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Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to fight the battle with modernity, as we journey with Gleaves Whitney in his exploration of Russell Kirk’s vision of the imagination. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher


“Imagination rules the world,” Russell Kirk used to say.[1] He meant that imagination is a force that molds the clay of our sentiments and understanding.[2] It is not chiefly through calculations, formulas, and syllogisms, but by means of images, myths, and stories that we comprehend our relation to God, to nature, to others, and to the self. That is why William Wordsworth referred to the imagination as “The mightiest lever known to the moral world.” And that is why Dr. Johnson, in an earthier definition, quipped that imagination is “The thing which prevents [a man] from being as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as in the arms of a duchess.”

In his memoirs—titled, significantly, The Sword of Imagination—Kirk recurs to martial imagery to characterize his life. Early on, Kirk (writing in the third person) says that he drew “the sword of imagination” to assail the “sensual errors of his time.” “In the heat of combat, he learned how to love what ought to be loved and how to hate what ought to be hated.” He described his battle against modernity as a “Fifty Years’ War” that was “hard fought.” To the end, he depicted himself as a “battered knight-errant who meant to die in the saddle.”[3]

Jean Frederich Schall: "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a Wooden Horse"

Jean Frederich Schall: “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a Wooden Horse”

Readers of these lines may be tempted to think of Kirk as a type of Don Quixote—not an illogical association.[4] There was something undeniably quixotic about Kirk’s life-work. He was, after all, a conservative writing in a liberal nation; a premodern tilting at the modern. There was also a self-deprecating quality about his manner. He wrote that—as his talents were largely limited to writing, speaking, and editing—“The only weapon with which he was skilled was the sword of imagination.” With it, “he might demolish some molehills, if not move mountains.”[5]

It is thus fitting to identify Kirk with Quixote, arguably the most imaginative character ever created. Cervantes’s knight-errant imagined his role into existence, strapped on a sword, and embarked on a journey that was at once anachronistic and timeless—anachronistic in that the age of feudalism had passed; timeless in that the code of chivalry embodied the “Permanent Things,” and thus had lost none of its relevance with the passage of time.

Likewise the knight-errant Russell Kirk imagined his role in existence, set out on a modern-day crusade, and wielded the sword of imagination to defend the permanent things. Kirk was no stranger to military service—he was a soldier during the Second World War—but the war he waged over the better part of five decades was not on a literal but on a metaphorical battlefield. For the Sage of Mecosta, the greatest conflicts in the modern age have not been at Gettysburg, Verdun, or Omaha Beach. These killing grounds are the manifestations of a deeper war—a spiritual, moral, and cultural war waged in the world of images and ideas, a war whose most contested battleground is the imagination of the rising generation.

That is why David Frum was correct to link Kirk’s “Fifty Years’ War” specifically to his imagination. Frum wrote that Kirk’s work is “a profound critique of contemporary mass society, and a vivid and poetic image—not a program, an image—of how that society might better itself.”[6]

The purpose of the present essay is to look more closely at Kirk’s imagination. He considered himself, above all, a “man of letters.”[7] Those whose province is humane letters, and who would embark on a crusade to fight the errors of their time, should ideally be equipped with not just one but five “swords of imagination.” They need the historical imagination to understand what humankind has been. They need the political imagination to know what humankind can do. They need the moral imagination to discern what the human person ought to be. They need the poetic imagination to perceive how human beings should use their creative energies. And they need the prophetic imagination to divine what human beings will be, given the choices they make.


Looking at each of these five aspects in turn, we begin with the historical imagination, which traces the change and continuity humankind has experienced over time. What does Kirk have to say to those who have suffered through history lectures, graduate courses, and American Historical Association conference papers premised on the notion that history is just fiction with footnotes, or that it is about social transformation rather than a search for truth?

