[This was a originally a talk I gave at Piety Hill, Mecosta, Michigan, in March 2003. Some of it is dated, but only a little bit. And, I’ve even softened some of my views regarding the Reformation and modern liberalism. But, overall, I’m happy with this talk.
It was intended to be a celebration of the Christian Humanist (and especially Kirk) love and pursuit of all things Incarnation-al as opposed to the maddening rule by the will or wills of men. It seems appropriate to post it as the liturgical calendar opens the celebration of the birth of the Incarnate Word.
Merry Christmas to all readers of The Imaginative Conservative, and thank you for helping us grow so profoundly in 2010.]
The nineteenth century witnessed the flourishing of progressivist thought: in social relations, political relations, religion, and biology. Everything was evolving, or so it seemed, for the better. Smiles were more frequent, as the blessings of modernity were entangling everything, East to West, West to East. Life just kept getting happier, and the citizens of the world were becoming one, homogenized, contented mass. In a word, according to men such as H.G. Wells, it would soon be “utopian.”
It was all a lie.
Modernity was a trap, and we—humanity—were its greatest victims. We failed to resist, and it greedily fed on us. In democratic regimes, the brightly colored and candy-coated machines of bureaucracy and large corporations mechanized us, making us far less than human. In non-democratic regimes, the damage was worse, nearly irreparable. Indeed, beginning with the assassination of a relatively minor figure by an obscure terrorist group in 1914, the twentieth century drowned in its vast killing fields, gulags, holocaust camps, trench warfare, and weapons of mass destruction. All that was sacred became irrelevant. All who remained relevant were shot. And, the State and its faithful companion, War, demanded the sacrifice of much blood to the restored gods, Demos, Mars, and their many companions.
A brave, if eccentric, few counterattacked. Real men—such as Russell Kirk, Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini, and C.S. Lewis—defended the humane. In their many works, they explained the innumerable terrors of the twentieth century and argued that the solution was really quite simple: to reclaim our faith in the True God and to reclaim His gift to us: our humanity. “This present life here below, Kirk had perceived often in his mind’s eye, is an ephemeral existence, precarious, as in an arena rather than upon a stage: some men are meant to be gladiators or knights-errant, not mere strolling players,” Russell Kirk wrote, using the third person in reference to himself, just prior to his death in 1994. “Swords drawn, they stand on a darkling plain against all comers and all odds; how well they bear themselves in the mortal struggle will determine in what condition they shall put on incorruption. His sins of omission and commission notwithstanding, Kirk had blown his horn and drawn his sword of imagination, in the arena of the blighted twentieth century, that he might assail the follies of the time.” The Christian Humanist should not expect to win, for the victory is not his. He fights because it is right and for no other reason; as scriptures we must redeem the time. “A man, if he venerates the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods, will seek out the terror and strike with all the strength that is in him.” So wrote Russell Kirk in 1955. And, if he loses, he loses. “There are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate province of God.” What matters, Kirk and the Christian Humanists knew, was not man’s will, but God’s will. In true stoic fashion, these Christian men knew they must always fight the good fight. And, fight they did.
Unleashing the Machine
What, then, is the machine that Kirk and the Christian Humanists opposed? It is any form of political organization, any corporation or business, or any economic system that attempts to turn man into a means rather than an end, in and of himself, and denies him the right to exit. The machine of modernity appears in many forms: Demos, Mars, and Leviathan, and it develops in countries ruled by ideologues of both the Left and the Right. It develops anywhere that Love loses its place as the object of life. Recognizing the highest truth of Love [define here—what animates the world and allows us to sacrifice our selfish wills to true Grace], the true person disapproves of “an efficient machine for efficient machine operators, dominated by master mechanics.” Instead, Kirk argued, persons “are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men,” and “to struggle, to suffer, [and] to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves.” The machine always devours men, using their minds, their spirits, and their souls as fuel to devour yet more men. Society, though, is an organic and developing whole, existing in time, but transcending any one specific time, rooted to eternity through the Trinitarian God. And, “men of ability are not cogs in a machine, but the blood or life-spirit of society.”
