In the late 1950s, as Russell Kirk considered what needed to be conserved in the Western tradition as well as what needed to be discarded, he lamented that much of what the West did was “uglify.” It had forgotten not only the necessity of beauty, but it had forgotten how to define beauty. It had come to know only how to destroy, not create. And, sadly, it was very good at what it did.
At a time when, in most of the Western world, we have ample public and private funds for national and civil improvements on a grand scale, paradoxically we uglify. The bulldozer and the wrecker’s ball intoxicate; buildings that formerly would have been spared if only because of their solidity now are obliterated in an afternoon.
Even conservatives, much to Kirk’s perhaps naïve dismay, thought little of beauty, but rather of efficiency. Even as serious conservatives, they brought efficiency not just to military policy, but also to classrooms, to churches, to neighborhoods, to cars, and even to stories. Justifying such efficiencies as necessary for the economy or for the working of society, they allowed for the defacing of highways with billboards, they allowed relatively interesting television programs to be mixed with marketing scams, they allowed training to replace education, and they allowed perfectly excellent literature to be stacked with trash.
Kirk especially disliked the architectural trends of the previous hundred years (that is, the century prior to the 1950s), claiming that while America had only been in decline since the time of the American Civil War, the West as a whole had been wantonly tearing down since the Reformation. In places such as Great Britain, the wrecking ball had, in the ten years between 1945 and 1955, done much more damage to society than the Nazi bombing of southern England.
Most ages, Kirk argued, had left their mark—quite physically—in terms of their buildings and their parks. Yet, not the twentieth century. At least not in a good way.
Every previous era of great prosperity left its mark in an interesting and enduring architecture, private or public—in splendid towns, works of sculpture and painting, and monuments of all sorts. For our part, we build cinder-block drugstores, glass office buildings, and fiberboard ranch-type shanties full of gadgets intended to turn obsolete within two years.
We built only for the moment, not even for the future, as we eradicated the past.
The loss of manners, he especially decried, had coincided, necessarily, with the loss of beauty in society. Nowhere, it seemed, did anyone take decorum seriously—whether in one’s soul or one’s society. If order in one’s soul leads to order in the commonwealth, disorder in one’s soul leads to the disorder in the commonwealth. The totalitarians of the present age, Kirk feared, wanted to control not only the present, but also the past and the future as well. “The totalists say that the old order is a corpse, and that man and society must be fashioned afresh, in grim fashion, upon a grim plan,” he wrote.
Still, some who resist such heinous conformity exist, even if they do not flourish. Such men—that is, those few conservatives who fought the tapioca conformity of the masses—believed in three things, though each to varying degrees and with varying levels of sincerity and understanding.
First, Kirk claimed, Western civilization rests upon its Judeo-Christian foundation. From this, it derives its understanding of human dignity, natural law, and natural rights. Or, as Kirk put it so beautifully: “The first of these is the Christian faith: theological and moral doctrines which inform us, either side of the Atlantic, of the nature of God and man, the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, human dignity, the rights and duties of human persons, the nature of charity, and the meaning of hope and resignation.” Without these, one could never expect order nor liberty.
Second, Western civilization maintains itself through the promotion and cultivation of the liberal arts, seeking conversation with the ancients as well as with those persons of the future, recognizing the centrality of reason and the Logos to all of time and creation. Or, again, to quote Kirk: “The second of these is the corpus of imaginative literature, humane letters, which is the essence of our high culture: humanism, which, with Christian faith, teaches us our powers and our limitations—the work of Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Dante, Shakespeare, and so many others.” This conversation kept us grounded as well as just.
Third, and finally, Western civilization accepts and perpetuates a set of laws that are at once natural and above nature. “The third is a complex of social and political institutions which we may call the reign of law, or ordered liberty: prescription, precedent, impartial justice, private rights, private property, the character of genuine community, the claims of family and of voluntary associations.” These communities recognize that which is universal and universally true, but they spring—often haphazardly and gothically—from the ground up, spontaneously.
Together, these three things did not form or constitute any kind of counter ideology or even the shadow of an ideology. Rather, they are and always will be an ante- as well as an anti-ideology. Ideologies, not surprisingly, attack and attempt to hijack each aspect of true and beautiful civilization. “However much these three bodies of conviction have been injured by internecine disputes, nihilism, Benthamism, the cult of Rationalism, Marxism, and other modern afflictions, they remain the rocks upon which our civilization is built.”
Whether in his family, in his home, in his writings, in his garden, in his community, or in his journals, Kirk always sought to promote goodness, truth, and beauty, preserving what had come for the present, and preparing it all for the future. No thing, no idea, and no creature—and especially no man—existed apart from its temporal and spacial context. To everything, there was a place and an order, and within all of this, there was justice.
This essay first appeared here in January 2020.
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The featured image is “The Triumph of Civilization” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.