Kirk realized, first and foremost, that the historian must approach his work with humility. After all, the very nature of time is a mystery. Here Kirk’s own historical imagination was influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo, who in Book 11 of The Confessions wrote that time is such a mysterious backdrop to the human drama that he could not even begin to define it. Kirk’s friend, T. S. Eliot, in famous lines from Four Quartets, expressed the mystery this way:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.[8]

Only God can understand time and comprehend the ways in which the present is prologue to the future. Yet Kirk developed a great capacity to enter and to understand past epochs. This capacity is not always sufficiently appreciated, even among the thinkers in Kirk’s conservative canon; the eminent Dr. Johnson once remarked that “Great abilities are not requisite for an Historian…. Imagination is not required in any high degree.”[9] Kirk would have differed with Dr. Johnson on this point. In some thirty books and countless reviews and articles, he wielded the sword of his historical imagination to cut through the gossamer of both provincialism and presentism.

Kirk’s ability to enter and to understand past epochs was already evident at the beginning of his career, when he turned his master’s thesis at Duke University into Randolph of Roanoke, and his doctoral dissertation at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) into The Conservative Mind.[10] By the power of a prodigious imagination, Kirk in the latter book challenged scholars to revise the conventional view of American intellectual history. One should recall that back in the early 1950s the conventional view was that the United States was almost exclusively a product of the liberal Enlightenment. At that time, it would not have been easy to write, much less to conceive, a book called The Conservative Mind. Professional gatekeepers such as Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Lionel Trilling made it heretical to suggest otherwise. As Trilling observed in The Liberal Imagination:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation…. [T]he conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.[11]

It was in this condescending if not hostile climate of opinion that “Kirk offered convincing evidence not only that conservatism was an honorable and intellectually respectable position, but also that it was an integral part of the American tradition.”[12]

Better than practically anyone else in the 1950s, Kirk saw that a strong thread of thought connected both sides of the North Atlantic in space and in time. Running through the Anglo-American world, this thread linked Burke with John Adams in the eighteenth century, and continued on down to Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and T. S. Eliot in the twentieth. The thought of these individuals was linked by an attachment to the permanent things. They were opposed to the radical innovators of the Enlightenment, the philosophes, as well as to the ideologues of the French Revolution and their progeny. Kirk’s genius was to see their connectedness, and to gather these conservative minds together in one book.

But Kirk’s historical writing was hardly restricted to the modern period or to the American experience. He was constantly uncovering the genealogy of modern America in more distant times and places. As he explained toward the end of the first decade of his career:

[The] general principles to which most Americans are attached are not themselves—with a very few exceptions—of purely American origin. Our religious and moral convictions had their origin in the experience and thought of the ancient Jews and Greeks and Romans. Our political ideas, for the most part, are derived from Greek and Roman and medieval European and especially English practice and philosophy. Our economic concepts, some of them, can be traced back to the age of Aristotle and beyond; and even the more recent of these economic ideas were first expressed in eighteenth-century Britain and France, rather than in America. American civilization does not stand by itself; it is part of a great chain of culture which we sometimes call ‘Western civilization,’ or ‘Christian civilization,’ yet which in some particulars is older even than the culture of Western Europe or the history of Christianity.[13]

Roots of American Order, Russell KirkThis preoccupation with the deep springs of American civilization would later inspire one of Kirk’s greatest books, The Roots of American Order. Appearing on the cusp of America’s bicentennial, the work showed how American order—moral, cultural, political, economic, and social—grew out of the rich subsoil of four ancient cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London.[14] He was asking Americans to look further back than 1776—or even 1492. America was not created out of whole cloth. To understand American history one must discern its roots in Western civilization, and before that in Graeco-Roman civilization, and even before that in ancient Palestine.

Needless to say, the historical imagination is not cultivated by highlighting textbooks and cramming for multiple-choice tests. It is not seriously nourished by the Internet or by Oliver Stone. Rather, it is formed and conveyed in those magical childhood moments when a story transports us—truly transports us in the Latin sense of “being carried off to another place”—so that we love the hero and loathe the villain. Kirk’s own awakening to historical consciousness, he informs us, began as soon as he could read the pages of Macaulay, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and Mark Twain. It took shape with the bold verbal images of Dickens’s Child’s History of England, Van Loon’s Story of Mankind, and H. G. Wells’s Outline of History.[15]

The “man of letters,” Kirk informs us, must continue to cultivate the historical imagination into adulthood. It is an enchantment, a discernment, that should never atrophy: “Anyone who would write lively history—even the history of ideas—ought to see the things and see the men, or at least see what vestiges of them are yet to be discerned.”[16] Developing a sense of place was critical to Kirk’s method, and he would make a point of visiting the sites important to the people and events about which he wrote. Thus he worked in the tradition of such great American historians as Francis Parkman and Samuel Eliot Morison, who advised historians to get out of the archives and into the arena of historical action.


