Public Arguments: Happy Birthday, Russel Kirk!

It is a privilege to voice our warmest congratulations to Russell Kirk on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, and to glory with him in his abundant literary accomplishments. The books of Russell Kirk will be read with pleasure generations hence; for they are, as he often says, about “the Permanent Things.” His prose is graced with warmth and sly humor and pleasurable learning. Without grants, often without a regular salary, he has willingly lived (not perhaps intentionally) a life of scholarly poverty, earning his way by his pen and his lectures in admirable independence and without concession to fashion. There is an admirable stubbornness, even heroism, to the way he has chosen to live, on the little island of study and work and contemplation he has fashioned for himself at Piety Hill, which has been a dynamo radiating quiet spiritual energy throughout the Republic.

Kirk has written one of the best books on the American founding ever to have appeared, The Roots of American Order, which to my displeasure I discovered only in recent years. No other book traces so lovingly and convincingly the sources of American understandings in ancient Israel, Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, and the law, practices, and reflections of England and Scotland, as well as in the various strata of the American experience. This is not a “thesis” book, but a ruminative, wonderfully informed guide to further reading and thinking. It helps one to articulate levels of experience one has not before been able to put into words. It has the solid ring of truth.

In this issue of Crisis there is much well-deserved praise for Kirk and much good guidance to the central motifs of his thought; and there are reviews of his two latest books, and a very good review by him of an important book on Solzhenitsyn — a review notable for the succinct way in which he distinguishes what he means by democracy from what he fears others may mean. That passage is likely to be quoted often in the coming years.

Candor compels me to add, in my own name, what the learned reader will already know— viz., that Russell Kirk does not entirely approve of a number of things that I have written, that on occasion, after having taken care to say a nice thing or two about me that would please my mother, he has not scrupled to say, reflectively and with good humor in his voice, that this or that article of mine, opinion of mine, or project of mine, was “puerile,” “pretentious,” and evidence of playing “Humpty-Dumpty” (making words mean what I want them to mean), as well as conveying an air that God ever “has His arm around my shoulder.” It is not fair of Kirk to prick balloons so neatly, I would have thought; my disguises should be better than that.

Indeed, readers deserve to be warned, amid all the praise for Russell Kirk in this issue, not a single syllable of which I mean to qualify, that Kirk and I are far from being in agreement on such crucial matters as the most useful, and most neutral, definition of ideology; on the possible meanings of the term democratic capitalism; and especially on the meaning that I myself attach to the latter and the relevance of that meaning to Eastern Europe and Latin America, among other places.

Without committing false irenicism, I urge the reader to look closely at how Kirk defines ideology and prudence in the opening chapter of his new book, The Politics of Prudence, and to ask himself whether or not my own definition of ideology (in This World, 1988) as “a guiding vision of future social action,” explains more clearly than Kirk does a crucial part of the definition that Kirk offers for prudence: “A prudent statesman is one who looks before he leaps; who takes long views; who knows that politics is the art of the possible.” One root of the Christian emphasis on prudence is the human destiny to be provident, in the image of God, and indeed to be provident also as a social and political animal. In my view, Kirk pays too little explicit attention to this dimension of prudence. As for Kirk’s definition of ideology, shared with many other writers in their polemical writings, it is so utterly pejorative that a decent man would rather not be guilty of it — and even many actually guilty of it would say: “But that is not what I meant at all!” Kirk insists, of course, that his is the “pure” meaning of ideology, and should not be muddied by a larger, more neutral understanding, one that might apply also to him.

In short, Kirk and I disagree about the meaning and importance of “ideology.” Such disagreements are important — and have practical consequences. For example, Kirk “heartily endorses” the offhand remark of President George Bush that he does not relish ‘this vision thing.'” By contrast, I found George Bush’s dismissal of “vision” catastrophic for his presidency and damaging to the country; surely, it cleared the path for Bill Clinton’s ideology. If it means accepting Mr. Bush’s lack of vision, I am not and cannot be a conservative, and in that sense (or so it seems to me) neither Burke nor Madison nor Tocqueville nor many another with whom I would wish to stand were conservatives, but men who had a “guiding vision of future social action.”

Possibly, I should have chosen the Burkean phrase “moral imagination” for the faculty of realistic vision to which I was pointing. But, then, Kirk did not fault Bush for lacking that. In any case, many conservatives feel mightily frustrated by the penchant of others for allowing the liberals to frame all issues, choose the battlefields, and array their troops in advance. Too many vision-less conservatives content themselves, too late, with fighting defensively to limit the damage; having lost control of the substantive debate, they end up protesting, in effect, “not so much, not quite yet.” Besides, the more practical and activist conservatives would find the term “moral imagination” too poetic for the strategic and tactical forethought that sound practice requires of them.

