“In an age of decadence, the Stoic philosophy held together the civil social order of imperial Rome, and taught thinking men the nature of true freedom, which is not dependent upon swords and laws.” – Russell Kirk
Piety Hill is the name given by the late Russell Kirk, the “Father of American Conservatism,”to his ancestral home in the village of Mecosta, Michigan. The grand Italianate mansion now serves as the headquarters of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, which his disciples founded to continue his work after he died in 1994. It’s also still the Kirk family home, and Dr. Kirk’s wife Annette is renowned in conservative circles for her hospitality.
My wife and I were visiting Piety Hill when Governor Whitmer passed her lockdown order. That was… what? Almost two months ago now. And, so, we’ve been squatting in one of the Kirks’ guesthouses ever since (with Mrs. Kirk’s gracious permission, of course). Since the middle of March, Crisis has been published out of Kirk’s library, where he wrote most of his thirty-two books. I think he would have approved: Dr. Kirk was an avid reader of (and occasional contributor to) Crisis. As a matter of fact, there’s a complete set of the magazine’s print editions in the library’s archive.
We haven’t seen much of Mrs. Kirk who, in addition to her usual duties, is assiduously social distancing. Thank God, Mecosta County has only reported 14 cases so far. Since we’ve all been self-quarantining on the same property for well over the two-week incubation period, we had dinner together last night: just Mrs. Kirk, my wife, the resident scholars, and myself.
One of the topics that came up was Dr. Kirk’s conversion to Catholicism, which is a fascinating story. His family wasn’t particularly religious, though his grandparents had been devout Spiritualists (if “devout” is the word I’m looking for). If Kirk believed in anything as a boy, it was ghosts.
Then, as a young man, Dr. Kirk discovered Marcus Aurelius. Before long, he had converted to Stoicism (if “converted” is the word I’m looking for). When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Army; where other soldiers carried a Bible in their rucksacks, Dr. Kirk carried the Meditations.
Yet Kirk always sensed the deep affinity between Stoicism and Christianity. “Everything in Christianity is Stoic,” he once wrote in a letter to a friend; for, he claimed, the Christian says with Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, that “Nothing is good but virtue.” (It’s a little reductive, but not a bad start.) So, when he finally converted to Catholicism, Dr. Kirk didn’t have to abandon his old faith completely. Mrs. Kirk told us how she’d teased him, saying, “You know, you’re still a Stoic.” Dr. Kirk would arch his brow and tuck his chin. “But a Christian Stoic,” he’d insist.
Conservatives—especially Christian conservatives—tend to be more interested in Plato and Aristotle than Marcus and Seneca. Of course, Plato and Aristotle are both excellent things to be interested in. Walking home from dinner last night, it occurred to me that every conservative is, by nature, a Stoic.
Among his Ten Conservative Principles, Dr. Kirk wrote that conservatives are “chastened by their principle of imperfectability”:
Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.
“Ah,” says the Catholic, “he’s talking about original sin.”
This principle of imperfectability dates back to Saint Augustine (another major influence on Kirk’s thinking). Ever since the Fall of our first parents, there has been war between the City of God and the City of Man, and that war won’t end this side of the Millennium. We may hope to spend eternity in Jerusalem, but sickness and poverty are facts of life here in Babylon. Yet suffering and death have a role to play in God’s plan for our salvation, even if it’s not always our privilege to know what that role is. We’re called to hope for a more perfect world in the next life—and to suffer with courage and grace in this life, in this world.
As Dr. Kirk knew, suffering with courage and grace is the very essence of Stoicism. That’s why Christians have always felt an affinity for the Stoics. They have this intuitive sense that man, though made for the Garden of Eden, is nevertheless doomed to dwell in the Land of Nod. All he can do is bear his burden with dignity. Marcus writes:
The pain of labor for hand or foot is not contrary to nature, as long as the foot is doing the work of a foot and the hand the work of a hand. So likewise for a man, qua man, there is nothing contrary to nature in pain, as long as he is doing the work of a man: and if not contrary to nature for him, not an evil either.
Of course, there are those who can’t bear suffering or poverty. There are those who never reconcile themselves to their fate. Dylan Thomas gave voice to that mortal terror when he pleaded with his dying father,
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This fear gives rise to the insane desire to “cure” man of his faults. There are many different “cures” on offer—socialism, fascism, secularism, progressivism, and the like. Yet history has but one iron rule: these cures are always worse than the disease. The search for utopia is doomed to end in terror and despair.
