Russell Kirk

Dear Imaginative Conservative Readers,

I’m roughly half done with chapter five—“Deconstructing and Reconstructing Liberalism”—of the Kirk book. At this point, I’m on my third or fourth title for the book as a whole, “The Age of Kirk.” As you can tell, I’m starting to lose count of titles, and I’m sure this title will fade into memory at some point, only to be replaced by an even worse title. I’d like to name the book something like “Sanctifying Mecosta,” but John Miller made me promise never to use “sanctifying” in a title again. I intend to keep that promise.

Chapter five explores Kirk’s full-out assault on the modern concept of liberalism (18th, 19th, and 20th century varieties), and his attempt to resurrect the proper and antique definition of the word.

I’ve finished the “deconstructing” part of the chapter, and I’m currently research and writing the “reconstructing” part. Consequently, I’ve had the great pleasure of re-reading—and, perhaps, reading fully for the first time—Kirk’s 1978 forgotten gem, Decadence and Renewal in Higher Education (South Bend, Ind: Gateway Books).

Much to my surprise, as I’ve forgotten much I once knew, the book is an autobiographical journey, using the declining standards of education as the hook. It contains some of Kirk’s best writing, especially in his very Platonic explanation of “moral imagination.”

Just to give you a flavor of the book, I’ve typed out what I consider to be the most important passages from the first seventy pages. As you’ll see, Kirk understood his subject well, and it’s somewhat glorious to follow his exact development of thought on this vital issue. He wrote the book, by the way, to fulfill a promise he made to T.S. Eliot, presumably sometime in the 1950s.

I hope you enjoy these passages as much as I have. Yours, Brad


“To T.S. Eliot, who in 1955 asked me to write such a book as this.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal (1978), dedication page]

“I am an anti-elitist. I share whole-heartedly my old friend T.S. Eliot’s objection to Karl Mannheim’s theory of modern elites. I object especially to schemes for the governance of modern society by formally-trained specialized and technological elites.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal (1978), xvii]

“And being educated, they will know that they do not know everything; and that there exist objects in life besides power and money and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look backward to ancestors and forward to posterity. For them, education will not terminate on commencement-day.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal  (1978), xviii]

“Promptly upon being discharged form the army in 1946, I was drafted into the department of the history of civilization at Michigan State College.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal  (1978), xxi]

“I have been visiting professor, over the years, at various colleges and universities, never lingering longer than three months consecutively on any campus; and I have lectured on more than four hundred campuses.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal  (1978), xxii]

“Our trouble, instead, is that the people who run universities, though called presidents and deans, think of themselves as businessmen, often, and endeavor to apply ‘business principles’ to the higher learning. They talk of satisfying the consumer—that is, the student, or the student’s parents—and of cost analysis; they think of the university as a species of factory, turning out units efficiently; and their whole view is quantitative, not qualitative.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal (1978), 3]

“When I was a senior, in 1940, there had been six thousand students; by 1953, there were some fifteen thousand.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal , 5]

“Increasingly politicized, the academic community was sinking into academic collectivism.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 12]

“The outcry about Senator McCarthy’s inquisitorial methods drowned out most discussion of the freedom of the professor as related to the decline of academic standards.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 13]

“Academic freedom is a peculiar privilege, possessed by the scholar and the teacher because they are presumed to be dedicated men, members of what Coleridge called ‘the clerisy’, men who believe that there exist abiding truths superior to the ephemeral quarrels of the house. When the scholar and the teacher lose that conviction or vocation, then the crowd will not consent much longer to confirm them in their old freedom. The debate over academic freedom in 1954 suggested, among other things, that a number of eminent professors conceived of academic freedom as merely license to say whatever they pleased to whomever they pleased; to conduct a perpetual debate without ever aspiring to ascertain any values, after the manner of the Old Sophists.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 16]

“These endeavors are inspired by an intemperance of intellect—the intoxications of trying to transmute wisdom into power. . . . Every right is married to a duty. That duty which corresponds to the right of academic freedom is that the scholar must be dedicated to the conservation and the advancement of truth. . . . [The professor] ought to hold steadfastly by his principles and ought to remember that, by his vocation, he has forsworn the lust after power. If he wishes to be an ideologue or a sophist, he should take himself out of the academy into the market place. . . .I believe that academic freedom should extend to the furthest limits consonant with the preservation of human dignity and all the benefits of the civil social order. But when certain persons in the Academy abuse their power and proceed to sneer at human dignity and the whole fabric of order and justice and freedom, then the license of those persons justly may be curtailed.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 16-18]

