At the beginning of his 1956 book, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, Dr. Kirk wrote:
I hope that beyond our dreams of avarice there may lie not merely an Age of Gluttony, but a time of repentance and reform, devoted to restoring the dignity of man. I hope that some of us may continue, with St. Augustine, to feel that ‘There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling dark . . . . O for that night, that I in Him might lie invisible and dim.’ Yet that a darkness without solace or hope, a darkness of the pit, may not descend upon society in this century, we need to refresh our memories with the recollection of what already has been lost from our culture and our civil social order; and we have the high duty of keeping alight amid the Vandal flood, like Augustine of Hippo, the spark of principle and conscience.
How are we to understand the decay of the West over the past two hundred years? At The Imaginative Conservative, we’ve spent three years writing about a variety of twentieth-century figures: Paul Elmer More, Owen Barfield, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and, of course, Russell Kirk.
They encountered a western world hostile to all for which the Old West stood. As Matthew Arnold wrote in 1867 in his famous poem, “Dover Beach”:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Everywhere they looked across a rent globe, the Christian Humanists saw the death of flesh and the decay of spirit. The ideologues and their terror regimes had become ascendant, leading hordes of the confused, the empty, the vain, and the avaricious across more than half the globe. To make matters worse, the majority of the citizens of the West neither understood the Enemy nor themselves.
Such was life in 1914, 1933, 1945, and 1947.
The Enemy, though, understood it all. He knew their beliefs, their strengths, and their limitations. He also knew that the defenders of the West—the Virgils and the Ciceros, the Dantes and the Bonifaces, the Miltons and the Francis Drakes, the Edmund Burkes and the George Washingtons—were long dead and, more often than not, forgotten; if alive in memory, many had begun the project of deconstructing them. As the men of the West stood dumbfounded, surrounded by strident and shimmering toys and gadgets, obsessed with supposed liberties and choices, smug and “adult” in their Freudianism, Darwinism, and pragmatism, ashamed of their faith, believing it mere superstition, a childhood fiction of the race, the forces of darkness pounced.
“Our fight,” St. Paul warned the peoples of Ephesus, “is not against human foes, but against the cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens.”
They had waited patiently for years—biding time for a renaissance, an Enlightenment, a Revolution, and an almost final destruction wrought by the secularists. “The greatest event of recent times—that “God is Dead”, that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable—is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe,” Friedrich Nietzsche stated as he slowly and syphiticly faded into the twilight. Despiritualized, “Our whole European civilization is moving with a torture of tension, which increases from decade to decade, toward a catastrophe,” he wrote three decades before World War I. With the despiritualization of Europe, strangely enough, the mad prophet argued, the coming destruction would result from a “war of the spirits.”
And, the legions came: the bored, the decadent, the empty, the lost, and the angry who left God and bowed down before the Lenins, the Stalins, the Trotskys, the Mussolinis, the Hitlers, the Perons, the Pol Pots, and the Idi Amins.
The legions followed their seductions; indeed their words—antithesis of The Word—were as toxins, further infecting the already hollowed-out body of the West.
Think of a Mussolini:
Take away from any government whatsoever force—and by force is meant physical, armed force—and leave it only its immortal principles, and that government will be at the mercy of the first organized groups that decides to overthrow it. Fascism now throws these lifeless theories out to rot. . . . The truth evident now to all who are not warped by [republicanism] is that men have tired of liberty. . . . [Fascism] has already stepped over, and if it be necessary it will turn tranquilly and step again over . . . the Goddess of Liberty
Hear this Italian’s desire to “make life more intense and frenetic, ruled by the rhythm of the machine.” He boasts, “The fascist conception of the state . . . is all embracing, and outside of the state no human or spiritual values can exist, let alone be desirable.” These, of course, are anti-words, words of death; negations of all that would be good.
What kind of imagination can order his secret police: “You are charged with the task of exterminating 10,000 enemies of the People. Report results by signal.”? Or pronounce in a public speech: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds, let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. . . let there be floods of blood.” Such were the anti-words of V.I. Lenin.
Indeed, after 1914, the Powers and Principalities came out under the clear light of day and millions died under the heel of the jackboots, in the prisons, in the torture chambers, and across the killing fields, stretching from Paris to Moscow, Moscow to Beijing.
And western man in the first half of the twentieth century—confused, dazed, distraught and obsessed with things of this world—had to choose: God or man; Love or Power; Life or Death; Grace or Will.
