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Russell Kirk and the Roots of American Order

Russell Kirk best tells the story of the West in The Roots of American Order. Now in its fourth edition, Roots is “simply one of the finest surveys of the classical, religious, and European influences on American political thought ever composed” (Lee Cheek). In his masterpiece, Dr. Kirk traces key cultural elements of four great civilizations and the cities that defined them–biblical Jerusalem, ancient Athens, ancient Rome, and medieval and early-modern London. Leaders in each of the four civilizations carried forward the cultural DNA they inherited, often in creative ways that challenged the status quo. So Israel had its Moses, David, and Solomon; Athens its Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Rome its Cicero, Cato, and Augustus; Britain its Chaucer, St. Thomas More, and Shakespeare.

In the sixteenth century, the world was thrust into a new era when Europeans encountered the Western hemisphere and began planting their ambitions in its rich soil. On American ground, between the 1490s and the 1790s, the cultural DNA of the West eventually combined to make a remarkable new nation. The creation of the United States was organically related to previous civilizations, to be sure, but not a clone of any of them.

Culturally our early republic represented a unique grafting of key elements–from the monotheistic promise of Jerusalem, to the unfinished philosophical quests of ancient Athens, to the civic republican inheritance of ancient Rome, to the evolving political institutions and common law of London.

Politically the Anglo-American errand in the wilderness was producing a new species of polity that began to blossom in Philadelphia in the mid 1770s. On the one hand, the early republic represented “a revolution not made but prevented,” as Burkeans would characterize it. (See Edmund Burke’s Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in which he discusses the principles of 1688.) On the other hand, as Alexander Hamilton reminds us, the new polity was the result of self-conscious reflection on American resistance to British tyranny. (See the opening of Federalist Paper Number 1.)

So the establishment of the United States was a unique mix of old and new, fulfillment and promise. It did not exactly represent a novus ordo seclorum–a new order of the ages–as some American boosters claimed. (The phrase is still on our paper currency.) In reality, each of the four cities provided the cultural roots from which America’s founders, framers, farmers, and forward-trekking pioneers would draw sustenance. These early Americans went about their daily lives with their Bible, Aesop, Plutarch, and Blackstone in hand.

Russell Kirk carries this story of American order forward to the mid 19th century, culminating in the work of Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Orestes Brownson.

Shoots of American Order

As the title of his book implies, Dr. Kirk emphasizes continuity over change–old roots over new shoots. And yet, new shoots there were. The hundred years from the 1760s to the 1860s was the first Time of Trial in American history. As a result of the American Revolution, War for Independence, birth agony of the new republic, and Civil War to resolve its paradoxes, American politics and culture began to diverge in significant ways from European politics and culture. What had changed?

– Politically: in the 1780s, a large republic was created in a world of settled monarchies.

– Ecclesiastically: there would be no national church.

– Socially: aristocratic titles and privileges were outlawed.

– Culturally: Noah Webster and other chauvinists endeavored to create a distinctively American culture.

– Geographically: the presence of the frontier renewed the possibility, again and again, of equality of opportunity and upward mobility (for white males).

– Economically: the world’s largest, continuous, free-trade zone was coming into existence.

– Civil society: in the 1830s, Tocqueville observed that America’s network of voluntary associations was the world’s most developed, by far.

– Morally: in the 1860s, slavery was abolished on American soil by the Thirteenth Amendment; the greatest uncompensated but legal transfer of property in human history was effected; and four million men and women of African descent were freed from the shackles of the peculiar institution.

Innovations all, from the perspective of Old Europe’s anciens regimes.

Violence of Transmitting Cultural DNA

The transmission of cultural DNA from generation to generation and civilization to civilization is rarely seamless. Because the four cultures varied from one another, there were frequent and ferocious clashes, and these clashes are an important part of the story. We well know the story of how Philadelphia clashed with London from the beginning of the American Revolution in 1761 (from John Adams’s viewpoint, the true starting point) to the end of the War of 1812, when the War for Independence was finally resolved. We less frequently ask how Jerusalem’s ideals clashed with those of Athens, how Athens’s ideals clashed with those of Rome, and how Rome’s ideals clashed with those of London. Yet these civilizational clashes are critical to understanding our roots as Americans.

David vs. Goliath: Jew vs. Greek?

It’s not something most of us learned in Sunday school, but the story of David and Goliath may well have foreshadowed future conflicts between Jerusalem and Athens. In the 11th century B.C., both Mycenaean Greeks and Jews wanted to control Palestine. What were Mycenaean Greeks–called “Philistines” in the Hebrew Scriptures–doing in Palestine in the 11th century B.C.? It’s a good question. One theory is that Mycenaean civilization collapsed suddenly around the time the Greeks were returning from the Trojan War. The collapse forced the Greeks to flee their homeland and seek refuge in other parts of the Mediterranean. The Mycenaean Sea Peoples who made the successful voyage to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean would have included Goliath’s ancestors in search of a new homeland. But they ran afoul of King Saul, who was establishing a monarchy for the Jewish people in the region.