“The Academy, if it is to enjoy rights, must acknowledge some principles of truth, and not constitute itself as a mere sophistical debating-society, doubting everything, sneering at all old convictions. The Academy sins if the Academy places falsehood on the same platform with truth.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 18-19]

“In a generation like ours, which has forgotten the natural law and has knelt to Leviathan, Antigone takes on a meaning little understood during the nineteenth century. . . . There exist in human nature, common to the Greeks of the fifth century and to us, certain constant qualities. Of these qualities, among the rising talents of every generation, are a longing for poetic imagery; a dim participating in the tragic view of life; and an aspiration after ethical insights. Antigone is a great drama because it is humane in the highest sense: that is, Antigone exemplifies the educational discipline called humanitas, the training of the ethical faculty through the understanding of powerful literature. Despite all the muddled positivism and pragmatism to which college students have been subjected since the age of five or six years, truth will demand a hearing now and again. The ancient hungers of the imagination are hard to deny.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal (1978), 36-37]

“When the Academy is badly politicized, divided into intemperate political factions and dominated much of the time by one of those factions, the Academy is decadent: it has lost an object, the object of ‘objectivity,’ if you will. For the Academy is meant to be a place, and sometimes the place, for reasoned and civil discussion of matters of enduring value. It is supposed to be an assembly of philosophers, but often it sinks to an assembly of sophists. Professors who wish to exclude or to harass colleagues of differing political views—provided those views are not ruinous to the Academy itself—have forgotten the end or aim of a community of scholars.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 39]

“In our time, intolerant and intemperate professors generally are the votaries and the victims of ideology. ‘Ideology’ does not signify political theory or principle, although newspapermen commonly employ the word in that sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism: and more precisely the belief that this world of ours, here below, may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning. The ideologue, of what ever affiliation, maintains that human nature and society must be perfected by mundane, secular means. The ideologue immanentizes the religious symbols and religious doctrine.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 40]

“Real thinking is a painful undertaking; and the ideologue resorts to the anesthetic of social utopianism, escaping the tragedy and the grandeur of human existence by giving his adherence to a perfect dream–world of the future. Reality he stretches workshops away to conform to his dream–pattern of human nature or society. For the concepts of salvation and damnation, he substitutes abstractly virtuous ‘progressives’ and abstractly vicious ‘reactionaries.’” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 40]

“The impulse to find the radicalism of the intellectual is not economic or egotistic merely. The intellectual has lost religious faith; and he is seeking a substitute for religion, since man cannot rest content without belief.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 41]

“At bottom all differences of opinion are theological.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 62]

“The followers of John Dewey, if they understand their master, are committed to a rather aggressive secularism. (Dewey’s ‘Religious Humanist Manifesto’ was neither religious nor humanistic).” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 63]

“The grand tendency of our age is toward concentration of power. Once concentrated, any power tends to suppress the slightest challenge to its supremacy. And no form of monopoly is more oppressive than intolerant control over the mind and the conscience of the rising generation.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal (1978), 69]

“Because the ultimate questions of education are religious questions, as Plato knew, any system of instruction which forbids discussion of religious concerns cannot touch upon objects and ends; and therefore is decadent.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 69]

“During these years I spoke at La Jolla to a group of young men who were students of old Herbert Marcuse the unconventional Marxist. I found them civil and interested; they informed me that Marcuse and I agreed about some things, particularly about the futility of student ‘Activism’, as opposed to serious study. Marcuse was neither a lively man nor a lively writer. What did they see in him? What Kent discerned in Lear: authority. Marcuse’s, to their eyes and ears, was the potestas magisterii, the authority to teach. Their friendliness suggested that they found something of that authority in me also. I suspect that it did not so much matter to them what was taught, as that it should be taught by a man who clearly believed in the truth of what he was saying, and who possessed some reputation for learning of a sort and originality of a sort. Had they come to me first, my politics of prudence, derived from Burke, would have satisfied them as well as did Marcuse’s ideology, derived from Marx. ‘He speaks as one having authority.’” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 71]

“The word ‘value’ implies a relativism of taste and conduct which produces, at best, a vague eclecticism. The Decalogue is not a catalogue of ‘values’: it is a list of imperatives.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal (1978), 72]

“Yet also it remains true that college and university cannot remain indifferent upon grave ethical questions, or to the consequences of study upon the lives of students. College training ought to be intellectual in character, not moralistic; yet it dare not ignore its ultimate ethical end. And one reason why some American colleges may seem morally didactic in their methods is that ethical instruction has been neglected by parents, church, and school, where such moral precepts more properly belong.” [Kirk, Decadence and Renewal (1978), 73]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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