Born on October 19, 1918, in Plymouth, Michigan, the son of Russell and Marjorie Kirk, Russell Amos Kirk was destined to become the principal intellectual founder of the American conservative movement in the post-World War II era. Graduating from Michigan State College (now University) in 1940, he received his Master’s degree from Duke University in 1941. A doctoral degree was conferred upon him by Saint Andrews University, Scotland, in 1952. He married Annette Courtemanche in 1964, and they are the parents of four daughters. The family resides on the Kirk ancestral property in Mecosta, Michigan, known as Piety Hill.
Kirk was the founding editor of Modern Age, which he edited from 1957 until 1959. In 1960 he founded and has since edited The University Bookman. From 1955 to 1980 he wrote the column “From the Academy” for National Review. Kirk has been an extraordinarily prolific writer of articles and books. His classic work, The Conservative Mind (1953), described by publisher Henry Regnery as “one of the most influential books of the post-war period,” has emerged as the definitive work among the intellectual contributions to the American conservative movement.
Concerning Kirk‘s pre-eminent role in the conservative movement, Edwin J. Feulner, Jr. writes, “Dr. Kirk has watched the conservative intellectual revival develop around him. . . and as much as any other living American…is responsible for the growth of that movement.” Kirk himself has written, “Somehow I found myself a leader of an intellectual movement, without having intended to be anything of the sort. Among other things, Russell Kirk has been a novelist, a historian, and a magazine and newspaper columnist.
The following analysis treats Kirk as a political theorist. It seeks to identify the underlying theoretical premises of his political thought. The chief books to consult in this regard are The Conservative Mind (1953), A Program for Conservatives (1962), Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969), Eliot and His Age (1971), and The Roots of American Order (1974). Also of value are Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1956), Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (1963), John Randolph of Roanoke (1978), and Reclaiming a Patrimony (1982). The task of a full listing is hazardous because Kirk’s political theory undergirds and permeates all of his works. (Dr. Kirk’s books can be found here, ed.)
Kirk explicitly acknowledges he is a conservative: “From the hour I began to reason, and possibly from the hour I began to feel, I have been a conservative.” Then he adds, “I am a conservative. Quite possibly I am on the losing side; often I think so. Yet, out of a curious perversity I had rather lose with Socrates, let us say, than win with Lenin.”
In Kirk’s view the main Roots of modern political theory are found in the spirit of the Renaissance and in the mind of the Enlightenment. He connects the former with “the theological and moral confusion from which our society has suffered since the sixteenth century.” More specifically, Kirk explains, “In some ages – the period we call the Renaissance conspicuous among these – the overweening ego claims too much.” The problem is essentially one of pride, the most ancient and cardinal of vices and evils: “Man was only a little lower than the angels…having it within his power to become godlike. How marvellous and splendid a creature is man!”
The Renaissance was the great beginning surge of the spirit and the temper of the modern age. The earlier age of faith was viewed as primitive, confining, and inhibiting. Man was now free to expand fully his great creative potential in art, literature, and learning. Ushered in was a new era in which the “revival“ and “rebirth” of man’s creative genius would know no bounds, knowledge would build up, as the possibility for earthly New Jerusalems appeared on the intellectual horizon. Kirk observes: “In politics, the father of this modern denial of a higher will…is Machiavelli. The subtle and ingenious mind of the Florentine, divorcing politics from traditional ethics and moral considerations, proclaimed that “all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed.” Politics is exclusively a natural phenomenon; power is an end in and of itself; and the age of nationalism and ideology commences.
The hubris of the Renaissance was raised to higher levels of intensity with the coming of the Enlightenment and the ensuing modern age of the ideologue and ideology. By the Enlightenment, Kirk writes, “is meant the strong intellectual tendency toward doctrines of progress, rationality, secularism, and political reform. The Enlightenment’s center was France.” Noting “the strutting Rationalism of the Enlightenment,” he observes that its prime characteristic was its unyielding confidence that “man’s private intellectual faculties…could….dissolve all mysteries and solve all problems.”
“The Goddess Reason whom the French revolutionaries would enthrone,” Kirk claims would lead to “the doctrine of the perfectibility of man and society [which] is derived from the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.” He concludes: “The French Revolutionaries, hoping to transform utterly human society and even human nature, broke with the past, defied history, embraced theoretic dogmas, and so fell under the cruel domination of Giant Ideology.” The rise of modern ideology “was a kind of climax of the rationalism of the Enlightenment.”
What is ideology? Ideology and political theory are opposites. Political theory is rooted in understanding based upon experience and learning and is open to new knowledge; ideology is “the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.” In a word, it is utopian: “Ideology is meant to reconstruct and perfect society and human nature.” The mind of the ideologue is closed. As Karl Marx, the quintessential ideologue, proclaims, the goal is to change the world, not to interpret it. The ideologue does not seek to attune himself to the givens of being as understood through experience and learning; rather, he seeks to impose upon mankind his view of what the perfected good life should be. Action, not reflection and thought, is required.