Given his size and reputation as a warrior, it is not improbable that Goliath was a descendent of one of the Mycenaean Greeks who had besieged Troy. It’s uncanny that another great book of the ancient world–the Iliad–features a similar fight in which young Nestor slays the giant Ereuthalion (in Book 7). But in the David and Goliath story, the tables are turned, and it is the Mycenaean warrior who comes out on the losing end. Indeed, when the Bible describes David holding the decapitated head of Goliath up as a trophy (in 1 Samuel 17v51), it is as though the Jews are proclaiming their supremacy over the Mycenaean Greeks, whose exit from history ended the Age of Heroes and bequeathed a dark age to the ancient Mediterranean world.

Hebrew Jews vs. Greek Jews

Another critically important clash occurred in the 2nd century B.C., when Jerusalem–the City of David–was the scene of a fierce struggle between champions of Greek culture and freedom fighters for Jewish culture. It is not by accident that I compose this essay on December 1, 2010, at the start of Hanukkah. These Jewish holy days commemorate one of the most famous civilizational clashes in our cultural DNA.

Jerusalem was not a strictly Jewish city in ancient times. The armies of Alexander the Great conquered the Jewish people and imposed Hellenistic culture on them during the Second Temple period. Indeed, one of the kings in the wake of Alexander’s conquest, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, reinvented Jerusalem as a Greek polis and renamed the city Antiochia. More, this Seleucid king issued a decree that forbade the Jews from observing the rites and laws of their religion. Instead, Jews had to follow Greek customs. Failure to do so could and frequently did warrant the death penalty. So utterly totalitarian was Antiochus IV that he rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the Greek god Zeus. Sacred prostitution was practiced within its precincts.

This is the background to the heroic struggle that the Maccabees waged against those trying to impose a Greek cultural agenda. They sought to reestablish Mosaic law. But the Maccabees did not speak for all Jews, many of whom were eager to embrace Hellenism. The Hellenized Jews were attempting a cultural synthesis that more conservative Jews found threatening. Thus the civil war got nasty–as civil wars inevitably do–with the Maccabees seeking out and destroying any fellow Jew who abandoned the law of Moses.

After three years, Antiochus’ edict was rescinded, and Jews were once again free to observe Mosaic law. They rededicated the Temple to YHWH in 164 B.C., which is what the modern Jewish holy days of Hanukkah commemorate.

And yet–and yet–what did the descendents of the conservative Jewish Maccabees eventually do with their new-found freedom? They accepted Greek names. They adopted Greek customs. They produced Greek literature. They read Old Testament books that had been translated into the Greek left behind by Alexander the Great. Two centuries later, Jewish-raised authors of the New Testament would write in Greek. The apostle Paul would vigorously argue for the inclusion of Hellenized Jews in the Church. The irony is rich.

Moral of the Story

The point of retelling this story is to remind ourselves that the roots of American order did not always grow harmoniously with one another. The story of the Maccabees shows how a civil war could arise when Jewish and Greek values clashed within the same culture. In America today, we are faced with some of the same kinds of tensions that erupted in civil war in the 2nd-century B.C.

Books by and about Russell Kirk and the other areas of study mentioned in this article are available in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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6 replies to this post
  1. I am glad to hear that Mr Whitney thinks that Roots is Dr Kirk's best, although I find it hard to choose among the embarrassment of riches. It was been along time since I read Roots and I have no copy to hand here in Affghanistan. Did Dr Kirk, there or elsewhere, describe how Americans forgot the unique ingredients in their unique heritage, or was there some other path to their widespread determination to make all the world like them?

    Stephen Masty

  2. From my reading of Kirk's works, it would seem that Dr. Kirk viewed America's struggle against the squandering of her legacy not as the sight of a single pitched battle (i.e. the 1960s) but as a long-running, ongoing struggle that has tried the American soul since the onset of "our time of troubles," meaning roughly the era of World War I. There would be neither final victories nor final defeats in this culture war; and whatever gains conservatives achieved would be forever in dnager of being frittered away by stupidity.

    Dr. Kirk didn't see the American mission in the world as one that involved "making all the world like them." He did see it as one involving the modeling of all we uniquely are in terms of maintaining a tolerable civil social order of justice, order, and freedom. In his article "Not Addressed to Vanity (1976) he wrote: "I venture to suggest that this Republic may bring peace and justice to the modern world chiefly by endeavoring to fulfill its mission: that is, to set an example of a great nation which achieves a high measure of order, and justice, and freedom, which reconciles authority and liberty. This is not all the same as yesteryear’s bragging about the American standard of living. . . . I am suggesting that we should set our American house in order, and so let the world contrast the American order with the squalid oligarchies that dominate most peoples of this era. If there is to be a Pax Americana, it will come from emulation, not from manipulation. . . . This Republic of ours still is young, as great states go, and perhaps the best is yet to be. Though chastened by recent adversities, the American people remain vigorous and resourceful. In world affairs, it is not foolish to aspire to a Pax Americana—still keeping our powder dry."

