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Although Russell Kirk’s valiant efforts on behalf of the “permanent things” have not born much visible fruit in recent years, the “Remnant” he wrote of, those relatively few people dedicated to preserving Christian civilization, still persevere, working for its eventual restoration once the force of cultural destruction are spent…

Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley McDonald (243 pages, University of Missouri Press, 2004)

jason jewellIt might seem odd that a professor of political science would be the one to make the suggestion that previous scholarly discussions of Russell Kirk (1918-1994) have focused too narrowly on the conservative icon’s political thought. Yet that is precisely W. Wesley McDonald’s thesis in Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology. McDonald (1946-2014), a former professor at Elizabethtown College and one-time research assistant for Kirk, draws on a long personal association with the author of The Conservative Mind and a great familiarity with the latter’s vast literary corpus to produce a highly readable overview and defense of his philosophy of “conservative individualism that recognizes the social nature of man and the moral prerequisites of true liberty.”

McDonald states at the outset of his work that his purpose is to offer neither a full-fledged biography of Kirk nor a general history of the conservative movement. Instead, he wishes to highlight Kirk’s role in moving postwar conservatism away from libertarian doctrines of laissez-faire economics and individual freedom as an end in itself, toward a more traditional conservatism valuing order, prescription, continuity, and community. He begins this task by chronicling the widespread confusion among both liberal and self-described conservative critics when they were confronted in 1953 with The Conservative Mind. This book demonstrated the existence of a solid tradition of conservative thought in America since the eighteenth century (something that liberals had frequently denied). Moreover, it condemned not only the collectivist ideas of the liberals but also the power and influence of Big Business. In McDonald’s words, conservative ideas from that point forward could no longer be dismissed as “the momentary, aberrant, disgruntled dissent of the privileged few against the prevailing liberal orthodoxies.”

Kirk’s characterization of conservatism as “the negation of ideology” or “anti-ideology” has often been derided by those whose definition of ideology is so broad that it encompasses any pattern of thought. McDonald explains that Kirk used the term in a specific sense to denote a sort of secularized postmillennial outlook which views man as perfectible here on earth. Ideology, including the utilitarianism of many libertarians (the great Ludwig von Mises among them), is primarily the product of the Enlightenment, the philosophies of which Kirk staunchly opposed throughout his career. McDonald shows that in Kirk’s view, this meant that the libertarian wing of the Right actually shared more philosophical presuppositions with the Left than it did with the traditionalist conservatives, the efforts of Frank Meyer and the Fusionists notwithstanding. Viewed in this light, Kirk’s antipathy to the libertarians becomes easier to comprehend.

The most important chapters of the book, entitled “The Moral Basis of Conservatism” and “The Moral Imagination, Reason, and Natural Law,” are where McDonald seeks to illuminate the philosophical and ethical foundations of Kirk’s approach to culture and society (and, by extension, to politics). He notes Kirk’s debt to Edmund Burke, in some cases filtered through the writings of “New Humanists” Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, and he uses Babbitt’s language of “ethical dualism,” “inner check,” and “moral imagination” to describe Kirk’s theory of moral behavior. “Ethical dualism” refers to the internal struggle between the “higher and lower selves” which produces alternating inclinations toward good or evil behavior in an individual. The moral person utilizes an “inner check” to block the pressures of this flux when the lower self is ascendant, thereby resisting the inclination to evil. Enlightenment rationalist thinkers such as Rousseau rejected the classical and Christian notion of ethical dualism, either by claiming that man’s natural desires were uniformly good or by denying the existence of any transcendent norms of conduct beyond the individual’s pursuit of pleasure. In either case, the inner check became an obstacle to be removed, the accomplishment of which, in Kirk’s view, would lead to an end of ordered society.

The “moral imagination” is one’s ability to conceptualize beyond personal experience, making us aware of the “ultimate good common to all mankind.” McDonald argues that this idea lies at the center of Kirk’s thought. The moral imagination is intuitive, not rational. The timeless truths it has uncovered are passed on from generation to generation through histories, literature, poetry, myth, fable, and religious dogma. These are to be trusted more than the a priori abstractions of the rationalists. They represent the collective wisdom of the ages, outweighing the private experience and knowledge of any individual. Kirk believed that only the moral imagination and the restraints it imposes would prevent man from swinging back and forth between the poles of anarchic individualism and utopian collectivism. On the other hand, the ascendant ideologies of liberalism, libertarianism, and the “new positivism” (behavioralism in the social sciences) would lead us down the wrong paths in part because they lack this crucial ingredient.