Two events allowed for the rise of the machine in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, by focusing almost exclusively on the abilities and potential of man, the Renaissance Humanists opened the path for a materialist interpretation of the world, thus denying the spiritual aspect of man. “Materialism is the doctrine that matter is the primary and the ultimate reality,” E.I. Watkin explained, “mind [is] but a secondary and incidental product of matter.” But, it is the Holy Spirit—specifically the animation given and sustained by the Holy Ghost—that gives man his dignity and a place higher than the animals. And it is the Spirit that animates man and all things, including the earth itself. Even the primitive cultures recognize that “there is a mystery in all the processes by which the earth is brought to bear fruit for the support of man.” Ironically, by focusing on the material, modern man comes to realize only how dependent upon “appetite and death” he is, how weak he is before the almost uncontrollable forces of nature. Ultimately, man not only loses the high status conferred upon him by the Renaissance thinkers, but he is also “left as a naked human animal shivering in an inhuman universe.” Grace alone perfects Nature. When man believes he is above nature, he perverts the gift from God, and the goods of the earth “are treated as ends in themselves.” Thus, nature under man’s sole dominion becomes evil. When used properly, as a gift from God, it becomes the “plastic material through which . . . spiritual activity may express itself.”
For the Christian Humanist of the twentieth-century, there are three levels of reality: Grace (the only true reality); nature (fallen, but made by God); and modernity, in which men ignore Grace and either ignore or dominate nature, God’s Creation, originally meant as a gift for man as a steward. In the end, because modernity forgets, ignores, or despises the true reality of Grace, it can only produce a false, substitute world. In essence, modernity is merely a shadow of a shadow. “The modern pagan, the godless child of technology or the ‘crowd man’ is something more than fallen,” Thomas Merton wrote in the late 1950s. “He lives not only below the level of grace, but below the level of nature—below his own humanity.” Man now living in a “a world of falsity and illusion” loses all sense of purpose, all moorings, and the disorder of the world becomes fully manifest. Culture, society, and men become adrift, dangerously approaching the abyss and annihilation. In his attempt at apotheosis [that is, to become a god], modern man “set up the cult of man, his profane or even ungodly science and art, his technical achievements, and his State,” Wilhelm Roepke feared.
Man’s victory over nature will not satiate his avaricious appetite. He will then want control over man, thus denying the uniqueness of each person created in God’s Infinite Image. “The man engaged today in the labor of ‘techniques’ knows full well that technology moves forward in final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the race,” Guardini explained. “He knows in the most radical sense of the term that power is its motive—a lordship of all; that man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature.” But, God did not create Man to become either individually or collectively a power. The goal of all life, Jesus showed us and St. Paul reminded us, is Love, the willingness to sacrifice one’s self for the greater good—the greater good of family, friends, community, Church, and God. There can, in fact, be nothing greater than Love, as it is the motive power of the universe and all life. The universe was created through words of Love, and fallen man is redeemed through the Love of the Word become Flesh, sacrificed on a tree, and risen from the tomb. The overthrowing of Love as the object of society, therefore, and the greed for power can only lead to destruction. Ultimately, the search for power will destroy the destroyer. “The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself,” C.S. Lewis explained in The Abolition of Man. Ironically, because this means that the generation that discovers this will overturn all previous generations and shape all future generations, this revolutionary generation will be a tyrant and dehumanize all. “They have stepped into the void,” Lewis argued. “They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.” Lewis took the argument to its logical conclusion:
From the point of view which is accepted in Hell, the whole history of our Earth had led up to this moment. There was now at least a real chance for fallen man to shake off that limitation of his powers which mercy had imposed upon him as a protection from the full results of his fall. If this succeeded, Hell would be at last incarnate. Bad men, while still in the body, still crawling on this little globe, would enter that state which, heretofore, they had entered only after death, would have the diuturnity and power of evil spirits. Nature, all over the globe of Tellus, would become their slave; and of that dominion no end, before the end of time itself, could be certainly foreseen.