Finally, if I may mention with humor as good as his, and with kindness surrounded by ample praise, a defect of some of Kirk’s most delicious writing (for even his chapter on “The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species,” which so annoys me, is, if one holds it at a distance to gain a proper perspective, plainly written in playful intent to annoy), it is that Kirk often, really quite often, caricatures the positions of his opponents, even when these positions are in many ways that he does not notice similar to, or compatible with, or usefully a little different from, his own. Kirk is far better at saying what he is for, and warming our hearts by it, than at hitting his contemporary opponents smack in the bull’s-eye.

In any case, one reason for honoring Russell Kirk for his massive accomplishments, and his moral example, lo these many years, is to open our pages to the many good arguments necessary to the accurate appropriation of our own intellectual and political inheritance, not least the arguments between and among the many different vintages of conservatives. We want Crisis to be an open journal. While being quite honest about our own standpoints and horizons (for not all the editors are of the same mind, though all share a deep community of spirit), we do wish to invite those who disagree with us, or with any opinions here expressed, to submit their arguments to public scrutiny in these pages.

Serious, reverent, even grateful inquiry, civilly expressed, is the vocation to which Russell Kirk has called us. He has been a magnificent mentor to nearly three generations now. May his countrymen and his confreres in the Catholic faith fill his days with the honor, gratitude, and esteem his seminal work deserves.

A Council Betrayed

Rome is at any time a city of sudden beauty. At any turn of the street a pillar, an arch, a fountain is apt to startle one’s memory with recollections of forgotten times. All day long, one is aware of fountains where water is running or of walls of narrow brick or heavy dirty stones, which have seen generations of men come and go. Rome sheds the generations of men like so many skins. The silver water continues to flow from the jester’s mouth; the ancient cypresses and olives stand calm and untroubled. A man comes, shares their life for a moment, and disappears. —The Open Church, ix.

Thirty years ago this month I was in Rome reporting on the second (and crucial) session of the Second Vatican Council. I can still remember the especially brilliant full moon of October 30, 1963, and the softly falling fountains in the middle of the almost deserted Square of Saint Peter’s after nightfall — on a night some said closed the most significant day in the history of the Roman Catholic Church since 1870. For that day a vote had been taken in the Council that completed the work of Vatican Council I, by placing the authority of the Pope in the context of the authority of the entire body of bishops. The worldwide witness of all the Catholic bishops came that day into formal focus. Their very presence in Saint Peter’s that morning, some 2,200 strong and from every continent and of every race, graphically demonstrated — to them, first of all — that their authority in turn greatly strengthened Peter’s, while in turn refracting its focus to every corner of the world.

All the bishops, united with the Bishop of Rome, form one college. Their union, their consensus, and their communion is a vital image of the life of God diffused and articulated throughout the living body of His people around the world. The Church is not like a state, even a mega-state. It is a living people scattered worldwide, united in the life of the Spirit and the sacraments, and operating institutionally through the college of bishops in union with Rome.

My wife and I strolled through Saint Peter’s Square that night to savor the historical moment. The basilica never looked so light and airy as it did in the soft October air, the columns of Bernini anchoring it down to the shadows. The moon, indeed, whitened the entire sky and bathed the papal apartments in light. We could hear the water fall in the fountains, and listened to our own footfalls as we walked from the porphyry marker whence the serried columns of Bernini fall into perfect line. On the broad Via della Conciliazione, we dodged whizzing, dimly lighted taxis; one cut so close, passing another, that its air-rush whipped our clothes and its tire brushed my wife’s shoe. Rome was exciting then, we had been married just four months before. We were 30 years younger than now, more innocent.

Up in the papal chambers, behind the drawn shades where the lights were still on, was Paul VI, whose coronation had been celebrated at this basilica on the previous June 29, the very day Karen and I had been married in far-off Iowa (blessed by one of the last wedding blessings of good Pope John XXIII). That night, unbeknownst to us, the young Archbishop Wojtyla was also in Rome, the newly appointed Archbishop of Krakow. He was soon to become known to the Americans in Rome because of his eloquent support for a new emphasis on religious liberty, bringing to that cause the strength of the Eastern Europeans.

From boyhood, I had dreamed of the renaissance of the Church in our time — and of the world with it. From 1956-8, I had been studying for the priesthood in Rome, although beginning to glimpse that it was not in that blessed life that my vocation lay. Just months short of ordination, I resumed a lay life. (I later invented a story of that period, The Tiber Was Silver.)

Many great scholars were at work in those days for the renewal of the Church. A massive intellectual enterprise had been underway for more than a hundred years — research into the Scriptures and their original settings, research into the fathers of the Church, the rediscovery of the common sense and genial humanism of Saint Thomas Aquinas (retrieved from the narrow, logic-chopping textbook writers of that period, whom I had come to loathe), and extensive liturgical scholarship. The twentieth century had also already seen the founding of Christian Democratic parties, the flowering of Catholic social teaching and many concrete experiments, such as the worker priests, and the “renascence” of Catholic painting, poetry, fiction, and belles lettres. The Church nearly destroyed by the secular fanaticism of the French Revolution was regaining its vigor. The earth seemed alive with the stirrings of the Spirit.

