This posthumously published collection of Russell Kirk’s essays once again reminds us of the extent of our loss. For in addition to an enviable erudition and a penchant for identifying essential issues, theoretical and practical, he was a great teacher. Never talking down to his readers, he displayed a rare facility for presenting complex ideas as simply as possible without descending into the simplistic. Kirk knew that few of his readers knew as much as he did, but he also knew that they would respond to the guidance of those who advanced plausible premises, reasoned logically, and appealed to evidence. Hence, when discussing the work of important philosophers, theologians, and political and social theorists he introduced their thought to the less well grounded while he challenged the more learned to make a fresh consideration of works they knew, or thought they knew, well. To take only one of many examples: he provides a fine introduction to the life and thought of Orestes Brownson, whom Kirk, citing Lord Acton, properly describes as a towering social thinker.
A gifted stylist, Kirk brought the most theoretically complex subjects within the understanding of the least intellectually sophisticated, and he made his performance seem so natural as to escape notice. Meanwhile, he was teaching at the highest level, spicing penetrating analyses with witty asides and charming anecdotes. Like a great preacher, he knew how to bring the knottiest theological problems down to earth in “a practical sermon” that responds to everyday concerns in language people of all sorts can understand. And like a great preacher, he had an unerring eye for cant.
Redeeming the Time collects essays that Kirk originally delivered as public lectures at the Heritage Foundation between 1980 and 1994, and Kirk intended it as a companion volume to his Politics of Prudence, which also originated as lectures at Heritage. Despite being a collection of essays, Redeeming the Time has a strong central theme, which it develops along several lines. As a bonus, Jeffrey O. Nelson provides a brief, graceful commentary on Kirk’s books and ideas.
Kirk illuminates so many questions that much space would be required merely to enumerate them. Given the scope of his imagination and intellectual boldness, even the most respectful and sympathetic reader could not possibly agree with all of his judgments, and I suspect that Kirk would be appalled if any did. Like every great teacher he meant to stimulate independent thought, not to impose authority from on high. Here, let me settle for one issue on which he does challenge the reader to hard reconsiderations while simultaneously inviting some murmurs.
In Chapter Fourteen (“The Meaning of ‘Justice’”), Kirk excoriates the humanitarianism that denies the existence of sin and readily attributes criminal behavior to circumstances. So far, so good. But in Chapter Eighteen (“Criminal Character and Mercy”), he elaborates tendentiously, risking a confusion of the case for stern punishment with the case for capital punishment. He implicitly dissents from the teachings of his Church and vigorously defends capital punishment. He charges that the “zealots against capital punishment fear to raise the God-question”; but his case would be stronger if he had replied to the searing indictment of capital punishment in Pope John-Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and specifically to the way in which the Pope related capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia. As a longtime advocate of capital punishment who submits, if uneasily, to the Pope’s authority, I cannot resist pointing out an irony in Kirk’s presentation. Kirk does not mention Hegel, who was not exactly his favorite philosopher, but Kirk’s own argument, powerfully delivered, that the criminal not only deserves but wants punishment, recalls the very argument that Hegel made in The Philosophy of Right.
With that caveat, let us turn to a central theme of his life’s work, as stated in the opening chapter (“Civilization without Religion?”): “It appears to me that our culture labors in a state of decadence; that what many people mistake for the triumph of our civilization actually consists of powers that are disintegrating our culture; that the vaunted democratic freedom of the liberal society in reality is servitude to appetites and illusions which attack religious belief; which destroy community through excessive centralization and urbanization; which efface life-giving tradition and custom.” Society, to survive and flourish, he concludes, cannot be severed from the religious vision from which it arose. But Kirk goes further. Our task, he writes, is more specific and yet more general than that implied in demands to return religion to the family, to schools, to public life; it is to restore “religious teachings as a credible body of doctrine.”
Kirk declares that without order, freedom becomes impossible and that order arises from faith. But while at first blush this declaration may seem to be little more than insupportable dogma, it arises from Kirk’s profound study of history. Kirk knew what Thomas Jefferson did not, but Joseph Story did. Jefferson made a fool out of himself by trying to deny that Christianity lay at the root of the common law, and, through it, the liberties encapsulated in the American Constitution. (But then, Jefferson twice rewrote the Gospels to make them say what he thought fit and proper and to purge them of all mystery, miracle, and other Trinitarian absurdities.) Joseph Story, a great Supreme Court justice and a great legal scholar, shredded Jefferson’s gambit. Although Kirk does not refer to the Jefferson-Story flap, his own discussion of constitutional questions provides arms to those who would repel the nihilistic assault on the presence of religion in American public life.
