A few of us are born to conservatism. Even before we can reason properly, we are fortified by Faith. Our path smoothed by our parents’ love and toil, we glide into the passageways of the age-sanctified custom and prescription. On our grandmother’s lap we relive the trials and triumphs of our family; there is no better introduction to history. In our modern culture of convenience, fashions and trends change constantly with the speed of light. But we are immune to it. At home, we imbibe the ancient wisdom about the immutability of the human nature. We know the Truth exists.
However, upon leaving the safety of the familial abode, we recoil at the outside world. Modernity greets us with derision and we reciprocate in kind. Yet, unless we retreat to the wholesome tranquility of a sylvan hideaway in Montana, we must find our place in the world where things are the way they are and not the way we want them to be.
It is then that we begin to meet others of the conservative orientation. Many do not quite share our experience. Some hearken from families of decent folks where tradition endures through the force of inertia rather than a conscious effort. Others come from a milieu where the parents have abdicated their duties in favor of the ubiquitous TV and consumerism. Yet, we all are conservatives. Why? Bombarded with the idiocies of the Marx-media, exposed to the follies of political correctness, indoctrinated with the gospel of Marxism-lesbianism, and, finally, subjected to the tyranny of “minorities”-all under the convenient guise of democracy, equality, and tolerance-our common reaction against this insanity puts us in one camp, the conservative camp.
True, for most of us the leftist danger may be more a matter of intuition than knowledge. But those of us who were born into conservatism understand the extent of the peril more vividly. We know precisely that the left wants to destroy our home to prevent the perpetuation of tradition. The left wants the world to forsake the guiding experience bestowed upon us by the past generations and replace this wisdom either with a new fad or with nothing in particular. Thus, we will only be “free” to choose between multiculturalism and deconstruction.
The conservatives are often helpless before the world because, although our instincts serve us well, we often cannot effectively communicate their meaning to those around us. Alas, our inherited wisdom, more often than not, is couched in words and arguments deemed to be out of date, for no one thought it necessary to justify the immutable. Ours is a living and breathing way. But how can we make it endure now? How can we attract the subconscious and unhatched conservatives to our ranks?
And here is precisely where Dr. Russell Kirk steps in. The eminent conservative thinker facilitates a convergence of all strains of conservatism. In his writings, those born to conservatism spot the ancient wisdom dressed in a contemporary garb and conservatism’s converts discover the familiar intuition expressed in intellectual terms. Kirk speaks to both. The conservatives can find themselves, and each other, through his work. He provides a common lingua franca indispensable for our struggle.
We owe Kirk a tremendous debt for his work. First, he removed from the conservatives the stigma of “the stupid party.” In The Conservative Mind, the scholar reintroduced the golden tradition of conservatism. No one of good faith has dared to lampoon it afterwards. Then, in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, Kirk excavated The Roots of American Order. Anyone undermining the legacy of these three great cities is undercutting the strength of America itself. Next, to elaborate on his propositions, a plethora of articles and books flowed forth from his mighty pen. The last one so far, Redeeming the Time, once again restates simple, but oft-forgotten truths. In cosmic and Kirkian terms everything is interconnected.
On religion, Kirk reminds us: “From what source did humankind’s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship-that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power.”
“Order,” he insists, “in society, is the harmonious arrangement of classes and functions which guards justice and obtains willing consent to law and ensures that we all shall be safe together… Out of faith arises order; and once order prevails, freedom becomes possible. When the faith that nurtured the order fades away, the order disintegrates; and freedom no more can survive the disappearance of order than the branch of a tree can outlast the fall of the trunk.”
On tradition, he holds that “the order, inner and outer, of our common culture is defended not by the living merely, but by the valiant dead as well.”
As far as justice is concerned, on the one hand, “just men…establish the norm of justice… Well, then, how do just men and women apprehend the meaning of justice? From tradition, I maintain: from habits and beliefs that have long persisted within family and within local community.” On the other hand, “injustice… occurs when men try to undertake things for which they are not fitted, and to claim rewards to which they are not entitled, and to deny to other men what really belongs to those other men.” So much for the affirmative action.
He is firm on the limits of the state power: “There exist two fundamental ends of the state. One is the keeping of the peace; the other, the administration of justice.” Anything more would be pernicious because “the more centralization, the less freedom and the less energy.” Yet, a just state is not necessarily a democracy. “I am suggesting,” wrote Kirk, “that democracy-literally, ‘the rule of the crowd’-is a term so broad and vague as to signify everything or nothing… My point is this, merely to shout the word democracy is not to bring into being a society endowed with order, justice, and freedom. Those blessings grow but slowly, and by good nurture.” Thus, Kirk challenges the crusade for “global democracy.”
On education, Kirk is not surpassable. “The higher education,” he asserts, “by its nature, is concerned with abstractions-rather difficult abstractions, both in the sciences and in humane studies. Most people, in any age, are not fond of abstractions. Therefore, in this democratic time, higher education stands in danger everywhere from leveling pressures.” And further: “By ‘liberal education’ we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person-as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education’… I mean that liberal education is conservative in this way: it defends order against disorder… The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.” Kirk warns the academics: “men of letters and teachers of literature are entrusted with a social responsibility; they have no right to be nihilists or neoterists, because the terms on which they hold their trust are conservative.” And yet many teachers gave themselves that right and thus “universities, intellectually democratized, are sunk to the condition of centers for job certification.” Kirk saw it coming: “Intellectual virtue divorced from moral virtue may wither into a loathsome thing.”
The same thing applies to equality debunked from the hierarchy of achievement. Kirk argues that:
“It is profoundly unjust to endeavor to transform society into a tableland of equality. It would be unjust to the energetic, reduced to equality with the slack and indolent; it would be unjust to the imaginative, compelled to share the schooling and the tastes of the dull; it would be unjust to the thrifty, compelled to make up for the losses of the profligate; it would be unjust to those who take long views, forced to submit to the domination of a majority interested chiefly in short-run results… Inequality is the natural condition of human beings; charity may assist those not favored by nature; but attempt to impose an artificial equality of condition and intellect, although in the long run they fail, meanwhile can work great mischief in any society, and–still worse–damage the human nature itself.
And his last advice to us? “A great number of the American people already have taken alarm at the drift of policy and morality in this land. Reactions may be salutary: …a human body that cannot react is a corpse; and so it is with society. Up the reactionaries against decadence!”
Not only does he solidify our strength and teach us how to persevere, but Dr. Russell Kirk makes conservatism accessible to those who were not born into it. Kirk can sway to our side the victims of modernity: indifferent to yesterday, oblivious to tomorrow, and living only for today. Lacking roots? Kirk beckons to anyone of inquiring mind who seeks to drink at the fount of Tradition. Many of these who tried return for more. Some seek from Kirk the thread leading to the Shroud of Turin. He kept the flame of Faith alive. Now it’s our turn to spread it.
Russell Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Willmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996)