Russell Kirk’s Ninth Conservative Principle: Restraints upon Power and upon Human Passions

We have come to the next-to-last of The Ten Conservative Principles of Russell Kirk, and this is one that the American founders intentionally built into our political framework.

Kirk writes:

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

As we consider human nature from a Christian worldview, we understand that the human heart is wicked. Because of our sin nature, we are bent towards doing that which is wrong. As Christians, we try to resist this tendency, and by the grace of God, we hopefully do better as we become more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. However, we also recognize that no one is perfect. Therefore, it is important to have protections in place that hold us back from exhibiting our worst tendencies and acting on our basest passions. Christians should not be surprised by this particular Principle.

This entire discussion might not make a lot of sense to some of you out there. It is not hard to find people who believe that humanity is generally good. These people believe that there are obviously some bad apples, but they don’t ruin the entire bunch. Most people try to do the right thing, and in fact do the right thing, most of the time. Therefore, these kinds of restraints seem to be heavy-handed at worst or at least unnecessarily skeptical. If you believe that humanity is basically good, then you might wonder why our natures must be restrained.

In response to that position, the only thing I can say is that you might want to review your history a little bit more. Our history is full of a great deal of suffering, and a sizable portion of that suffering is dealt by the hand of another. Every murder you have ever heard of has been the consequence of incredibly evil human passions. Every genocide you have ever heard of is the consequence of the evil application of power to attempt to wipe a particular population off the face of the earth.

If you do not think that power and human passions require some deal of restraint, then I don’t think you have been looking at the same human race I am. All of us are susceptible to doing things wrong. We all have a tendency to abuse power, and we all have a tendency to do things that hurt other people because of some passions we have. We try to overcome our sin nature, and, by the grace of God, we get better at it as we continue to become conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

However, the conservative understands that it is wise to build a system of government that includes limited, specific safeguards. I am not advocating for the government legislating every area of human life, and even the contributors on this site would have differing opinions on where to draw this line. Kirk, however, is saying that it is important for the government to fulfill one of its most basic responsibilities which is to protect its citizens from foreign as well as domestic threats. This is one, limited area where government absolutely has a place.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the remainder of the series.

Russell Kirk’s First Conservative Principle: An Enduring Moral Order

Russell Kirk’s Second Conservative Principle: Custom, Convention, and Continuity

Russell Kirk’s Third Conservative Principle: Prescription

Russell Kirk’s Fourth Conservative Principle: Prudence

Russell Kirk’s Fifth Conservative Principle: Variety

Russell Kirk’s Sixth Conservative Principle: Imperfectability

Russell Kirk’s Seventh Conservative Principle: Freedom and Property Are Closely Linked

Russell Kirk’s Eighth Conservative Principle: Voluntary Community

Russell Kirk’s Ninth Conservative Principle: Restraints upon Power and upon Human Passions

Russell Kirk’s Tenth Conservative Principle: Permanence and Change


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