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The West as Anamnesis

Western culture itself has served as an anamnesis, an event that brings us back to right reason and reminds us of the sovereignty of the Transcendent. With the ideological assault in full force in the twentieth century, and the blood of the killing fields spreading darkly across the once varied landscapes, Kirk argued that only a return to the best of the western tradition could save the West. “Ideology cannot be rebuffed by a massive advertising campaign about the virtues of the market economy,” Kirk warned. “Only a grasp of sound moral and political principles, widely diffused, can resist the menaces and promises of fanatic ideology.” Writing in the late 1940s, T.S. Eliot had argued that westerners should “try to save something of those goods of which we are common trustees: the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout the last 2,000 years.” In his four-volume history of the western world, Order and History, Eric Voegelin followed a similar scheme, and Kirk did as well in his stunning 1974 work, The Roots of American Order


Kirk began Roots with an attack on ideology and historical ignorance, rightly noting that for any soul or commonwealth to be ordered properly, an understanding of history and tradition must be prevalent. He compared the situation of America and the West to that of Cicero at the very end of the Roman Republic.

Before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ one which he said ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance.

We, like the Romans of 43bc, have forgotten our past, our traditions, and, hence, may not have a future. And like Cicero, Kirk is serving us warning. Our order, Kirk argued, is organic. That is, it is cultivated over long periods of time. It is fragile, and it requires frequent nurturing. If one generation breaks the continuity of generations, by believing itself uniquely superior to other generations, culture decays rapidly. This is what Lewis meant with the “Abolition of Man.” In essence, by breaking the continuity of generations, we abstract ourselves from reality and life, if we can even call it life. We will drown in our subjectivity and arrogant and hedonistic individualism. “The American order of our day was not founded upon ideology,” Kirk wisely wrote. “It was not manufactured: rather, it grew.” Hence, we must honor and reform (not revolutionize) what men and women left us, discerning through prudence which traditions are good and which need to be changed or discarded.



Iconographic Cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome

Like Eliot and Voegelin before him, Kirk rooted the American order in the symbolic cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. The patrimony of each of the iconographic cities culminates in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. From Jerusalem, the West learned “the order of the soul.” The Hebrew patriarchs and prophets gave to the West the concept of, and belief in, a Transcendent. This “is the high contribution of Israel to modern social order,” Kirk wrote, “the understanding that true law comes from God and that God is the source of order and justice.” Hence, man can understand that nothing he creates can last. Only those things that man discovers in the created order have permanent meaning. The Greek Sophists were wrong, as man is not, nor should he be, “the measure of all things.” In terms of politics, though, Kirk warned, the ancient Hebrews have little to teach us, with the exception of the vital importance of the covenant. Indeed, the covenant, an agreement between God and His people, forms the basis of political order, as it will later become the compact as well as the contract. Ultimately, though, the citizens of the West should recognize that “the most valuable thing in our common inheritance is the Christian religion.”

The Greek city-states also have little to offer the West in terms of political order, except examples of what not to do. For the Greeks never learned the virtues of peace and justice. Politically, one can learn from them only “a cautionary tale of class conflict, disunity, internecine violence, private and public arrogance and selfishness, imperial vainglory, and civic collapse.” In other words, the Greeks offer no political models. While the Greeks failed as a whole in politics, several Greek persons succeeded in discovering the philosophic tradition. Hellas, therefore, gave the West the “order of the mind.” Plato understood the need for the order of the mind and soul, as best represented in The Republic, an allegory of how to order one’s soul. Plato’s student, Aristotle, understood the fundamental and necessary relationship of the individual within the community. As a social animal, Aristotle noted, a man is only a man when he lives in community. To leave the community, one becomes either a beast or a god, but he certainly no longer can remain a man. Community, tradition, and family, according to Aristotle, define the very essence of the human person, giving him meaning. “It is in community that human beings realize their aim in existence,” Kirk explained. Only there, can one discover his gifts and use them for the common good. Ultimately, though, Kirk wrote, Hellas—despite the glories of Plato and Aristotle—failed because as a culture it never really understood the concept of a Transcendent, which led to the worship of individual city-states above all things. Their sin was the sin of statism and, often, the glorification of men as the highest end of the universe.

From ancient Rome, the West gained an understanding of the highest form of government, the Republic, with its many checks and balances. Though the Roman republic fell in 43BC, it did so only after teaching the world, and even the future empire, the necessity of virtue in its people. Kirk defined virtue as “energetic manliness” as well as piety toward one’s ancestors and immediate family. One can find energetic manliness in the best of the Romans—of both the republic and the empire. Too much territorial and military expansion, though, destroyed the virtue of the average Roman, and he become dependent upon an ancient welfare state, “the bread and circuses.” And, as St. Augustine reminded us in The City of God, their virtue remained the virtue of the pagans, and, based on will rather than grace, it necessarily turned to vice. Still, the men who practiced the virtues—such as Cato the elder, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius—have served as exemplars for all of subsequent world history. The Romans also gave the West an understanding of the “rule of law” which attempted to restrain the passions of men. In the end, though, the Romans were better engineers than artists or poets, as is evident by the ruins of roads, bridges, and buildings to be found throughout the three large parts of three continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia) that they conquered.

