Fifty-six years ago, Russell Kirk attempted to define Edmund Burke’s idea of “the unbought grace of life” as applicable to the American culture of the 1950s. As far as I know, this article was never reprinted. It shows a youngish Kirk at his best, I believe. And, it seems especially appropriate to publish these quotes on the Feast of St. Conrad.
[The following quotes all come from Russell Amos Kirk, “The Unbought Grace of Life,” Northern Review 7 (October-November 1954): 9-22.]
One of the most ugly and alarming words in our modern vocabulary, I think, is the noun ‘intellectual,’ which is employed not merely as a term of contempt by the swinish multitude, but as a term of self-condemnation by the presumptuous educated man, who implies by its use that intellectuality is a kind of technique or guild-secret, naturally confined to a dilettante circle of cognoscenti. When a society begins to talk of ‘intellectuals,’ we may be sure that the mind and heart of that society are withering. [pg. 12]
I mean by the phrase “the unbought grace of life” those intricate and subtle and delicate elements in the culture of the mind and in the constitution of society which are produced by a continuing tradition of prescriptive establishments, reflective leisure, and political order. I mean also the sense of duty, the feeling of honor, the concept of ordination and subordination, and the adherence to the classical definition of justice which grow out of the spirit of a gentleman. I mean all those super added ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination. I mean the wife of imagination, harmony and generosity which sometimes flourishes in those societies commonly called “aristocratic.” More than this, I can hardly express lucidly, except by describing particular examples of this high grace, the meaning of “the unbought grace of life.” I do not say that this complex of sentiments and traditions, which Burke calls the spirit of a gentleman, is the only pillar of civilization. As Burke himself declares, the spirit of religion is the other great source and support of our social establishments and our culture. But the spirit of religion still retains many able defenders, and the spirit of a gentleman has few; therefore I am confining my remarks here to the unbought grace of life, as distinguished from that elevation of spirit which is the effect of religious belief. I do not think that the unbought grace of life, or the spirit of a gentleman, could subsist indefinitely without the animating power of religion; but, with Burke, I do not think that religious establishments, as we have known them for 1000 years and more, could endure along in a society which had discarded the last traces of the unbought grace of life.… Wherever the unbought grace of life withers, the church as a living force is much diminished, if not extirpated; and wherever religious establishments are broken or derided, the spirit of the gentleman has short shrift. [Page 12–13]
One need not have been born to highest state to apprehend the unbought grace of life, or to benefit from it. This grace is not simply a glittering prize awarded to the clever and the industrious, nor is it designed exclusively for the enjoyment of a few persons in rich by the accident of birth. It is true that only a few men and women participate in this grace of life at its fullest, and that not all of these view are worthy of their good fortune. But in a diminished degree, the radiance of this unbought grace shines over every order in society, so long as it endures. Nor is the intensity of this grace necessarily proportionate to wealth and station, though it is more easily attained were possessions and position facilitate its enjoyment. A poor man, if he has dignity, honesty, the respect of his neighbors, a realization of his duties, a love of the wisdom of his ancestors, and possibly some taste for knowledge or beauty, is rich in the unbought grace of life. Yet this man’s enjoyment of such intangible grace is not simply the product of his own character: he is enabled to share in this grace because he has before him examples, some of them contemporary, some of them historical, of how a man ought to live with grace; and he is protected in his standards and his tastes by the fact that society still recognizes an ideal of life founded upon the principles and attainments of the masters of society in an earlier time. This man of obscure station, in short, is a gentleman, in some degree enjoying a gentleman’s prerogatives; but his tenure of this condition is dependent upon the survival of the ideal of a gentleman, and, ultimately, upon the survival of some grand gentleman to give an abstraction reality.… Just such a general contempt and just such a popular infatuation are at work in our society, at present, with titanic power. If the influence of the gentleman is extinguished at the top of society, it will not long persist lower down; if the great multitude breaks loose from all restraints upon will and appetite, such a local arbiter of morality and taste will decline into a mere eccentric, doubtful of his own rectitude, at first barely tolerated by his neighbors, presently persecuted. [Pages 14–15]The fountains of the great deep seem to be broken up in our time. Institutions that have endured for a millennium are awash, and this early question before us is whether the whole fabric of civilization can survive the present rate of economic and social alteration. Material forces have had a large part in this transformation of life; but more and more, I say, we are coming to understand that certain powerful tendencies of the intellect have been quite as active in the destruction of the unbought grace of life.” [Page 17]
When the high sense of duty and leadership, the recognition of superiority and intelligence, and all the decent draperies of life are rudely thrust aside, is not merely the tone of society that suffers: the material fabric of life, and the very physical face of things, are corroded. [Page 18]
Among the causes of the disorder which has fallen upon us, I think that a general contempt for the whole idea of the unbought grace of life has been one of the most efficient. The modern mind has sneered at all those distinctions between man and man which the word ‘order’ signifies, and so has deprived itself of the leadership inspired by sensibility of principle, and inflicted upon itself the ascendancy of cunning or of force. The modern mind has forgotten that there exists an unbought grace more valuable than any degree of material aggrandizement, and so has condemned itself to boredom. The modern mind has denied the claims of true leisure, and so has threatened to extirpate that speculative imagination which inspires any high civilization. The modern mind has done its best to sweep aside those classes and that education which apprehended the meaning of justice, and so is menaced by a power of fraud and violence which no police force can arrest unaided. The modern mind has made utility the basis of its politics, and so has left itself defenseless against the self interest of the fierce egoist and the hard knot of special interests. The modern mind has failed to understand Burke’s admonition that for us to love our country, our country ought to be lovely, and so has subjected us to the most hideous wave of architectural deformity and artistic debasement that ever savage or civilized man has known. The modern mind has thought of men as the flies of the summer, and so has deprived itself of the wisdom of our ancestors, and that laid waste the portion of posterity. I think that all these crimes and follies are closely bound up with the decay of consciousness of what a reality the unbought grace of life has been among men, and what a power for their betterment, though it cannot be waived or tabulated. I do not mean to forget the part that industrialization, economic leveling, democracy and secularism have had in this dissolution of our heritage. Nor do I ignore the parts that these influences have had in the undoing of the un-bought grace of life itself. We can scarcely overestimate, for instance, the rudeness effects of inheritance taxes upon those classes which formerly were bred in the place of estimation, and sustained this unbought grace as a matter of habit. Get with all allowance is made for the material and political causes of our modern discontents, in Western society, I think that a confusion about first principles still must be accounted a direct and terrible cause of our perplexities. [Pages 19–20]
A vague conviction that something is very wrong with modern life now seems to be general among men of a reflective turn. Vitality seems to have trickled away from our society; and the prospect before us is sufficient to affright even a political liberal or radical. The idea of progress is shattered. The men of the future, we are coming to fear, will be something less than men. I think that one of the most insidious and pernicious influences in this failure of social vitality has been the decay of the unbought grace of life. While we stand irresolute, this devastation of the higher culture continues with dismaying speed; but if we can come to some candid understanding of our malady then possibly we may begin to carry the war into the world. [Page 22]
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