With the phenomenal success of The Conservative Mind—selling over a million copies during the three decades after its initial release—Kirk worried that “conservatism” might prove to be a hollow answer for the post-war world. Afterall, he reasoned, conservatism must, by necessity, be highly subjective, centered around a specific time and place, even while embracing universals. Additionally, he had originally written his dissertation as The Conservatives’ Rout, firmly convinced that both conservatism and liberalism had reached the end of their respective lives. What needed to survive—and thus preserve and advance human civilization—were the universal principles, the ones that transcended space and time and culture and generation.

From Babbitt and More, Kirk had come to believe in Humanism, but, while reading incessantly in the five years prior to 1953, he had encountered a number of thinkers—Gabriel Marcel, Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, Max Picard, Christopher Dawson, and Romano Guardini—who had labeled themselves “Christian Humanists.” As such, they meant, at its most basic level, that they believed in the Greco-Roman traditions as understood through the Judeo-Christian religion. In other words, they saw no contradiction between Plato and Paul. After meeting and befriending T.S. Eliot in the summer of 1953, Kirk became taken with the idea that Christian Humanism, not conservatism, was the answer for western civilization. If one wanted to conserve, she or he should conserve Christian Humanism, Kirk thought. It was a heady time, and Kirk began to outline the sequel to The Conservative Mind. He wanted to call it either “The Age of Humanism” or “The Humane Tradition.” With it, he would write a history of western civilization in the form of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, describing the “saint” of an era—perhaps, even a secular one such as Socrates—and his antithesis. The book would include chapters on myth, Plato, Cicero, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Niccolo Machiavelli, Martin Luther, Renee Descartes, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Charles Darwin, and T.S. Eliot. “In each chapter,” Kirk noted, the “thinker who figures in the title will have his antithesis.”

For innumerable reasons—many of them simply guided by financial necessity—Kirk never wrote this book, The Age of Humanism or The Humane Tradition, and he quietly returned to writing about conservatism during the second half of the 1950s as well as to horror in fiction (novels as well as short stories). Many of his Christian Humanist ideals, however, appeared in several of his books during the mid-1950s: the ironically-named Program for Conservatives, Academic Freedom, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, and The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Conservatism. One must also include Kirk’s magisterial biography of T.S. Eliot, but that book would not appear until the early 1970s. Kirk also wrote several essays dealing with Christian Humanism in the mid 1950s. Among the best are the three reprinted in LOGOS: “The Dissolution of Liberalism”; “The Inhumane Businessman”; and “The Sp’led Praist and the Stickit Minister.”

In these three articles, published respectively in Commonweal, Fortune, and the Newman Review, one encounters Kirk at his Christian Humanist best, and several intellectually and spiritually powerful Kirkian themes emerge. First, Kirk gives great credence to the nature of mythology, narrative, and story telling.

We live by myth. “Myth” is not falsehood; on the contrary, the great and ancient myths are profoundly true. The myth of Prometheus will always be a high poetic representation of an ineluctable truth, and so will the myth of Pandora. A myth may grow out of an actual event almost lost in the remote past, but it comes to transcend the particular circumstances of its origins, assuming a significance universal and abiding.[1]

It would be irresponsible as well as impossible to miss the nature of what is universally true and what is particularly manifested in Kirk’s argument. Additionally, to ignore the importance of myth is to lose the past, the present, and the future. Myth exists independently of our will and our desire. We either understand its power and craft stories to tell our tales, or we lose it all. Interestingly enough, the greatest mythmaker since Dante, J.R.R. Tolkien, was publishing his The Lord of the Rings, at the exact moment that Kirk’s argument emerged. In “Dissolution of Liberalism,” Kirk also made a rather Christian Humanist argument about the nature of free will and choice. “Free will is mythical, it is also true. All evidence is against, and all necessity for it,” Kirk argued.[2]

In “The Inhumane Businessman,” Kirk makes his second great Christian Humanist argument. Without moral men, educated liberally, society cannot hope to endure in freedom, creativity, or responsibility. After all, Kirk argued, following the careful analysis originally put forth by Christopher Dawson, a society can only live so long off the moral capital of previous generations.

A people can live upon their moral and intellectual capital for a long time. Yet eventually, unless the capital is replenished, they arrive at cultural bankruptcy. The intellectual and political and industrial leaders of the older generation die, and their places are not filled. The humanitarian cannot substitute for the humane men. The result of such bankruptcy is a society of meaninglessness, or a social revolution that brings up radical and unscrupulous talents to turn society inside out.[3]

For too long in the twentieth century, Kirk worried, too many women and men had been trained, but they had not been educated. That is, they could design medicines, but they did not know what the value of human life was. “Technique, as such,” Kirk lamented, “breeds only refinements of existing techniques.”[4] A true liberal education, Kirk believed, allowed one to be orderly and disciplined, to recognize cause and effect, and to honor just authority, not power. “The end of the old humanistic schooling,” he claimed, “is ethical: a man seeks virtue through philosophy.”[5]

In the final piece reprinted here, “The Sp’led Praist and the Stickit Minister,” Kirk considered the infiltration of academia by the ideologues, men and women who drown in their own subjective realities and who spend their time destroying the careers of those intellectually and morally superior to themselves. They teach only what is not, rather than what is, replacing true first principles and right reason with their own pettiness. They can destroy, but they cannot build.

All ideology, by its very nature, Kirk argued, is not only anti-humane, but it is also the death of real spiritual and intellectual progress. Instead of destroying, the university professor should aim to identify norms and to build from there.

A norm is an enduring standard. It is, if you will, a natural law, which we ignore at our own 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.[6]

As such, a university should never give credence to the conformism of the day, but it should conform to eternal norms, no matter how poorly understood.

In the end, Kirk offered a gorgeous definition of a Christian Humanist, and it is just and proper to end this introduction with his words.

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.[7]

This essay is the second of two in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Reconsidering Russell Kirk” series. The first can be read here.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Russell Kirk, “The Dissolution of Liberalism,” LOGOS 22, no. 4 (Fall 2019): p. 139.

[2] Ibid., p. 142.

[3] Russell Kirk, “The Inhumane Businessman,” LOGOS 22, no. 4 (Fall 2019): p. 151.

[4] Ibid., p. 155.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Russell Kirk, “The Sp’led Praist and the Stickit Minister,” LOGOS 22, no. 4 (Fall 2019): p. 161.

[7] Ibid., p. 164.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind” (c. 1817) by Heinrich Füger (1751-1818), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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