    And in one of his essays published in "The Politics of Prudence, Kirk spoke of what he deemed prudent foreign policy, writing: "I have been suggesting . . . that a soundly conservative foreign policy, in the age which is dawning, should be neither 'interventionist' nor 'isolationist': it should be prudent. Its object should not be to secure the triumph everywhere of America’s name and manners, under the slogan of “democratic capitalism,” but instead the preservation of the true national interest, and acceptance of the diversity of economic and political institutions throughout the world. Soviet Hegemony ought not to be succeeded by American hegemony. Our prospects in the world of the twenty-first century are bright—supposing we Americans do not swagger about the globe, proclaiming our omniscience and our omnipotence."

  3. Thank you, my good friend Jim. You quote Dr. Kirk wisely, as always. Every member of the Obama administration and of Congress who is involved in foreign policy-making should read the three paragraphs you posted: an excellent summation of Dr. Kirk's warnings against American empire.

  4. A little history, my friends; not by way of correction but of context. The estimable George Will once wrote to me (I had criticized his tirade against M.E. Bradford) that "context is the last refuge of scoundrels," but in this case it is used not to defend a position but to give it more light.

    In 1975 Stephen Masty was a student at Hillsdale College and I a brand new associate professor of history. The second Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar that fall was on Russell Kirk's new book (having been published in late 1974) RAO. The CCA was a marvelous idea, cooked up by Hillsdale leaders about five years earlier, and is still one of the finest examples for enriching liberal arts education produced in the 20th century. [A note here: they at first wanted to call it the Center for Rational Alternatives Policies, until they realized that the acronym would be CRAP.] In those days 8-10 speakers would make up every program, and most of them would stay on campus the entire week. They visited classes, ate and drank with students and faculty (God food! Good spirits!), and generally added good things to a rural campus struggling to get its curriculum in order.

    Russell Kirk was teaching on campus that fall, and helped the CCA director to put the seminar together. The Director was Barbara Smith, and she presided over the vent with unusual grace, intelligence, charm and beauty, especially for one so young! Eric Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was in the lineup, and he used to call her "The Barbaarrian!" The speakers included Mel Bradford, Reid Buckley, Bill Dennis, Gottfried Dietze, Anthony Kerrigan, Peter Stanlis, Rep Steve Symms; the "liberals" were Louis Filler (of Antioch!–but Russell liked him), Gordon Wood (who had recently won a Pulitzer) and a very young Michael Novak.

    Russell spoke on "Is America Decadent?" (well, yes and no) and the others actually kept on topic. Students who paid attention, and I believe and hope Mr. Masty was one of them, actually learned something that week about what it means to have a Western Civilization to defend. One young professor determined after that week that the history course required of all freshmen would take on the structure of that discussion. About fifteen years later, it happened.

  5. John, I remember it so well! We students were so fortunate to have those seminars so well-organised by Barbara, so full of great people and wisdom. Was there ever their equal? Drinking coffee with Friedman, going for strolls with Hayek, quaffing a beer with Tom Wolfe or Mel Bradford and meeting so many more. People such as WF Buckley were politely dismissed as parvenus and counter-jumpers while we kids queued up to meet the heavyweights, the intellectual bare-knuckles boxers of conservatism.Of course Dr Kirk was in residence then, one of us, part of the home team and endlessly accessible, particularly for long, joyous walks up cold country roads under night skies carpeted by starlight and perfumed with cigar smoke, then coffee as thick as mud and as strong as diesel oil lubricating a thought about Scottish ghosts, or the strange Indians who still lived deep in the Mecosta swamps or wise men long dead. My smart father (Hillsdale '50) kept saying, 'See? Aren't you glad you didn't go to U of M after all?' Meanwhile, mom went back to work to help him pay the tuition bills, God bless them both. For me it was a transforming experience lifelong. I remain ever grateful.

    I recall, a little less happily, the debate either at that conference or soon thereafter, when Dr Kirk took on Eric Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn on whether the Right needed an ideology. Dr Leddihn said yes, dumb it down for the Cold War demanded it and otherwise nobody (on our team or the others) could figure out what was going on. Saint Russell, of course, spoke for the angels, reiterating the points to which he gave his life. Sadly, we lost. Even at Hillsdale! And we self-styled 'Kirkaguards' from the Koon Hall honours dorm (turned out to vote on a three-line whip) were crestfallen while Dr Kirk, of course, calmly said much as Mr Person quotes. Most conservatives seem to have made the same error as the majority at Hillsdale did, and now we have neo-cons and ten other flavours of ideological snake-oil to thank for it. But Tolkein's road goes ever on, and to quote Dr Kirk quoting Chesterton, 'For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.'

    Stephen Masty

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