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americanImagine a man travelling through the night, without a guide, thinking continually of the direction he wishes to follow. That is the image of a man in search of order, says Simone Weil: “Such a traveler’s way is lit by a great hope.” Above even food and shelter, she continues, we must have order. The human condition is insufferable unless we perceive a harmony, an order, in existence. “Order is the first need of all.”

Before a person can live tolerably with himself or with others, he must know order. If we lack order in the soul and order in society, we dwell “in a land of darkness, as darkness itself,” the Book of Job puts it: “and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where light is as darkness.”

Once I was told by a scholar born in Russia of how he had come to understand through terrible events that order necessarily precedes justice and freedom. He had been a Menshevik at the time of the Russian Revolution. When the Bolsheviks seized power in St. Petersburg, he fled to Odessa, on the Black Sea, where he found a great city in anarchy. Bands of young men commandeered streetcars and clattered wildly through the heart of Odessa, firing with rifles at any pedestrian, as though they were hunting pigeons. At any moment, one’s apartment might be invaded by a casual criminal or a fanatic, murdering for the sake of a loaf of bread. In this anarchy, justice and freedom were merely words.

“Then I learned that before we can know justice and freedom,” my friend said, “we must have order. Much though I hated the Communists, I saw then that even the grim order of Communism is better than no order at all. Many might survive under Communism; no one could survive in general disorder.”

In America, order and justice and freedom have developed together; but they can decay in parallel fashion. In every generation, some human beings bitterly defy the moral order and the social order. Although hatred of order is suicidal, it must be reckoned with: ignore a fact, and that fact will be your master. Half a century ago, perceiving a widespread disintegration of private and public order, William Butler Yeats wrote of what has become the torment of much of the modern world:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

During the past half-century, the center has failed to hold in many nations. Yet once war or revolution has demolished an established order, a people find it imperative to search for principles of order afresh, that they may survive. Once they have undone an old order, revolutionaries proceed to decree a new order – often an order harsher than the order which they had overthrown. Mankind cannot be governed long by sheer force.

No order is perfect: man himself being imperfect, presumably we never will make our collective way to Utopia. If we ever arrived at Utopia, indeed, we might be infinitely bored with the place. Yet if the roots of an order are healthy, that order may be reinvigorated and improved. If its roots are withered, “the dead tree gives no shelter.” The traveler in the wasteland seeks the shelter of living order.

We are entering nowadays, it appears, upon a period of renewed concern for order in this country. Social order is the arrangement of duties and rights in a society, so that justice and freedom and a large measure of cooperation may be achieved. The disorder of the past decade has turned many minds toward attention to the first principles of order.

“The United States is one of the great creations of history, like Rome or the Spanish Empire, realities which we enthusiastically study and understand today.” So writes a Spanish scholar, Julian Marias, who knows intimately the America of our own day. “And the United States is being created before our very eyes, at an accelerated rate that allows us to observe it within our lifetime, or even in less than a lifetime…Is this not an intellectually exciting spectacle? Has there been a greater social and historical experiment available for man’s contemplation in many centuries?”[1]

Far from being stagnant, the American order still is developing. This word “order” implies membership: an order is something that one belongs to. All American citizens are born into this American order, or else are formally naturalized into it. Active participation in this order is both a right and an obligation, and whether this order improves or decays must depend upon the quality of that participation.

From the Declaration and the Constitution onward, the American order stood open to whomever desired to share in it, and could make his way to the United States. America’s society was pluralistic and tolerant enough, generally, but cemented by willing allegiance to the written and unwritten constitutions.

Although the tree of American order has grown mightily in height and breadth since the closing years of the eighteenth century, it could not have flourished had its old roots been unhealthy. Those roots go deep, but they require watering from time to time. Whatever the failings of America in the seventh decade of the twentieth century, the American order has been a conspicuous success in the perspective of human history. Under God, a large measure of justice has been achieved; the state is strong and energetic; personal freedom is protected by laws and customs; and a sense of community endures. The histories of most societies have been records of painful striving, brief success (if success at all), and then decay and ruin. No man can know the future, but most Americans believe that their order will continue to bring out what Orestes Brownson called “the dialectic union of authority and liberty.”

By the shock of the Civil War, Brownson wrote in 1865, “The nation has been suddenly compelled to study itself, and henceforth must act from reflection, understanding, science, statesmanship, not from impulse, passion, or caprice, knowing well what it does, and wherefore it does it.” That sentence applies equally well to the circumstances of the United States in our present decade, when domestic and foreign troubles have induced many Americans to inquire into the character of the order to which they belong. That awakening, Brownson continued, “is sure to give it the seriousness, the gravity, the manliness it has heretofore lacked”[2] If Brownson’s expectation was not altogether fulfilled during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, still it may come to pass during the last quarter of the twentieth.

