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Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

Dear Readers of The Imaginative Conservative, As some of you know, I’ve been making my way through (and thoroughly enjoying) several of Kirk’s lesser known pieces from the 1940s and 1950s. Here are some excerpts from a speech Kirk gave in June 1954 to the national meeting of the Chi Omega sorority. As you will see, many of these paragraphs ended up in A Program for Conservatives.  Enjoy.

Russell Kirk, “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Fraternity,” lecture given in June 1954 to Chi Omega, reprinted with same title, Eleusis of Chi Omega 58 (February 1956): 121-130.

“A friend of mine, about the time my book The Conservative Mind was published, told me that if I wanted to sell any copies, I ought to get the word “sex” into the title somehow, since only that sort of book seems to find a large public nowadays. Well, it might not be ill–advised for some one to write a book entitled The Conservative Sex. Women are the conservatives of this world. The advocates of female suffrage promised us a way of saving reforms if only women were given the vote; the opponents of the measure warned us that voting women would demolish everything established. In plain fact, nothing of the sort happened; ever since, women have been a bulwark of traditional society. They are conservatives because, even more than men, they venerate an order more than human and a wisdom more than the appetite of the hour.” [pg. 121]

“I think that the famous slogan of the French Revolution, ‘liberty, equality, fraternity,’ did infinite mischief in the world, from that time to this; and I believe that the cause of all this harm was the elevating of these words into abstractions, unrelated to realities. The great virtue of the leaders of the American Revolution, in contrast with the French, was that they related their every act and political policy to practical considerations and the wisdom of their ancestors; they did not turn fanatics for the sake of god–terms and devil–terms. I think that there is a true liberty, or rather that there are true liberties, but that these are valueless, or else positively harmful, unless they are defined and related to particular persons and institutions. I think that there is a true equality, but it is a quality in the sight of God and in the eyes of the law, not an abstract quality of condition. I think that there is a true fraternity, exemplified by your voluntary association, which is a world away from the compulsory and ferocious ‘fraternity’ of the radical doctrinaire. And I should like to contrast the conservatives idea fraternity, in particular, with the radicals and the liberals idea of fraternity.… In part, modern liberalism comes from Bentham—you still can see his mummy at the University of London, and his ideas walk among us still—his abstract principle of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ mathematically determined, and his emphasis upon Efficiency, and his contempt for everything old and complex, and his desire for a drab Utilitarian future. And, in part, modern liberalism is the child of Rousseau, with his romantic emancipation from old moral confines, his hatred of constituted authorities, and his exaltation of the common will to supremacy over every private and traditional right. In short, modern totalitarian democracy—what Tocqueville calls ‘democratic despotism’—is the consequence of these liberal ideas; and with the passage of time, the society which these notions create destroys the very liberties which originally was intended to bestow upon men.” [pp. 122-123]

“Now, the conservative, the thinking conservative, never has agreed that happiness, per se, is the object of human existence.… Not that conservatives believe men ought to be unhappy; conservatives seek with all their power to alleviate the injustice and misery of this world; but they know that, in plain fact, man is a creature fallen from grace, and that he never will be perfectly happy here below, and that if we pursue happiness directly, we never will find it. Happiness comes only as a byproduct of duty done and higher ends sought, in odd moments, most often in retrospect. The conservative knows that the object of life, and of society, is something else altogether. The conservative does not believe that the and 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 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 learned 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 was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. 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. He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine–operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them with him bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars.” [pp. 124-125]

“Rousseau proclaimed his intention of distilling a kiss upon the universe. That is a very tall order. As a matter of fact taken as a crowd, a mob, men and women are ugly, sour, treacherous, envious, violent, sinful. It is only when we know men and women in particular persons that we can come truly to love them; and there are some men and women we ought not to love, for they are hateful. Rousseau and most liberals, I think, have espoused a love indiscriminate and maudlin, sure to and in a detestation of humanity more bitter than sweats, when put to the test; Rousseau liberals of this breed, though professing to love all humanity in the abstract, will find themselves unable to love any person in particular. The conservative’s idea of love is a world away from the liberal’s idea; and when he is told to love his neighbor, the conservative first make sure that the people in question really are his neighbors.” [pg. 126]

“If we would love our country, we must first learn to love our family, our immediate associates, our parish, our town, all the institutions of percentage and community; the man who seeks to love his country in the abstract or mankind in the abstract, is in love with the phantom; and that phantom often takes the form of the nightmare. The conservative believes that true love must be discriminate and selective, and must appertain to particular persons in particular groups and institutions; once thus founded, perhaps it can grow; but love never can reach human proportions if, commencing in the abstract, it seeks gropingly to find human expression. Moreover, the conservative believes that the lovely society is one in which justice (in the classical definition of ‘to each his own’) and variety predominate, in opposition to the liberal tapioca–putting state characterized by a featureless quality and uniformity. To the conservative, true fraternity, like true love, must be the product of volition, the free wills of particular persons, never of compulsion; for brotherhood, like love, dies if it is forced.” [Pages 126–127.]