The political imagination perceives how human beings strive to live the good life in the community. What does Kirk say to a nation in which politics has lost its romance? The political process nowadays is widely thought to be a cynical exercise in self-aggrandizement. On the right it is defined by materialism, consumerism, and bald self-interest. On the left it is fueled by resentment, envy, and guilt. (A perceptive definition of liberalism is offered by Joseph Sobran, who wrote that it is “the use of guilt in the service of power.”)[17]

In an age of competing ideologies, Kirk teaches us to ground our political notions in first principles, or what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” This effort apparently eluded many of the leading thinkers of his generation. When Kirk began writing in the 1950s, the political discourse in this country had long been influenced by a deeply embedded prejudice against conservatism in Anglo-American intellectual circles. John Stuart Mill had written that “The Conservatives [are]… the stupidest party.”[18] Never mind that Mill had fired this quip off in a footnote, which stuck. Recall too that Franklin D. Roosevelt had stereotyped conservative Republicans as “economic royalists”—another image that stuck. Then Senator Joseph McCarthy embarked on a reckless jihad against American communists, further discrediting right-wing politics. The growing consensus was that the liberal dispensation was the only dispensation; its fruit, big government, was here to stay. After all, big government was widely perceived to have guided the nation successfully through World War I and II, the Great Depression, and the early Cold War. Thus at mid-century, to strike out in a different direction, to repudiate liberalism, and to attempt to lay the foundations of a conservative revival, required not a little imagination.

To help re-establish conservatism as a viable and responsible body of ideas, Kirk argued that his ideas were not just about the ever-progressive march of capitalism. They were not just about laissez-faire economics or the Manchesterian school. Rather, true conservative political thought shows an inclination to cherish the permanent things in human existence. On many prudential questions, and on some general principles, conservatives may disagree from time to time among themselves…. Yet the folk called “conservative” join in resistance to the destruction of old patterns of life, damage to the footings of the civil social order, and reduction of human striving to material production and consumption.[19]

Put in another way, “The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character.” He grapples “with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded.”[20] The conservative clearly understands that order in the soul is the one true foundation of order in society.

Otto von Habsburg

Otto von Habsburg

It follows that conservative political principles will only leaven the res publica if there is imaginative leadership: “Men of imagination, rather than party leaders, determine the ultimate course of things.”[21] In this regard, one of the most interesting political figures Kirk came to know was Otto von Habsburg, who “manifested a power of political imagination exceeding that of any… public man with whom Kirk was acquainted.”[22]

What was it about Otto that commanded Kirk’s respect? It certainly was not political power—he had none. What attracted Kirk to Otto’s thought was something much deeper than party politics and nostalgic nostrums from the past. Otto’s aim was nothing less than to restore “the genius of Christianity to the politics of the twentieth century.”[23] This is an aim shared by many of the great Catholic humanists in this century—by a Christopher Dawson and a Jacques Maritain, for example. Otto recognized, as did Dawson, Maritain, and Kirk, that true justice, order, and liberty could exist in the West only to the extent that our civilization’s Judaeo-Christian foundations underlay the state. This is not simply an argument for parties that style themselves “Christian Democratic.” Christianity cannot and should not be the province of a party. Its compass is infinitely greater. For Otto, it is a recognition that the Christian faith, as it developed in the West especially, upheld the dignity of the person, set bounds to arbitrary power, and was “the great bulwark against totalitarianism’s promise of immediate success.”[24]

What Kirk responded to, then, was Otto wielding the sword of political imagination. The Archduke could see the political consequences of the modern project, which not only watched the Judaeo-Christian foundations of the state crumble, but also sought to replace those foundations with “giant ideology,” or the “will to power.” Flush with hubris, modern political man thought he could make the world anew, when in fact all he built was a house of cards that collapsed in the winds of war.


