Russell Kirk

The memoirs of Russell Kirk contain an amusing anecdote about Dr. Bernard Idings Bell, a canon of the Episcopal Church, and a young man who wanted to teach at the college over which he presided.

To Bell, when he was president of St. Stephen’s, came young Robert Hutchins, son of the president of Berea College, seeking a post as an instructor in English literature. Bell, who knew the elder Hutchins, inquired of the young man why he wished to teach. “Do you love English literature, Mr. Hutchins, or do you feel a vocation to teach, or what is your motive?” “I want to earn enough money to put myself through law school,” Hutchins answered, his arrogant head held high.

“Why should you earn the money?” Bell asked. “That’s an awkward way to go about it. I know that college presidents do not get large salaries, but your father has many wealthy friends, any one of whom would be happy to lend you the money for law school; once successful as a lawyer, you could pay back the sum. Why not do that?”

“Because,” said Hutchins, sustained by much self-assurance, “I don’t mean to be obligated to anyone.” Clearly he anticipated approval of such fine Emersonian self-reliance.

“Then, Mr. Hutchins, we don’t want you at St. Stephen’s.”

Young Hutchins was angry: “Why not?”

“Because, Mr. Hutchins, we don’t want anyone in this college who is too proud to be obligated to anybody.”

I am convinced that the general run of liberals and libertarians are motivated by a fear of gratitude. Or put another way, a fear of obligation, for gratitude always imparts some degree of obligation, however small – even if only a prayer. For the liberal, society’s obligation to meet his needs and make him happy relieves him of any need for gratitude: society (i.e., the state) is only doing what it is required to do in justice. For the libertarian, if the individual can and should “pull himself up by his own bootstraps”, then of course there is no one he needs to thank, no individual or group to whom he owes anything.

By contrast, the authentic conservative tradition in the West, owing to its Christian roots, leaves room for gratuitous, unmerited favor—what Burke named and Kirk championed “the unbought grace of life”. (Please, friends, treat yourself by reading the material at the link.)

Life is not a zero-sum affair. Most of us receive much more than we deserve, more than we could possibly “earn” without help. For the proud, this condition of being openly indebted to God and to men is personally humiliating, and typically issues in various manifestations of resentment (liberalism) or denial (libertarianism).

When I left home after high school, I stayed with my great aunt and uncle for three years while attending community college. Their help to me was indispensible. I once told Uncle Lou that I would try to repay them. He told me, “Don’t repay us, Jeff. Just do the same for somebody else.”

Essays by or on Russell Kirk may be found here.

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