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Right by Nature: Russell Kirk, contemporary conservatism and natural law

Human laws and institutions should reflect the order and goodness of God and His eternal law, which man defies at his peril.

Left: Russell A. Kirk at his typewriter, c. 1950 [Wikipedia]; right: Portrait of Edmund Burke, c. 1769, by Joshua Reynolds [Wikipedia]

American conservatism is in an odd place. Politically it is ascendant, with the ostensibly conservative Republican Party in control of the national government and most of the states. Culturally, it is marginalized, with its opponents controlling academia, most of the national media, the engines of popular entertainment and an increasing share of the corporate and technological world. This dichotomy has threatened to reduce movement conservatism to ideologically incoherence as President Trump dominates both political and cultural discussion.

Applying enduring truths

To what extent should movement conservatives ally and compromise with a man such as Donald Trump? Are the ends worth the means? What are conservatism’s ends?

What apparently holds the Republican Party and conservative movement together is less the policy victories of the Trump presidency (tax cuts, deregulation and judges) than a shared fear of Leftist excesses. But conservatives need to offer more to provide an enduring foundation for a political movement; thoughtful conservatives thus face the tasks of reimagining, renewing and rebuilding.

Those contemplating the meaning of conservatism would do well to study Russell Kirk, a Catholic convert and one of the intellectual founders of modern American conservatism. This may not always provide immediate answers to current political quandaries, but it will instill wisdom that will eventually direct right action. Amidst a political coalition mostly united by fear of common foes, Kirk’s principles illuminate what conservatives should actually wish to conserve.

Conservatism is a political philosophy that is consciously trying to preserve and apply enduring truths about mankind and society.

Conservatism, contra the claims of literalist imbeciles, is more than an amoral defense of the status quo. It is not a blind reaction against change that seeks to preserve every existing institution, power structure or tradition. Rather, as Kirk explained, it is about the “preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.” Conservatives believe that “there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.” It is these permanent things that conservatism is concerned with.

The foundation of conservatism is recognition of the moral truths that humanity has learned—often through painful trial and error. Through this wisdom, conservatism acknowledges the validity of moral truths outside of the programs of those holding immediate power. The first of Kirk’s six canons of conservative thought is “Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty, which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”

Thus, one of Kirk’s most important contributions to conservatism is his insistence that it needs the natural law tradition, and that natural law theory needs conservatism. Conservatism without natural law becomes blind power worship and reaction, natural law without a conservative recognition of human finitude and fallibility becomes arrogant and abstract. Kirk illuminated this through his study of Edmund Burke, whom he considered “the greatest of modern conservative thinkers” and “the founder of modern conservatism.”

Burke and natural law

The portrait that emerges of Burke in Kirk’s study is not that of a conservative utilitarian (as some scholars had thought him) but of a natural law thinker, albeit one more influenced by Cicero than the scholastic tradition of Aquinas. Burke enunciated “the doctrine of the jus naturale, the law of the universe, the creation of the Divine mind, of which the laws of man are only imperfect manifestations.” Human laws and institutions should reflect the order and goodness of God and His eternal law, which man defies at his peril. Thus, “Burke declared that men do not make laws, they merely ratify or distort the laws of God.”

Many of Burke’s statements bear witness to this assessment. He asserted that there is “one law for all, namely that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity—the Law of Nature and of Nations.” He also proclaimed that, “All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.” Humans do not choose what is just, they only discover and attempt to adhere to it. According to Burke, “all dominion of man over man is the effect of the Divine disposition, it is bound by the eternal laws of Him that gave it, with which no human authority can dispense.” Those who hold earthly power act in trust under the natural law and its Author.

Kirk was not the only scholar to take the natural law elements of Burke’s thought seriously, rather than as rhetorical flourishes attached to a fundamentally utilitarian outlook. Indeed, there is no contradiction between Burke’s affinity for the natural law and his emphasis on the good of society, for the natural law directs us toward our good, and contravening it will harm human goods. Adherence to the moral truths revealed in the natural law enables human flourishing in society, with all the terrestrial excellence and happiness that can be attained therein. As Kirk observed, Burke “believed in a Christian universe, to which a just God has given moral order to permit of man’s salvation. God has given man law, and with that law, rights; this is Burke’s premise in all moral and political questions.” The divine gift of natural law is instantiated in all social and political justice.

For Kirk, including Burke within the natural law tradition was not only a matter of taxonomy, but a potential means to enrich and reimagine aspects of natural law theory. Burke helps correct the excessive rationalism that haunts the modern natural law tradition.

Appeals to natural law and natural rights were ubiquitous in Burke’s time, but then as now natural law theorizing was divided into warring schools. Burke’s view of the natural law and the rights of man had little in common with that of the philosophes and revolutionaries he opposed. Against the errors of his contemporaries, Burke “tried to define true natural right and true natural law.” Burke learned from the classical natural law tradition, but he also developed it to address modern, and even postmodern, philosophical problems.

In particular, Burke’s conservatism corrects modern misunderstandings of natural law, which try to construct moral reasoning along mathematical or geometric models, accessible and demonstrable through universal reason. Modern natural law thinkers have generally accepted that the purpose of natural law theorizing is to offer a universal method or model of moral reasoning that can prove particular moral precepts. In contrast, Burke did not attempt to demonstrate an ideal moral code or set of principles. Rather, his invocations of the natural law were an acknowledgement of the moral truths that we experience and apprehend from a variety of sources.

The natural law cannot be understood or implemented as if it were a mathematical model of morality. Human reason is limited, human circumstances complex and human goodness fallible. Because of his emphasis on the limited capabilities of individual reason, tradition looms large in Burke’s understanding of man’s capacity to know the natural law. The experience and knowledge of any individual person are finite, and human beings cannot escape their historical (and historically conditioned) existence in order to access a timeless realm of eternal verities.

