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kirkAs that beautiful and intellectual force of nature, Annette Kirk, has mentioned in conversation many times, Russell was an Augustinian, and she was a Thomist. She was also more Aristotelian and he more Platonic.

In one of his most under-appreciated works (now, perhaps, more necessary to republish than ever), Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (1978), Russell revealed—rather blatantly—his Platonic side.

What more can I write than ENJOY.

Every quote below is taken from Russell Kirk, “Identity, Images, and Education: 1977,” in Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in Higher Learning: An Episodic History of American University and College since 1953 (South Bend, Indiana: Gateway Editions, 1978), 220-233.

“Once we know who we are, and know that there are other real folk about us; once we understand that you and I are part of a community of souls—why, then it is possible to be fairly human, to live and die with dignity.” (pg. 223)

“For within every one of us two great conflicting impulses work. One of these is yearning to make one’s self the center of the universe; the other, a yearning for the love and communion of fellow-beings. And this contest ceases not until death.” (pg. 223)

“We cannot find our way in this world without images; for, as G.K. Chesterton tells us, all life is an allegory, and we can understand it only in parable.” (pg. 223)

“The saint is a human being who has put down his vanity: one who really does love his God with all his heart and soul, and his neighbor as himself. Still, it is not possible to know God unless one person knows himself; one proceeds from microcosm to macrocosm, from little human image to transcendent reality. Not knowing themselves well, most of the votaries of Transcendental Meditation, in the ‘Seventies, could meditate only upon vacancy. Because you and I are God’s utopia, self image is necessary.” (pg. 224)

“In other ages, one found one’s self in one’s tight-knit family, one’s tradition–governed close community, one’s hopeful church, one’s meaningful work….For most people, that sort of identity sufficed. More inquiring minds and consciences, indeed, sought for loftier images; and these were found in religious art and music, inhumane literature, in emulation of great and good men and women—living or dead.” (pg. 225)

“One parallel with our time is the age of Constantine, as described by Jacob Burckhardt. Life grows increasingly monotonous and impoverished; the old beliefs trickle away; even those in the seats of the mighty are course natures; the centralized state discourages and perhaps penalizes individual achievement; and increasingly the people ask themselves, “Is life worth living? Really, is it worth living? What are we doing here?” (pp. 225-226)

“No longer is there need for awareness of one’s own identity, it seems: one has but to conform to, and obey unquestioningly, the new commandments of the Savage God—who may be either political or transcendental; or else submit to the absurd routine prescribed by some jelly-like set of abstractions.” (pg. 226)

“In Aristotle’s definition, a slave is a man who allows others to make his decisions for him.… The man who does not know himself still retains a soul, but that soul is blind and deaf and dumb.” (pg. 226)

“Once more mankind longs for signs and portents, for mystery and awe.” (pg. 227)

“Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily; for mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.” (pg. 229)

“The image, I repeat, can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream; also it can draw us down to the abyss. It is a matter of the truth or the falsity of images. If we study good images in religion, in literature, in music, in the visual arts—why, the spirit is uplifted, and in some sense liberated from the trammels of the flesh. But if we submit ourselves (which is easy to do nowadays) to evil images—why, we become what we admire. Within limits, the will is free. It is imagery, rather than some narrowly deductive and inductive process, which gives us great poetry and scientific insights. When I write fiction, I do not commence with a well-concerted formal plot. Rather, there occur to my imagination certain images, little scenes, snatches of conversation, strong lines of prose. I patch together these fragments, retaining and embellishing the sound images, discarding the unsound, finding a continuity to join them. Presently I have a coherent narration, with some point to it. Unless one has this sort of pictorial imagery—Walter Scott had it in a high degree—he never will become a writer of good fiction, whatever may be said of his expository prose. And it is true of great philosophy, before Plato and since him, that the enduring philosopher sees things in images initially.” (pg. 230-231)

“I have dreamed only one metaphysical dream in all my life—only one, at least that has lingered with me—but my little vision may serve to illustrate this point. Only a few years ago, I dreamed a brief dream of order. In this vision, I found myself sitting in what appeared to be a London club, conversing with my chance neighbors on the questions which puzzled Milton’s Angels: fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute. In particular we talked of whether God is just in saving some souls and consuming others. Of a sudden, the lot of us—chairs and all—were transported in the twinkling of an eye to outer space, where we hung suspended between heaven and earth, after the fashion of Mohammed’s coffin. The disputants and the chairs were the same, there among the stars, but the room had changed. It was eight–sided now, and there were eight tall windows, each hinged in the middle. Through those windows we could see the stars and the blackness of infinite space. And we sensed that we were in eternity; that never would we be returned to things terrestrial. And we knew, without saying anything, that so long as we sat in our chairs, conversing, nothing would happen to us. Food and drink would appear at one’s elbow, for the mere wishing. If we accepted these conditions, we were secure enough forever. But some of our number were impatient of restraint, whatever the penalty for breaking the rules of this peculiar club. Those unquiet spirits hurried to the windows. Upon the slightest pressure, the hinged window-frames would swing outward, and those who leaned upon them were precipitated into the ghastly gulf of empty space, self-annihilated; wailing they went, and were lost to us forever. As for me, I kept my chair, reflecting somewhat smugly, ‘My argument is vindicated. God does not damn anyone: those who destroy themselves do so from choice, refusing to accept the limitations of human existence.’ I do not contend that this is a brilliant image, but it did teach me something. From sources unknown and perhaps unknowable, such true visions come to us—greater images to those imaginations which are greater than mine.” (Pages 231–232).

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4 replies to this post
  1. Thanks to Brad this gemstone mining! I am also fascinated to read that Walter Scott converted to Islam ("Walter Scott Haddad") and that Dr. Kirk spoke out his exclamation marks semicolon, reminding one of the marvelous Victor Borge comma who was quite as whimsical as Saint Russell could be period. Either that or I should wait awhile before buying voice-recognition software.

  2. Being instinctively Aristotelian and Augustinian but not being smart enough to know what that really means, I've always been just a little disappointed in Russell for considering himself Platonic. I have always found The Republic appalling, and when Emerson said that Transcendentalism was "Idealism at it looks in 1842," and tried to sell his disciples on platonism by saying "I am a transparent eyeball; I know nothing, I see all" I said to myself, he can't be all good.

  3. I’m puzzled by Kirk’s identification as a Platonist as well. While I would never short-change Plato’s contribution to Western thought, I’ve often read that conservatives are natural Aristotelians, at in least in political terms. As Robert Nisbet pointed out, one of the measures of latent totalitarianism in a thinker’s worldview can be found by observing his attitude toward the family. Nisbet identifies Plato as the forerunner of a tradition that views the family (and the “given” social reality in general) as an obstacle to political virtue, rather than the basis of political order itself, as Aristotle thought.

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