Ideology is scientistic in its method and egalitarian in its results. “Scientism,” writes Kirk, is the belief “that human nature and human society may be improved infinitely–nay, perfected–by the application of the techniques of the physical and biological sciences to the governance of men.” In short, “Science with a Roman S should supplant God.” Scientism, says Kirk, is “the employment of methods allegedly scientific to make society into one uniform, equalitarian tableland.” The ideologue is disdainful of diversity, variety, complexity, intricacy, subtlety, and nuance in human society; he seeks to treat men as things and to arrange and order them according to abstract patterns spun from the minds of radical innovators and visionaries.
Although the exponents of modern ideology are legion, Kirk lays heavy responsibility on Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx. Bentham was “Burke’s most powerful intellectual antagonist.” Commonly known as Utilitarianism, or Philosophical Radicalism, Benthamism broke sharply with the Great Tradition of the classical and biblical views. Benthamism was rooted in pride and in limitless confidence in human reason. Its arid rationalism was exclusively naturalistic and materialistic in perspective: it had no conception of the transcendent and spiritual. The Benthamite thirsted for progress, Kirk stresses, and ultimately succumbed to the allure of an egalitarian earthly utopia: “An omnipotent world state imposes an eternal compulsory uniformity upon the whole human race….Now I think that this is, indeed, the natural culmination of the Benthamite view of man and society.”
Regarding the relationship between Bentham and Marx, Kirk observes that “Marx’s master was Bentham” and that “Utilitarianism was the ancestor of ‘scientific socialism.’” Succinctly put, “Marxism was the bastard child of Benthamism.” Marx is the most prideful of the modern ideologues, for he unraveled the mystery of being; thanks to Marxist insights and understanding man can redeem himself within history. The foundation premises of Marxism are atheistic and materialistic; indeed, by its own proclamation it relies exclusively upon an economic interpretation of history. The sole variable is the economic class – conflict between the proletariat and the capitalists. After the proletariat has emerged by force and terror as dominant over the capitalists, there will ensue “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which will eliminate all vestiges of the capitalists. Then “the withering away of the state” will follow; and the final redemptive stage of an egalitarian utopia, with each person producing “according to his ability” and consuming “according to his need,” will come. The Marxist vision is simplistic and spun from whole cloth; it manifests the pride of the ideologue raised to the highest exponential power. “Marx proposed to efface the whole extant social order and substitute a collectivistic life shaped upon a thorough materialism,” Kirk stresses. “For Marx the end of human endeavor was absolute equality of condition.” “That idea,” Kirk goes on to conclude, “has been one of the chief causes of our modern upheaval and despair, throughout most of the world.” And he warns, “For outside the warm circle of the campfire, grim hostile powers always lie in wait.”
In Kirk’s view, if ideology is one major component of modern thought, the other commanding element is cultural “decadence,” which also is attributable to the pridefulness and self-centeredness of the modern age. In the preoccupation, indeed, the obsession, with the self, there are profound cultural consequences that Kirk delineates at great length in his writings.
What is culture? “Culture is that which makes life worth living,” Kirk responds; it is characterized by “such facets as urbanity, learning, philosophy, and the arts.” Ultimately culture is “the elevation of character which distinguishes the civilized man from the brute.” The quality of a culture is of vital importance since it determines “the tone of public life.” “Culture cannot really be planned by political authority,” Kirk contends, “for much of culture is unconscious; and politics grows out of culture, not culture out of politics; and political planning itself is a product of culture.”
If, as Kirk states, “the elevation of character” is the key to a high culture, the decay of culture, or “decadence,” occurs when there “is the loss of an object, an end, an aim. Men and women become decadent when they forget or deny the objects of life, and so fritter away their years in trifles or debauchery.” Self-centered man is not interested in “the elevation of character”; he is concerned with pleasure-seeking, whether in the form of trifling amusements or of ingenious schemes for ever-lower levels of debauchery. Modern man has become decadent, and his culture reflects it.
In describing the trifling side of modern decadence, Kirk employs such words as “barrenness,” “sterility,” “thinness,” “inanity,” “shoddiness,” “cheapness,” “commonness,” and “sensationalism,” and he characterizes the debauched dimension with such nouns as “ugliness,” “hideousness,” “vulgarity,” and “deformity” and with such adjectives as “abnormal,” “morbid,” and “perverse.” Two key symptoms of a decadent society are “boredom” and the mindless pursuit of “change” for its own sake. Decadence, boredom, and the lust for change are interrelated. Since decadence by definition means “the loss of an object” in life, Kirk reasons that the inevitable result is “acedia, that sloth of spirit, that boredom with the universe.” Unfortunately, he observes, “Mankind can endure anything but boredom.” Concerning the cultural implications of this extreme boredom, he specifies that “an age of social boredom is characterized by popular pursuit of material and sensual gratification to the exclusion of other ends”; that “sexual perversion and addiction to narcotics flourish in a bored age“; and that “out of boredom grow vice, crime, and the destructive compulsion of the mass-mind .”