Within a week or two of that night, I would be asked to take over a contract for a book on the second session, which the prize-winning correspondent for Time, Robert Blair Kaiser, had to give up — a manuscript which would be due in New York on January 16, only 77 days off. When later I actually began to compose it, I remember warning myself to curb my exultation and hopes, stirred by so many great things happening in those days, one “first” after another, and deciding to open and to close the book with the jesters of the fountains of Rome, who had seen so many generations of humans come and go, and who mocked all human pretensions: “The jesters of the fountains smile and say, ‘This, too, shall pass.'” I also placed in the frontispiece the wise, warmly cynical prediction of the great American Jesuit of that generation, Gustav Weigel: “All things human, given enough time, go badly.” I often wondered during those heady days how we would be mocked by the aftermath of the Council.

Mocked we were, indeed! I was a witness and a reporter. To many an audience I tried to communicate what I had seen and learned, trying particularly to convey the feelings and excitement of those days, the spirit — ah, there was the rub! — of the occasion. “The Spirit of Vatican II,” thus was a new gnostic religion born. Thus did Screwtape find a way to turn a great victory for God into a victory for himself. The spirit of Vatican II was cut loose, disincarnate, from the letter. Many people who never read or meditated on the documents of Vatican II relied on what they heard from others, including me, about the spirit of Vatican II. Thus was a false gospel preached, unintentionally, but to devastating effect for the life of the Church, at least in the affluent West. We have not yet begun to recover from — even discovered how to exorcise — the early falsified “spirit of Vatican II.” Recovering the true Vatican II is a great and important task yet to be accomplished. We mean to begin it in future issues of Crisis.


Perhaps an editor who is also an older brother will be forgiven for taking pride in the new book of a younger brother: My brother James has just published his first book, a brilliant introduction to the people, land, history, and political economy of one of the world’s poorest — and yet highly promising — nations, Bangladesh. Our family has had a long tie with Bangladesh. As long ago as 1947, as a seminarian at Holy Cross Seminary at Notre Dame, I “adopted” a Holy Cross missionary in what was then East Pakistan for special concern in my prayers. Then in 1962 our brother Dick, by that time a Holy Cross missionary himself, was posted to that haunting, potentially rich, and fertile land. His aim was to study Arabic and Islamic philosophy at the University of Dacca, while teaching, too, at nearby Notre Dame College. He was murdered by river pirates during the Hindu-Moslem riots of 1964, on January 16 (the very day I was handing in the manuscript of The Open Church in New York). Jim later worked in Asia for two different pharmaceutical companies and, specifically in Bangladesh, for the Asia Society. He loved Bangladesh, as Dick had, and formed a lifelong habit of long, intimate conversations (and arguments) with Bengalis. His book, Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water, is already being called the best brief introduction in English or any Western language; his love for the place, his sharp eye for telling detail, and his appreciation of Bengali manners and poetic sensibility are plain on every page. It is not the dry book of an expert but a work of belles lettres, and its interpretation of Bengali political history — gleaned from all those long nights of argument with everybody who is anybody in Bengali public life — is already having an impact on how Bengalis see themselves. Attribute it to an elder brother’s bias, if you wish, but there is a touch of Tocqueville in this book, on the side at least of illuminating observation if not of grand social theory. Indiana University Press did itself proud, too, in the handsomeness of the book; the jacket is one of the two or three most beautiful I have ever seen. Reading this book will make you stop thinking of Bangladesh as the “basket case” of newspaper rhetoric, and see the rich possibilities that it is already beginning to realize.

A few years back, I was walking across the lobby of the Dacca Hilton when a young assistant manager, learning I was there, approached quickly to kneel and kiss my hand in honor of my brother Dick, who had been his teacher 20 years before. Next time, I expect I may be honored for being the brother of Jim.

The Moral Sense

James Q. Wilson is one of the nation’s foremost social scientists and also a member of the Publication Committee of Crisis — one of the most faithful and most helpful, at that. He has just published an extremely important book, The Moral Sense (Free Press), attempting to bring together what social science, with its own strict methods, has come to know about the moral nature of human beings, and to do so in such a way as to reach a hand across the disciplinary abyss that sometimes separates the social scientists from the humanists, particularly the philosophers. Since as Clare Boothe Luce used to say, No good deed goes unpunished, Professor Wilson is bound to take his lumps for such bravery, and especially for his uncommon common sense. Not only does he nudge social scientists closer to the classic language of the Anglo-Scot philosophers of “the moral sense” — Hutcheson, Reid, Smith — but even further back, toward the Aristotelian language of character and habit. Through such exploratory and painstaking work will the broken fragments of our Western moral traditions be reassembled in an intelligible mosaic worthy of their original beauty and power.

So important do I consider this work that I have, with the publisher’s permission, given over (below) a portion of the pages set aside for “Public Arguments” to excerpts from his concluding chapter, “The Moral Sense and Human Character.”


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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