Russell Kirk’s Redeeming the Time was published posthumously in 1996. And as its title suggests, it is a book about thinking and acting in light of moral constraints that demand something of us.
In fact, if we boil the book down to its bedrock message, it is a book about morality and order—how the state and the individual flourish when morality and order are wedded but mutate into something unrecognizable when the two are torn apart.
This is Kirk’s message: real freedom—not the postmodern “You do your thing, I’ll do mine”—is found at the point where transcendent, moral demands shake hands with self-order and constitutional constraint.
Yet even while writing in the late twentieth century, Kirk saw clearly the growing tendency to pursue liberty divorced from morality and order. He saw a breakdown in the way Americans were beginning to think about God—or rather, not thinking about Him—and in the influence humanists were having on the practice of norms in society. (He described humanists as those “whose roots are in the French Enlightenment” and who suffer from “an itch for perpetual change.”)
According to Kirk, as we move further and further away from the transcendent, we move further and further away from the morality that arises from a recognition of the transcendent. In so doing, we tend to overlook the fact that the root of culture is the “cult,” and our minds become so secularized that “most people” assume “culture…has no connection with the love of God.”
Our flight from God includes rebellion against the order he created, and in our ignorance we equate a supposed-amoral, constraint-free existence with freedom. Yet Kirk shows that this is really more of a cultural and intellectual suicide pact. For in fighting the morality and order that have sustained our nation for two centuries, and the whole of the West for centuries more, we fight against ourselves.
Kirk makes this evident in one of the earliest entries in the book where he writes: “Man is the only creature possessing culture, as distinguished from instinct; and if culture is effaced, so is the distinction between man and the brutes that perish.”
We’ve seen this same emphasis in the poetry of Robert Frost, particularly in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
There, Frost describes a man upon a horse who stops to take a long look at the woods one winter’s night. The man sees that the woods “are lovely, dark, and deep,” but the horse just shakes its head—for the beast, not being capable of taking longer looks, can’t understand why they’ve stopped short of home.
Man is a moral creature; the beast is not. Man possesses culture; the beast does not.
When we reject morality and order, we subjugate ourselves to the level of the beasts, and we miss the beauty of the woods.
This is all made easier under the curse of the humanists Kirk warned us about. For them, norms witnessed by morality and order must be done away—“change” or “progress” is the key to society.
Yet man was created for a higher purpose than a relentless pursuit of change—he was created to live a life based on the order of the world into which he was born; a life that mirrors the morality that has undergirded civilization and culture for centuries. Recognizing this is crucial to our continuance not simply as a nation, but as a human race.
Kirk put it thus: “A recovery of ‘moral control’ and a return to spiritual order have become the indispensable conditions of human survival.”
Ever the educator, Kirk saw that the crucial arena for recovery of these things was education.
On the next to last page of Redeeming the Time, we find these poignant words:
Alexis de Tocqueville…remarked that there exist three causes of a nation’s success: its material circumstances, its laws, and its mores (or moral habits and customs). In circumstances and laws, Tocqueville found, America enjoyed then no especial advantages. The reason for the success of the American democracy, he concluded, as compared with the failure of other democracies, was America’s moral habits.
What would Tocqueville say about our moral habits now?
Would Kirk think we have actually been redeeming the time?
I fear both Tocqueville and Kirk would see us as those who have lost the habits of humanity and adopted the habits of the beasts. We stand before woods that “are lovely, dark, and deep,” shaking our heads because we see no purpose in staring at trees.