Though written in fantastic terms, Lewis’s words from That Hideous Strength ring with truth, and Hell is the winner. Dawson agreed: the machine will become “the blind instrument of a demonic will to power.” With such a victor, Guardini warned, “unspeakable rape of the individual, of the group, even of the whole nation” will be the result, as the terror regimes of the twentieth century [and now the twenty-first century] have well demonstrated. Indeed, in modernity, the Thomist historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson realized, knowledge is synonymous with destruction [explain more]. Its success nearly complete, the machine will devour all men. Scientific man “becomes a subordinate part of the great mechanical system that his scientific genius has created,” Dawson wrote in 1931. But, because it is twice removed from Grace, the machine becomes autonomous. “In the same way, the economic process, which led to the exploitation of the world by man and the vast increase of his material resources, ends in the subjection of man to the rule of the machine and the mechanisation of human life.” Grace remains, of course, but men ignore or mock it.
The Significance of Liberalism
Additionally, the Reformation overturned the medieval understanding of natural community. The medieval had stressed opus Dei, the work of God. All things were gifts from God, and all of man’s creations were gifts back to God, for the well-being of the natural and organic elements of society, the family, the church, and the community. “But everything that medieval man achieved was understood by him in the light of the service he owed to God and to God’s creation,” Guardini explained in The End of the Modern World. Community itself reflected the Natural Law and God’s wishes, thus ordering the world in the most Godly fashion possible after the Fall. The material allows the Christian to integrate life, to have unity through community. “Each order has its function, in the life of the whole; each has a necessary and God-given work to perform,” Dawson argued. This does not, however, lead to utilitarianism, one group or class existing for the benefit for another. Instead, “all alike co-operate in their common service of God and His Church.”
As a revolt against Authority, the Protestant Reformation unintentionally opened the door to western secularization and economic individualism. Led by the rising middle-classes, Protestantism stressed the need for economic individualism rather than well-being of the commonwealth. The rising middle-classes, as best expressed by the Classical Economists of the eighteenth century, argued that the well-being of the community could only result from the individual pursuit of profit. The riches of the few would trickle down to the masses. With laissez faire in Northern Europe, the old world of tradition and communal protection of the aged and indigent withered.
It was an age of ruin and decay for the peasants and the yeomen and the free craftsmen: it was the age of the enclosures of the commons and the destruction of the guilds; it abandoned the traditional Christian attitude to the poor and substituted a harsher doctrine which regarded poverty as the result of sloth or improvidence and charity as a form of self-indulgence. It makes self-interest a law of nature which was providentially designed to serve the good of the whole so that the love of money was transformed from the root of all evil to the mainspring of social life.
The justification of the avarice of the individual, it seems, was the greatest accomplishment of liberalism.
One can see this clearly in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. The so-called philosopher of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689, completely redefined political society. This nominal Anglican moved even farther away from the traditional Platonic-Aristotelian-Augustinian-Thomist-[Calvinist] attempt to make virtue as the basis of all good society than had Machiavelli. Indeed, whereas Machiavelli at least acknowledged a God and then dismissed Him, Locke just dismissed God and His sacred law. Locke argued that society is no longer about a sublime covenant between the cult and God, but between insecure property-rights bearers who desire little more than worldly prosperity. To protect one’s self and one’s material acquisitions, property rights define us and our neighbors. Rather than being created in the Image of God, men are now merely homo economicus and form society not for the common good or the will of God, but for individual benefit and profit. The world began not with the Creator making His creation, but with an amorphous “state of nature.” And, man, rather than possessing a soul with the natural law written on his heart, as St. Paul had assured the Romans, is merely the tabula rasa, ready to be molded by society itself.