The “moral imagination” perceives what the human person should be. The term, frequently encountered in Kirk’s work, can be traced to Edmund Burke’s writing and refers to the human gift to see that human beings are more than naked apes and, indeed, are made in the image of God. “The moral imagination,” wrote Kirk, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” Without it, letters and learning are sterile. Worse, our whole life suffers, for we are cast forth, in Burke’s words, “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”[25]

In an era of à-la-carte morality in which anything goes if it feels right, which Alasdair MacIntyre calls “emotivism,”[26] what did Kirk teach us about the moral imagination? He believed that in the twentieth century T. S. Eliot was the greatest champion of the moral imagination. In fact, Kirk christened the decades following the First World War “The Age of Eliot” since it was the author of The Waste Land who found the idiom that best expressed the decadence of modern life, as well as the sure way to renewal.[27] And most traditionalist and cultural conservatives believe that that way requires retracing the Way of the Cross.

The fact that the moral imagination conceives of the human person as having a soul with an eternal destiny explains why our capacity to choose good or evil in this life is of such fundamental importance. It is why, ultimately, there can be no order in society if there is none in the soul. Frum, in the article cited earlier, noted that as long as Kirk lived, he constantly cautioned conservatives by word and by example “against over-indulging their fascination with economics. He taught that conservatism was above all a moral cause: one devoted to the preservation of the priceless heritage of Western civilization.”[28]

Kirk’s treatment of the dismal science has surely surprised many. If free-market types picked up The Conservative Mind thinking that they had found an unqualified paean to capitalism, they were in for a surprise. In the very first chapter, Kirk speculated that “Burke, could he see our century, never would concede that a consumption-society, so near to suicide, is the end for which Providence prepared man.” Because Western man’s rapacity was destroying civilization, Kirk somberly suggested that it may only remain for us to “rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.”[29]

the-creation-of-adam-by-Michelangelo___SourceKirk was also critical of the libertarian tendency to reduce the human person to a materialistic, two-dimensional creature, homo economicus. For the person is more than matter, more than an accidental collocation of atoms, more than an animal seeking to maximize its efficiency through the cash nexus of the marketplace. Ultimately the person is a creature in God’s image, with freedom, dignity, and an eternal destiny.

It is this generous view of the human person that explains Kirk’s friendship with and high regard for Wilhelm Röpke of Geneva. While Röpke had opposed both the Nazis and the communists, he was also critical of doctrinaire capitalism in which the marketplace is the be-all and end-all. In The Sword of Imagination, Kirk tells the story of how Röpke’s “humane imagination” differed from the thought of another economic Titan of the twentieth century, Ludwig von Mises. Kirk was told this when he visited Röpke in 1957:

During the Second World War the city of Geneva had allocated garden plots along the line of the vanished city walls to citizens wishing to grow their own vegetables in a time of food shortages. This use of public land turned out to be popular; the city continued the allocation of plots after the war.

Röpke heartily approved of this undertaking, which both enabled people to obtain independently part of their own sustenance and provided the satisfaction of healthy achievement outside factory walls. When Ludwig von Mises came to visit Röpke at Geneva, Röpke took his guest to inspect those garden plots.

Mises sadly shook his head: “A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs!”

“But perhaps a very efficient way of producing human happiness,” Röpke told him.[30]

Röpke saw the human person not as a buying-and-selling machine interested only in maximizing efficiency. Precisely because he possessed the moral imagination, Röpke saw human beings as persons with the capacity to discern and to choose between beauty and ugliness, joy and drudgery, good and evil. Consistent with that vision, Röpke wanted to humanize the capitalistic economies of the West by scaling them down and relating them to aesthetic, intellectual, and moral ends.

Kirk fully approved of Röpke’s endeavor to remind the world that “the art of political economy has an ethical foundation.”[31] As such, economics is only the means to a higher end, and we must never lose sight of what that end is. Kirk thus saw Röpke as a fellow knight-errant wielding the sword of moral imagination against the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” of his age.


