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Rush Limbaugh frequently makes bombastic radio references to his Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies. One wishing to learn about conservatism can occasionally glean a morsel of wisdom from Limbaugh's talk, but there are better teachers.
Anyone seeking a real summer school in conservative studies should spend the time between Memorial and Labor Days reading books written or edited by the late Russell Kirk. Three of them and an anthology edited by George W. Carey will prepare a conservative for debating liberals come fall.
Kirk, then a Michigan State professor, burst on America's intellectual scene sixty years ago this month with the publication of The Conservative Mind. It, along with William F. Buckley's founding of National Review magazine, began the modern conservative movement.
Until then the prevailing view was critic Lionel Trilling's caustic 1950 quip that "there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation" but only "irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas." Kirk powerfully proved otherwise.
The Conservative Mind is "historical analysis," not a "manual for partisan action." Although the ideas underlying conservatism date to the Old Testament and Aristotle and run through Romans like Cicero and church fathers like Augustine, contemporary conservatism begins with Irish-born Whig Member of Parliament Edmund Burke (1729-1797).
Burke's opposition to the ideological radicalism of the French Revolution remains the conservative touchstone today. Kirk carries that tradition forward through John Adams, John C. Calhoun, Benjamin Disraeli, John Henry Newman and others to his concluding chapter on T. S. Eliot entitled, "The conservative as poet."
Despite disclaiming any "fixed and immutable body of dogmata," Kirk offers his oft-cited "six canons of conservative thought":
"Belief in a transcendent order, or boy of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience;"
"Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;"
Civilized society requires orders and classes;
Freedom and property are inseparable;
Faith in custom and convention and distrust of those who would "reconstruct society upon abstract designs;" and
Prudent change, not "hasty innovation" that may be "a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress."
Next, sample the primary sources in The Portable Conservative Reader. Kirk edited this invaluable anthology and provides a splendid introductory essay. No one should call themselves a conservative without having read John Randolph's 1830 repudiation of "King Numbers" in 1830 or C. S. Lewis's 1943 indictment of subjectivism.
Complete your Kirk course with The Roots of American Order, published in 1974 "to help in the restoring of historical consciousness." In his forward to the 1991 third edition, Kirks says that whether "the moral and social order that Americans have known for two centuries and more endures throughout the twenty-first century" may depend on whether enough of us "informed by study of the institutions and convictions that have been developed over three thousand years, make up their minds to stand by the Permanent Things."
As September approaches conclude with Carey's anthology Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate. Definitely read Kentuckian Richard M. Weaver's trenchant 1960 essay "Conservatism and Libertarianism."
Weaver says conservatives "believe that there is a structure of reality independent of [their] own will and desire," accept "some things as given, lasting, and good," and "are regardful of the forms that antedate, over-arch, and include [them]." Libertarians, he says, are interested in "setting sharp bounds to the authority of the state" and want "the right of the individual to an inviolable area of freedom" to be as large as possible.
Weaver's essay posits political and philosophical common ground between these two sometimes feuding philosophies. Since then many in the Republican Party have sought a fusion of the pair for political purposes.
Another Kentuckian, Senator Rand Paul, is skillfully pursuing what may be the most practically successful such attempt since Ronald Reagan's presidency. His effort may be the best hope of forestalling the demographic despotism of King Numbers.
Listening to Limbaugh is alright, but as with any class, conservative students will learn more if they also do the reading.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com.