By comparison with any other major nation of modern times, the United States has preserved and nurtured its essential order ever since Brownson wrote. Most of the world, during the past century, has experienced revolution after revolution, almost effacing the past and bringing forth hard new orders – often orders directed by squalid oligarchs. Even Britain has broken more clearly with its prescriptive pattern of politics and social institutions of general beliefs than has America. This is the only powerful nation-state, during the past century, that has not been ridden over by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: America’s wars have been fought thousands of miles distant from the American coasts, and not even one serious attempt at armed revolution has occurred.

The American order has been shaken from time to time, true: by enormous technological innovation; by massive shifts of population from one region to another, and from countryside to city; by the coming of new mass media and a “mass culture” that those media feed; by hot disputes between management and labor; by challenges to moral assumptions and habits; in very recent years, by protest and rioting of various origins. And yet the general character of that American order remains little altered. The circumstances have changed markedly, from time to time, but the laws and the mores have endured; and as Alexis de Tocqueville knew, the American democracy is the creation of its laws and (in still larger degree) of its moral habits. From time to time, small circles of dissenters have advocated radical alteration of the American order, but they have been rebuffed by public opinion; substantial reforms, however, have been accepted and have not yet operated to impair the order itself. And whatever America’s incertitudes today, it is difficult to find American citizens who can sketch any convincing ideal new order as an alternative to the one long rooted here.

In more ways than one, the American order has improved since Brownson’s day. If class, family, church, and community have suffered during the past century, nevertheless many Americans have become aware of the need for reinvigorating those chief indispensable features of their order. Rowland Berthoff concludes his recent historical examination of America’s order and disorder on a sanguine note:

Fortunately the curious cycle through which American society had passed in its first 360 years left a growing sense that the good society could not be built merely by cutting the individual adrift from all institutions and structures. For a higher freedom – liberation of his energy and talents for cultural and spiritual self-fulfillment – evidently the support of a stable, well-founded social structure was as necessary as the checks and balance of the new economic system.[3]

He ventures to hope for a “positive and many-sided liberty,” rooted in the American inheritance of laws and mores.

That patrimony is not dead. The roots of order twist back to the Hebrew perceptions of a purposeful moral existence under God. They extend to the philosophical and political self-awareness of the old Greeks. They are nurtured by the Roman experience of law and social organization. They are entwined with the Christian understanding of human duties and human hopes, of man redeemed. They are quickened by medieval custom, learning, and valor. They grip the religious ferment of the sixteenth century. They come from the ground of English liberty under law, so painfully achieved. They are secured by a century and a half of community in colonial America. They benefit from debates of the eighteenth century. They approach the surface through the Declaration and Constitution. They emerge full of life from the ordeal of the Civil War. “A reformer hewing so near to the tree’s root never knows how much he may be felling,” George Santayana remarked by way of caution in 1915. Those who would assist in America’s providential mission, as Orestes Brownson saw it, needs to understand where these thick roots of moral and social order may be found.

One of the more pressing perils of our time is that people may be cut off from their roots in culture and community. “The rootless are always violent,” Hannah Arendt says. In the 1960’s, hostility toward the American order was conspicuous among two very different groups of people: the impoverished and the “culturally deprived” inhabitants, black and white, of the cities decayed cores; and a restless element among college and university students, often bored, the children of American affluence. The first group had lost their roots in place and community, most of them being rural people (or else the children of rural people) abruptly and bewilderingly shifted to urban existence; the second group had lost their roots in culture and moral habits, in paradoxical consequence of the material success of their parents – with a resulting disappearance of responsibilities and incentives. Whenever people cease to be aware of membership in an order – an order that joins the dead, the living, and the unborn, as well as an order that connects individual to family, family to community, community to nation – those people will form a “lonely crowd,” alienated from the world in which they wander. To the person and the republic, the consequences of such alienation will be baneful.

Simone Weil writes in her moving little book The Need for Roots:

…that the first of the soul’s needs, the one which touches most nearly its external destiny, is order, that is to say, a texture of social relationships such that no one is compelled to violate imperative obligations in order to carry out other ones. …The great investigators of violence have encouraged themselves with the thought of how blind, mechanical force is sovereign throughout the whole universe. By looking at the world with keener senses than theirs, we shall find a more powerful encouragement in the thought of how these innumerable blind forces are limited, made to balance one against the other, brought to a form a united whole by something which we do not understand, but which we call beauty. …[Human order] is something to which a total sacrifice is due should the need arise…[4]

Sometimes that total sacrifice for the sake of order is required. Moral and social order, or a vast part of it, may be destroyed by a few years of violence or a few decades of contemptuous neglect. Then hope is gone, for many generations: for order is a kind of organic growth, developing slowly over many centuries; it cannot be created by public proclamation. The caricature of order established by “men on horseback” like Cromwell or Napoleon – or, worse, like Hitler or Stalin – is a harsh pseudo-order, and it does not endure. In a phrase variously attributed to Talleyrand or to Cavour, “You can do everything with bayonets – except sit upon them.” The rootless are empty of hope, because disordered, and therefore they grow angry and destructive.