“Community… stands at the antipodes from collectivism. Community is voluntary and diverse; collectivism, enforced in uniform. Community grows up from love; collectivism lives upon compulsion. A truly liberal society, whatever the 20th–century liberals say, is the fine growth of the voluntary cooperation of a great many men and women, working through there several free associations and orders in society—through their church, their local government, their guild or professional group, their club, their fraternity. When these voluntary organizations expire, then real freedom and representative government perish, and the ‘liberalism’ which survives, in Lord Acton’s phrase, is ‘fit for slaves.’” [Page 127.]

“Law and order, and the democracy of elevation, could not survive one year among us without the principle of true fraternity, the voluntary cooperation of persons acting as a group for the sake of the commonwealth, and joined by common interests, common associations, common memories, and to some extent common origins. These voluntary associations are the great barrier against tyranny over minds and bodies; it is no coincidence that the first act of the Nazis and the Communists was to destroy all those voluntary associations which would obstruct the total power of the radical state. Voluntary associations, true fraternities, unite individuals by the power of sympathy against arbitrary measures, and train their members to stand forthrightly against oppression; thus they are detested, always, by this early in India’s radical reformer, with his fanatic one idea, who is resolved to tolerate no obstacle to the consummation of his lust for power.” [Pages 127–128.]

“In the United States, thanks to sound constitutions and traditions, democracy has been a good, most of the time.… Our voluntary societies take the place which, in the old system of Europe, an hereditary nobility and a system of guilds and corporations used to supply—that is, the function of aristocracy. No democracy of elevation can survive without some ingredient of aristocracy in its composition; when the true leadership which ‘aristocracy’” means is destroyed, then the usual consequences are democratic despotism, and presently the ruthless oligarchy of a fanatic new elite. All individuals are not identical or equal by nature; nor ought they to be. Such a world would be unbearably monotonous. We hold some men and women dearer than others, and I hope we never shall cease to; for if we cease, then human beings will not become no more than so many equipollent units, like ants, or the parts of an unfeeling machine. It is no more wrong to prefer the company of old associates and persons of similar tastes than it is for a husband to prefer the company of his wife to other women’s. In short, we touch here upon the question of human personality; and lesser matters shrink to insignificance beside the dilemma of humanity in this century. The grand question before us is really this: is life worth living? Are men and women to live as human persons, formed in God’s image, with the minds and hearts and individuality of spiritual beings, or are they to become creatures less than human, herded by the masters of the total state, debauched by the indulgence of every appetite, deprived of the consolations of religion and tradition and learning and the sense of continuity, drenched in propaganda, aimless amusements, and the flood of sensual triviality which is supplanting the private reason?” [Pages 128–129].

“Great civilizations do not fall a single blow. Our civilization has sustained several terrible assaults already, and still it lives; but that does not mean that it can live forever, or even into or through another generation. Like a neglected old house, a society whose members have forgotten the ends of society’s being and of their own lives sinks by degrees almost imperceptible toward its ruin. The rain comes in at the broken pane; the dry–rot spreads like the corpse of the tree within the wall; the plaster drops upon the sodden floor; the joists grown with every wind; and the rat, creeping down the stair at midnight, gnaws his dirty way from desolate kitchen to the mildewed stack tunes of the parlor. We men of the 20th-century have this house only, and no other; the storm outside, in the winter of our discontent, will allow of no idle building of dream–castles; the summer indolence of the age of optimism is long gone by. The conservative, if he knows his own tradition, understands that his appointed part, in the present forlorn state of society, is to save man from fading into a ghost condemned to linger hopeless in a rotten tenement.” [Page 130.]

Books by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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3 replies to this post
  1. For what it's worth, Winston, I think this might be Russell Kirk at his absolute best. This speech just might be his crowning achievement, which, of course, is no small praise. The beauty of the words are matched only by the beauty of the ideas. The Chi Omega women must've been pretty amazing.

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