The poetic imagination seeks to apprehend how human beings should use their creative energies. At a time when the entertainment industry mines the dark underworld of human existence, and produces cultural detritus heavy-laden with sex, violence, and degraded language, what can Kirk teach us?

Kirk heartily agreed with the sentiment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—“Where there is no imagination, there is no terror.”[32] He had a number of works of mystery, suspense, and fantasy published in such journals as the London Mystery Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction. The success with which Kirk’s first novel, Old House of Fear (1961), was received surprised even its publisher. This gothic romance set in Scotland appeared in 1961 and was widely reviewed, no less than in the pages of Time magazine. The first edition soon sold out. Later editions were also a commercial success, so much so that Kirk claimed, “More copies of Old House of Fear were sold than of all [his] other works combined.”[33] He was motivated to write fiction in part because he enjoyed telling a good story, and in part because he wanted to halt what Max Weber had identified as the modern disenchantment of everyday life. Kirk’s stories can be seen as a work of re-enchantment.

Yet, beneath these literary endeavors was a keen awareness of what really was at stake. The real conflict of the modern age was this: The old image of the human person as a wayfaring pilgrim, as a noble but tragic figure metaphysically secure in the great chain of being, was fast fading from modern consciousness. For all practical purposes this vision of humankind had become, to use C. S. Lewis’s term, “the discarded image.” What took its place? New dehumanizing images—of “man the machine,” of “man the cunning animal,” of a creature who no longer enjoyed a privileged place in the cosmos and no longer had recourse to a personal, merciful God.

Some modernists responded to the metaphysical disorientation by cultivating the “idyllic imagination.” This term, coined by Irving Babbitt, tags the modern ideologue’s urge to create a utopia out of whole cloth. The attempt to perfect man and his institutions without reference to a transcendent deity and to his eternal destiny is a folly whose modern prototype can be found in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau. But of course utopia literally means “no place,” for it never has been nor will it ever be.

Other modernists responded to the crisis by exploring the “diabolic imagination,” which stripped human persons of their dignity by denying that they are creatures made in the image of God. Rather they are an accidental collocation of atoms, a bundle of nerve endings striving for pleasure and shrinking from pain—nothing more, nothing less. Death, destruction, and despair are the raw materials of the diabolic imagination; and the work of the Marquis de Sade is its modern prototype. The question that thus pressed with urgency on Kirk was how the idyllic and diabolic imaginations would shape the rising generation in his lifetime. Would young people be seduced by the image of der Übermensch, or of Rameau’s nephew, or of Promethius Unbound, or of Faust? Were they content to be Prufrocks in a waste land?

In one of his finest essays, “The Perversity of Recent Fiction,” Kirk wrote that contemporary literature had descended “a great way… down the road to Avernus. And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls into ruin.” He observed that our bookstores “are crowded with the prickly pears and Dead Sea fruit of literary decadence.” Many books and Hollywood scripts were “products of the diabolical imagination, in that they pandered to the lust for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder.” They were singularly lacking in the moral imagination.[34]

Was there not a better and truer image that gave the human person dignity without hubris, and a sense of destiny without despair?


Kirk’s notion of recovery leads to the fifth and final aspect of imagination under consideration, the prophetic. Now, at the beginning of the third millennium, our culture does seem indeed to be “slouching towards Gomorrah.” So what does Kirk’s imagination have to teach us?

prophet amosTo give one some sense of the way in which Kirk might be regarded as a prophet, it is instructive to ask the question posed by Shakespeare: “What’s in a name?” The query is apt because Kirk’s middle name was Amos, who was one of the prophets in the Old Testament. He was a shepherd who lived during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II, and he is remembered for pronouncing a series of woes on Israel for being obsessed with luxury, trampling on the rights of the poor, and abandoning the true faith. As one commentator puts it, “Amos… was no innovator; his conservatism was in keeping with the whole prophetic tradition calling the people back to the high moral and religious demands of Yahweh’s revelation.”[35] Kirk recognized that many of the themes in the Book of Amos have striking parallels to our own day, for example, “The luxury, the corruption, the injustice, the smugness” of the people.[36]

Kirk’s link with Amos, about whom he writes in The Roots of American Order, gives us a clue to the way Kirk’s prophetic imagination worked. It was, interestingly enough, by entering the world of the past. This is not so paradoxical once it is recalled that the Hebrew prophets always prophesied about Israel’s future in terms of Israel’s past; indeed, the judgment of the nation was only intelligible with reference to the past. The prophets reminded Israel of the covenant at the beginning of their history, and recounted the journey out of Egypt, not only to show how many blessings God had bestowed, but also to warn that the judgment of the nation was at hand if Israel did not repent.

