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Russell Kirk mantleIn one of the great works of imagination, In one of the great works of imagination, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton declared that faith is romantic, that materialism is not only dull but produces a boredom that leads to madness. Humans are born romantics and they can never fulfill their better natures without cultivating an imagination that accepts and embraces mystery.

The romantic lives in tension between what is unchanging and what always changes, between Nature and History, between angels and beasts, between spirit and flesh. But even this is not quite accurate, for while we live in tension between, say, time and timelessness, we also live in possession of both.

We are time-bound and we are timeless. We are spirit and we are flesh. We have a nature and we are products of culture and history.

Chesterton defined romance as satisfying “the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar.” In due course we learn to attach a number of other words to romance: variety, adventure, imagination, and wonder.

What we do not find in Chesterton is a clear, analytical, dialectical clarification of this word, for there is something about the subject that begs for the allusive, the indirect, the language of the mystic or the poet. To define too analytically would produce a most unromantic book about romance. And so to understand Chesterton, to discover the meanings and purpose of romance, we must balance our love of logic and analytical distinctions with an imagination that allows the careful play of words to form constellations of associations.

Ultimately, Chesterton or any other imaginative thinker must show us what we recognize in our own experiences. We must “see” with them somehow. But seeing in this way requires imagination, and imagination is often atrophied in ages of reductive thinking and thin language.

Understanding a thinker like Russell Kirk requires the patience to allow his words to work on you, to cultivate an imagination that sees things in complex and messy wholes rather than in their easily digestible parts. Russell Kirk was a romantic. He was a wise man with the soul of a child, a man comfortable with the familiar while yearning for adventure and surprise. He was a wanderer with a purpose.

To understand better the romantic Kirk, I draw again on Chesterton (a practice that Kirk employed often—using the words of person “x” to explain the ideas of person “y”). Chesterton wrote that “we need this life of practical romance: the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”

Now before I attempt to flesh out the meanings Chesterton intends here, I want to note an important characteristic about conservative thought, properly understood. Conservatives reject—more properly, they fear—simplifications. Simplifications are usually a result of isolating something, tearing that something from the whole of which it is a part. Simplification is a form of abstraction.

Conservatives prefer the thing in its complexity, with its integrity, even if the thing apprehended is of such a nature that it is expressed only in metaphoric terms or in a fashion that expresses the necessary tension that keeps the parts together. The faculty that best apprehends these things is the imagination and often the best form of expression is metaphor or even myth.

The romantic rejects the middle as he demands all extremes—he demands the extremes as they were meant to be, bound together. He isn’t interested in some artificial safe middle-ground, he doesn’t see things as left and right, as though ideas fit on some line, the center of which might be located.

Reality might be one thing, but this thing is a multiplicity. The lust to control reality, to give it a simple structure that yields unchanging laws, leads to the negation of human freedom. The lust for complete freedom produces nihilism. But choice, in the context of order, is liberty. (Or, as Chesterton noted, the chief aim of law and order “was to give room for good things to run wild.”)

Order and liberty are distinct things and a philosopher might isolate them conceptually and tout one or the other or he might place them on some continuum from tyranny to freedom and seek the middle ground. But the romantic, the conservative, will see them bound together so tightly that any liberty that is not ordered liberty is just another word for slavery.

Spiritual slavery, which includes being enslaved to one’s most base desires, to be addicted to the satisfaction of easily attained earthly things, is a result of boredom. Boredom is the final and most enervating human disease. It can produce ideological madness, expressed in efforts to remake the world, to deify humans as the authors of their own reality, or it can result in an intense privatism, an indifference to all things public, to all beings outside of one’s pinched world.

A romantic is never bored, for he occupies a world full of mystery and surprise, a reality understood in complex forms, in traditions, in liturgies, in myths, in complex social fabrics that bind humans together in community and that bind communities together across time. To inhabit such a reality is to see in all simple things the wonder of the universe, to see patterns, to feel connections, to relish in the particular, because in the particular one witnesses, but does not possess, the universal.

