In the early to mid 1950s, especially after publishing The Conservative Mind, Kirk began to develop his own own three pillars of a good society, “Order, Justice, and Freedom” as he would frequently put it in the 1970s and 1980s.
In this 1954 article (excerpts below), published in the University of Notre Dame’s Review of Politics, Kirk–fully within the Christian Humanist tradition–considered the virtue of Justice from a classical as well as a Christian perspective. Harmony, not contention, brought together the two traditions.
Only a true Justice–the recognition of “giving each man his due”–would allow the flourishing of a well-ordered society.
Additionally, Kirk argued in a rather libertarian and Catholic fashion, true justice could only exist when chosen freely by well-ordered individuals and not when imposed from above. To support his own claims, Kirk drew upon Plato, Cicero, Burke, and Pope Pius XI.
Though nominally a Protestant at this point, Kirk had begun taking instructions in joining the Roman Catholic Church from a Jesuit while teaching at the University of Detroit in the spring semester of 1954. He would not come into full communion with the Catholic Church for another decade.
This article, never reprinted, also reveals some of Kirk’s thoughts on the existence of Natural Rights, a topic he rarely addressed elsewhere. ”The foremost of our true natural rights is the right to justice and order, Kirk wrote. ”Men have a right to the product of their labors, and to the benefits of good government and of the progress of civilization. But, they have no right to the property and the labor of others.”
[The following excerpts are from: Russell Kirk, "Social Justice and Mass Culture," The Review of Politics 16 (1954): 438-451.]
“From the time when first amended into reflect upon such matters, the nobler and more serious minds been convinced that justice has some source and sanctioned more than human and more than natural. Either justice is ordained by some power above us, or it is mere expediency, the power of the strong over the weak—… a great part of mankind, nowadays, has succumbed to this latter concept of justice; and the consequence of that belief is playing to be seen in the violence and ruin that have overtaken most nations in the century.” [pp. 439-440]
“Now our traditional idea of justice comes to us from two sources: the Judaic and Christian faith in a just God whom we fear and love, and whose commandments are expressed in unmistakable language; and the teachings of classical philosophy, in particular the principles expressed in Plato’s Republic and incorporated into Roman jurisprudence by Cicero and his successors. The concept of justice upon earth which both these traditions inculcate is, in substance, this: the idea of justice is implanted in our minds by a Power that is more than human; and our mundane justice is our attempt to copy a perfect justice that abides in a realm beyond time and space; and the general rule by which we endeavor to determine just conduct and just reward may be expressed as ‘to each man, the things that are his own.’” [pg. 440]
“Plato perceived that there are two aspects of this justice: Justice in private character, injustice in society. Personal or private justice is attained by that balance and harmony in character which shines out from those persons we call ‘just men’—men who can not be swayed from the path of rectitude by private interest, and to our masters of their own passions, and to deal impartially and honestly with everyone they meet. The other aspect of justice, social justice, is similarly marked by harmony and balance; it is the communal equivalent of that right proportion and government of reason, will, and appetite which the just man displays in his private character.” [pg. 440]
“It is perfectly true, then, both in the eyes of the religious man in the eyes of the philosopher, that there is a real meaning to the term ‘social justice.’ The Christian concepts of charity and obedience are bound up with the Christian idea of a just society; while for the Platonic and Ciceronian philosopher, no government is righteous unless it conforms to the same standards of conduct as those which the just man respects. We all have real obligations toward our fellow–men, for it was ordained by Omniscience that men should live together in charity and brotherhood. A just society, guided by these lights, will endeavor to provide that every man be free to do the work for which he is best suited, and that he receive the rewards which that work deserves, and that no one meddle with him. Thus cooperation, not strife, will be the governing influence in the state; class will not turn against class, but all men will realize, instead, that a variety of occupations, duties, and rewards is necessary to civilization and the rule of law. As classical philosophy merged with Christian faith to form modern civilization, scholars came to distinguish between two types of applications of justice—not divine and human justice, not private in social justice, precisely, but what we call ‘commutative’ justice and ‘distributive’ justice.” [pg. 441]
“Distributive justice, in short, is the arrangement in society by which each man obtains what his nature and his labor entitle him to, without oppression or invasion. Commutative justice is righteous dealing between particular individuals; distributive justice is the general system of rewarding each man according to his deserts. Both concepts of justice have been badly misunderstood in our time, but distributive justice has fared the worse.” [pp. 441-442]
“The followers of Rousseau, asserting that society is simply a compact from mutual benefit among the men and women who make up the nation, declared that therefore no man has any greater rights than his fellows, and that property is the source of all evil. Burke turned all the power of his rhetoric against this delusion. Men do indeed have natural rights, he answered; but those rights are not what Rousseau’s disciples think they are. The foremost of our true natural rights is the right to justice and order.… This is the Christian and classical idea of distributive justice. Men have a right to the product of their labors, and to the benefits of good government and of the progress of civilization. But they have no right to the property and the labor of others.” [Page 442].