Though he is clearly sympathetic to Kirk’s thought, McDonald does criticize his mentor for not developing a consistent epistemology to explain his social and moral philosophy. Kirk’s heavy reliance on imagination left him vulnerable to the accusation that he had no use for reason whatsoever. McDonald believes that this reliance on intuition was misplaced, that what Kirk had really done was to substitute a different form of reasoning for the abstract rationalism he hated so much: “The insights that are incorporated in tradition, religion, the wisdom of our ancestors, the lessons of history, and ‘the permanent things’ should not be understood as mere intuitions, but as realities suitable for discussion on the conceptual level.” Similarly, McDonald argues that Kirk, despite his own and many of his supporters’ assertions to the contrary, was not a natural law thinker. He did not distinguish between the moral imagination and natural law; in other words, his definition of natural law was not the traditional one of a body of absolute truths apprehended by reason. Kirk believed that the good must be learned by experience, not by a priori reason; he also held that our understanding of the good evolves, that it cannot be expressed in an unchanging set of precepts. McDonald asserts that these differences in epistemology clearly set Kirk outside the philosophical tradition represented by Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, and Richard Hooker. (This refusal to view Kirk as a natural law thinker also forms part of McDonald’s contention that his subject, who converted to Roman Catholicism in the mid-1960s, should not be viewed as a distinctively Catholic thinker, either.)

Four of McDonald’s chapters deal with specific themes running throughout Kirk’s writings: tradition, order, community, and education. Although all are worthwhile, perhaps the most interesting is the chapter on tradition, which is sprinkled with statements such as this: “The greatest enemy of tradition today is industrialization and urbanization.” Again, “Conservatism then flourishes best in stable, rural communities where people are slow to break the old ways.” In response to Kirk’s critics who argue that his traditionalism is really a form of moral relativism (whatever is and has been, ought to be), McDonald states that Kirk was not opposed to all change; he only believed that established custom had presumptive validity and was not to be altered or discarded without compelling reason. Moreover, traditionalism does not imply defense of the status quo; because tradition is alive, it continually brings forth new possibilities and meanings for those in search of the good.

The book’s final chapter examines Kirk’s legacy and offers an abbreviated retelling of the story of the infighting on the Right that began in earnest in the 1980s, following the rise of neoconservatism in the 1960s and 1970s and the subsequent paleoconservative reaction it evoked. Both factions became critical of Kirk, the former because it was made up of “children of the Enlightenment” whose prescriptions he opposed, and the latter because its leaders came to believe that his traditionalism could not pose a viable threat to the program of the liberal and neoconservative elites. Thus Kirk found himself marginalized on the Right by the end of his life. McDonald concludes that although Kirk’s valiant efforts on behalf of the “permanent things” have not born much visible fruit in recent years, the “Remnant” he wrote of, those relatively few people dedicated to preserving Christian civilization, still persevere, working for its eventual restoration once the force of cultural destruction are spent. When that happens, McDonald predicts, Kirk’s influence will be more clearly seen.

McDonald’s writing is accessible yet scholarly. One of the real highlights of this work is the evident mastery not only of Kirk’s immense body of writing, but also of a significant amount of secondary literature dealing with Kirk and conservatism in general. This can be seen in the dense footnotes at the bottom of each page as well as in the final bibliography. Especially useful is McDonald’s discussion and analysis of several of Kirk’s works which are now out of print or not readily accessible, such as Eliot and His Age, Lord of the Hollow Dark, and Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning. The very fact that these books, which would not be of much interest to the overly politically-minded, are now difficult to find could be offered as evidence supporting McDonald’s contention that the non-political aspects of Kirk’s thought have been neglected unduly.

One could argue, as McDonald’s longtime colleague Paul Gottfried has done, that Kirk was more political than McDonald would have us think. Although this may be true, McDonald has done a service to those who are convinced that the problems we now face are social, cultural, and moral, not merely political. Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology is a useful book both for those who are unfamiliar with Kirk’s thought and for those who would like a fresh look at the anti-ideologue.

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1 reply to this post
  1. I thank you, good sir, for bringing to my attention yet another candidate for addition to the ever growing stack of books next to my easy chair. Even though, “…of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” If fortunate, I will still be reading when I die.

    Liberals, being of an ideological bent, are ready to impose the strictures of systematic political theology on others. Their presumption is that all conservatives are Tories. Yet, Burke was not a Tory, but a Whig, was he not? (Come to think of it, Lincoln was a Whig also.)

    Of late, I have begun to wonder if my 50-year old self-identification as “conservative” is a good thing. I have been calling myself such since I heard Barry Goldwater’s speech at the Cow Palace in 1964. Yet, today, we are surrounded by door-to-door salesman peddling their panaceas (usually that — they alone can save us), who try and assume the mantle and speech of conservatism, but whose ideological lust for power betrays their hypocritical mouthing.

    Perhaps a better use of terminology would to begin calling myself a “cultural conservationist”, a “conservator”. I think that fits in better with what Kirk is promoting. A conservator will save what is good, and prune what is bad. He will dig about the roots and dung the soil and bring water. He will graft in where advisable, and burn those branches which are sour or without fruit.

    “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”

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