When combined with the ideas introduced by the Scientific Revolution of 1543 to 1687, liberalism almost shattered Christianity in the eighteenth century. The universe, according to Newton, for example, was no longer moved by Love. It was, instead, a vast mechanism that could be discovered through science and observation. Even the understanding of God changed. In his dedication to the pope, Copernicus tellingly labeled Him “the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all” who had built “the machinery of the world.” This was indeed a far cry from the Divine Love of the Divine Comedy that “moves the sun and the other stars,” pulling all things back to Him.
By the end of the eighteenth century, little of western culture—beyond the Protestant Americans and the Lutheran and Catholic peasants of Europe—remained religious. The dominant political philosophy of that fell century, liberalism, “retained the inherited moral standards and values of a Christian civilization,” Dawson explained. “But as Liberalism did not create these moral ideals, so, too, it cannot preserve them.” Further, economic liberalism “laid the foundations of the technological order in the new industrial society of the nineteenth century.” With free competition and the destruction of community norms, church moral standards, and the family, liberalism led directly to the rise of the machine. The end result: “the individual has become a cog in the vast machinery of modern industrial life,” Dawson wrote in 1930. “He is the servant of the machine and his whole life tends to become mechanized.” He becomes nothing more than a tool. As England, especially, became the “workshop of the world,” he argued, “society was brought into a state of dependence on material and non-moral factors such as had not existed since the days of the slave dealers and publicans of the later Roman Empire.” While the capitalists chanted slogans about freedom, they promoted “conquest and exploitation” of the laborers and of the world. As Pope Pius XI outlined it: “Free competition has destroyed itself; economic dictatorship has supplanted the free market; unbridled ambition for power has likewise succeeded greed for gain; all economic life has become tragically hard, inexorable, and cruel.” Two generations before, Pope Leo XIII had been equally direct: with the concentration of wealth in what amounts to little less than plutocracy, “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
The Christian Humanists, following the leads of Leo XIII and Pius XI, did not equate freedom or the free society with liberalism or capitalism. Both isms, were nothing more than false materialisms, simple heretical results of modernity distorting the reality of God’s and His Creation. The Christian Humanists believed that a Godly society was not liberal, but it was free. Godly society was not capitalist, but it fully respected the sanctity of individual and family property.
Additionally, by focusing on the supremacy of the autonomous and profit-making individual, Liberalism subjected all judgments to private desires and thoughts rather than to Truth. “Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.” Private conscience, the ultimate God-term for the Liberals, Newman reminded us, is only one of several authorities. It must be balanced with scripture, the Magisterium, and Antiquity. Like all heresies, liberalism focuses on one truth, exaggerating its importance while excluding other truths. Christianity has little to do with individualism, Dawson wrote. “It was in origin a religion of order and solidarity.”
Newman and Kirk both argued that this philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and the Mills (James and J.S.) represented the culmination of liberal thought. At base, utilitarianism argued for “the greatest good for the greatest number,” words that even Edmund Burke had used. The difference between Burke and Bentham, though, came in their differing uses of “great.” For Burke, “great” means society ordered according to God and tradition, embracing the virtues and piety. For Bentham, great meant that each man pursue his own “pleasure principle,” what the modern or so-called neo-classical economists call “utility.” His pleasure principle, though, far from the morally and religiously-infused “pursuit of happiness” of the Declaration of Independence, meaning to do what is right in the sight of God, embraced only materialism. Bentham despised the old virtues as mere platitudes and the idea of sin as the result of mere ignorance. Instead, he believed in blanket uniformity in politics and education, especially. Uniformity for Bentham meant equality, abstract rights, and efficiency. As Kirk put it:
National character, the immense variety of human motives, the power of passion in human affairs—these he omitted from his system; he radiated an absolute confidence in the human reason. Taking his own personality for the incarnation of humanity, he presumed that men have only to be shown how to solve the pleasure-and-pain equations, and they will be good; their interests will lead them to co-operation and diligence and peace.