To live within a just order is to live within a pattern that has beauty. The individual finds purpose within an order, and security – whether it is the order of the soul or the order of the community. Without order, indeed, the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. No order is perfect, but any tolerable order may be improved. Although in recent years the American order may have been deficient in imagination – in dealing with its problems of urban life, technology, shifts of population, and education, for instances – nevertheless this American order has maintained a high degree of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. The conscientious citizen works to improve that order: for the alternative to a tolerable order is not Utopia, but an intolerable disorder.

It is quite possible, as Julian Marias suggests, to support an order stupidly and ineffectually: he writes of those who “immoderately espouse the cause of ‘Law and Order.’” Failing to understand that order is subtle and complex, they “are the people who believe that problems can be solved with more and sterner police. If there is juvenile delinquency, they would not seek its causes and try to eventually modify the social conditions of wayward youth. They think it must be stopped ‘right now’…If some unwanted tendency appears within the country, no time should be lost in persuading others that it is bad; it must be immediately and inexorably cut out at the root.”[5]

But the man who truly understands order does not hack rashly through the roots; he does not imitate extremists. The real accomplishments, Marias tells us, “belong to those who know how to wait, those who know how long it takes for a tree to grow, those who, instead of shouting ‘Right now!’ have worked for the day when certain things would be possible. They know that things come about, as men used to say in earlier times, ‘In God’s own good times.’”

The intemperate zealot for instant “law and order,” and the ingenuous radical who demands perfection right now, are especially misguided in America, Marias concludes in a Tocqueville-like passage. For happiness, recognized in the Declaration of Independence, “always has been probable and frequent in the United States, perhaps more so than in other countries.” The present problems of American order are far less dismaying than those of the past or are those of other countries today; and Americans make headway against their present discontents. “Today’s youth have not learned ‘to see humor in misfortune,’ because they have hardly known what misfortune is,” Marias says. “They are being urged to do the opposite: they are being asked to declare a state of mourning and to make sadness and protest the rule in the midst of what must be considered – in view of the true state of the world – an incomparable example of well-being, freedom, and prosperity.” And Marias quotes Miguel Unamuno, a philosopher of dignity and freedom: “Let us not protest, for protest kills happiness.”

To protest against the existence of order is to protest against well-being, justice, freedom, and prosperity. Happiness is found in imaginative affirmation, not in sullen negation. Gratitude is one form of happiness; and anyone who appreciates the legacy of moral and social order which he has inherited in America will feel gratitude. The pursuit of happiness is not altogether vain. One finds happiness in restoring and improving the order of the soul and the order of the republic – not in acts of devastation that make a desert of spirit and of society.

America’s order rose out of acts of affirmation – from what Thomas Carlyle called “the Everlasting Yea.” Upon classical and the theological virtues, upon the social experience of the Old World and the New, there was built by self-sacrifice and high imagination the intricate structure of personal and public order. Although no single human mind planned this order of ours, the wisdom and the toil of countless men and women have gone into its making.

Other hands may renew that order’s structure and improve it with love and prudence, in God’s own good time. That work already is being undertaken by people whose names almost nobody knows as yet, but to whom posterity will owe much.

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

From The Intercollegiate ReviewSpring 1973. This article appears here with their permission and is taken from Dr. Kirk’s  The Roots of American Order.

1. Julian Marias, America in the Fifties and Sixties (State College, Penna.: Pennsylvania State University Press), p. 412.

2. From the American Republic, now reprinted in facsimile edition by August Kelley, pp. 2-3.

3. Rowland Berthoff, An Unsettled People (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 477.

4. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (London: Routledge, 1949).

5. Julian Marias, op. cit. p. 421

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3 replies to this post
  1. I am wondering if any of y'all (Winston, Brad, or John) can help out with a couple of questions about Kirk's The Roots of American Order which I am reading with some friends in a book club.

    Several are up in arms over a *glaring typo* in Chapter II, the section entitled God of Justice where Micah 6:8 is attributed to the prophet Hosea.

    Any ideas as to why this would not have been *corrected* in new editions?

    Or did Hosea actually say that somewhere in the book attributed to him?

  2. Hello John ~ I ended up messaging Julie Robison about this and she gave me the Hosea reference (14:9) It was corrected in future editions, and the jist is the same. The book study ladies finally settled down. The *error* is from Chapter II pg 33 in my 3rd edition copy where Kirk attributes to Hosea a verse from Micah.
    Thanks for getting back to me!

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