Iconographic City: London

The fourth iconographic city, London, represents the best of the Middle Ages, which Kirk called an “age of light,” dismissing the “Enlightenment” notion of a Dark Ages between the fall of Rome and the so-called Renaissance. It was in England that the greatest of Christian and classical culture was preserved during the centuries after the fall of Rome. The synthesis of the Christian and the classical produced, as just one example, the epic Beowulf, perhaps the outstanding work of creativity in the early middle ages. Linking myth and history, Tolkien argued, Beowulf is “something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and yet incarnate in time, walking heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North.” Written, most likely, by a first generation Christian religious, it attempted to keep the best of the pagan, while sanctifying the story to Christianity. Indeed, Beowulf serves as a quasi-Christ figure as he puts his life on the line to kill Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and, ultimately, the dragon. In the end, though, Beowulf must sacrifice his life in battle with the dragon. Unlike Christ, Beowulf remains cold and dead after his battle with the fell beast. His failing—one which he shared with all Germanic and Mediterranean pagans—came from his reliance on will rather than Grace. Thus, the true Christian figure in the poem is to be found in Wiglaf. Like St. John at the cross with Christ, Wiglaf remained the one companion of Beowulf’s who never deviated from his loyalty to his lord. After Beowulf sacrifices himself to kill the dragon, Wiglaf shames the companions who ran away, noting that their enemies would quickly notice their lack of courage. True to Wiglaf’s warning, his people would suffer permanently from their lack of energetic manliness.

The synthesis of classical and Christian cultures in England also witnessed one of the most important figures in the history of Christendom, St. Boniface, who evangelized the pagan tribes of what is now northern Germany. Boniface did so with zeal. When encountering a Hessen tribe worshipping an oak tree dedicated to the Norse god Thor, St. Boniface promptly grabbed an axe and cut down the tree. According to legend, the tree exploded into four parts at the first touch of the axe’s blade. And, much to the surprise of the chagrined Hessians, Thor failed to exact revenge on the Christian missionary. A posthumous account recorded: “But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above, crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length.” Awed, the Germans were ready to listen. Legend tells that in the spot of the felled oak, an evergreen instantly sprang forth from the ground, and Boniface’s followers placed candles on it so that Boniface could preach the Gospel late into the night, thus creating the tradition of the Christmas tree.

Closely studying the exploits of the intrepid saint, Dawson went so far as to proclaim that Boniface was “a man who had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived.” Perhaps providentially, every significant moment in Boniface’s life corresponded with a further Islamic incursion into Christian Europe. “During the generation before the birth of St. Boniface the whole of the Christian East had been conquered” and Byzantium almost fell. When Boniface was a “monk at Nursling in 711-713[,] Spain was being conquered by the Saracens, and while he was beginning his mission to Germany the Saracens were beginning their invasions of France.” Boniface’s genius came from his realization that Christian Europe would need a Christianianized German people to serve as a barrier to the growing Islamic threat in the South. He also needed the protection of the Martel family in the Frankish region. Each, alliance then, would allow the classical documents, classical tradition, and Christian scriptures to remain protected in the relative safety of the British Isles. Boniface was a diplomat as well as a spiritual figure, who attempted to infuse Christianity into barbarian culture. As Dawson explained:

The work of St. Boniface did more than any other fact to lay the foundations of medieval Christendom. His mission to Germany was not an isolated spiritual adventure like the achievements of his Celtic predecessors; it was part of a far-sighted programme of construction and reform planned with all the method and statesmanship of the Roman tradition. It involved a triple alliance between the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, the Papacy, and the family of Charles Martel, the de facto rulers of the Frankish kingdom, out of which the Carolingian Empire and the Carolingian culture ultimately emerged.

Like all good Christians, he surrendered his own will and became “a servant rather than a master of his age. . . accepting every charge and never attempting to impress his personality on the course of history.” Though eventually martyred for his selfless and Grace-filled efforts, St. Boniface succeeded in creating what we would now recognize as the beginnings of Europe, a synthesis of the classical, Christian, and Germanic. His contributions in the formation of Christian Europe are equaled only by St. Gregory the Great and St. Benedict. Fulda, established by Boniface, remained a center of European evangelization long after Boniface’s martyrdom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury eulogized in the year of Boniface’s death, 754, “We recall the wondrous—nay, the ineffable—grace of God and render thanks that the English people were found worthy, foreigners as they are, to send this gifted student of heavenly learning, this noble soldier of Christ, with many pupils well taught and trained, to far-off spiritual conflicts and for the salvation of many souls through the grace of Almighty God.”