Emerging out of decadence and boredom are “an infatuation with haste,” an obsession with “vertiginous speed…unchecked motion.” In this “reign of King Whirl” arises an irresistible compulsion to flee the world of thought and reflection; indeed, there is “the negation of intelligence.” With the loss of a goal in life and with an ever-rising level of boredom, persons “hurry from one amusement to another, unable really to work or to contemplate.” Yet, Kirk laments, “the Flight itself is a shamgod” because with the unrelenting urge to escape boredom “the motion of our age has been centrifugal, not centripetal; the tendency has been eccentric, not centric,” and the tragic result is that “the cement of society disintegrate.” The vital center will not hold in a decadent society. “Without judicious change we perish,” Kirk concludes, “but change itself cannot be the end of existence.” A decadent society seeks change as an end in itself in order to flee the unbearable burden of social boredom.
Two philosophers frequently discussed in Kirks writings illustrate those who contribute (perhaps unwittingly) to a decadent society: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. Ostensibly these two figures are dissimilar, but ultimately they share the same trait of modern thought: pride. In Rousseau one discovers the pride of the man of passion; in Mill, the pride of the man of reason.
Regarding the significance of Rousseau, Kirk writes, “Knowledge of the mind of Rousseau is as important as an apprehension of Burke’s, for any man who would understand our present discontent.” But, Kirk adds, “Rousseau and Burke stand at the antipodes.” What is the central and controlling premise of Rousseau’s thinking? “Rousseau and his pupils exalt egoism as the essence of their new morality.” Pride is the founding concept in Rousseau’s thought. Rousseau and his disciples have supreme confidence in the “Noble Savage,” in natural man freed of all restraints. It was Rousseau who wrote in The Social Contract, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” Kirk further observes:
Rousseau and his disciples were resolved to force men to be free; in most of the world, they triumphed; men are set free from family, church, town, class, guild; yet they wear, instead, the chains of the state, and they expire of ennui or stifling lone lines.”
Rousseau, according to Kirk, leads either to “the chains of the state” of modern ideology or to the “ennui” or boredom of a decadent society. “The disciples of Rousseau fall into the foolish notion that somehow primitive man was happier and better, because more ‘natural,’ than civilized man. That way lies madness.” To escape the boredom of a decadent society, Rousseau’s natural man resorts first to the “idyllic imagination.” This is the trifling world of fantasy where glitter and pleasure are offered as palliatives. When these cease to satisfy, there arises “the diabolic imagination” that reflects the perverse and the sordid: “This ‘diabolic imagination’ dominates theaters, too, the diabolic imagination struts and postures.” Kirk concludes, “Today the Savage God lays down his new commandments. The gods of…fire and slaughter return.” The pride of Rousseau’s man of passion is a key contributor to a decadent society.
Not necessarily by design, John Stuart Mill, the apostle of reason and the “Age of Discussion,” also contributed extensively to the decadence of the modern age. Mill was in the intellectual tradition of Bentham. His father, James, was an admirer of Bentham and the Utilitarian doctrine. John Stuart Mill was a third-generation Benthamite and the author of On Liberty. Regarding the significance of Mill in modern thought, Kirk says, “Mill, rather than St. Augustine, is the authority of post-Christian man.”
The final weakness of Mill, from Kirk’s perspective, is that basic flaw found in so much of modern thought: pride. In Mill’s “Age of Discussion,” Kirk explains, “an enlightened democracy would extend its benevolent empire of reason over all the world.” He adds, “The Mills think that their convictions are the product of their private rationality.” Mill had little regard for history, tradition, continuity, and, in general, the wisdom and experience of the ages. While asserting full confidence in each generation to rely solely on its own intellectual talent, Mill also proposed that, unassisted, each person decides which intellectual direction to chart. Indeed, Mill went to the extent of urging “eccentricity” as an appropriate philosophical posture: “In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service….That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
Inescapably this call to the individual to pursue a course of nonconformity and eccentricity is rooted in pride. No respect is discernible for past learning, wisdom, or knowledge. A premium is placed on mere individual “opinion,” not on genuine, substantive truth about the nature of things, implicit in such classical and biblical words as “wisdom” and “knowledge.” A philosophy based primarily, if not exclusively, upon individual opinion soon gives way to simple license, a major symptom of decadent culture. There ensues a loss of object in life; there is no pursuit of “the elevation of character”; social boredom intrudes and the fascination with change and petty amusements for the sole purpose of escaping boredom emerges. Debauchery, the last refuge of a bored and decadent people, lies ominously ahead.
