In the fall of 1957, the issue dated Michaelmas (September 29), The Newman Review published one of Kirk’s wittiest and most insightful articles on the nature of Truth.
Vigorously Platonic, Stoic, and Christian all at once, Kirk noted that the true scholar rarely, if ever, conforms to the standards and values of his day, but he must, to remain as pure of heart as possible, conform to the transcendent ideals of Natural Law and Natural Right. Should he fail to do so, Kirk warned, the Academy will not only destroy itself, but, overtime, it will bring down all of western civilization.
In pursuit of Truth, though, the professor has the high duty of never ceasing.
This article has a very Babbittian feel—especially in Kirk’s discussion of “law for man, and law for thing—but Babbitt, at best a believing agnostic, never could have written this. Neither in the Protestant camp of the minister nor in the Catholic camp of the Praist, Kirk had embraced a certain heterodox orthodoxy by 1957.
This critical article also reveals how much Kirk has moved away from the historical analysis of Conservatism as found in 1953’s The Conservative Mind and toward a constructive and reconstructive Christian Humanism.
The following quotes are all taken from: Kirk, “The Spi’led Praist and the Stickit Minister,” The Newman Review (Michaelmas, 1957): 4-8. Apologies for any typos.
“’He that lives in a college, after his mind is sufficiently stocked with learning,’ Edmund Burke wrote while he was still a young man, ‘is like a man who, having built and rigged a ship, should lock her up in a dry dock.’ Now I submit that the principal threat to academic freedom in the United States comes from the dry-docked minds; the minds of ideologues within the walls of the Academy.” (4)
“To feel one’s self a prophet, but at the same time to insist, ‘I am, and none else beside me,’ is to indulge a most dangerous mood. A prophet without a gospel is worse than a rebel without a cause.” (5)
“For the intolerant zealot within the Academy, having denied the existence of a supernatural order and enduring Truth, takes it for his whole duty to turn society upside down. His evangelical zeal is diverted to the demolition of received opinions and things established. He conceives it to be his mission to gnaw at the foundations of society; to convert his students to a detestation of whatever is old and enervated; to elbow out of the Academy all those among his colleagues who will not conform utterly to his own boasted secular ‘non-conformity’ . . . . He is a bulldozer in a black gown.” (5)
“The end of a university or college education is the apprehension of norms. The norm does not mean the average, the median, the mean, the mediocre, although positivistic pedants and ill-informed journalists would have endeavored to corrupt the word ‘norm’ to that usage. . . . A norm is an enduring standards. It is, if you will, a natural law, which we ignore at our peril. It is a rule of human conduct and a measure of public virtue. It is not, some professors of education to the contrary, merely a measure of average performance within a group. There is law for man, and law for thing; and it is through the apprehension of norms that we come to know the law divinely decreed for man’s self-governance.” (5)
“Techniques, and the knowledge of techniques, are transitory; but norms are eternal and the knowledge of norms, once thoroughly acquired, endures all a man’s life.” (6)
“Once upon a time I was a professor of a state university which offered an omnium-gatherum course called “humanities,’ consisting mostly of a giddy dash through four thousand years of history, accompanied by colored slides. In the fullness of time, this department of ‘humanities’ issued a new syllabus, commencing with the words, ‘Humanities is . . . .’ On perceiving that this department of ‘humanities’ had thrown grammar to the winds, I cashed in my professional chips and sought another walk of life.” (6)
“For the true purpose of the humanities is to convey to us the significance of norms.” (6)
The Humanist “recognizes the supernatural and the natural worlds, and tries to harmonize the two in his own life and in society.” (7)
“A truly humane man is a person who knows we were not born yesterday. He is familiar with many of the great books and the great men of the past, and with the best in the thought of his own generation. He has received a training of mind and character that chastens and ennobles and emancipates. He is a man genuinely free; but free only because he obeys the ancient laws, the norms, which govern human nature. He is competent to be a leader, whether in his own little circle or on a national scale—a leader in thought and taste and politics—because he has served an apprenticeship to the priests and the prophets and the philosophers of the generations that have preceded us in our civilization. He knows what it is to be a man—to be truly and fully human. He knows what things a man is forbidden to do. He knows his rights and his corresponding duties. He knows what to do with his leisure. He knows the purpose of his work. He knows that there is a law for man, and law for thing.” (7)
“The founders of the Republic were bold and practical men; but they were humane. Even those who had read little at least were saturated, from childhood, in the Bible, Cicero, Virgil, and Plutarch, if only in translation or through a kind of intellectual osmosis. The model for the American Republic was the Roman Republic, modified by the English and colonial political experience; the models for American leadership were prophets, saints, and Plutarch’s heroes.” (7-8)
“In a true university, now as then, a humane education teaches obedience to norms: conformity to norms, if you will. ‘Conformity’ has become a devil-term in many of our universities. But there is no virtue in non-conformity for non-conformity’s sake. Whether or not a wise and just man should conform always depends upon what is he conforming to. To conform to fads, foibles, and the appetites of the hour is base and foolish. But to conform to eternal truths, to those norms which teach us what it is to be a truly humane person, is the path of duty.” (8)
“If a man depends altogether on the private bank and capital of his petty private reason, he is risking his nature at the Devil’s chess-game. But if a man fortifies himself within the disciplines of humane learning, he draws upon the wealth and power of the ages, and so is a fit match even for a diabolical adversary.” (8)
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Editor’s note: The featured image is by Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn from Vanity Fair, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.