A simple survey of the world situation in 1918 or 1939 must have forced many of the faithful to ask if the Four Horsemen had been unleashed?
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. — Revelation 6:2-8
Certainly, three children in Fatima, Portugal, feared as much; the Apocalypse of St. John had descended upon earth, and Hell itself had become Incarnate. Or, so it seemed.
Western man stood on the field, watching the Horsemen and their hordes advance. Did they really have to choose? And, if so, what to choose? Things that made him comfortable; or things that made him human?
The enemy offered death and destruction, but western man no longer understood what he was, who he was, what he stood for, or who stood with him. Things like love had been replaced by lust; things like honor had been replaced by contract; things like community had been replaced by “alternative lifestyles”; things like desire had been replaced by avarice.
Such had happened before. Heed the words of Jeremiah:
As the thief is ashamed when he is found, so is the house of Israel ashamed; they, their kings, their princes, and their priests, and their prophets,
Saying to a tree, You are my father; and to a stone, You have brought me forth: for they have turned their back unto me, and not their face: but in the time of their trouble they will say, Arise, and save us.
But where are your gods that you have made yourself? let them arise, if they can save you in the time of your trouble: for according to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah.
Why will you plead with me? you all have transgressed against me, says the LORD.
In vain have I smitten your children; they received no correction: your own sword has devoured your prophets, like a destroying lion.
O generation, see you the word of the LORD. Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? a land of darkness? why say my people, We are lords; we will come no more unto you? — Jeremiah 2: 26-30
But, no one seemed to be crying in the same way on the asphalt streets and under the glass and steel structures of the hurried urban world of modernity. Oh, where is our Jeremiah? We need him to speak again, for his words have obviously been forgotten and relegated to legends of the past; the superstitions of the childhood of the race. And, the ideologies—strong, confident, full of evil—continued their rampage, a seemingly endless march.
Perhaps no one explained it better than C.S. Lewis’s twentieth-century Arthur and Merlin from That Hideous Strength:
This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this West part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look farther . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith, but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there. Beyond Byzantium.
And, the reply:
You do not understand. The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.
Oh God, why have you forsaken us, we might legitimately cry? Where oh where, is our Arthur? Try as I might, I see no Avalon, no Lady of the Lake, no Excalibur to save us. I see no Cathedrals of the Glass Isle keeping the heroic in trust until needed again.
But, hope came. It always does. Sometimes, it just takes awhile. Most of all it demands a soul to listen, a conscience to awaken, an anamnesis. And, the Lord never forsakes His people, at least not permanently.
Dr. Russell Kirk, a man—no higher words of praise can exist in the 20th century— said fervently and frequently: “we are dwarves standing on the Shoulders of Giants.” And, equally importantly, “A man, if he venerates the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods, will seek out the terror and strike with all the strength that is in him.”
Our strength—and it is the strength that created and built the world—is the mightiest in time or eternity. It comes from the One: the One who is of the Three; the One who “leapt from thy royal throne in heaven into the midst of that doomed land like a relentless warrior, bearing the sharp sword of thy inflexible decree, and stood and filled it all with death, his head touching the heavens, his feet on earth”; the One who became fully man while remaining fully God; the One who opened his arms and died on a piece of wood, betrayed by all but one of his closest male friends; the One who made us, who made the world upon which we stand, the One who will bring all things back to himself in right order. We never need doubt the One, the Word Made Flesh who Dwelt Among Us and Sits at His Father’s Right Hand. Even the earth—the rocks and the stones—cries out in love of Him: “I tell you, if my disciples keep silence the stones will shout aloud.” Have we—humans bearing the Imago Dei—not a better voice than the rocks? Indeed, He has sent many voices, many women and men as his servants, whether they knew it or not. They spoke the truth, His Truth.
For, as Hugh of St. Victor, argued:
For the Incarnate Word is our King, who came into this world to war with the devil; and all the saints who were before His coming are soldiers as it were, going before their King, and those who have come after and will come, even to the end of the world, are soldiers following their King. And the King himself is in the midst of His army and proceeds protected and surrounded on all sides by His columns. And although in a multitude as vast as this the kind of arms differ in the sacraments and the observance of the peoples preceding and following, yet all are really serving the one king and following the one banner; all are pursuing the one enemy and are being crowned by the one victory.