If the controlling themes of modern thought are ideology and decadence, both outgrowths of the pride of the Renaissance, the Roots of the Great Tradition, which Kirk offers as the alternative, are found in awe, humility, and reverence for classical and biblical views. These latter qualities lead to the quest for “the well-ordered commonwealth” of Plato, to be pursued now through “the moral imagination” of Edmund Burke.
Regarding awe, Kirk muses, “The conservative finds himself…a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder.” Specifically, we need a sense “of awe for the great intelligence, transcending human frailties, which governs this earth and all the stars.” And he concludes, “All things begin and end in mystery. Out of tales of wonder come awe and the beginning of philosophy.” Philosophy commences with a sense of awe because a philosopher is a “lover of wisdom” (as opposed to Mill’s “opinion”) and “aspires to teach wisdom.” Awe helps the philosopher in the pursuit and acquisition of wisdom, for it sensitizes him to an appreciation that man is not the originator of being nor of his own existence. Man is creature, not Creator; hence the need to discover the true nature of being so as to determine man’s relationship to the whole of being and to attune himself accordingly. “We are part of an eternal order which holds all things in their places,” Kirk writes, and “the reflective conservative, far from denying the existence of this eternal order, endeavors to ascertain its nature, and to find his place in it.”
Among the great classical philosophers, Plato understood the crucial need “to teach men how to bring their souls into harmony with divine order.” “The Republic,” Kirk explains, “is an inquiry into the real nature of spirit and social harmony. It is an…allegory of personal order, not a model constitution.” The Platonic notion of justice embodies the idea of attunement. Concerning The Republic and its definitive explanation of justice, Kirk observes, “Plato’s Republic…is a noble beginning. In some respects we never got beyond it….And what is a just state? It is that society in which every man does his own work, fulfilling the capacities toward which his nature inclines him.” The task of the individual is to know himself and to pursue goals to which his talents and interest impel him. Man must accept the givens of his being; he is not self-produced. In turn, the just state results when individuals are allowed and encouraged to follow their natural being.
For Plato the just state is the antithesis of the just state offered by modern ideology. In the case of the latter, justice is perverted into egalitarianism, whereby self-produced man is molded indiscriminately into a mass to be manipulated and controlled by centrally-positioned, self-appointed elites. The Platonic just state is rooted in awe, humility, and reverence; the state of the modern ideologue is based on omniscience, pride, and disdain for the work of the Creator. The Platonic just state understands attunement and the ultimate reward of harmony; the state of the ideologue includes the ever-elusive goal of remaking created being and the resulting perpetual condition of conflict and disharmony. In Kirk’s view the distinctions are fundamental and enduring.
The goal of political theory is “the well-ordered commonwealth,” and the conspicuous characteristic of this commonwealth is harmony, which is a product of justice, attunement, wisdom, and philosophy, commencing with awe, that is, piety, the antipode of pride. The Republic, Kirk believes, is “meant to teach men how to bring their souls into harmony with divine order.” And what is the final goal? “Plato’s whole endeavor was the recovery of order: order in the soul, order in the polis.” In fact, Kirk urges, “the recovery of order in the soul and order in society is the first necessity of this century.” As to the significance of order, he explains, ‘‘‘Order’ means a systematic and harmonious arrangement–whether in one’s own character or in the commonwealth.” Again, we are back to the goal of “the well-ordered commonwealth,” and its most striking feature is harmony–harmony in the individual and harmony in society as a whole. “Conservatives,” Kirk advises, “confront the tremendous dual task of restoring the harmony of the person and the harmony of the republic.”
To Kirk it is Edmund Burke’s “moral imagination” that is the key to the recovery of order and harmony in the individual soul and ultimately in the whole of society. The point of departure in a properly understood political theory is the “individual goodness of heart.” The moral imagination instructs and nourishes the individual and leads to the goodness and harmony of the whole of society. “The moral imagination,” Kirk stresses, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”
What precisely is moral imagination? “It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature; which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.” Kirk elaborates:
It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty…of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.
For example, Kirk writes, “The Hebrew prophets were men endowed with moral imagination.” The moral imagination is similar to Cardinal Newman’s “the Illative Sense…a source deeper than our conscious and formal reason….It is the combined product of intuition, instinct, imagination, and long and intricate experience.”
The moral imagination is not related to the Benthamite or Marxist world of ideology, to that perspective of materialism, naturalism, and utopianism. In addition, it is at odds with “the idyllic imagination” of Rousseau and ultimately with “the diabolic imagination” of a decadent society. The moral imagination does not seek to entertain or placate; it seeks to inform, instruct, ennoble, and elevate. It cares little for the modern theoretical emphasis upon rights, demands, and entitlements; rather, it is connected with the classical and biblical emphasis upon duty, service, obligation. The concept of the moral imagination is pre-eminent and critical in understanding the political mind of Russell Kirk. “We must nurture the moral imagination, which draws upon theology and history and poetic images,” Kirk warns, as he also offers hope that “the moral imagination…may lead US back from the fleshpots of abnormality to the altar of the permanent things.” It is the “keenest” of our “weapons.”