Another great English contribution came from the Anglo-Saxon-Norman discovery and maintenance, to this day, of the common law, an organic understanding of community and authority, based on tradition and precedent. Arising from the needs of the Anglo-Saxon communities, it holds a people together across time and space. Ultimately, common law served as the “foundation of order” as well as “the foundation of freedom,” as laws based on community norms, rather than the passions of men, became the basis of society. Rooted in the common law, the English constitution began to develop over time. In theory, representative government began with the Magna Carta of 1215, though a real parliament would not develop until the fifteenth century.

Iconographic City: PhiladelphiaThe patrimony of these four cities culminated in a fifth iconographic city, Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. In the Declaration of Independence and at the writing of the Constitution, Americans successfully melded the orders of the soul, the mind, the polity, and the medieval commonwealth, though with Calvinistic Protestant or Anglican sensibilities. Another vital factor in the American makeup for Kirk was the existence of a wilderness and a frontier.

It was America’s moral order, then, that sustained America’s social order. Even though class, family, and community were enfeebled west of the Alleghenies; even though the institutional Church might be reduced to circuit-riding preachers there; even though the common man of the West seemed interested chiefly in his own material aggrandizement—still he read his Bible, accepted as good the political framework which he inherited from the Atlantic seaboard and from Britain, and took for granted a moral order that was his custom and his habit. That is why the American frontiersmen and backwoodsmen and entrepreneurs of the vast newly-opened country were not men ‘in a state of nature.’

With its formal creation, the United States of America served as an anamnesis for the West, perhaps one of the most important in its history.

Kirk did not remain uncritical of the American achievement. Rampant commercialism and egalitarianism after the War of 1812 greatly attenuated the American achievements of 1776 and 1789, as did the ideological attacks of the twentieth century. Still, the temper of the people as well as our written constitution have given Americans an enduring form of conservatism and acceptance of an enduring American order.

Americans stand politically strongly attached to old ways of managing public affairs, rejecting all proposals for thoroughgoing constitutional revision, holding inviolate documentary and even architectural symbols of the national experience. Probably the majority of Americans today assume that our national constitutions will endure for time out of mind, that the political order, at least, which the present generation knows will be known also by their grandchildren and great grandchildren, that in time past other nations may have fallen low even as Nineveh and Tyre, but that the United States of America, as a system of order and justice and freedom, is immutable.

Ironically, Kirk noted in 1989, only the most old-fashioned of Americans still believed in incessant progress based on man’s unlimited reason.

Kirk was ultimately a patriot, though, not a knee-jerk nationalist (that is, carrying an attitude of “my country, right or wrong”). As long as America and Americans upheld tradition, truth, history, and our patrimony from the West, as embodied in a true understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the promise of the American Constitution, America could be praised. The American cause, he wrote in the 1950s, “is the cause of true human nature, of enlightened order, regular justice, and liberty under law.” Even following the crises of Vietnam and Watergate, Kirk still saw hope. “The American Republic may undertake imaginatively to rescue the tormented modern world from many troubles. This cannot be accomplished through mere largess or through mere force of arms,” he wrote. “This may be accomplished without imposing a uniformity which would provoke violent resentments or which would bring a universal monotony of life. I do mean that a renewal of moral order in America will reinvigorate our political order; and that the example of American peace and justice might become contagious internationally.” If it strayed from these principles, though, Kirk was the first to play the Jeremiah. Reagan, Kirk believed, was a man of immense imagination and would renew the American and world social order. But, according to Kirk, by the early 1990s, America had again strayed, severely. Simply put, American culture was breaking apart, and it needed aid, desperately.

A nation’s traditional culture can endure only if the several elements that compose it admit an underlying fidelity to a common cause. The high culture and the common culture, of necessity, are interdependent; so are the national culture and the regional culture. What American culture urgently requires just now is solidarity: that is, a common front against the operations of Chaos and Old Night.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Fascinating, wise and eloquently concise. Not by accident does the author occupy St Russell's chair. Many thanks indeed.

  2. Well-said, Brad. At John Paul the Great Academy in Louisiana, we have oriented our entire curriculum around this very notion. Thank you for the many years of honing this idea.

  3. All was good with a great appeal to upholding ideals and morals that made a country great, with solid foundations on anglo-saxon and roman heritage… until Ronald Reagan made a cameo appearance by the end of the article.
    Ronald Reagan the President under whose watch guns were sold to the enemy.

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