Adherents of rationalistic versions of natural law might argue that this perspective leads to moral relativism, thereby negating the idea of natural law and occluding moral truth.

They would be wrong. Burke’s warnings against hubris regarding our ability to apprehend, articulate and implement the natural law do not reject it. Kirk attributes this to Burke’s Christianity, which accepted that “to presume to perfect man and society by a neat ‘rational’ scheme is a monstrous act of hubris.” Moral truth must be known historically, for there is no point at which we can entirely leave our traditions, prejudices, language and culture.

Man, as a social being, cannot exist outside of tradition, and though tradition is not infallible, regarding it with humility is the proper response given the grave limits of private reason, and the extent to which we are always already shaped by tradition. As Kirk put it, “so far as we can delineate the features of natural justice, Burke suggests, it is the experience of mankind which supplies our knowledge of Divine law; and the experience of the species is taught to us not only through history, but through myth and fable, custom and prejudice.” We know the Divine mind and will through “the prejudices and traditions which millenniums of human experience with Divine means and judgments have implanted in the mind of the species.” The challenge is rarely to discover new moral truths, but to follow old ones when we do not want to.

A moral basis for conservative political theory

Thus, Burke emphasized the naturalness of man’s social state, and therefore of the traditions and customs from which men learn much of the content of the natural law. Far from being in tension with the laws of nature, man’s social existence (and its traditions, manners and relations) is the condition in which he can fulfill his own nature. Following Aristotle, who said that a man able to live without society must be a monster or a god, Burke observed that art and artifice are man’s nature. As Kirk put it, “Not ‘natural’ man, but civilized man, is the object of Burke’s solicitude.” Our state of nature is the social world man finds himself in, with all of its contingencies and history.

Burke thus saw no conflict between natural law and history, for it is through our existence within the latter that we can come to know the former, rather than by some transcendent intellectual leap. The natural law may be expressed in propositional formulas, but these are not its essence, for they are provisional and contingent, while the natural law is present through the whole of human experience. Man encounters the natural law communicatively in moral inquiry and dialogue, and in practice through history and tradition; he envisions and narrates a life in keeping with (or in defiance of) it through the imagination; and he intuits it via moral sentiment. Between these there is a constant interplay and each presents checks upon the others. The natural law is active through all human moral experience; it is not an abstract discovery of reason, but is instantiated in instance of moral imagination, insight and action.

Burke’s view of the natural law resists any reduction of its complexity down to a single methodology of moral deduction. Burke did not deny that reason has a role in apprehending the natural law, but it is a reason that is historical and recognizes its dependence on moral sentiments and imagination. Because language is itself historical, there can never be a final formulation of the natural law and attempting to provide one will provoke endless casuist wrangling, allowing the application of the natural law in concrete circumstances to slip past.

Today, Burke’s historically conscious understanding of natural law, filtered through Kirk’s scholarship, offers important resources for the natural law tradition as it responds to modern and postmodern controversies and criticisms. And it still provides a moral basis for conservative political theory.

Conservativism in the tradition of Burke and his followers recognizes the reality of moral truth, as well as the finitude and fallibility of human moral apprehension and discourse. Thus, it acknowledges the reality of the natural law, but disputes modern ambitions regarding its capabilities. Natural law is not a dispositive system or method of moral philosophy, but a tradition (which is to say, an ongoing dialogue) regarding the moral truths variously apprehended and articulated through human experience of the quiet theophanies of general grace.

This philosophical approach does not provide an immediate answer to how conservatives ought to respond to the era of Trump, or indeed to any era. But it offers guidance. Conservatism that embraces an amoral will to power is no longer conservative, for it has abandoned its birthright, the moral wisdom that has been hard won through (often bitter) human experience. On the flip side, conservatism that presumes to leap outside of history to articulate imperishable universal propositions has also ceased to be conservative, for such perfect rational knowledge has no need of tradition or even humility.

Between modern and postmodern rationalism and relativism, conservatives seek the natural law as known within our historical, finite existence.


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About Nathanael Blake 3 Articles
Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.

6 Comments

  1. Movement conservatism is dead, and the Republican party has never been a vehicle for any sort of meaningful conservatism. As the refrain goes, they couldn’t even conserve women’s bathrooms.

    Natural Law is important, but so is tradition that is derived from Natural Law, and mainstream conservatism is ineffectual in upholding it or passing it on. It will only be passed on when men network with one another and create their own communities out of sight of the state.

    • As George W. Bush as President was questioned why same-gender marriage should not be recognized by the State, his immediate answer was, “Because the people don’t want it.” Prime example of the last paragraph’s statement.

  2. I wish my attention span hadn’t atrophied so. But three or four paragraphs in and I’ve already pasted some quotes on various websites.

    Great so far!

  3. Unfortunately, I am but an unwashed Deplorable, lacking the education sufficient to offer a snarky, arrogant response that implies my nearly omniscient grasp of the subject of this piece.

    To me, it was just a great, refreshing, Sunday morning read.

    • First off the author is way off the mark saying that support of Mr T is really rooted in fear of loony left excess. Wrong. From what I have observed movement conservatives such as myself support Mr T because of his conservative RESULTS in policy. The Pres. has been sensational in executing conservative policy, the latest being rules which forbid immigrants if they come here to immediately go on the dole.

      Many people love his policy results. I’m willing to tolerate his colorful personal life and bluster against his opponents which are legion.

      Haters accuse him of being a narcissist. He is. But so is every other phony politician. Mr T is just more transparent about it.

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