These great men and women—defenders of the West—have always appeared when most needed. After all, God is the author of life, and He introduces his characters when the plot most needs advancing. A man, after all, Romano Guardini argued “is a person called by God. As that man he is capable of answering for his own actions and of participating in reality through an inner and innate source which is one with himself. This capacity makes each man unique.”
“The awful Author of our Being is the author of our place in the order of existence,” Edmund Burke once argued. God “having disposed and marshaled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned to us.” The individual human person can, indeed, change history. “The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities upon a whole nation,” Burke explained in his powerful exhortation to the British to defeat the French Revolutionaries and their remnants without trepidation in Letters on a Regicide Peace. Still, “a common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature.”
Therefore, let us take stock of those who came before us: the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.
Our ancestors are 300 Greeks at a small pass known as the Gates of Fire: Herodotus described it beautifully:
But Xerxes was not persuaded any the more. Four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into this presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others now took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors.
The Greeks—organized in units by their respective towns—continued to fight, despite suffering severe wounds and being greatly outnumbered. After days of battering, the Greeks decided to break up their defense. Some would stay, others would return to their respective city-states to warn them and to help them prepare for a defense. The Spartans, under the leadership of King Leonidas, decided to stay. The Oracle had prophesized either greatness or ruin for them, and they believed they would attain the former through sacrifice. Should they flee to defend their homes, Leonidas believed, all would be lost. Allied with the Thespians, who refused to abandon the Spartans, Leonidas and three-hundred men made their last stand. They drove themselves to the heart of the narrow pass at Thermopylae. There, they freely drove themselves into the Persians, mostly conscripts, being forced to fight by bullwhips at their backs. Leonidas threw himself into the invading force and died quickly.
Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honour of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the other resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missiles.
Overwhelmed by the numbers of Persians, the Greeks fell quickly. As they did, they continued to fight, inspired by one officer declaring “If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” The mission at Thermopylae was vital to the defense of Hellas itself. For, as Leonidas and his three-hundred Spartans sacrificed their lives, attempting to hold the pass at Thermopylae against the horde of Persian invaders, Athens had time to prepare a defense. When the last Greek died, the West was born.
Our ancestor is Marcus Cicero, the last great man of the Roman Republic. In the last months of his life, he wrote:
Thus, 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’ on 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.
Even as the republic crumbled around him, with Marc Antony’s assassins on their way to murder him, Marcus Cicero continued to promote virtue and the natural law. Mark Antony’s assassins caught up with Cicero, and cut off his head and hands, mounting them on the rostra of the Roman Senate. When the Senators stared in horror at the rostra, Plutarch wrote, they saw not the hands and face of Cicero, but the twisted soul of Antony.
Though a pagan, Cicero foreshadowed many such deaths over the next several centuries. Our ancestors are St. Stephen, Felicia, and Perpetua, and thousands of others, all of whom died for a simple yet profound faith: that love conquers all. They, like their Redeemer—Jesus the Christ—were suffering servants. And, the wise know that beauty and suffering remain intimately connected.
The venue has changed, but the legal sanction has not. Many of our newest martyrs are the 130 million who have had their lives ended since 1973, not by the sword, the mace, or the lion’s jaw with maddened crowds cheering on their destruction, fed by bread and satiated by circuses. Instead, the newest martyrs are those destroyed in the sterile, progressive labs of modernity with grim nurses and doctors treating their victims as mere inanimate protoplasm. After all, they argue, adulterating the gift, what is humanity without choice? The result has been grace denied and the eternal contract disrupted. Meanwhile, the citizens are little different from their Roman counterparts. They get their circuses from cable T.V. and their bread from McDonalds.
Our ancestor is St. Boniface, who almost single-handedly evangelized and converted the northern pagan Germanic tribes in early medieval Europe, thus creating a barrier against the Islamic invasion from the South. Our ancestors are the anonymous Beowulf poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare. Our ancestors are St. Francis, Erasmus, St. Ignatius, Martin Luther, John Calvin, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fisher who rooted corruption out of the medieval and Renaissance Church.
As one person wrote of More, who was beheaded by his friend Henry the VIII for not sanctioning his divorce:
Certainly no martyr ever surpassed him in fortitude. . . ‘that innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in his life, did not forsake him to the last . . .his death was of a piece with his life. There was nothing in it new, forced or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind’.
More’s last words were: “I love my king, but I love my God more.”