This was the universalism of the Scholastics without God or Aristotelian intellectual rigor. Speaking through Newman, Dawson argued that “the colorless neutral phraseology of social utility and efficiency” of Bentham and others served merely as a “screen behind which mighty inhuman powers were marshalling their forces for the conquest of humanity.” These are the powers St. Paul warned were the true rulers of the world. “These spiritual powers are the real actors behind the veil of events,” Dawson continued. “They are invisible and apparently non-existent to the politician and the economist.” They “decide the fate of nations.”
Like his twentieth-century followers, the eighteenth-century Burke despised men like Bentham and railed against the “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who sought to destroy the moral imagination as little more than religious superstition. For Burke, one must trust tradition and “our breasts,” not our brains, to persevere best “a rational and manly freedom.” Indeed, utilitarianism seemed to Burke to be more in line with the French Revolution than with traditional norms of Christendom.
But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroick enterprise is gone!
With the French Revolution, man had indeed attempted apotheosis, and the results were nothing short of terrifying, Lewis’s incarnate Hell. Burke stated his loyalties bluntly: “All your sophisters cannot produce any thing better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions.”
Liberalism, as it turned out, served only as a stepping stone “to the bitter end, whether that end be Communism or some alternative type of ‘totalitarian’ Secularism” such as a pagan nationalism. Because Liberalism maintains the inherited Christian system of morals, at least verbally, whatever totalitarianism comes after Liberalism must completely eradicate the lingering Christianity. Ultimately, T.S. Eliot argued, “Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is the desperate remedy for its chaos.”
Marxism, like utilitarianism, also springs forth from Liberalism. Pope Pius XI put it bluntly in 1931: “let all remember that Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and that Bolshevism will be its heir.” In essence, Marxism is a collectivist liberalism devoid of any spiritual inheritance. It ignores even the religiously-tainted humanism of utilitarianism. Each, then, is simply materialist. And, communism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin, both bastard children of the Renaissance, the unintended consequences of the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. “Though Communism is the enemy of both Catholicism and of Capitalism,” Dawson wrote, “it stands far nearer to Capitalism than to Catholicism.” In its orthodox form, Christianity, inherently, is neither liberal nor materialist. Capitalism and communism, however, share in their materialism. Both “’capitalistic’ specialization and ‘socialistic’ consolidation,” Kirk noted, ground up [look this up] the best men, the men of tradition. This, Kirk lamented “is the future which ‘capitalists’ and ‘socialists’ and ‘communists’ all are arranging for us. It may be an efficient program. It is not a human program.”
In his twenty-nine books on politics, history, constitutional law, literature, social criticism, economics, and fiction, the shadow of the French Revolution and the loosening of the ideologues—whether in the form of liberalism, fascism, Naziism, or Communism—upon the world deeply haunted Kirk. Tellingly, Kirk’s most important influence was Edmund Burke, the originator of conservatism in the post-medieval world and the most articulate spokesman against the French Revolution. Following the careful scholarship of Raymond Aron, Voegelin, Dawson, and Gerhart Niemeyer as well as the social criticism of Eliot, Kirk argued that one could define ideologies through three of its “vices.” First, ideologies are political and secularized religions. They take with them the symbols and energy of religions, but they focus almost exclusively on the material and man rather than the spiritual and the Judeo-Christian God. Second, by polarizing political and social thought, ideologies render the virtue of prudence impossible. False absolutes dominate, nuance withers, and compromise—the essence of prudence—becomes impossible. As man naturally desires something greater than himself, ideology assumes the dogma of established religions. And, third, being puritans, the ideologues quickly attack ideologues representing other ideologies and especially the deviants from their own ranks. Usually, Kirk, contended, the half-educated (or even “quarter-educated,” as Kirk sometimes called them) and the bored in the West were the most susceptible to the lure of ideologies. But, as modernity, and now post-modernity, continue to make inroads, ravenously destroying history, tradition, and religion, more and more persons become prey for the seductiveness of absolutes and easy answers. They crave something greater than themselves, but have missed the opportunity to embrace true religion and right reason. They latch onto the first thing that presents absolutes.
