The necessity of personal morality in a thriving community is denied by the enemies of the permanent things, who do not believe that there are permanent standards of behavior or indeed an unchanging human nature, and who seek to create political systems that will make everyone happy without much effort…
Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormality in Literature and Politics by Russell Kirk (428 pages, Cluny Media, 2016)
In 1953, Russell Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind caused great consternation in the world of political ideas, where it had been accepted as a given that conservatism was not a political theory at all but only the unthinking prejudice of rubes and racists—or the acquiescence of the ignorant in their own oppression by the rich. Kirk upset this received liberal dogma by surveying the tradition of conservative thought running from Edmund Burke and John Adams through S.T. Coleridge, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Henry Newman up to Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and George Santayana. All at once conservatism was revealed to have a formidable intellectual pedigree, making it much harder to dismiss this point of view without serious discussion. Liberal reviewers of the book mostly allowed it grudging admiration. Their most common objection was that Kirk had not put forward a clear proposal for a conservative political program. He responded with characteristic irony in a book entitled A Program for Conservatives (1954), which refused to offer the required conservative program, instead pointing out that the demand for a program was itself imbued with the liberal presumption that it was possible to devise a five-point or ten-point program that would solve humanity’s problems in short order. The conservative, Kirk reaffirmed, believes in no such “cure for all the ills to which flesh is heir.” In subsequent printings, Kirk dropped the tongue-in-cheek title, renaming the book more accurately Prospects for Conservatives. I myself prefer the original title, which sets a nice trap for the liberal reader.
In the years that followed, Kirk was generally acknowledged as the prime founder of the modern conservative intellectual movement. He wrote regularly for National Review and edited his own more scholarly journal, Modern Age. In the 1960s he lectured and debated on many college campuses, ably defending traditional ideas against various liberal and radical adversaries. Enemies of the Permanent Things, published in 1969, is the most significant extended meditation on culture and politics to come out of the rough and tumble of those years. As such, it is an invaluable document, articulating the response of a critical witness to the radically anti-authoritarian turn taken by the intellectual elite in that destructive decade. It is also a worthy and important sequel to the earlier books, a mature and authoritative reaffirmation of what he said there—but with insights more fully his own and honed to a sharp edge by years of disputation. Here he asserts with even greater urgency that where the liberal mind concocts a utopian plan, the conservative mind seeks a principle, “a justified deduction from what we have learnt, over the ages, about men and their commonwealths.”
Kirk’s title borrows a phrase from T.S. Eliot, whom Kirk met just as The Conservative Mind was published, and who published the English edition of the book. In the following decade, Eliot became a friend and mentor to the young American writer. After the poet’s death in 1965, Kirk added a section on Eliot to the book and gave him pride of place in the subtitle, displacing Santayana. In an appendix to The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot had written, “Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.” The revolutionaries (and really, for Kirk, most liberals as well) are the enemies of the permanent things, whom he confronts in this book. It is no accident, though, that in the same sentence Eliot warns against a tendency in conservatism to resist all change, conserving what is bad as well as what is good. Kirk consistently admonished his fellow conservatives to recognize that some change (and even reform) is always needed if what is good and true in the tradition is to thrive. As he puts it here, “Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.” Readers hoping to see Kirk whipping the progressives out of the state house will not be disappointed, but they will also find themselves admonished in significant ways.
Eliot does not say what he means by “the permanent things”; Kirk defines them as the “norms” of human nature: “A norm means an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which we ignore at our peril.” He is quick to add that the norm is not an average; on the contrary, it is a challenging standard. “Normality is not what the average sensual man ordinarily possesses,” he writes, “it is what he ought to try to possess.” Though Kirk does not say so, he is setting forth the ancient claims of natural law moral philosophy, which argues that some actions are consistent with our unchanging nature and others are not. Kirk names some of those norms: charity, justice, freedom, duty, temperance, prudence, fortitude. In a healthy society, individuals will attempt to live by these permanent norms of moral action, and the laws of the land will give support to citizens as they make that attempt. In their revolutionary zeal, the progressives tend to scorn those norms as old-fashioned or even oppressive, and in doing so they become the enemies of the permanent things.
Readers, progressive or conservative, who expect Kirk to address the prime political issues of our time, will at first be disappointed, for he takes a long view of the question. This is political philosophy, not polemic. Indeed, the author spends the first half of the book talking not about politics but about literature. Here he is developing one of his central ideas, the “moral imagination.” Kirk borrows this evocative phrase from Edmund Burke and develops it into an aesthetic theory that is also a moral and political one. Of course, Kirk is not claiming that this is a new theory of literature (heaven forfend!); it is a restatement of an old theory that has been forgotten by many. It is the common sense idea that a fundamental purpose of literature is to teach us the norms of human nature: “The aim of great books is ethical: to teach what it means to be a man.” This moral purpose of literature is assumed by ancient writers such as Aristotle and Horace (who tells us that poetry should both delight and instruct). It is well expressed in the Renaissance era by Sir Philip Sidney, who argues that poetry is superior to moral philosophy in that it not only teaches us what is virtuous but moves us to be virtuous. In our own time, the same truth has been set out by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, where he argues that great literature trains the heart: “Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.” Kirk makes a valuable addition to this wise tradition, and in the process he considers not just the canonical authors—Hugo, Hawthorne, Dickens, Cooper, Scott, and so on—but some popular writers of his own time—most notably (and to some surprisingly) Ray Bradbury, to whom he gives high praise: “like Lewis, like Tolkien, like other talented fabulists, Ray Bradbury has drawn the sword against the dreary and corrupting materialism of this century.”
What he praises in Bradbury’s fiction shows why Kirk sees literature as being just as important as politics in defending the permanent things. For the political battles are first fought in the minds and hearts of the populace, and if the people are badly educated, their minds filled with images and ideas created by modern materialists, they will easily be drawn to political movements that deny all permanent truths in favor of utopian schemes. Throughout his writings, Kirk speaks again and again of “order in the soul and order in the commonwealth.” In this book he explains the source and significance of this central idea more fully than anywhere else. The prime source is Plato’s Republic, where Socrates outlines a parallel between the inner order—in which the reason rules the emotions or spirited part and the emotions rule the physical appetites—and the civil order, in which the guardians rule the warriors, who rule the workers. The analogy suggests that a healthy polity is possible only when there is proper order both in the community and in most of the persons who are part of it. Kirk’s emphasis on education and literature derives from his belief that no political system will work if the people are not moderately virtuous.
The necessity of personal morality in a thriving community is denied by the enemies of the permanent things, who do not believe that there are permanent standards of behavior or indeed an unchanging human nature, and who seek to create political systems that will make everyone happy without much effort. Eliot captures this liberal mindset well when he describes these modern political theorists “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” Of course, this is a pernicious fantasy, one that has been exploded by Huxley and Orwell as well as by Kirk and Eliot.
The attempt to create those perfect systems is what Kirk calls “ideology.” He insists that the word should not be used (as it mostly is) to mean any system of ideas or beliefs; rather, we should use the word in an older sense, designating “the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.” In place of natural law, discovered in the nature of things over the millennia, the ideologues make use of positive law, based on their own latest ideas. The original ideologues were the French revolutionaries, who believed that they could apply the rational theories of the philosophes to create overnight a perfect society—and instead created the Terror. Kirk, along with Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and others, tells us that ideology is a secular substitute for religion and that it demands religious assent to its doctrines. In the name of freedom, ideology brings servitude. All this is most obvious in the Communist and Fascist ideologies, but Kirk maintains that it is true of the softened versions of our modern progressives as well.
Conservatism is not just another ideology, Kirk shows. Conservative ideas do not arise from fevered meetings of very smart people. As Kirk puts it, “A prudent government is no artificial contrivance, no invention of coffeehouse intellectuals, got up abstractly to suit the intellectual whim of an hour.” Instead, conservative principles of governance arise from political, religious, and cultural traditions—the wisdom of our ancestors. “Not abstractions, but prudence, prescription, custom, tradition, and constitution have governed the American people,” Kirk writes. “We have been saved from ideology by political tradition.” Against the untested abstractions of the French Revolution, Kirk sets the traditionalism of the American Revolution, which, even while breaking from Britain, created a constitution modeled on the British political tradition, which took a thousand years to reach maturity.
Ideologues put their faith not in God but in their own reason and in science. Kirk spends a good deal of time in this book exposing the prejudices hidden in the supposedly rational and scientific thinking of the modern ideologues. Here he allies himself with Eric Voegelin, who gave the ancient name of “Gnosticism” to these modern ideologies. For like the Gnostics of old, these more recent thinkers believe that we can be saved by gnosis, rational knowledge. One fundamental problem with these rationalistic ideologies is that they are ultimately materialistic, so they hold out no ideal goal for humanity. In analyzing the ideas of the prominent sociologist David Riesman, Kirk says, “If he were asked, ‘What is the end of man?’ he might have difficulty in replying; one gathers from his books that he might be compelled to say, ‘Diversion.’ Man is not made for work, in Riesman’s eyes, or for duty, or for high loyalties…. Therefore all man may hope for is a round of small pleasures; he may experiment in consumption and sex and urban living.” Once the perfect system is in place, no one will need to be good, but neither will human life have any meaning.
I would like to conclude by considering one of Kirk’s favorite words. He often uses the word “tolerable,” which is not in common use today. Here is a sentence in which he employs it twice, and in two different senses: “It is through respect for tradition and prescription, and recourse to those sources of normative understanding, that the mass of human beings acquire a tolerable knowledge of the rules by which private and social existence is made tolerable.” The conservative approach to life promises not complete knowledge and understanding but only “a tolerable knowledge.” There will always be much that we do not know and much that is finally mysterious, not knowable by human reason at all. But if we achieve this partial understanding of life, our existence will be “tolerable”—not completely happy, not blissful, not perfect, not even close to any of these. The word is a favorite of his because it expresses the modest aims of the conservative worldview. The conservative thinker promises much less than the ideologue because he reckons with fallen human beings living in a fallen world. What we learn from the wisdom of our forebears is as much about our limitations as about our possibilities. And if conservatism promises more than this tolerable order, it too becomes an ideology.
The essay was originally published as the introduction to Russell Kirk’s Enemies of the Permanent Things and is republished with gracious permission from the author. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.