It seems everybody is looking for better answers to today’s problems; we want a revelation. But the problem is; we are reluctant to accept the superior answers and revelations which have already been ratified by the entire human experience. Although there are no shortcuts to wisdom, in this Information Age, the House of Wisdom is open to everyone with internet access. However, people nowadays seem to believe they possess some superior stock of private wisdom. Ironically, this also an epoch in which people increasingly believe that all opinions are valid and all lifestyles are ‘equal’. In an era when everyone is an individualist, emerging masses of men slavishly follow politicians and ideologues who have easy answers to complex problems and promise societal salvation through new and improved schemes. Postmodern Man is a walking contradiction; he seeks to emancipate himself from all higher authority while simultaneously empowering his elected leaders to usurp his liberties.
Against these trends and manifestations of modernity fight souls who have faith in the veracity and tenacity of what T.S. Eliot termed ‘the permanent things.’ One heavyweight champion of the permanent things was a humble Michigan man named Russell Kirk. Reagan rightly called him the prophet of American conservatism, but Kirk knew that we moderns are able to see farther than our ancestors only because we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestral giants. Kirk’s hero Edmund Burke wrote: “men must not venture to trade upon the petty bank and capital of their private rationality, but should venerate where they do not presently understand, and abide by the wisdom of their ancestors, the winnowed and filtered experience of the human species. Life being short and experience limited, the individual–even the wisest man of his age–is comparatively foolish; but through the experience of man with man, over thousands of years, the species has wisdom, expressed in prejudice, habit, and custom, which in the long run judges aright.”
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was born into a time that “rode on a whirlwind of innovation.” Instead of joining the stream of stylized systems and unproven abstractions of fashionable philosophies, Kirk constructed his beliefs on the high ground of bedrock principle. He built his home on aptly-named Piety Hill overlooking Mecosta, Michigan. In T.S. Eliot’s writings Kirk found the term he would popularize throughout his life: “Conservatism is too often a conservation of the wrong things: liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.” We realize in reading Homer’s Odyssey and by watching Homer Simpson that man’s nature is fixed; there are certain permanent components to our dualistic human nature, and that the same moral conflicts we experience today are also ancient man’s struggles. Hubris or humility? Avarice or generosity? Envy or gratitude? Fortitude or sloth? The ‘permanent things’ are those that lift us toward saintliness rather than degrade us in savagery. Kirk realized we are “unlikely to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste,” so he drew his sword of imagination to defend the best of our mores from the attack of the relativists and radical reformers.
James Person, in his lovely critical biography of Kirk, tells the story of a scholar whom Kirk respected, Thomas Howard, who would give his college English literature class an exercise in the permanent things by providing this list of words: majesty, magnanimity, valor, courtesy, grace, chastity, virginity, nobility, splendor, ceremony, taboo, mystery, and purity. Invariably his classes would find them “foreign to the whole set of assumptions that has been written (or should I say televised) into these students’ imaginations.” Yet up until recent times these words would have been understood and “extolled as being close to the center of things.”
However, just as individuals need these venerated, time-tested ideas, traditions, and enduring moral standards that transform brutes into exemplars, so too does society require permanent things. In the final year of his life, Kirk said, “There are certain permanent things in society: the health of the family, inherited political institutions that insure a measure of order and justice and freedom, a life of diversity and independence, a life marked by widespread possession of private property. These permanent things guarantee against arbitrary interference by the state. These are all aspects of conservative thought.”
Nations rise and fall as old truths fall in and out of favor. “We cling to the permanent things, the norms of our being, because all other grounds are quicksand. . . . Those who refuse it must be taught by personal experience–a hard master, as Benjamin Franklin says, though fools will have no other. . . . But if a man fortifies himself with the normative disciplines, he draws upon the imagination and the lessons of the ages, and so is fit to confront even a diabolical adversary.”
This is the second in a year-long series of essays by Mr. Moore for the Michigan Conservative Union’s ‘Project Kirk’ published in southeast Michigan’s monthly newspaper The Courant.