Ideologies though do not politely contain themselves within revolutionary tyrannies; they slowly have infected all of the West, especially its literature and politics. Some Americans during the twentieth-century have embraced democratic egalitarianism as a somewhat benign (though not innocent, Kirk warned) ideology. Others, especially those on the political right, or so they believe, have embraced a form of consumerism or libertarianism as an ideology. And, to the horror of Kirk, some on the right even claimed conservatism as an ideology. For Kirk, conservatism is the antithesis of ideology, for it upholds tradition, religion, and history.
The Conservative Mind
Kirk challenged every form of liberalism and the machine, noting that it’s time was passing, the thing itself never more than ephemeral. But, conservatism, the defense of the best of the past, is a lasting and permanent thing; at least permanent according to the standards of creation. His doctoral thesis, The Conservative Mind, was published to astounding acclaim—even being a part of the cover story of Time’s 1953 Fourth of July issue. This “fat book,” as he often called it, became the basis of the post-war conservative movement, though Kirk was quick to point out that his definition of conservatism was not strictly political. Instead, it meant preserving (conserving) the best of our traditions. Tracing the Anglo-American inheritance of Edmund Burke’s thought, Kirk admitted that his book was an extended essay considering the definition of “conservatism.” His book changed forever the discourse regarding America and its supposed “liberal” origins. No longer could any scholar with integrity label America as simply a brave new liberal world, molded within a purely Lockean framework, with homo economicus emerging from an amorphous state of nature. Instead, as Kirk noted, strains of traditionalist and Burkean thought have remained through today in the Anglo and American mind. America, far from being new, emerged from the long western tradition, inheriting the best of the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Christians (Catholic and Protestant), and medieval English. Six tenets, he noted, formed the conservative mind:
1) “Belief in the transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience”
2) “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.”
3) “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’”
4) “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.”
5) “Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.”
6) “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress”
In short, the conservative, or man or woman of tradition, understands that a world greater than this time and place and these senses exists. “Those men and women who fail to perceive timeless moments are prisoners of time and circumstance,” Kirk wrote toward the end of his life. “Only by transcending the ravenous ego, and sharing their joy with others, do mortals come to know their true enduring selves, and to put on immortality.” Hell, after all, is “imprisonment with the ego, in the winter of discontent.”
In his 1954 A Program for Conservatives, perhaps his most polemical and, simultaneously, his most brilliant work, Kirk argued that one separated the economic from the legal from the political from the cultural only with forced artificiality. The “economic problem blends into the political problem, and the political problem into the ethical problem, and the ethical problem into the religious problem.” Coming from one Creator, all of creation is of a unified whole. The solution to everything, Kirk rightly noted, was a true understanding of the virtues, as developed and handed down through the western tradition: prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and charity. Only a cultivation and habituation of these, through the acceptance of grace, will order the soul and the commonwealth. If these are lost, if grace is rejected, the soul and the commonwealth are also lost.
While all of the virtues work together, it is love, the greatest of the virtues, that unifies the rest. In one of the most beautiful paragraphs composed in the entirety twentieth century, a century saturated with blood, ideologies, and technology, Kirk wrote:
At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, What is the object of human 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 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. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.
Man was not made to follow the arbitrary reason of tyrants or captains of industry. Men are put in a certain time and a certain place, armed with unique gifts, by the Creator “to live like men, and to die like men.” They are to fight the good fight on the “darkling plain,” knowing that the battle is their’s, but the war is not.