Burke was the originator of the concept of the “moral imagination,” and that explains more than any other single reason why Kirk looks upon him as perhaps the definitive and authoritative political philosopher. Certainly, among conservative theorists, Kirk considers him pre-eminent. Kirk speaks of Burke as “the greatest of modern conservative thinkers,” indeed, as “the founder of our conservatism.” Lest there be any question of Burke’s pre-eminence, Kirk writes, “He was the first conservative of our time of troubles” and concludes, “If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone.” Concerning Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Kirk believes it is “the most brilliant work of English political philosophy” and “must be read by anyone who wishes to understand the great controversies of modern politics.”
By the moral imagination, according to Kirk, “Burke meant that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment.” Burke offers a whole range of concepts as instruments in “his determination…to refurbish ‘the wardrobe of a moral imagination.’” There are the classical and biblical notions of piety, awe, reverence, and veneration resulting in the notions of duty, service, and obligation; a respect for tradition, history, and prescription, as well as an appreciation of the individual’s need for Rootsand community, “the little platoon,” that is, “the humane scale.” Whereas egalitarianism and levelling are at war with the nature of things, pluralism, hierarchy, and diversity are natural and are to be encouraged; innovation, mindless change, and unfettered “will and appetite” must be prudently checked by discipline, restraint, and the “unbought grace of life.” Finally there is the insight that “first principles” are to be desired because they are rooted in wisdom, knowledge, and experience, while abstractions are to be avoided because they are spun in the a priori, sterile, and opinionated world of the ideologue. Ultimately, Burke’s opening up of infinite vistas of “the life of the mind” to refurbish the moral imagination substantiates the critical premise that “he knew religion to be man’s greatest good.” As Kirk emphasizes, “In examining Burke’s conservative system, therefore, it is well to commence on the lofty plane of religious belief.” Kirk further observes: “He believed in a Christian universe, to which a just God has given moral order to permit of man’s salvation.” Not surprisingly, Kirk also observes that Bentham was “Burke’s most powerful intellectual antagonist”; that “Rousseau and Burke stand at the antipodes”; and that Burke “was not a man of the enlightenment.”
Of twentieth-century figures, T.S. Eliot had the greatest influence on Kirk. In Eliot, notes Kirk, Burke had an “intellectual heir.” Significantly, the subtitle of The Conservative Mind in later editions is From Burke to Eliot. Concerning his relationship to Eliot, Kirk explains, “He was thirty years older than I, but we had read the same books, knew the same places, were almost as one in literary and social convictions.” He adds, “My own progress from doubt to acceptance had resembled Eliot’s.” And Kirk concludes, “I confess to writing in the spirit of Eliot.”
Kirk is unstinting in his praise of Eliot as “the most influential poet and critic of our century,” “the great man of letters of our time.” “The greater part of the twentieth century will be known, in letters, as the Age of Eliot,” Kirk claims. Regarding Eliot’s influence on conservative thought, he speculates, “If there has been a principal conservative thinker in the twentieth century, it is T.S. Eliot, whose age this is in humane letters.” Kirk’s admiration for Eliot is understandable, when one considers that “Eliot’s whole endeavor was to point a way out of the Waste Land toward order in the soul and in society.”
Perhaps Kirk was also drawn particularly to Eliot as a literary figure whose “attention turned increasingly to political theory.” Eliot, too, had come to appreciate that “a nation must have a political philosophy… something more than the programs of parties.” In developing a political philosophy, Eliot, like Kirk, had come to the conclusion that the ultimate goal of political philosophy could best be accomplished by employing the theoretical tools of “the well-ordered commonwealth’ and “the moral imagination.” The former was to be accomplished by revitalizing and restoring the latter. Eliot had come to understand that “the order of the soul could not be parted from the order of the commonwealth.” To achieve the harmony characteristic of a well-ordered society, one had to commence with restoring order in the individual soul. After all, as Plato had taught, society was merely the individual writ large. To restore order in the individual soul meant a revitalizing and a quickening of the moral imagination. Thus, T.S. Eliot became “the principal champion of the moral imagination in the twentieth century.” Kirk adds that Eliot, “more than any other poet of his age, had reinvigorated the moral imagination, and had expressed in poetry an experience of transcendence.”
In fashioning his vision of the moral imagination, Kirk states, “He [Eliot] had striven to renew modern man’s understanding of the norms of order . . . in the person and in the commonwealth. He had not offered the opiate of ideology: he had pleaded for a return to enduring priniple.” To borrow Eliot’s own terminology, he “showed the way back to the permanent things.” Why the notion of “the permanent things”? “Is everything ephemeral?” Kirk inquires. “Does not a permanent reality exist?”93] “The poet senses that he is born to set the time right – not, however, by leading a march to some New Jerusalem but by rallying in his art to the permanent things.” What are the permanent things? They are the “norms,” Kirk explains, “those principles of morals and politics and taste which abide from age to age, which create the truly human person, and which cement the civil social order.” In fact, Kirk argues, “the conservative is a champion of norms, of what Mr. T.S. Eliot calls ‘the permanent things.’”