“This sincere Christian will do everything in his power to relieve the distresses of men and women who suffer privation or injury; but the virtue of charity is a world away from the abstract right of the quality which the French radicals claimed. The merit of charity is that it is voluntary, a gift from the man who has to the man who has not; while the radicals claim of a right to appropriate the goods of the more prosperous neighbors is a vice–the vice of covetousness. True justice secures every man in the possession of what is his own, and provides that he will receive the reward of his talents; but true justice also ensures that no man shall seize the property and the rights that belong to other classes and persons, on the pretext of an abstract equality. The just man knows that men differ in strength, intelligence, and energy, in beauty, in dexterity, in discipline, in inheritance, in particular talents; and he sets his face, therefore, against any scheme of pretended “social justice” which would treat all men alike. There could be no greater injustice to society than to give the good, the industrious, and the frugal the same rewards as the vicious, the indolent, and the spendthrift.” [pp. 442-443]
“To reduce all these varieties of talent and aspiration, with many more, to the dull nexus of cash payment, is the act of the dull and envious mind; and then to make that cash payment the same for every individual is an act calculated to make society one everlasting frustration for the best men and women.” [Page 443]
“Now the Christian concept of charity enjoins constant endeavor to improve the lot of the poor; but the Christian faith… does not command the sacrifice of the welfare of one class to that of another class; instead, Christian teaching looks upon the rich and powerful as the elder brothers of the poor and weak, given their privileges that they may help to improve the character and the condition of all humanity. Instead of abolishing class and private rights in the name of an abstract equality, Christian thinkers hope to employ commutative and distributive justice for the realization of the peculiar talents and hopes of each individual, not the confounding of all personality in one collective monotony.” [Page 444].
“Marx insisted that since all value comes from ‘labor,’ all value must return to labor; and therefore all men must receive the same rewards, and live the same life. Justice, according to this view, is uniformity of existence.… By this he meant that because men are not equal in strength, energy, intelligence, or any other natural endowment, we must take away from the superior and give to the inferior; we must depress the better to help the worse; and next we will deliberately treat the strong, the energetic, and the intelligent unfairly, that we make their own natural inferiors their equals in condition. Now this doctrine is the callous repudiation of the classical and Christian idea of justice. ‘To each his due’: such was the definition of justice in which Plato and Cicero and the Fathers of the Church and the Schoolmen agreed. Each man should have the right to the fruit of his own labors, and the right to freedom from being meddled with; and each man should do that work for which his nature and his inheritance best qualified him. But Marx was resolved to turn the world inside out, and in necessary preparation for this was the inversion of the idea of justice. Marx refused to recognize that there are various kinds and degrees of labor, each deserving its peculiar reward; and she ignored the fact that there is such a thing as the postponed reward of labor, in the form of bequest and inheritance. It is not simply the manual laborer who works: the statesman works, and so does the soldier, and so does the scholar, and so does the priest, and so does the banker, and so does the landed proprietor, and so does the inventor, and so does the manufacturer, and so does the clerk. The highest and most productive forms of labor, most beneficial to humanity both in spirit and in matter, commonly are those kinds of labor least menial. Only in the sense is it true that all value comes from labor.” [pp. 444-445]
“True distributive justice, which prescribes the rights and duties that connect the state, or community, and the citizen or private person, does not mean “distribution” in the sense of employing the power of the state to redistribute property among men. Pope Pius XI, in 1931, made it clear that this was not the Christian significance of the phrase.… This encyclical, in general, urges the restoration of order, through the encouragement or resurrection of all those voluntary associations which once interposed a barrier between the Leviathan state and the puny individual.” [Pages 445–446].
“The Benthamite delusion that politics and economics could be managed on considerations purely material has exposed us to a desolate individualism in which every man and every class looks upon all other men and classes as dangerous competitors, when in reality no man and no class can continue long in safety and prosperity without the bond of sympathy and the reign of justice. It is necessary to any high civilization that there be a great variety of human types and a variety of classes and functions.” [Pages 446–447].
“The gradual reduction of public libraries intended for the elevation of the popular mind, to mere instruments for idle amusement at public expense; the cacophony of noise which fills almost all public places, converting even the unwilling into a part of the captive audience, so that only by spending a good deal of money and traveling some distance can one eat and drink without being oppressed by blatant vulgarity; the conversion of nominal institutions of learning to the popular ends of sociability in utilitarian training—all these things, and many others, are so many indications of the advance of the masses into the realm of culture. The nineteenth-century optimists believe that the masses would indeed make their own culture, by assimilating themselves to it; it scarcely occurred to the enthusiasts for popular schooling but the masses might assimilate culture to themselves.” [Page 448].
“If justice means uniformity, then the higher life of the mind which is confined to a few has no right to survival; but if justice means that each man has a right to his own, we ought to try to convince modern society that there is no injustice or deprivation in the fact that one-man is skilled with his hands, another with his head, or that one man enjoys baseball and another chamber music. We must go be on the differences of taste, indeed, and remind modern society that differences of function are is necessary and beneficial as differences of opinion. That some men are richer than others, and that some have more leisure than others, and that some travel more than others, and that some inherit more than others, and that some are educated more than others, is no more unjust, in the great scheme of things, then that some undeniably are handsomer or stronger or quicker or healthier than others.” [Page 449]
“Poverty, even absolute poverty, is not an evil; it is not evil to be a baker; it is not evil to be ignorant; it is not evil to be stupid. All these things are either indifferent, or else are positive virtues, if accepted with a contrite heart. What really matters is that we should accept the station to which “a divine tactic” has appointed us with humanity and a sense of consecration. Without inequality, there is no opportunity for charity, or for gratitude; without differences of mind and talent, the world would be one changeless expanse of uniformity.” [Page 449]
“We do indeed have the duty of exhorting those who have been placed by a divine tactic impositions of responsibility to do their part with charity and humility; and, before that, we have the more pressing duty of so exhorting ourselves.” [Pages 449–450]
“Man was created not for equality, but for the struggle upward from brute nature toward the world that is more than terrestrial. The principle of justice, in consequence, is not enslavement to a uniform condition, but liberation from arbitrary restraints upon a man’s right to fulfill his moral nature.” [Pages 450–451]
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Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.