A half century after the publication of The Conservative Mind, Kirk’s six tenets of conservatism have become timeless. Actually, they have become time-full, perhaps more pertinent now than ever, as the whirligig of modernity and post-modernity swirls us closer and closer to the oblivion of the Abyss. At home, our culture drowns in its abortion clinics and sexualized and pornographic advertising, clothing, and entertainment. With some important exceptions, our politicians continue to pander to the lowest common denominator as they gradually dismantle the Republic. With even fewer exceptions, our academics remain trapped in their own subjective realities, publishing only for each other, and our corporations pursue their “dreams of avarice.” The average American student knows that “he/she is worth something” and “as good as everyone else,” but he could never name the last serious book he read, let alone one of the seven cardinal and Christian virtues. Abroad, things remain wretched. As Europe falls prey to a centralized bureaucracy of its own devising, Russia, a decade after the fall of communism, remains a nightmare—economically, culturally, and politically. Indeed, despite the western victory in the Cold War, systems of tyranny remain alive and well throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even more tragic, Christians are tortured and killed daily outside of the western hemisphere, while Cuba remains an important exception within this hemisphere. Since 1991, 160,000 Christians a year have been murdered around the world. Meanwhile, as Americans, we all grow wealthier and have more and more gadgets to keep us busy. One of the greatest paradoxes of the modern world, indeed, is simultaneous moral regress and technological progress. Kirk wrote:
To most observers, T.S. Eliot among them, it has seemed far more probable that we are stumbling into a new Dark Age, inhumane, merciless, a totalist political domination in which the life of the spirit and the inquiring intellect will be denounced, harassed, and propagandized against: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, rather than Huxley’s Brave New World of cloying sensuality. Or perhaps Tolkien’s blasted and servile land of Mordor may serve as symbol of the human condition in the twenty-first century.
The western world, as Kirk saw it, is crumbling and doing so rather quickly. The Sophisters and Calculators are taking the verve out of life, dehumanizing men, and breaking culture apart. Most tragic, few exist who even know that they should pick up the pieces, having failed to recognize the decay around them.
Still, as always, there are signs of hope. The home school movement in America is slowly reorienting the education debate away from inane equality and student self-esteem to a more liberal arts approach, stressing rigor and virtue. Movements in music (Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki (RIP, 2010), Mark Hollis, and Kevin McCormick), art (the New Humanists, though they lack a strong understanding of the religious underpinnings of sound aesthetics), and architecture (the New Urbanists) are demonstrating a serious understanding of tradition and the real meaning of art as a glorification of, first, God’s creation, and, second, the human person. The continued impressive sales of the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy are also good signs. Other artists, such as Michael O’Brien, also produce quality work.
Perhaps most important, we have possibly the greatest religious leader in centuries with Karol Wotija as Pope John Paul II. As a playwright, poet, philosopher, and former anti-Nazi and anti-communist, this humble Polish priest has captivated the moral imagination of millions and may be responsible for the beginning of the end of Communism with his “Be Not Afraid” speech in Poland in 1979. Since the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II has urged scholars to broaden their understanding of Christian Humanism as a response to modernity, post-modernity, and all human-centered ideologies. Dr. Kirk, who ended his pilgrimage in the City of Man, becoming a resident of the City of God in the spring of 1994 would no doubt approve these trends.
After all, only a people who accepts a moral foundation of its culture, a protection of its property, the decentralization of power, and a “national humility” will in the long run survive. Once a people forgets its purpose, it will fall into decadence. “Not by force of arms are civilizations held together,” Kirk wrote in 1958,” but by the subtle threads of moral and intellectual principle.” Kirk spent his adult life in the moral sartorial arts, re-weaving the subtle threads, reminding of us of the rich tapestry that should inform our lives. Liberalism was a put a passing phase, its energies and imagination exhausted; the conservative must remind men that they are men, ready to fight the good fight, for community, tradition, and the Highest purpose.
Today, the knight-errant against the ideologues rests in the cemetery of St. Michael’s Parish in central Michigan. One cannot imagine a more fitting protector than St. Michael, the Knight-Errant of the Heavenly Host, to stand watch over the “American Cicero” who believed in love above all things.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Notes:
1. Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 475-76.
2. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 15.
3. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 268.
4. Kirk, Prospects, 21.
5. Kirk, Prospects, 145.
6. E.I. Watkin, The Catholic Centre (London: Sheed and Ward, 1939), 139.
7. Dawson, “Catholicism and Economics, Part I,” Blackfriars (1924): 90.
8. Dawson, “The End of an Age,” The Criterion 9 (1930): 391.
9. Dawson, “Catholicism and Economics, Part I,” 91.
10. Dawson, “Catholicism and Economics, Part I,” 101.
11. Thomas Merton, “Time and Liturgy,” Worship 31: 4.
12. Merton, “Time and Liturgy,” 4.
13. Wilhelm Roepke, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (1960; Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1998), 8.
14. Guardini, End of the Modern World, 56.
15. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 69.
16. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 74.
17. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 204.
18. Dawson, The Judgment of Nations, 11.
19. Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 61.
20. Etienne Gilson, “The Terrors of the Year Two Thousand,” Logos 3 (Winter 2000): 22.
21. Dawson, ed., “Christianity and the New Age,” in Essays in Order, 162; Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 190; and Dawson, The Modern Dilemma, 38.
22. Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 41.
23. Dawson, “Catholicism and Economics, Part I,” 96.
24. Dawson, “The Historic Origins of Liberalism,” The Review of Politics 16 (1954): 270-71.
25. Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543).
26. Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII.
27. Dawson, “The Real Issue,” Colosseum 1 (1934): 20. More recently, the famous English philosopher, John Gray, has gone so far as to claim that Liberalism was nothing more than “illegitimate offspring” of Christianity. It can claim universality only because it is imitating Christianity. See John Gray, Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1991), 239-40.
28. Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 195; and Dawson, “The Problem of Wealth,” The Spectator (17 October 1931), 485-86.
29. Dawson, “European Democracy and the New Economic Forces,” The Sociological Review 22 (1930): 33.
30. Dawson, “Catholicism and Economics,” 169.
31. Dawson, “The Passing of Industrialism,” 48.
32. Pope Pius XI, “On the Reconstruction of the Social Order,” May 15, 1931.
33. Pope Leo XIII, “On Capital and Labor,” May 15, 1891.
34. Newman, Apologia, 254.
35. Newman, Apologia, 256.
36. Dawson, “The End of an Age,” 399. See also Tage Lindbom, The Myth of Democracy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s, 1996).
37. See especially Newman’s Propositions of Liberalism in Apologia, 259ff.
38. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1st ed., 101.
39. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1st ed., 100; and Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, 38-39. See also the late twentieth-century communitarian critique of utilitarianism. See, for example, Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 500.
40. Dawson, “The Return to Christian Unity,” unpublished mss., Harvard Theological Library, 15.
41. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 123.
42. Quoted in Kirk, ed., The Portable Conservative Reader, 21.
43. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 123.
44. Dawson, “The Real Issue,” Colosseum 1 (1934): 21.
45. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, 12. See also, Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, ed. Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, 1991), 141-43.
46. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1st ed., 100.
47. Pope Pius XI, “On the Reconstruction of the Social Order,” May 15, 1931.
48. Dawson, “The Real Issue,” Colosseum 1 (1934): 18.
49. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 152.
50. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 201.
51. St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (RSV; 1:18-24; 2:15)
52. Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 5-6.
53. Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 7.
54. Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Seventh Ed. (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1986), 8-9.
55. Kirk, Sword, 368.
56. Kirk, Prospects, 7.
57. Kirk, Wise Men Know What Wicked Things are Written on the Sky (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1988), 66ff.
58. Kirk, Prospects, 21.
59. Kirk, Prospects, 21.
60. Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1996), 4.
61. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1st ed., 424.
62. Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, 92.
63. Kirk, “Cultural Debris: Two Conferences and the Future of Europe,” Modern Age (Spring 1958): 165.
64. Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, 96.