August 2, 2015

Post-Formal Education Conservative Reading

Some of the readers of this blog are (hopefully) those still engaged in part of their formal education. I say "hopefully," because I would prefer to have an inter-generational audience for the links (and occasional comments, like this) which I post. The below ruminations are aimed primarily, however, at those who have finished formal education and are looking for something other than the modern selection of "conservative" "thinkers" to read and enjoy.

I have been ruminating about what works a modern American (paleo) conservative might most profitably read. I know, and enjoy, the well-known Catholic, and other Christian, thinkers whom are read by many. I think here of Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Lewis, Eliot and Dawson, among others. Any religious conservative, Catholic or not, should be familiar with the writings of various popes of the 20th century, including distinctive and prophetic writings such as Humanae Vitae. And, of course, the Bible. 

However, there is a distinctly American strain of 20th century conservative writers which ought to be included in any set of readings, particularly when one wishes to engage in  learning about the modern condition in which we find ourselves. The purpose of this post, therefore, is to highlight some of those authors, and give one or two illustrative works which might be fruitful to peruse. I am indebted to Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind," for introducing many of these authors to me. Other sources include the journal "Modern Age" and "The University Bookman" (both themselves founded by Russell Kirk). As a side note, I do not include here Ayn Rand, or most strains of what might be called "Libertarian" writers (though many are better than Rand). They definitely have overlap with conservative authors (especially "neo" conservatives) of some stripes, but many seem to deny a common humanity or "natural law," which is inherent in many of the conservative authors I will be discussing.

And, with that said, Russell Kirk is one author with whom every American conservative ought to be familiar. In addition to his project of collecting and curating ancient and modern authors he considered to be representative of conservatism, his own writings are worthwhile examples of a conservative mind in action. Other than his collection "The Conservative Mind," a reader might consider the following as an introduction to Kirk:

Taking a cue from Kirk, two other authors to be read and considered by conservatives include Robert Nisbet and Irving Babbitt. Nisbet was a sociologist and professor, and wrote often about the importance of intermediary institutions in America. Babbitt was a literary and general cultural critic, and professor at Harvard.

Nisbet wrote several important works, but his most well-known and enduring is entitled, "The Quest for Community." In that work, Nisbet sought to describe the importance of the intermediate institutions in society - those existing between man as an individual, and the state. As noted here, Nisbet set forth a series of characteristics of community, namely: function, ideal, natural authority, hierarchy, solidarity, honor, and a sense of superiority. Other than "The Quest for Community," a reader might consider the following as an introduction to Nisbet:

Irving Babbitt came from the other end of the academic spectrum than Nisbet - literature rather than sociology. As noted here, Babbitt was a literary critic and Harvard professor who was "[c]onvinced that the West had lost the sense of sin and misplaced the source of evil," and sought a way to recover what he called "the inner check" - that is, the inner controlling force of restraint. Babbitt has several important works, such as "Democracy and Leadership" and "The New Laokoon," but as an introduction, readers might investigate the following (by and about Babbitt):

Another scholar of English was Richard Weaver, who taught at the University of Chicago. While Weaver disagreed in some ways with Irving Babbit, he is also considered a "conservative mind," so to speak. Weaver's probably most famous work is called "Ideas Have Consequences," wherein Weaver, seeming to draw interweave themes reminiscent of both Nisbet and Babbit, examines the influences of nominalism on Western Civilization, looking at the growth of the state and limit of local community, as well as touching upon the idea of a transcendent truth. Aside from "Ideas," readers might look to the following for an introduction to Weaver:

An obvious strain in the writers referenced thus far is the focus on the local, on the non-state institutions to which people belong, by nature (e.g., families) and by choice (clubs, associations, etc.). One group of writers for whom this was of great importance were the group known as the Southern Agrarians. In particular, this group forwarded a distinctive agrarian lifestyle - that the "the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations" - and that this lifestyle was found mostly in the South, as against northern industrial development. While the most important statement by this group was "I'll Take My Stand," published in 1930, the ideas have been continued by more modern writers such as Wendell Berry. Richard Weaver was also strongly influenced by the Agrarians. Other than "I'll Take My Stand," readers wishing to learn more about the Agrarians might look at the following works by and about them:

At this point, there are more than a few other writers of note whom I have not covered in this short essay. Many are important, and will list them below, but I am not as well versed in their writings or ideas, and so would leave that to the websites I will link, and their own works, to discuss.

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