To make this past-future linkage comprehensible is one of the great tasks of the prophetic imagination. That is why modern civilization in particular has need of its voice. The modern mind tends not to look back; it is in a state of perpetual denial; every day in every way things are supposed to get better. The smug disposition of the modern mind prompted Kirk to remind readers of Hegel’s line: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”[37] Countless lessons are there in the history books, but are, alas, ignored. The prophet, by contrast, knows the consequences of history.

A passage in The Sword of Imagination entitled “Meditations in the Palace of Diocletian” shows readers how keenly interested in the lessons of the past Kirk was, and how it was through his imaginative engagement with the past that Kirk could become most prophetic. Kirk describes sitting in a square in the Croatian city of Split some quarter of a century ago. He was at an outdoor café, sipping Turkish coffee, on a site that was once the peristyle of Diocletian’s palace. His view was toward the erstwhile mausoleum of Diocletian, which was later consecrated by Christians and made into a cathedral. As he sat looking at that intriguing monument, he found himself ruminating on the decline and fall of the once great Roman Empire:

Diocletian, by heroic endeavors and extreme measures, had kept the empire coherent from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates, from the Rhine to the Atlas. But centralization and bureaucracy and unendurable taxation had worked as cancers within the Roman frontiers; the center could not hold; things fell apart.

Outside the mausoleum-cathedral crouches a sphinx of black granite, fetched from Egypt by Diocletian; it had been carved nearly nineteen centuries before the Emperor took it from the valley of the Nile. Many dominations and powers, whole civilizations, have gone down to dusty death since that sphinx emerged from its block of granite. Diocletian’s sarcophagus was empty; the days of Josip Broz, called Tito, were numbered, as were the days of socialism. The sphinx-monster of antiquity—the word sphinx means “strangler”—demanded, on pain of death, answers to most difficult questions. “What will happen next, little man?” the sphinx of Diocletian’s palace seemed to inquire of Russell Kirk.

Kirk concedes that “no man can know the future: the event is in the hand of God.” Yet he was keenly aware of the frailty of civilization. The passage continues:

Much of what is called history records the fruits of original sin….Order, justice, and freedom are garden plants; the natural condition of humankind is that of the jungle. In the year 316, Diocletian, who had been master of the world, was compelled to starve himself to death in his palace….It was a wonder, Kirk thought, that a tolerable human society could subsist at all. Prescription, custom, and convention enable generation to link with generation; but the cake of custom was being trampled under foot near the end of the twentieth century, much as the cake of custom had been broken about the beginning of the fourth century….

Through a fuller understanding of vanished civilizations, modern men might do something to postpone or avert their own destruction. Knowledge of Roman achievements and Roman errors—as symbolized, for instance, in Diocletian’s palace—is relevant to the human condition at the end of the twentieth century….[38]

Here, then, is Kirk’s prophetic imagination, inseparable from his historic imagination. Sitting at an outdoor café in Split, he ponders whether there is much hope for Western civilization at the close of the second millennium. Whatever the outcome, he argues that the ultimate battle for our survival will take place in the imagination:

…the real conflict in our age is between opposed types of imagination….There are the idyllic imagination of Rousseau, the diabolic imagination of Sade, the leveling imagination of Marx, the moral imagination of Burke… and other species that might be distinguished. We may perceive there, competing, the moral illusions of the fanatic ideologue, the bleary-eyed voluptuary, and the militant atheist. So the great contest in these declining years of the twentieth century is not for human economic interests, or for human political preferences, or even for human minds—not at bottom. The true battle is being fought in the…human imagination. Imagination does rule the world.[39]

If imagination rules the world, and if the real conflict in our Era of Good Feelings is not just between Republicans and Democrats, or Monetarists and Keynesians, but between opposed types of imagination, then questions of some urgency arise: Whose imagination is to rule? Will there be a recovery of humane letters? Will the rising generation redeem the time?

