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Volume 29, Number 4 (Summer 1989)

Natural Law or Nihilism?

The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky
by Russell Kirk.
Regnery Gateway (1987),
132 pp.

M. D. Aeschliman

Although Dr. Kirk knows how hard the tempest of our time really rages, he has not fled or been driven to the heath like Lear or Lear’s fool. His insight is abundantly apparent in his new volume of lectures, which takes its title fittingly from the greatest long poem of our century, G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse.

He is at once a moralist, a historian, a social or “public” philosopher, and a man of letters, a confluence and conjunction of talents that reminds us of the high Victorians, especially of Arnold and Newman. As a social philosopher he follows in the line of Eliot, a line developed nobly in our time in a large body of more technical social science created by kindred spirits such as Daniel Bell, Peter Berger, David Martin, and Robert Nisbet. As a moralist and writer he also reminds one of Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Malcolm Muggeridge. As a religious thinker, he reminds one of churchmen such as Avery Dulles, Richard Neuhaus, and David H. C. Read. But as a historian, religious thinker, and writer Kirk has something of the statesman in him too, in this regard making one think of Lord Hailsham and Reinhold Niebuhr, who also came, late in life, to acknowledge the greatness and relevance of Burke.

This legacy and ballast are very important, for the responsibility of the intellectual and the writer in our time is very great. The momentum of the past, the cake of custom, the nurture of sane tradition, have all been broken or severely reduced in effect and authority: the automobile and the television are, as Dr. Kirk somewhere says, “mechanical Jacobins.” An undissociated sensibility, Dr. Kirk eschews the tempting excesses always so palpably present to the intellectual person: histrionic subjectivism and self-indulgence (e.g., Susan Sontag’s “styles of radical will” and the vast, toxic literature of Ginsberg, Mailer, Miller, and co.); moralistic, collectivistic liberalism (ethically relativistic and individualistic in personal affairs, morally absolutist, simplistic, and collectivistic in public affairs); feckless, esoteric intellectual specialism (largely caused by what Jacques Barzun called “the Ph.D. octopus”). Quite rightly did Forrest McDonald call Kirk “the American Cicero” (National Review, 31 December 1985), as his interests are in the lasting rather than the ephemeral; the normative rather than the unique, idiosyncratic, or exotic; the true rather than the new.

This balanced, eloquent, humane learning is everywhere evident in these essays, originally given as lectures at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Each one brings water from the well of the ages, but brings it to that part of the garden that most needs it, in the amount the terrain requires. Vast learning is lightly worn and judiciously applied; and chaste hope is given. “America’s Augustan Age” is full of the virtue and Romanitas that it commends, succumbing neither to boosterism nor pessimism. “The American Mission” chastens arrogance, expansionism, and cynicism all at once by drawing on the unjustly neglected insights of Orestes Brownson (1805–1876) to remind us of the grandeur and the limits of “ordered liberty.” “The Illusion of ‘Human Rights’” criticizes the disastrous simplicities of Wilsonian liberalism in the light and in the interest of true Natural Law, the “justice conceived as being the higher or ultimate law, proceeding from the nature of the universe—from the Being of God and the reason of man” (p. 36; Sir Ernest Barker). “Prospects for the American Family” commends and defends the family against its witting or unwitting enemies and against the extremes of anarchic, atomistic individualism (“the freedom of the wolf”) and compulsory collectivism (where “children become wards of the state”). A brilliant recent documentary essay in, of all places, the Washington Post (25 September 1988), “Is Day Care Ruining Our Kids?” makes Dr. Kirk’s essay look even more profound and apt.

And so it goes in each of the remaining essays, where insights of great accuracy and power are found on every page, often with clear implications for personal practice or public policy. “Prospects for American Education” returns to the civic subject for which Dr. Kirk is perhaps best known—the possible improvement of our public education system, whose quality is deplored from all sides. His insistence on pointing the importance of and using the word “norms,” as opposed to “values” (inherently or inevitably a relativizing word, thus fatal to clear argument and sane consensus), is characteristic and salutary. How much more light would be available if educators came to recognize and use ideas of the “normative” and the “normal” as representing “right reason” and “ordinate response”! (“Nothing,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “is abnormal until we have grasped the norm.”) This is a battle that Dr. Kirk has fought not only in the contents but in the very titles of his books, one of them being Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (second edition, 1984). “Can Virtue Be Taught?” and “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education” are essays in the great tradition of Christian Humanism, refining, applying, and extending its truths and tenets, articulating its aims and hopes, such as the desirability and possibility of a “remnant,” a “number of people in many walks of life who would possess some share of right reason and moral imagination; who would not shout the price of everything, but would know the value of something; who would be schooled in wisdom and virtue” (p. 83). Here, as so often, one hears the voice of Burke, unique in its very generality, championing the Natural Law. “But what is liberty,” Burke wrote prophetically two hundred years ago, “without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils.”

These are Dr. Kirk’s characteristic concerns and insights, their value and truth being, in St. Augustine’s words, “ever ancient, yet ever new.” Their appropriateness to our present circumstances is shown, and thus we have in hand no work of mere inkhorn abstraction or esoteric speculation, but one of active and particular prudence. Nor is it the prudence of “Mr. Worldly-Wiseman,” but of citizens, sages, saints, and statesmen, of men and women who have seen and said, with Dr. Kirk, that true “freedom cannot endure unless we are willing to nurture that religious understanding which is its sanction” (p. 103). The “body of transcendent norms” which Dr. Kirk articulates and transmits “gives purpose to existence and motive to conduct” (p. 104). In a crazy age whose processes and products, from high culture to low commerce, oscillate from the toxic to the trivial and are redolent of “the bondage of purposeless freedom,” Dr. Kirk’s writings—and this book in particular—serve and bear witness to sanity and humanity, with grace, eloquence, and precision.  

Michael Aeschliman, professor of education at Boston University, is author of The Restitution of Man, about C. S. Lewis, and was at the time of writing a lecturer in English literature at the University of Virginia.

Posted: September 23, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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The Edmund Burke Society of America is pleased to announce a call for papers and open registration for “Edmund Burke and Patriotism,” their third conference on Edmund Burke. It will be held on February 27 and 28, 2015 at Villanova University. Keynote addresses will be from David Bromwich, Michael Brown, and Regina Janes. Please see this link for details and to register. (27 Aug 2014)

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