But if boredom is the source of the problem, what produces boredom? Kirk argued that the lust for power or control disconnected reason from imagination and made reason a servant of the human desire to control. Such an abstracted reason focused on instrumental knowledge, on the power to alter the natural world and, in due course, to alter the human. In order for abstract reason to produce a new earth, a new civilization oriented around satisfying human desires, it has to be radically reductive.

The most obvious reductionists of our time, and probably the most dangerous, are the libertarians. Kirk emphasized their “metaphysical madness” because they have made such a god out of freedom that they have lost all contact with the ground of their existence and the metaphysical source of their freedom. They preach individualism and personal freedom, and while some libertarians might personally connect freedom with larger ends or purposes, their public concerns are to extend to as many humans as possible the maximum freedom of choice that doesn’t materially harm others.

Kirk was a warm friend of freedom, but he was no friend of freedom set free from its context. Freedom with a capital “F” was unattractive to him because it was abstract, cold, uncontained, and without a larger purpose. Liberties (plural) were more to his liking.

A liberty, as Kirk used the word, emerged in a particular historical context to address particular human needs. Liberties were always part of duties, obligations, and even more important, expectations. Liberties that emerge from a long experience, from habits and cultural forms, are part of a much larger moral economy that is reasonably suited to a people. Liberties, understood this way, are not abstract, not disconnected, not due people as a result of some abstract human dignity. They are particular expressions of a particular people.

By contrast, Freedom is a universalist claim, a claim about the human understood abstractly rather than historically. Freedom leads to imperialism—a la George Bush. Freedom is simple, clear—it is a moral slogan that substitutes for the moral imagination.

But what is the moral imagination? Kirk’s great book on the subject is Eliot and His Age, wherein he defined it this way: “the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events. The higher form of this power is exercised in poetry and art.” Well, I’m not sure how well that explains it. Kirk referred constantly to a historical imagination and a literary imagination. Indeed, imagination looms much larger in his work than reason.

Whatever the imagination is, it isn’t always good. Borrowing from Irving Babbitt, Kirk warned about the idyllic imagination—associated most closely with Rousseau and which “terminates in disillusion and boredom.” What all of these forms of imagination have in common, it seems to me, is the capacity to capture something complete rather than in part, to apperceive rather than perceive, to express a synthetic whole that includes ends as well as means.

The moral imagination recognizes that humans have a law that is peculiar to their nature and that the needs for human flourishing are not satisfied by temporal things alone. Human desire reaches toward something outside of time, some norm or universal expression. But because humans are temporal beings with eternal longings, they must live according to both natures.

The moral imagination integrates personal mortal experience, individual spiritual longing, and the developed moral understanding of the ages, into some poetic or mythic expression of the complex moral universe that humans alone occupy. The moral imagination creates works that bear the peculiar shape or color of a specific culture but which reach out to the shared human condition. They are cultural products and they are spiritual products—humans can only escape the limits of their own culture and time by employing the idioms and artifacts of their culture.

The moral imagination helps to express the highest human aims and to identify basic moral and even political principles, but it cannot issue slogans, programs, or ideologies. The moral imagination never loses the balance or tension of spiritual beings living in time, but neither does it eliminate the mystery that ultimately shrouds the most basic truths of our existence. In some ways, the moral imagination gives us knowledge of the mysteries that define us rather than resolve those mysteries.

For Kirk, we moderns can choose to live in cosmic mystery—and engage in the romantic journey of the soul that the mystery provides—or we can deny the mystery, cut ourselves off from the truths available through imagination, and occupy an existence narrowly and simply defined by abstract reason.

Because abstract reason is disconnected from imagination, it does not understand beauty. Efficiency, of one sort or another, becomes its master. The drive to simplify is part of this desire for the most efficient means of organizing our lives. Defending equality simply or freedom simply is much easier to do than to talk of ordered liberty or of spiritual equality. The tyranny of efficiency means that the human goods found in our aesthetic nature, our spiritual need for beauty, are sacrificed.

