All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion.-Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire; And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for sins, As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!-Rudyard Kipling, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 1919
What is uniquely vivid in the life and work of Russell Kirk is the thoroughly considered identification of Christian humanism with a conservative political philosophy. Whereas in, say, C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, with both of whom Kirk has so much in common, the word “conservative” is avoided (in a way no less significant than in Chesterton’s explicit rejection of the word), for Kirk “conservative” sums up and stands for a whole attitude to life, including the religious, philosophical, political, literary, and the everyday. In this analysis, however, conservatism is the integration of the Christian humanist mind with political theory, rather than with a particular political program. For Kirk, conservatism is the natural political position of the common man, guided by common sense, faith and, especially, by what Kirk calls, borrowing from Burke, his “moral imagination.” Amid all the recurring phrases, and embedded quotations, that are so much a feature of Kirk’s engaging style, none is more important than this. In Kirk, most powerfully, we see the Christian humanist emphasis on the imagination brought to bear on the business of living and thinking, in a particularly prudential way. In many ways closer to Eliot, than to Lewis or Tolkien, in his conservative political understanding, Kirk developed this understanding more fully than Eliot, or any other Christian humanist of the twentieth century.
We have seen, in an earlier chapter, how Burke’s use of the phrase “the wardrobe of a moral imagination” comes in the context of an extended theatrical allusion. Burke is able to say that “Man(‘s) prerogative it is, to be in a great degree a creature of his own making” because he knows, and Russell Kirk follows him in this. That it is in the imagination that the human being begins his self-fashioning . . .
Excerpt from The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk. Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
ANDRÉ GUSHURST-MOORE is a writer and teacher of English. He is currently Director of Pastoral Care at Downside School, attached to the Benedictine abbey in Somerset, where he has also been a House Master and Head of the English Department. His work has appeared in the Catholic Herald, the Salisbury Review, the St Austin Review, the Chesterton Review, the University Bookman, American Arts Quarterly, and the Political Science Reviewer.
“Christian Humanism is the tradition in our culture that stands against the disintegrating spirit of the age. In the tradition of Russell Kirk, André Gushurst-Moore presents a rich and enticing portrait of this still-vibrant tradition of Anglo-American thought, one by which we may still find our bearings in difficult times.”— Stratford Caldecott, author ofAll Things Made New and Beauty in the Word
“André Gushurst-Moore has earned his citizenship in the Cosmopolis. He expertly and artfully traces the soulful lineage of Christian Humanism from St. Thomas More to Russell Kirk. In addition to a number of supporting characters, Swift, Johnson, Burke, Coleridge, Newman, Brownson, Disraeli, Chesterton, Eliot, and Lewis stand tall and proud as well. ”—Bradley J. Birzer, author of intellectual biographies of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and (forthcoming) Russell Kirk
“Finely written, and highly erudite, The Common Mind is an original and persuasive exploration of the idea of a Christian society, showing its enduring relevance to the culture and the politics of the world in which we live.”—Roger Scruton, author of A Short History of Modern Philosophy and Beauty: A Very Short Introduction
“André Gushurst-Moore takes us on a majestic ride across centuries of English and American literature, showing us that the masters were articulate because they were writing with the same pen and kicking against the same chaos.”—Dale Ahlquist, President, American Chesterton Society
“A gem of a book. It is rare to find such a combination of instruction, solace, and simple delight in one volume. Literate, passionate, and reaching for joy in a time of loss, The Common Mind is a tonic for melancholia and an education for both mind and spirit.”—Bruce Frohnen, author, Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville