Literature and the Contract of Eternal Society

By Russell Kirk

Some years ago, I walked across the braes from Old Cumnock, in Ayrshire, to the village of Ochiltree. Now Ochiltree is the “Barbie” of George Douglas Brown’s grim realistic novel The House with the Green Shutters. And the Scottish village of Ochiltree is dying.

Brown described the changes that began to descend upon little Barbie in the last century: trade drained away by the building of railroads in Ayrshire, cattle giving way to coal, the carter sinking to his ruin, and the shadow of the noose upon the House with the Green Shutters. The white-harled cottage in which George Douglas Brown was born still stands in Ochiltree, and its shutters are green still; but the rest of old Ochiltree is not long for this world.

Of the shops of a century ago, only two meagre little cubbyholes (like the shop kept by an old Sheep, as Tenniel draws it in Through the Looking Glass) survive; for the vans of the omnipresent Co-operative come from Cumnock to supply miners’ families at the doorstop. Ochiltree is a market-town no longer, having sunk to the estate of a mere dormitory-village to accommodate some of the miners at the pits near Auchinleck. The tidy stone cottages are sagging to their ruin, their rents being fixed at the levels of 1914, which means that their owners cannot afford to mend the roofs; and at the back of them, higher up the hill down which the single long street of Ochiltree runs, loom the hideous barrack-like rows of county council houses, built of state funds to serve the ends of the state—in this instance, to lodge the Coal Board’s miners.

The church, I think, is derelict; the hotel, the Black Bull, though there is a charm to its facade still, is become nothing more than a decayed ale-house; the only cheerful spot is another public-house, opposite, where the publican, one of the last men in the village to retain some affection for the place, told us how life has been drained out of Ochiltree. In the evening, the miners and their families queue for the buses to Ayr, fifteen miles away, where they can go to one of the cinemas; most of them wished they lived in Ayr, instead of here in this green countryside. Some coats of arms carved above doorways in the road that leads to Cumnock are the last traces of the old families of the place—these, and Ochiltree House, which (when last I was in Ochiltree) lay at the foot of the long street, set in a desolated garden, with a fine high dyke running around it.

But Ochiltree House—a long, severe, crow-step-gabled building of the seventeenth century, with some good interiors, once—has been swept away since I was in Ochiltree. It had stood empty most of the time for the past hundred years; troops had been quartered there in both wars, and had made kindling of the paneling and staircases; and to escape from taxes, the proprietor took the roof off not long ago, and sold the stone of the walls. The village is left forever without a focus, now, and whatever remained of a sense of community and a sense of continuity has vanished. In Ochiltree House, Graham of Claverhouse was married, long before he appealed to men beyond Stirling and lands beyond Forth. In the older Ochiltree House which stood on this spot during the sixteenth century, old John Knox was married to the heiress of Ochiltree, a girl of sixteen. These things will be forgotten wholly now, in Ochiltree, and the daily labor at the pit, and the evening cinema in Ayr, will be the whole of existence for the people in the village.

A mile and a half to the north of Ochiltree, across Lugar Water, is Auchinleck House. The Boswells hold Auchinleck still; the splendid square ashlar house which Lord Auchinleck, James Boswell’s father, built in the middle of the eighteenth century in grand style, and the lands of Auchinleck stretch green and prosperous round it, with the ruined old castle overlooking the den of the Lugar—that castle in which, said Dr. Johnson, he and Bozzy would lodge when they came to Auchinleck. This is one of the very few landed properties in all Scotland maintained in its old state; and, death duties being what they are, it is highly improbable that the beauty and tranquility of Auchinleck can last out this present generation. A year or two ago, the ancient townhouse of the Boswells, in Ayr, was demolished; the splendid country house must follow, unless it is an exception to the general rule in modern Britain.

The fountains of the great deep seem to be broken up in our time. Institutions that have endured for a millennium are awash, and the surly question before us is whether the fabric of civilization can survive the present rate of economic and social alteration. Material forces have had a large part in this transformation of life; but more and more, I think, we are coming to understand, in our decade, that certain powerful tendencies of the intellect have been quite as active in the destruction of what I like to call—with Cicero and with Burke—“the unbought grace of life.” It is time we began to examine the part that a general decay of interest in great literature has had in this corrosive process.

Even in a quiet corner like Ayrshire, the revolution of our times seems to have been as much a consequence of ideas as of material influences. It is quite true that the coming of rapid transportation, the need for coal, and the displacement of traditional popular interests by mass-amusement devices have altered the whole face of life in Ayrshire. It is also quite true that the decay of the old literary culture of Ayrshire and of Scotland generally has prepared the way for a disintegration of everything long established. Now the popular literary culture of rural Scotland used to consist of Bible-reading and of sermon-listening, which imparted a solemn and sometimes eloquent character to the Scottish people—dour, often enough, but strong and even heroic. And the literary culture of Auchinleck House and Ochiltree House used to consist of the lively rational curiosity and speculative interests of Hume and Boswell and Monboddo, persisting little altered down to 1914, though enriched, as the years passed, by the increasing influence of the English public schools and the universities.

The dwindling of religious influences has brought about the ruin of the popular literary culture; taxation and a sea of troubles virtually have put an end to the civilizing influence of the old-fashioned laird. Leisure is indeed the basis of culture; and it is one of the paradoxes of our age that while we boast of our time-saving machines, neither the villager nor the laird has half the time to think that he had once. Nowadays they do not read, and they do not write.

I have described Ochiltree as a microcosm of our civilization; I could give fifty other examples in Britain, and as many in America. What I am endeavoring to touch upon is the tremendous importance to civilized life of an elevated and uninterrupted literary tradition. If we are wise, I think we will pay increasing attention, during the rest of this decade and a great while after, to what is called the social significance of literature. I ask you not to be alarmed by this presumptuous and tawdry phrase: what I have in mind is not the superficial idea of the function of literature entertained by the positivist or the Marxist or the literary “social realist.” I am not referring to that school of social naturalists in fiction whose system, as defined by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary, is “the art of depicting nature as seen by toads.”

I am thinking, rather, of the high language that Burke uses in describing the condition of a society which forsakes or forgets the principle of continuity: “No part of life,” he says, “would retain its acquisitions. Barbarism with regard to science and literature, unskillfulness with regard to arts and manufactures, would infallibly succeed to the want of a steady education and settled principle; and thus the commonwealth itself would, in a few generations, crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality, and at length dispersed to all the winds of heaven.”

In this high duty of ensuring a continuity of the mind among men, the man of letters and the teacher of literature have the principal responsibility. I do not hesitate to say that theirs is a sacred function; they are keepers of the Word. It is they who, more than the statesman, remind us of what Burke calls “the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.” It is they who guard this contract of those who are dead, and those who are living, and those who are to be born. If this contract, this law of continuity, is broken, Burke continues, “nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

Just this is the punishment of our rebel generation, which has thrown away the literary heritage of the past quite as it has broken with the moral and social prescriptions of traditional civil social existence. In some measure, the guardians of our literature have been overwhelmed by the deluge of industrialism, mass schooling, and physical alteration of society. But probably it is true that no dominant class in society ever is overthrown simply by a force from below; what undoes the masters of the state is a failure of nerve, a disease of their confidence. And probably it is true, similarly, that no set or school of men who stand for an ancient cultural inheritance ever is broken simply by the blow of an innovating system of thought; when the old order of civilization reels and falls, it is because the keepers of the Word no longer are confident in their own order. I am inclined to think that humane learning has been terribly injured in our time because the people who are entrusted with the conversation of humane letters have forgotten the true meaning of humanism; and I am inclined to think that English literature has been treated with contempt and brutality in our schools and our colleges because of what a friend of mine calls “the treason of the English teacher.”

***

Lacking two profound influences, generation could not link with generation, and men would be no more than the flies of a summer. Those influences are religious tradition and the continuity of great literature. Thus it is that literature is the cement of society, transmitting to every rising generation, century upon century, a body of ethical principles and critical standards and imaginative creations that constitutes a kind of collective intellect of humanity, the formalized wisdom of our ancestors.

This is the sense in which we need to remind ourselves that men of letters and teachers of literature are entrusted with a social responsibility: they have no right to be nihilists or fantastics or neoterists, because the terms on which they hold their trust are conservative. Whatever the immediate political opinions of the guardian of the Word, his first duty is conservative in the larger sense of that adjective: his work, his end, is to shelter and promulgate an inherited body of learning and myth. The man of letters and the teacher of literature have no right to be irresponsible dilettantes or reckless iconoclasts; they are placed in their high dignity so that they may preserve the ideas which make all men one, not so that they may indulge an appetite for denigration and a taste for anarchic cleverness. In a time like ours, when the political and religious institutions which kept some continuity in civilization are weakened or broken, the responsibility of the writer and the teacher of literature is greater than ever; it is possible that the only tie with the past which will survive our century may be a literary continuity, just as in the ages which followed the collapse of the Roman state. This is what I mean when I use the phrase “the social significance of literature.”

But there exists another meaning for this phrase, baser and more popular: the sense in which it is employed by the social positivist and the sentimental humanitarian (as distinguished from the humanist). This latter body of opinion looks upon education in general, and literary education in particular, as an instrument for compelling the rising generation to “adjust to society”—that is, to submit to those social principles which the positivist, the pragmatist, and the sentimental humanitarian endorse.

They propose, in short, to make the teaching of literature an arm of social indoctrination.

As Gordon Chalmers observes in The Republic and the Person, “Education as a social technique is thus preoccupied with group behavior. It seeks not human values but political or economic or institutional ones, applicable to men because they are collected together. It is based on the sentimental belief that the individual can best be served by neglect of his character and by attention to the circumstances which surround him. By contrast, the ethical and liberal theory of education holds that he can best be served by intensive study of the nature of men and their character as persons, undertaken before a direct study of social problems, which, while of immense importance, is an advanced and less central study than the great humane one.”

Now the professor of English literature, almost without exception, has not been deluded by this sociological notion of the function of letters. He does not labor under the illusion that it is his duty to persuade young people to “conform to the group,” nor that he ought to devote his lectures to the repetition of and humanitarian abstractions. The teacher of humane literature remains a humanist, in defiance of the great blind and dumb tendency of our times; as Irving Babbitt wrote nearly fifty years ago, in Literature and the American College, “The humanist, then, as opposed to the humanitarian, is interested in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole.” The professor of English literature has held out with fortitude against powerful endeavors to convert his discipline into an apparatus for social indoctrination. Sometimes, it is true, he has fallen victim to the whim of the season or the decade, and has taught literature on Marxist principles, or on Freudian principles, or on nationalistic principles; but this fall from grace has been exceptional; the majority of teachers of literature have recognized and have fulfilled their obligation to declare the truth and beauty of humane letters, without subjugation to the popular appetite of the hour; they have understood that their function is to lift up the imagination of man, not to dictate his social arrangements.

No, it is not in this respect that the guardians of the Word have failed. It is true that their constancy has cost them dear. I know of one institution of higher learning in America in which the budget of the social scientists exceeds the budget of the humane scholars by the ratio of forty to one. The Benthamite charlatan, the counter of noses, has been willing to pander to the modern affection for quantitative judgments, which everyone can understand precisely because they contain no real meaning; while the humane scholar, who looks upon men as persons, not units, and upon knowledge as imagination, not mensuration, has been starved for funds and cheated of his students. The sociologist, the engineer, and the technician have been pampered at the expense of the intellectual and ethical instruction of our rising generation, and I am afraid that society is going to have to pay the price of that error for the rest of this century.

Forty years ago, in his essay called “Academic Leadership,” printed in Aristocracy and Justice, Paul Elmer More warned us that we ought to “distrust the present huge overgrowth of courses in government and sociology, which send men into the world skilled in the machinery of statecraft and with minds sharpened to the immediate demands of special groups, but with no genuine training of the imagination and no understanding of the longer problems of humanity.” The dominance of such studies, More added, “is one of the causes that men leave our colleges with no hold on the past, with nothing, as Burke said, ‘amidst so vast a fluctuation of passions and opinions, to concentrate their thoughts, to ballast their conduct, to preserve them from being blown about by every wind of fashionable doctrine.’”

That overgrowth is far worse today; and it is doubtful whether the social scientists succeed any longer even in imparting genuine skills to their students, or in sharpening their minds; they are content simply to convert them into an inferior order of statisticians. Against this current of degradation, the teachers of literature have contended with resolution; and though, by and large, they have been beaten, theirs has been an honorable defeat. They have not surrendered, and in time they may come into their own once more; for, in the long run, intelligence and integrity usually tell, even within a college faculty.