One of my favorite Kirk essays, “The Uninteresting Future,” (and the companion essay, “Class, Manners, Beauty, and the Shape of Modern Society,” both found in The Intemperate Professor and other Cultural Splenetics) concerns the importance of architecture in cultivating human goods, human happiness, and romance. In this essay, Kirk lamented the “ghastly monotony” of so much modern architecture. In the twentieth century we found ourselves in look-alike houses and in due course, we would have think-alike people. We found ourselves in planned cities—cities built on a scale that swamped human community, turning people into indistinct atoms bouncing about a boring but colossal city-scape.

But why should we worry about our man-made environment so? And now, we are back to very basic fundamentals. Ultimately, all of these questions revolve around Kirk’s understanding of human nature—our nature as seen through the moral imagination. But we are in a bit of a problem given the reductive way we use the term human nature.

To suggest the nature of something is to suggest its fixed qualities, its unchanging characteristics. This understanding tends toward a fixed and universalistic characterization of the human. Add to this tendency the modern obsession to shave away all complicating factors to find the simple, irreducible thing, and we moderns tend to talk about humans as “good” or “fallen” or as possessing “natural rights” or by nature “free beings” or some other such characteristic. But Kirk could only refer to human nature by keeping all the complicating factors attached.

To highlight some characteristics for our purposes, Kirk stressed that humans belong to a particular place and time. This is true of all humans—all humans are cultural beings and so are bound by this cultural inheritance. Humans flourish when they develop affection and attachments to the people, institutions, habits and ways of their immediate environment. Any healthy society will, therefore, produce a vibrant communal life that is rich with memories of the dead, that is concentrated on the rich attachments of everyday life.

Large and homogenous cities disconnect people, failing to provide them with adequate opportunities to belong to those immediately around them and these cities distance people from the tangible expressions of forbearers. The modern city, with its efficient architecture, produces busy workers, people devoted to privates lives, but no tangible associations with things greater than themselves. In other words, a bland and efficient architecture atrophies the very imagination that helps people to find their ancestors, to think ahead to posterity and to recognize their moral obligations before a creator.

So, for Kirk, any hope of coming to understand the complex mystery of universal norms is found in rich and particular cultural forms. Humans can never understand these truths abstractly and therefore they must be attached to the particular forms that aid them in seeing and expressing what we cannot understand fully.

In the end, Kirk’s understanding of conservatism depends on an aesthetic shaped from the sorts of experiences and cultural habits almost impossible to cultivate in modern America. Indeed, one of the unasked questions in Kirk’s works, and a most pressing one for people who want to think of themselves as romantic conservatives, is whether Americans, born to equality of conditions, can really be romantics. If so, how?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published by Front Porch Republic and appears here by the gracious permission of the author.

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3 replies to this post
  1. A hat-tip to my onetime office-neighbor Ted McAllister! He expresses eloquently a love for complexity, particularity, and concreteness (emphatically NOT understood as simplicity or superficial "clarity") that I find deeply attractive in Kirk and other imaginative conservatives, as well as some of my ostensibly "postmodernist" influences. @PeterCBlum

  2. What a fine piece! There is a splendid scene in Ernst Lubitsch's very funny and wise 1939 film Ninotchka. A good-hearted but dim soul played by Melvyn Douglas (think Bertie Wooster but a gigolo) falls for a Soviet commissar played by Greta Garbo and he contrives to get her near the Eiffel Tower by moonlight. While he waxes romantic, she has her notebook and wants to know how much steel was used in its construction, man-hours, etcetera. Hers is the materialist mind near its inevitable reductio, but of course her hapless suitor wins the maiden and carries the day.

    At another stage he is accosted by his butler, who has seen Marx's Das Kapital on his master's bedside and thinks it most inappropriate reading. "Come, come, Alphonse!" smooths the feckless hero, asking if he does not long for his fellow workers to rise up and share the riches of the spoilt elites. The manservant is most firm: "If I am meant to share my meagre life savings with a wastrel such as you, Sir, most definitely not!" Biff!

    It is a film in which wonder wins, and ideology is deflated in its economic and materialist forms, and in its misapprehensions of class. If I recall correctly, Dr Kirk thought it was brilliant.

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