devotion to freedom that ruins one as a politician.  (Ironically, that is exactly the kind of person for whom I would campaign and vote.)  Like many antebellum southern thinkers, much of Calhoun’s effort was, unfortunately, bent to the defense of slavery.  But when you consider the things he said, elevated above their immediate context and generalized, Calhoun was a compelling political thinker.

But I think that as much as I admire Calhoun, I am more in sympathy with a group Kirk calls the ‘Liberal Conservatives’ which includes Alexis De Tocqueville.  (So I seem to be throwing in with the the French rather than the British!  How odd.)  Of this group Kirk says

We are in danger of forgetting how strongly attached the old liberal were to liberty.  Political liberalism before the middle of the nineteenth century . . . intended to conserve liberty.

Last summer when I was teaching a class at an area church on Christianity and Politics, I spent a few moments on the idea of conserving liberty.  At the time I fancied that an original thought of mine, neglecting the maxim that very little thought is original.  Whatever else it is, I find the idea of ‘conserving liberty’ stunning in a positive way.  It makes me long for a political situation in which liberals are liberal because they are ‘conserving liberty’ and conservatives are conservative because they are ‘conserving liberty.’

Though, as I said, I had read Kirk long ago, I had forgotten how much of it I had forgotten!  At this point I am about one third of the way through my re-read.  Perhaps I will have more to review later.

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