Here it is best to conclude with the answer that Kirk himself composed for posterity—his recommendation for improving the imagination is at once the most practical and the most elegant:

Spiritually and politically, the twentieth century has been a time of decadence. Yet as this century draws to its close, we may remind ourselves that ages of decadence sometimes have been followed by ages of renewal.

What can you do, young men and women of the rising generation of the 1990s, to raise up the human condition?… Why, begin by brightening the corner where you are; by improving one human—yourself—and by helping your neighbor.

You will not need to be rich or famous to take your part in redeeming the time: what you require for that task is moral imagination joined to right reason…. Shrug your shoulders at things indifferent; set your face against things evil; and by doing God’s will… find that peace which passeth all understanding.[40]

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in December 2012. Books by Russell Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Portions of this article were excerpted from two public lectures; the first delivered at Columbia University on April 28, 1995, and the second presented at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal on July 20, 1997. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 2001).


  1. Cf. The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, 1995), 199.
  2. Imagination has long been considered one of the principal faculties of the human mind. An intellectual leader of the twelfth-century renaissance, William of Conches, wrote of the human mind’s capacity for sensusimaginatioratio, and intellectusCf. William of Conches, Philosophia Mundi, ed. C. Ottaviano, iv, 24; also cf.his glosses on the Timaeus, ed. E. Jeauneau (1965), 100–102.
  3. The Sword of Imagination, 1–2, 475–476.
  4. Kirk makes two self-referential allusions to Quixote in The Sword of Imagination, 2.
  5. Ibid., 307.
  6. “Russell Kirk,” The New Criterion (December 1994), 16.
  7. The Sword of Imagination, 1.
  8. “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets, lines 1–3; in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (San Diego, n.d.), 117.
  9. James Boswell, Life of Johnson, Vol. 1.
  10. John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought (Indianapolis, 1978; originally published as Randolph of Roanoke in 1951); The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, D.C., 1986 [1953]).
  11. Garden City, 1953, 5.
  12. Henry Regnery, Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher (New York, 1979), 146.
  13. The American Cause, Foreword by John Dos Passos (Chicago, 1966 [1957]), 14–15. 14. 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C., 1992).
  14. The Sword of Imagination, 7–8; cf.Russell Kirk, “The Perversity of Recent Fiction,” in Redeeming the Time, ed. Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, Del., 1998), 83–84.
  15. The Sword of Imagination, 95.
  16. This line appeared in one of Sobran’s newspaper columns during the summer of 1997.
  17. Considerations on Representative Government(1861), Chapter vii.
  18. The Conservative Mind, xv.
  19. Ibid., 472.
  20. Ibid., 10.
  21. Ibid., 207.
  22. Ibid., 207.
  23. Ibid., 208.
  24. “The Perversity of Recent Fiction: Reflections on the Moral Imagination,” 71.
  25. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, 1984), 11–12.
  26. Cf. Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1971).
  27. “Russell Kirk,” 16.
  28. Page 11.
  29. Pages 204–205.
  30. Ibid., 205.
  31. Study in Scarlet, Chapter 5.
  32. The Sword of Imagination, 250.
  33. Pages 69, 73.
  34. Introduction to the Book of Amos, in The New American Bible (Nashville, 1987), 996.
  35. The Roots of American Order, 32.
  36. The Sword of Imagination, 393.
  37. Ibid., 392–394.
  38. Ibid.
  39. “May the Rising Generation Redeem the Time?” in The Politics of Prudence (Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1993), 287.
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1 reply to this post
  1. I read every word [hot tea, feet up on my desk :)] and was truly impressed. I have added a couple of names to my reading list. This essay has also clarified a couple of things which have been bothering me during the present chaos: not only the political 2016 campaign, but also the attitude of both parties and the ever-left-leaning citizenry/natives of the United States of America. An individual path through the present maze is probably in order for me. It appears there is much more chaos to come, and I need to keep my soul clean and unfettered.
    Thank you for your help.

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