Ultimately in Eliot it is religion in general and Christianity in particular that make for the most enduring contribution to the permanent things and thus the vitality of the moral imagination and the harmony of the well-ordered society. Concerning religion, Kirk observes, “Eliot found it necessary to pass beyond ethics into theology.” Eliot had come to believe that “unless faith is regained…we end barren.” In sum, Kirk writes, “Eliot was saying, the world stood in need of religious and moral principle upon which to renew the civil social order.”
In connection with Eliot’s commitment to Christianity, Kirk quotes from Eliot’s own words in “Thoughts after Lambeth”:
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the world from suicide.
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Eliot believed that “the world must choose either Christianity or Paganism.” It was then a matter of Eliot’s “having decided from reflection and experience that there is truth in Christian teaching.” Stated concisely, “Eliot came to believe that only through Annunciation and Incarnation was the tyranny of time undone.” “Eliot’s remedy was the recovery of Christian community,” for “he had seen how the ignoring or denial of Christian teaching had been followed by private and public disorder.” With this commitment Eliot became “the most admired Christian poet of his age.”
For Kirk, as for Burke and Eliot, religion, and particularly Christianity, is the key to restoring the harmony of a properly ordered society, since religion is indispensable to a revitalized and restored moral imagination. “At heart, all social questions are exercises in ethics; and ethics, in turn, depend upon religious faith.” In short, “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” Kirk goes on to explain:
Politics moves upward into ethics, and ethics ascends to theology. The true conservative, in the tradition of Burke . . . is a theist, for he sees this world as a place of trial, governed by a power beyond human ability to comprehend adequately; he is convinced that earthly perfection is a delusion and in our time, quite possibly, a notion employed by the power of Evil to crush Good by the instrument of a pseudo-good.
And here Kirk especially underlines “the power of religious understanding – lacking which, there can exist no order in the soul and no order in the state.”
With regard to the pertinence of Christianity, Kirk writes: “The foundation of our civil social order, like that of Burke’s Britain, is not an ideology, some ‘armed doctrine’: rather, it is the Christian religion.” Why is Christianity the indispensable component? The answer lies in the symbol of the Incarnation: “Incarnation, the Logos made flesh, gives us the possibility of conquering past and future. If we do not know the divine, we are driven by the diabolical impulses of the underworld.” Elsewhere Kirk contends, “What Platonism could not provide, Christian belief did: an incarnate model of the way that man should live, and a mode of participating in the life eternal.” “The Incarnation has made it possible for us to enter into an abiding order of the soul, and so not to perish as beasts perish.” “Christian teaching…did enable many people to order their souls, and so to improve the order of the commonwealth.” Kirk reflects, “I trust that none of us shall become political Christians: but I hope that we shall not be afraid to infuse Christian faith into politics.”
As opposed to the pridefulness of the Renaissance, the biblical view offers an alternative grounded in awe and reverence for the profound mystery of being. This perspective seeks genuine wisdom, knowledge, and truth concerning the nature of being; that is, its intellectual character is philosophical and not ideological in tone. It does not seek to restructure the world according to utopian schemes concocted by the spirit of such passing historical eras as the Enlightenment. Rather it purports to learn of the reality of created being and to attune individual man and society thereto. Nor does the biblical view seek solace or escape in the other dimension of modern thought: the frenetic pursuit of pleasure so as to escape boredom and the inevitable loss of an object in life and the resulting decadence. The biblical view consciously seeks “the elevation of character,” not its deliberate neglect and destruction.
In Kirks thinking the biblical view offers the authoritative and definitive alternative to modern thought:
Conservatives…hold that “in Adams’s fall we sinned all”: human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed; so the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect.
Finiteness, frailty, sin, evil, tragedy, and sorrow inhere in the very nature and fabric of the human predicament. Yet rather than yielding to alienation, estrangement, and despair, which has been a fatal error of modern thought, Kirk finds a powerful and unrelenting thrust for reclaiming and restoring individual dignity and harmonious commonwealth through the Pauline doctrine of faith, hope, and love. What is the significance of faith? “Faith does not abolish sorrow: it makes sorrow endurable.” And what is the value of hope? “Men who cannot hope for salvation or dread damnation will make a Roman candle of their world.” Thus, with hope, “happiness is found in imaginative affirmation, not in sullen negation.”
Saint Paul has written, “So faith, hope, love abide; these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Without equivocation Kirk embraces Saint Paul’s position:
What is the object of life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success: or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love.
He [“the enlightened conservative”] knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows: and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt.