Our ancestors are the minutemen who sacrificed their lives at Lexington and Concord, preventing the British from getting the weapons stores. Once the fighting finished, they laid down their muskets and returned to their farms to finish plowing and planting, to have dinner with their families. When the need arose, they again put their lives on the line. There could be no better definition of a republican in the western tradition.
Our ancestor is George Washington. Offered the dictatorship of America, he chastised the would-be conspirators at Newburgh, New York:
And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood. By thus determining, and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion of Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to Mankind, ‘had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.’
Our ancestors are all three million men who fought during the Civil War, 620,000 of whom gave their lives. Each side fought for virtue; each side had character. General Joshua Chamberlain of Bowdoin, an academic classicist and rhetorician, witnessing the surrender ceremonies on April 12, 1865, stated it best:
Honor answering honor. . . . [as men] of near blood born, made nearer by blood shed. . . . On our part not a sound or a trumpet more, nor roll of drum; nor a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glory, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead. . . . Brave men may become good friends.
Confederate and Yankee notions, to be sure, were different. Those in the North fought for duty; those in the South fought for honor. Each side feared shame, that is, a disgraced character. They were, to be sure, men.
Our ancestors died in the barbed wire and mechanical death of the trenches in France; our ancestors died on the beaches of Normandy, the mountains of Korea, and the rice paddies of Vietnam and Cambodia—fulfilling their patriotic duty, betrayed by those in Washington claiming to lead them. They led these good, patriotic men and women, who wanted nothing more than to fight the good fight, for motives often less then honorable, sometimes for oil and resources, sometimes to gain political clout, sometimes, because it was the right thing to do. Most recently, our ancestors have died in the deserts of the Middle East.
Our ancestor is a martyr injected with carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. When innocent prisoner #5659 was about to be placed in Cell Block #13, the worst of all tortures at Auschwitz prior to the invention of the gas chambers, prisoner #16670 volunteered to take his place. Stunned at the unprecedented request, the commandant acquiesced. The man who volunteered was a Roman Catholic priest, Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe and ten others went to cell block #13. The Nazis denied the prisoners water and food, and they forced them to stand, hunched over, naked, in the dark. Their captors hoped to induce the prisoners to madness. Instead, Kolbe talked of hope to the men, and, rather than madness, joy ensued. Infuriated, the commandant ordered the remaining men to be injected with carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. When the first doctor approached Kolbe to inject him, Kolbe simply lifted his arm and continued to pray. Severely rattled by Kolbe’s faith and composure, the translator fled. When he returned after the injection to remove Kolbe’s body, he was stunned at what he found: “When I opened the iron door, Father Kolbe was no longer alive. His face had an unusual radiance about it. The eyes were wide open and focused on some definite point. His entire person seemed to have been in a state of ecstasy. I will never forget that scene as long as I live.”
Our ancestor is Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States and a man endowed with considerable imagination and fortitude. Reagan attacked the Soviet empire on a number of fronts: politically, economically, and militarily (through the arms buildup). His most effective attack, however, was rhetorical. Ronald Reagan argued for a transcendent morality, backing it up with force, understanding the ideological thugs well. In 1981, his first public appearance after the failed assassination attempt, he told the graduating class at the University of Notre Dame: “The West won’t contain communism. It will transcend communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” In 1983, Reagan upped the ante before a group of American evangelicals: The cold war is “a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. . . . pray for the salvation of all those who live in totalitarian darkness [that] they will discover the joy of knowing God.” He labeled the Soviet regime an “evil empire,” and the press had a field day, claiming Reagan to be a moron. But Reagan’s greatest challenge came in 1987, standing before the Brandenburg Gate: “General Secretary Gorbachev. . . . Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Reagan, the eternal optimist, almost alone among westerners believed the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Even his own advisors strongly disagreed with his views, and especially his rhetoric—which they considered a bizarre combination of strength and naivety. But Reagan was sure, as truth was truth, and lies ultimately destroy themselves.
Our ancestor is Karol Wotija, a man who said from 1978 to 2005: “be not afraid.” Graced with imagination, this pontiff professed Christ in all things, challenged the materialist ideologies and decadence of the East and the West, and apologized for all the errors and crimes of the Catholic Church against our fellow Christians, Protestant and Orthodox. He lived with dignity, and he died with dignity.