Kirk’s analyses of the centrality of religion sheds much light on the intramural struggle now being waged within the camp of those who profess to stand against the moral and political degradation of modern America. We are today being invited to gnash our teeth over an impending “conservative crack-up” that pits “economic” or “fiscal” conservatives against “social” conservatives. Kirk warily viewed that division, although he had too much sense to speak in such misleading and ultimately absurd language. Much better than most, he understood that the Right today displays, in a form more intense than ever before, a tension between those enamored of the marketplace, not merely as the cornerstone of economic policy but as the fountainhead of moral and social values, and those who insist, with Jesus, that man does not live by bread alone. For Kirk economic policy must serve the larger ends of society, and he exhibited little patience with those who believe that a steadily growing economy will somehow secure the stability of the family, the church, and the polity.
Pummeling the “zealots of the ‘libertarian’ Right” as counterparts of the nihilists of the New Left, Kirk develops another of his principal themes at length: the hierarchical structure of nature and society and the attendant need for order. Anticipating howls from both the Left and the libertarian Right, he deals a series of crushing blows against those who condemn such views as “elitism.” He writes, “Every right is married to a duty; every freedom owes a corresponding responsibility; and there cannot be genuine freedom unless there exists also genuine order, in the moral realm and in the social realm.” Again, “Our economy, our very political structure, might not abide for twenty-four hours the triumph of that ‘absolute liberty’ of the individual preached by Lamartine and other political enthusiasts of the nineteenth century.” Yet again: “Those who fancy that the philosophical and political notions of John Stuart Mill can suffice to govern the pride, the passion, and the prejudice of man—why, they wander bewildered in the ghost-realm of yesteryear, and must perish.”
As forcefully and movingly as anyone, Kirk could write on the dignity and natural rights of the individual and, accordingly, defend property rights as necessary to moral order and social stability. Thus, for Kirk, the purpose of education is “to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state.” But he had no patience with the libertarian romance with unbridled individualism, which he saw clearly as thinly disguised nihilism: “The Greek and Roman republics asserted the state to the detriment of individual freedom; modern republics either do the same or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the state.” After these forays, he offers Chapter Twenty (“Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries”) in which he allows that conservatives and libertarians both detest collectivism, the totalist state, and the heavy hand of bureaucracy. “What else,” he asks, “do conservatives and libertarians profess in common?” He replies: “Nothing. Nor will they ever. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.” Linking Libertarians with anarchists and Marxists, Kirk insists that they “generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions. Conservatives, on the contrary, hold that ‘in Adam’s fall we sinned all’: human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed.”
Kirk calls upon conservatives to “dissociate themselves altogether from the little sour remnant called libertarians.” I’ll drink to that. But Kirk risks allowing his distaste for the libertarians to obscure his deeper criticism of those on the Right whose principal focus is on free-market economic policies and who usually end, notwithstanding lip-service to “family values” and such, by supporting the very conglomerates he detests. In truth, Kirk is hunting bigger game than libertarian cranks. Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”—that cruel swindle—draws his ire, but he does not rest content with a salvo against the Left. Here, as elsewhere, he keeps his eye on the human dimension, the social costs, and the moral effects of the de facto alliance of the big government trumpeted by the Left and the big business mindlessly served by the Right. To illustrate: in an arresting chapter on architecture and urban planning, he identifies speculators as “the great makers of slumurbia.” And he adds ruefully, “All too often they are defended as part of a free economy.” The measure of urban planning “should be not commercial gain primarily, but the common good.”
With his customary acuteness, Kirk exposes the utilitarian secularism of the free-market ideologues, and he thereby draws a firm distinction between conservatives and those who assume the conservative label while they celebrate the permanent revolution of unbridled capitalism. Pointedly, he reminds his readers of an easily overlooked sin: “oppression of the poor.” Kirk invites a criticism, that also would have to be directed against the rest of us. He accepts capitalism as a socioeconomic framework while he scorns the siren song that would transform it into the latest version of Baal, but neither here nor elsewhere does he propose an economics that could square the circle. And we may fear that without such an economics, the Right, like the deranged Left, will long be wandering in the wilderness, helpless to arrest the moral and social rot that inexorably follows the celebration of consumer choice as the arbiter of human affairs.
To Kirk’s abiding credit, here as in his other books, he compels attention to the critical issues of our time, which he sets in a rich historical and moral context. Along the way, he advances a wealth of ideas that contribute toward their solution. And, as always, Kirk goes about his business with a wonderful verve that makes us read him for the sheer pleasure that accompanies his wise instruction.
Eugene D. Genovese, a historian, is the author of several books, including The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Harvard University Press, 1994) and The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War (University of Missouri Press, 1995).
Posted: June 3, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.
Dark Night, Black Hopes
R. Kenton Craven
Volume 20, Number 1 (Autumn 1979)