History of Conservative Thought Summer 2020, Week 2

The second week of History of Conservative Thought 2020 is in the books.  We did another Google Meet session, as I’m still supposed to be quarantining, but we should be able to meet in person next week.  My fever is virtually gone, and I’m finally feeling normal again.

The bulk of today’s discussion centered on Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles,” which expanded a bit upon the six conservative principles Kirk wrote about in the “Introduction” to The Portable Conservative Reader.  It was a great discussion, and it was interesting to read the students’ papers before class to see how their answer to the question “What is Conservatism?” changed after reading Kirk.

One element that surprised the students was that conservatism is not (per Kirk) a fixed ideology, but a set of broad principles and attitudes that varies from culture to culture.  The idea that, say, Chinese or Islam conservatisms are quite different than American conservatism was shocking to them, not because they think that China or Iran are like America, but because they’ve been conditioned to think ideologically; that is, to think that, just as progressivism is a collection of abstract ideological assumptions about the world independent of specific cultural or national context, so is conservatism.

Of course, there are conservative thinkers (such as Jonah Goldberg, if we can still consider him a “conservative”) who argue conservatism is an ideology, and there is merit to that position.  But the Kirkean approach was novel to the students.  That doesn’t surprise me, as I was conditioned the same way before reading Kirk.

They also found Kirk’s fifth principle, the “principle of variety,” to be extremely interesting.  The principle of variety states that conservatives “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life,” and therefore accept some inequality as necessary for “the preservation of a health diversity in any civilization.”  We discussed how different people will have different abilities, talents, and interests, and that some inequality is not only natural, but inevitable.  The conservative, then, seeks to value and honor every position in society as necessary to the whole.  The individual farmer may have few gifts for leadership, but his abilities as a farmer serve his society, even if he doesn’t live as resplendently as the king.

Another key idea that caught students’ attention is that of localism and the concept of community, Kirk’s eighth principle.  The idea of voluntary community versus centralized, top-down “democracy” is a complicated and interesting one.  Centralizing authority and shifting the responsibilities of communities to distant bureaucrats only serves to weaken the local community, as men and women are robbed of their roles.  We discussed this concept in the light of capitalism and business, too:  Amazon, as the Z Man often points out, isn’t going to buy your kids Little League uniforms, but the small businessman that is part of a community is going to work to support and sustain that community.

That’s a quick rundown of our ninety-minute discussion.  Next week, students are reading excerpts from Edmund Burke.  There are nine readings in total, so I’ve divvied them up among the three students—three apiece.  They’re to summarize the ideas of their readings, and to present briefly on their assigned readings to their fellow classmates.

That’s all for now.  I’m very much enjoying running this class again, and the three young men enrolled are quite engaged, which makes it even more fun.


3 thoughts on “History of Conservative Thought Summer 2020, Week 2

  1. Well started. Kirk is, of course, correct, conservatism is dependant on locality. Even someplace as Bradley similar to the US as England, conservatives are considerably different, although in some ways the gap is closing. A very rough description would be that Americans are more Lockeian whit Brits are more Burkean.

    And localism is key, at least to me. Here is the foundation of not only Federalism so ingrained in American political conservative thought, but long before that arose it is also the basis of the Catholic Church’s subsidiarity. One size just doesn’t fit all.

    And good on you for doing this. It sounds like your students are doing some real thinking, good on them too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They’re a great group of kids. I really like these small class formats, as you can get into some engaging discussions quickly. One of the kids is a brilliant young man but doesn’t say much (and I don’t think he’d done the reading for this week—gulp!), but the other two are also brilliant, and quite talkative. It’s perfect for this format. They pitch in a great deal and ask a TON of questions, and we’re having fun exploring these ideas together.

      Their assignment for next week is to read various excerpts from Edmund Burke. They’ve been assigned three apiece, and they have to write summaries of each of their pieces, then give a brief presentation about what they read—nothing fancy, just letting the rest of the class know what their excerpts were about.

      _The Portable Conservative Reader_, which Kirk edited, mysteriously shot up in price on the used book market. Last summer I could find plenty of used copies for around $10-15 each; this summer, the cheapest I found at the start of the course was around $60, with one copy going, ludicrously, for $1200! I did check yesterday and Amazon has another used copy going for $49.99, but I don’t know what accounts for the sudden leap in price in one year. What it means is that I’m spending an inordinate amount of time scanning readings digitally to save my students from spending $60-100 for a book that, while excellent, they’re only using for eight weeks in class (though one hopes they would read it beyond that fixed term).


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