Our ancestor is Tom Burnett—that 38-year old Wall Street Banker, father of three girls, husband to a beautiful wife, and a devout Christian. This man, a former college football player for St. John’s College in Minnesota, a lover of business as well as of ancient Greek philosophy, helped two other courageous western men drive a jet airliner into rural Pennsylvania soil on a clear September morning, 2001. “We’re all going to die, but three of us are going to do something about it. I love you honey.” These were the last words his wife heard over the cell phone. These are the words of a Western Man.
Each of these persons played his part in the Economy of the West, forcing us to confront and acknowledge his or her sacrifice for Western Civilization and for, most importantly, Christian civilization. Such acts re-center us, moving us toward wholeness. Each such act reflects the true Act, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. “The heart of the citizen is a perennial spring of energy,” Burke reminded us. “Whilst our heart is whole, it will find means, or make them.” And, as Russell Kirk said time and time again, we must pass this tradition, these memories, these successes and failures on to the rising generation. And, thankfully, they long for them.
After all, through Grace all things are possible. Each one of the men and women who brought about an anamnesis did so as a reflection of the true anamnesis, the Logos, the eternal fire of Wisdom, Himself “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” who upholds “the universe by his word of power.” We should never squander the gifts that God has given us: whether given directly through scripture or through His Church or through the traditions of our ancestors. After all, none of us would be here without the Love of the Logos and all of those who reflected the light of the Logos by their very existence, who came before us. Not one of us has a thing that was not given to him. Naked we come into the world, and naked we will be when we leave it.
So, where are the gifts today? Where’s our Jeremiah? Our Arthur? Our Lady of the Lake? Our Excaliber? Our Avalon? Where are the shoulders of the Giants? Well, I must admit that I see many, many gifts. Blessings beyond compare. Great gifts; terrible and awesome weapons against the Enemy. I see them in every person I pass on the streets. As I imagine these gifts a few years from now, I see so many who will serve the true Lord: with their hands, their minds, their prayers, and their time. My Lord, my Lord, we must always cry, let us be One as you are One. Despite the Fall, each person is nothing less than a temple of the Holy Spirit; each person in front of me bears the Imago Dei; each person is a little Cathedral of Avalon. And, when I see living myth around me, I can’t help but be filled with the second highest of virtues. . . hope.
But, the pessimist in me must ask: sure, Brad, but won’t we see more falls?
Many societies in the history of the West have experienced a rise and fall; the fall usually preceded by literary, artistic, and political decadence, disrupting character and virtue. Good women and men—graced with the virtues from other societies have picked up the pieces—building upon the best of what came before them. If we fail to see them and model ourselves after those who came before us, we are both blind and foolish. Manhood and personhood, after all, are not lost. Instead, such truths are merely misplaced and misunderstood, afloat in our wallowing decadence. Nothing true can ever truly be lost.
Ultimately, as we have discussed many times at The Imaginative Conservative, our task may be as rebuilders or as preservers. Our best tool for renewal, Russell Kirk reminded us, comes from the moral imagination and the use of our gifts for the common good. The Christian novelist and painter Michael O’Brien has written: “Because art has an inherent restorative power, and furthermore because it always has an authoritative voice in the soul, we must trust that over time works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a cultural reconfiguration and reorientation of man.” Whether we are rebuilders or preservers, the job remains the same.
Even imminent defeat does not lessen our duty as good men and good women, fighting the eternal struggle. Nor should we expect victory. “There are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God,” Dr. Kirk wrote in 1954. All men and women who understand right reason and the natural law must fight the good fight with prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity.
I take comfort in one of the best lines from my favorite epic myths, The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo expresses distaste at having to live in such a disordered time, Gandalf replies: “So do I . . . and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Or, another from the great poem by Tennyson, “Ulysses”:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
If we are to rebuild society, or to preserve the best of western and American society, we must embrace the classical and Christian understandings of personhood and the grace imparted by the Incarnate Word and His Death and His resurrection. Strangely enough, glimpses of this Truth come from the most unlikely sources. One of my favorite examples comes from the very first world-wide satellite transmission. On June 25, 1967 (two and ½ months before my time on this earth began), four decadent young men from Liverpool, England, played a song with the best message possible: “All You Need Is Love.” When such a message can come from drug-induced and Marxian-influenced pop artists, who had claimed only a year earlier that they were “bigger than Jesus Christ,” hope remains in the world.
Dr. Kirk frequently reminded us of our first principle and the greatest of all virtues. Love, that which creates, animates, redeems, and reorders the universe, “is the object of the civil social existence, and the one reality which makes life worth living.”
May God bless all of us.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.