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Russell Kirk deserves special attention on the topic of ideologies. In his twenty-nine books on politics, history, constitutional law, literature, social criticism, economics, and fiction, the legacy of the French Revolution and the loosening of the ideologues upon the world haunted him at a profound level. Tellingly, Kirk’s most important influence was Edmund Burke, the originator of conservatism in the post-medieval world and the most articulate spokesman against the French Revolution. Following the careful scholarship of Raymond Aron, Eric Voegelin, Christopher Dawson, and Gerhart Niemeyer as well as the social criticism of Eliot, Kirk argued that one could define ideologies through three of its “vices.”

First, ideologies are political and secularized religions. They take with them the symbols and energy of religions, but they focus almost exclusively on the material and on man rather than on the spiritual and on the Judeo-Christian God.

Second, by polarizing political and social thought, ideologies render the virtue of prudence impossible. False absolutes dominate, nuance withers, and compromise—the essence of prudence—becomes impossible. As man naturally desires something greater than himself, ideology assumes the dogma of established religions.[1]

And, third, being puritans, the ideologues quickly attack ideologues representing other ideologies and especially the deviants from their own ranks.[2]

Usually, Kirk contended, the half-educated (or even “quarter-educated,” as Kirk sometimes called them) and the bored in the West were the most susceptible to the lure of ideologies.[3] But, as modernity, and now post-modernity, continue to make inroads, ravenously mocking and devouring history, tradition, and religion, more and more persons become prey for the seductiveness of false absolutes and easy answers. They crave something greater than themselves, but have missed the opportunity to embrace true religion and right reason. They latch onto the first thing that presents itself as truth. When one adopted “truth” conflicts with the adopted “truth” of another, modern and post-modern man either falls into a bizarre subjectivism, as with Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, claiming each man can proclaim his own truth, or, as in the case in the Middle East, he sends teenage girls, strapped with bomb on their backs, onto public buses or into market places. The sane, educated man finds neither option appealing or acceptable.

Unfortunately, as American history has demonstrated over the past half century or more, ideologies do not politely contain themselves within revolutionary tyrannies; they have slowly infected all of the West, especially in its literature and politics.

Some Americans during the twentieth-century have embraced democratic egalitarianism as a somewhat benign (though not innocent, Kirk warned) ideology. Others, especially those on the political right, or so they believe, have embraced a form of consumerism as an ideology. And, to the horror of Kirk, some on the right have even claimed conservatism as an ideology. In Kirk’s mind, conservatism is the antithesis of ideology, for it upholds tradition, religion, and history.

Regardless, one thing is certain. Twenty-first century man has forgotten the western tradition of attempting to balance the universals and the particulars. As Cicero wrote:

True law is right reason in agreement with Nature…it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, although neither have any effect upon the wicked. It is a sin to try and alter this law, nor it is allowable to attempt to repeal a part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times, and there will be one master and one rule, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.[4]

With this, Kirk certainly agreed.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Notes:

1. St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (RSV; 1:18-24; 2:15)

2. Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 5-6.

3. Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 7.

4. Cicero, On the Republic.

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9 replies to this post
  1. "First, ideologies are political and secularized religions. They take with them the symbols and energy of religions, but they focus almost exclusively on the material and on man rather than on the spiritual and on the Judeo-Christian God."

    Can someone explain how Neo-Conservativism, which turns the D.O.I. into the Apostles Creed, is NOT an ideology?

  2. "Can someone explain how Neo-Conservativism, which turns the D.O.I. into the Apostles Creed, is NOT an ideology?"

    Neo-conservatism IS an ideology, I don't think anyone here would deny that. Neo-conservatism is not conservative at all.

  3. Personally I identify with High Toryism more than with American Conservatism. But I don’t think it’s productive to pretend we Traditionalists have nothing in common with neoconservatives whatsoever. Of course we do. They have the right way of thinking, it’s just misguided. Someday, when Traditionalists begin to treat neocons more like wayward brothers than mortal enemies, they’ll see the ancient light.

  4. I don't know Anon, from the way I understand it, neo-cons were exliberals who took up a conservative veneer, i.e. converos. They were still ideologues through and through.
    At least that what I have been taught.

  5. I hold to Kirk's abhorrence of ideology, but still …. is tradition, religion, and history enough in an age that has forgotten everything? Non-ideological conservatism works when there is enough tradition, religion, and history *present* to conserve. (Yes, history can be and should be "present".) What happens when the objects of a worthy conservatism are no longer in view? Not even religion can restore a lost Christendom. Something more is needed …

  6. An old friend of mine, who perches on the Right, often asks how I can call myself "conservative" and yet be anti-corporation. He doesn't quite understand my response that Corporationism has nothing to do with conservatism, and that a ravening lust for profit can be quite as destructive of civil society as the most violent of communist creeds.
    He thinks that any Conservative who strays off the reservation is an incipient Liberal. When I say that ideology was something abhored by the Founding Fathers, he responds with a blatant misquote of a Founder which he got off the Internet, or from (shudder) Glenn Beckk.
    I do, however, have hopes. He is beginning to think. Occasionally. But we have been friends for 30 years, and I won't give up on him now.
    I remain,
    Your obedient servant,

  7. There exists a certain confusion here: is ideology rejected because ideology robs us of prudence? Or is ideology rejected because it is false? Is the problem with ideology or with its truth claims? The claim of prudence over against that of ideology would at the very least suggest some suspicion of sectarian religion. To put it more forcefully, can Calvinism escape being an ideology (and an enemy of prudence)?

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