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Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

by W. Winston Elliott III

In the paragraphs below, from A Program for Conservatives, Dr. Russell Kirk addresses conservatives with words which remind us of our pilgrim status in this world of tears. We are not called to material success. We are called to obedience. We are called to love. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful will find their true place in our culture only when many more of us are obedient to Love.

“What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.

He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that “they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.”

W. Winston Elliott III is Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative. Find Russell Kirk’s books in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Winston, do you have handy the citation for the Burke quotation "they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate"? The Left's successful quest to raise a generation of non-judgmental Americans, i.e., the removal of hate from moral judgments, explains much of what's wrong with our culture and politics.

  2. This is a very important issue that relates vitally both to the crisis of modernity and to why conservatism (and Christianity) is not living up to its potential.

    Ever since childhood, when I watched the priest at mass dourly reciting the words of the Salve Regina:

    "To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
    to thee do we send up our sighs,
    mourning and weeping in this valley of tears,"

    the idea of life as a vale of tears has never sat well with me. As a child, life seemed good, joyful, full of delight and opportunity. Yet here was this priest bemoaning life as a vale of tears. It never seemed sincere. The words seemed part of a strange aberration of heart and mind that adults, in my clear and innocent discernment of childhood, appeared peculiarly prey to.

    Now, many years older, having suffered my fair share of the whips and scorns of time, in this respect my opinion is unchanged. I still believe that the purpose of life on earth, while partly to prepare for Eternity, is also, partly, to glorify God by perfecting the natural world insofar as possible. (And part of that, by the way, involves experiencing properly ordered physical pleasure.)

    This issue, as I say, seems a core problem that conservatism and Christianity must correct in order for humankind to achieve its telos.

    There is an element of harsh dualism — not the genteel, harmonious integration of matter and spirit that Paul Elmer More, in his finer moments, hints at — but a Manichean dualism, a stark conflict between bad matter and good spirit, which still permeates and dominates Christianity.

    That has got to go. I could cite a dozen lines of argument to support this claim, but will here rely instead on the reader's imagination, and a single anecdote. Once, while in Amsterdam, I chanced upon a homeless man, a Jamaican, a Rastafarian. As I am a psychologist, I sometimes stop to speak with homeless people, and to offer whatever advice or encouragement I can. I enquire, for example, if they have a God to pray to, or, as in this case, if they pray to Jesus — because, if I can offer nothing else, I want to encourage whatever religious strength and hope they have. When I asked this of the man, his face lit up and he replied. "Oh yes. At all times I keep my feet on Mother Earth and my head in Father Sky."

    In this simple statement — which might stand for the essence of the best element of indigenous religion — the man expressed a truth which is too often lost on modern Christianity. Mother Earth, Nature, or whatever you may call it, reveals God, as well as does 'Father Sky'. The proper orientation of the human being in the scheme in creation is to serve as a priest — a connection, between heaven and earth — not to eschew materiality, or to seek egress from the material plane, to flee the 'vale of tears', at first opportunity.

    I will go further to suggest that this issue – the world-negating tendency of Christianity –all but guarantees the reaction of radical, atheistic naturalism that has dominated secular society since the 20th century.

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