Christian love is the key to a rekindled and vibrant moral imagination capable of restoring order in the individual and in the commonwealth. Kirk writes, “As Dante knew, it is love that moves this world and all the stars.” Finally, lest there be any doubt concerning the supreme importance he attaches to the concept of love, Kirk insists: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul, and thy neighbor as thy self: upon this commandment is true community founded.”
Biblical love is the complete antidote to the pride of the Renaissance that is the primary theoretical weakness of modern thought. “Christian love, rather than ego,” Kirk concludes, “should be the moral foundation of learning.” The ultimate Christian, the saint, reveals this trait: “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.” In place of ego and vanity there are the notions of duty, discipline, sacrifice, and the resulting role of servant. In Kirks words, “The conservative finds himself…a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required–and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding.”
With the absence of pride and with the resulting role played by biblical love, there is a reaching out beyond the self, and, in turn, there is the enormously enhanced potential for forming the harmony of genuine community. There is the “knitting” and “binding” effect among individuals, within the family and within the community. For example, Saint Paul, in speaking of being “knit together in love,” advised, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Stressing his agreement, Kirk declares, “Now the enlightened conservative stood for true community, the union of men, through love and common interest, for the common welfare.” In contrast, modern men “have lost their community; they are atoms in a loveless desolation; they are desperately bored.” Love is powerfully centripetal in effect and is the foundation for building first the harmony of self and then the well-ordered society, whereas modern thought, based on ego and pride, is centrifugal in impact and leads to disharmony within the individual and the disintegration of the modern family and community. For Kirk, biblical love is the critical and decisive element in rekindling the moral imagination and leading to the ultimate goal of political theory: moral harmony within the individual and a well-ordered society and commonwealth.
Kirk sharply delineates between conservative and libertarian philosophy:
These two bodies of opinion share a detestation of collectivism. They set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy. That much is obvious enough.
What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.
He believes that there are profound and irreconcilable theoretical differences between these two schools of thought. For example, Kirk maintains that “nineteenth-century liberalism,” from which contemporary libertarianism emerged, is “in large part the creation of Jeremy Bentham.” Elsewhere Kirk refers to “doctrinaire libertarians,” with Jean-Jacques Rousseau as their prophet, as carrying “to absurdity the doctrines of John Stuart Mill.” In contrast to these founding thinkers of libertarianism, Kirk offers as philosophical antagonists Eliot and Burke:
I mean that the libertarians make up what T.S. Eliot called a “chirping sect,” an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating. Such petty political sectaries Edmund Burke pictured as “the insects of the hour,” as noisy as they are ineffectual against the conservative power of the browsing cattle in an English pasture. If one has chirping sectaries for friends, one doesn’t need any Enemies.
Not surprisingly, Kirk, in finding libertarianism indebted to the philosophical heritage of Bentham, Rousseau, and Mill, and conservatism as an outgrowth of the intellectual tradition represented in Burke and Eliot, finds little theoretical compatibility between the two.
Ultimately in Kirk’s thinking one is confronted with the fundamental differences between the pridefulness of secularism and the transcendent, enduring, and sacrificial love of the biblical view. This accounts for his powerful dissent on any proposition that conservatism and libertarianism are theoretically compatible, the latter constituting a “dreary secular dogma of individualism…he belief that we exist solely in ourselves, and for ourselves, so many loveless specks in infinite time and space…to whom Satan reveals that nothing exists except the body and empty space.” Contending that libertarianism was “founded upon doctrinaire selfishness,” he reserves special criticism for Ayn Rand: “She would supplant the cross–the symbol of sacrifice–by the Dollar Sign–the symbol of self-aggrandizement.” In short, Kirk believes that libertarianism was founded upon the notion of “a cosmic selfishness.”
In contrast Kirk contends that “Conservatism is something more than mere solicitude for tidy incomes.” Being rooted in biblical love, it looks beyond the self to the transcendent, enduring, and permanent. Notions of duty, service, and sacrifice are integral elements of its philosophical conceptions. In perceiving the mystery of being with a sense of awe and reverence, conservatism seeks for “the elevation of character” and the attunement of the individual to the moral order ordained by the Creator. Not only is this ineffably rewarding to the individual in terms of the joy, peace, and promise in believing, but it also contributes incalculably to the ultimate goal of political theory: the moral imagination sufficient to sustain the harmony of the well-ordered commonwealth.
This essay originally appeared in Modern Age (Winter, 1984) and is republished here by permission.
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1. Charles Brown, Russell Kirk: A Bibliography (Mount Pleasant, Mich.: Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, 1981).
2. Ibid., 130.
3. Edwin J. Feulner, Jr.. “Preface” in Russell Kirk, Reclaiming a Patrimony(Washington: Heritage Foundation, 1982).
4. Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (New York: Fleet, 1963), 29.
5. Ibid., 304.
6. Ibid., 308.
7. Russell Kirk, The Intemperate Professor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), 131.
8. Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (South Bend, Ind.: Gateway Editions, 1978), 225.
9. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (LaSalle, 111.: Open Court, 1974), 225.
10. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (6th rev. ed.; Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1978), 370.
11. Kirk. Roots, 348.
12. Ibid., 368, 349.
13. Ibid., 412; Kirk, Intemperate Professor, 18.
14. Kirk. Roots, 398.
15. Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), 154.
17. Ibid., 156.
18. Ibid., 160.
19. Ibid., 161.
20. Kirk, Confessions, 247.
21. Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1967), 84.
22. Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dream of Avarice (Chicago: Regnery. 1956), 39.
23. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 169.
24. Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age (New York: Random House, 1971), 234.
25. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 227, 230.
26. Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives (rev. ed.; Chicago: Regnery, 1962), 173.
27. Kirk, Confessions, 52.
28. Kirk, Eliot, 323-24.
29. Kirk, Intemperate Professor, vi.
30. Kirk, Eliot, 332.
31. lbid., 334.
32. Kirk, Confessions, 222.
33. Kirk, Program, 130.
34. Kirk. Roots, 132; Kirk, Eliot, 218.
35. Kirk, Avarice, 190; Kirk, Intemperate Professor, 86; Kirk, Avarice, 223.
36. Kirk, Program, 284.
37. Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press. 1978), 25. Kirk, Program, 206.
38. Kirk, Program, 63.
39. Kirk, Enemies, 105; Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 252.
40. Kirk, Confessions, 306.
41. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 21.
42. Ibid., 20.
43. Ibid., 174.
44. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 425.
45. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 182.
46. Kirk. Patrimony, 48.
47. Ibid., 67.
48. Kirk, Intemperate Professor, 79.
49. Kirk, Program, 75.
50. Ibid., 112.
51. Kirk, Patrimony, 32.
52. Kirk, Confessions, 247.
53. Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 275.
54. Kirk, Enemies, 216, 268.
55. Kirk, Program, 56, 50.
56. Kirk, Roots, 84.
57. Ibid., 82.
58. Kirk. Avarice, 135.
59. Kirk, Roots, 84.
60. lbid., 77.
61. Kirk, Enemies, 209.
62. Kirk, Roots, 5.
63. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 406.
64. Kirk, Enemies, 259.
65. Kirk, Patrimony, 47.
66. Ibid. K7Kirk, Enemies, 119.
67. Kirk, Roots, 30.
68. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 249.
69. Kirk, Eliot, 44;
70. Kirk, Enemies, 302.
71. Kirk, Enemies, 303.
72. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 3, 6.
73. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 21, 17.
74. Ibid., 153-54.
75. Kirk, Eliot, 7.
76. Kirk, Patrimony, 14.
77. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 152; Kirk, Conservative Mind, 25.
78. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 43.
79. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 84, 20: Kirk, Program, 26.
80. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 83; Kirk, Eliot, 27.
81. Kirk, Eliot, 373.
82. Kirk, Enemies, 61.
84. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 429.
86. Kirk, Eliot, 259.
87. Ibid., 279.
88. Kirk, Eliot, 98-99.
89. Ibid., 7.
90. Ibid., 207.
91. Ibid., 417.
92. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 431.
93. Kirk, Eliot, 140.
94. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 433.
95. Kirk, Confessions, 230.
96. Ibid., 299.
97. Kirk, Eliot, 139.
98. Ibid., 66.
99. Ibid., 190.
100. Kirk, Enemies, 61.
101. Kirk, Eliot, 282.
102. Ibid., 313.
103. IIbid., 301.
104. Ibid., 276, 142.
105. Ibid., 204.
106. Kirk, Avarice, 137.
107. Kirk, Conservative Mind, 7.
108. Kirk, Program, 99.
109. Kirk, Patrimony, 97.
110. Russell Kirk, “The Living Edmund Burke,” Modern Age, 26 (1982), 324.
111. Kirk, Eliot, 304.
112. Kirk, Roots, 155.
113. Kirk, Eliot, 291.
114. Kirk, Roots, 146.
115. Kirk, Program, 100.
116. Kirk, Patrimony, 32.
117. Kirk, Eliot, 154.
118. Kirk. Conservative Mind, 270.
119. Kirk, Roots, 475.
120. Corinthians 13:13.
121. Kirk, Program, 18.
123. Kirk, Confessions, 182.
124. Kirk, Eliot, 197.
125. Kirk, Decadence and Renewal, 15.
126. Ibid., 224.
127. Kirk, Patrimony, 32.
128. Colossians 2:2: 3:14.
129. Kirk, Program, 140.
130. Ibid., 148.
131. Kirk, Patrimony, 25.
132. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 84.
133. Kirk, Patrimony, 9, 25.
134. Ibid., 31.
135. Kirk, Program, 47.
136. Kirk, Patrimony, 34; Kirk, Program, 49.
137. Kirk, Program, 49.
138. Ibid., 23.