Yet those compulsions intended to make the teacher of literature a servant to some evanescent concept of social welfare are growing in intensity just now, rather than diminishing. We hear already the energumen’s cry that the writer and the professor ought to teach “the American way of life” or “Americanism.” I hope that no honest teacher of literature ever will teach Americanism. I do not know what Americanism is; and I suspect that no one else knows. If that clumsy word means anything, it signifies what Tocqueville calls “democratic despotism,” a sullen levelling envy, the determination that mediocrity shall be enforced without exception, the aspiration of the publicist and the demagogue to trample thought underfoot. The teacher of literature may, indeed, have a great deal to say about American minds and hearts. He may describe the brooding New England imagination of Hawthorne, or the pragmatic Western skepticism of Mark Twain, or the homely strength of Robert Frost. But he cannot in conscience reduce the proliferating variety of American letters to a lying social abstraction called “Americanism.” The honest teacher of literature is the conservator of ethics and of taste—though in either function he succeeds by indirection, not by preaching; if he sets out to force his students into some currently popular mode of social conformity, he is living a lie.

The responsibility of the teacher of literature in maintaining the contract of eternal society is not that of a preacher of doctrines nor an agent of government. His duty is far loftier than this. Paul Elmer More describes the real function of the humane scholar as “a disciplining of the higher faculty of the imagination to the end that the student may behold, as it were in one sublime vision, the whole scale of being in its range from the lowest to the highest under the divine decree of order and subordination, without losing sight of the immutable veracity at the heart of all development, which ‘is only the praise and surname of virtue.’” In this elevated sense, the humanist truly is the conservator of society.

Yet I referred earlier to the treason of the English teacher. What I mean was described with passion at the beginning of this century, by Irving Babbitt. Art and literature, he says, fulfilling the prophecy of Herbert Spencer, have become content to be the humble handmaids of what is called science.

All too often, the teacher of literature has succumbed to a failure of nerve, aping the methods of the victorious scientist, endeavoring to develop a scientism of literature, and forgetting the very ends of his own high discipline. He has resisted the positivist and the sociologist and the educationist and the pragmatist, but too often he has resisted ineffectually and half-heartedly, doubting the righteousness of his own cause, almost ready to take the voice of popular folly for the voice of eternal wisdom.

As Irving Babbitt foresaw, in many quarters the study of literature has declined on the one hand into mere philology (worthy though that discipline is in its way), or on the other hand into dilettantism. The ethical purpose of humane letters, ordering the soul and so—though indirectly—ordering the commonwealth, increasingly is obscured. Why, large grants are awarded by foundations for research into the noble question of how computers and business-machines best may be applied to literary studies! And that largess is gratefully received by professors of English whose most passionate interest is the frequency with which certain words and phrases occur in the writings of great authors. A gulf is fixed between such a notion of literature and the spirit of a principal poet of our age, Roy Campbell; one recalls the concluding lines of Campbell’s “To the Survivors”:

“For none save those are worthy birth
Who neither life nor death will shun:
And we plow deepest in the Earth
Who ride the nearest to the sun.”

For literature is not merely a slag-heap from which obscure doctoral dissertations may be extracted, as old mine-workings are sifted for mercury. Literature is meant to rouse and fortify the living, to renew the contract of eternal society. And the scholar who treats literature as a mound of ashes—mildly profitable ashes—is false to his disciple and his age.

Until the humane scholar reminds himself that his study and his life are part of a great continuity and essence, we shall continue to behold high-school departments of English literature ruinously combined with departments of social science, out of a fallacious apprehension of the social function of literature; and what is worse still, we shall see this confounding of humane studies with social indoctrination extended to our colleges and our universities. While those of us who know the humane disciplines stand irresolute, this devastation continues with increasing speed; but if we remind ourselves that we are guardians of the Word, then we may carry the war into Africa. Like Merlin imprisoned in the oak, the latent power of humane letters seems bewitched today. Yet that power is not extinguished. Unless it is waked in our time, more may fall than the roofs of Ochiltree and Auchinleck.