So, like Eric Voegelin, the conservative cries out: “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” Don’t try to bring about Heaven on Earth! But, then, he’s also crying out with the Stoic: “Suck it up!” Live with courage, and die with grace.
This might sound like an argument for ending the coronavirus lockdowns and facing the disease with our heads held high. Then again, it might sound like an argument for sheltering-in-place indefinitely, whatever the economic cost. It’s neither of these—or, at any rate, I don’t mean for it to be. The one thing we don’t lack in this crisis are opinions on how it will end… and when, and why, and how we can bring it about.
The debate will (and should) continue. My only contribution is this observation: whatever their merits, these opinions seem to be driven by fear—fear of poverty on the one hand, and of sickness and death on the other. What we do lack are Christian hope and Stoic grit. And one thing is certain: in the coming years, we’re going to need a whole lot of both.
Whether the shelter-in-place orders are lifted in two weeks or two years, it’s clear now that our economy will never be the same. We may not be knocked back to the Dark Ages, but we’ve already lost all the jobs created since the 2008 recession. For every month the lockdown orders remain in force, we’ll lose millions more. The coronavirus pandemic has created the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and it shows no signs of abating.
Many articles—excellent, thoughtful, necessary articles—have been written arguing that Christians have a unique chance now to witness our Faith by practicing radical charity. Others speak of the need to build a more family-centric economy based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. And, of course, they’re right.
Yet, as I wrote in my last column, I think we Catholics have an even greater opportunity. We have a chance to demonstrate the freedom of a life lived entirely for God, unmoved by worldly concerns and untempted by creature comforts. More than Christian virologists or economists or social workers, we need Christian Stoics.
And that’s precisely because Christian Stoicism is an attitude wholly alien to our consumerist culture. Irving Kristol, the so-called Godfather of Neoconservatism, wrote that this “bourgeois society” of ours is distinct from the Christian society that came before it, in that it is “organized for the convenience and comfort of common men and women, not for the production of heroic, memorable figures. It is a society interested in making the best of this world, not in any kind of transfiguration, whether through tragedy or piety.”
Well, now it can’t even provide convenience and comfort. We took no interest in tragedy, yet tragedy sure took an interest in us. And, without piety, all we have left is despair.
Christians have never felt at home in this brave, new, “bourgeois” world. The Stoics wouldn’t have either. Their aim—like ours—was nothing less than “to live with the gods.” Again, quoting Marcus: “He lives with the gods who consistently shows them his soul content with its lot, and performing the wishes of that divinity, that fragment of himself which Zeus has given each person to guard and guide him.”
When we can think of nothing but our own self-preservation, what’s the point of preserving ourselves? We live only for ourselves, not God. In fact, we don’t even live: we merely survive from one day to the next. Hence, Saint Ambrose of Milan (Christian Stoic par excellence) admonished the Milanese merchant-class: “God did not make the sea to be sailed over, but for the sky of the beauty of the element… The sea is given to supply you with fish to eat, not for you to endanger yourself upon it; use it for purposes of food, not for purposes of commerce.” Don’t worry so much about making a living that you forget to live.
Simplicity, contentment, and forbearance: that’s the way of the Christian Stoic.
Maybe this sounds like an exercise in truism. And maybe it is. To say we need courage during a crisis is like saying we need an umbrella during a thunderstorm. Yet, when the weather changes suddenly, how often do we find ourselves caught in the rain?
Again, I’m not staking out a pro- or anti-lockdown position. I don’t think public policy ought to be our first concern during a national emergency. Neither, for that matter, does Scripture. The prophet Isaiah is very clear about our duty in times of trial such as this:
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
“Be strong, fear not”: let that be our coronavirus creed. Governments may use fear of illness and death to control our movements, our businesses, and our whole lives. Or corporations may use fear of poverty to put the sick and elderly at risk for the sake of their profit margins. But, given the chance, fear will place us in an even greater bondage: it will enslave us to despair, to selfishness, and to fear itself. And this slavery neither the Christian nor the Stoic can abide.
The last word goes to Dr. Johnson, another of Dr. Kirk’s great heroes. He and a man whom both Christians and Stoics have good reason to admire:
The chief security against the fruitless anguish of impatience must arise from frequent reflection on the wisdom and goodness of the God of nature, in whose hands are riches and poverty, honor and disgrace, pleasure and pain, and life and death. A settled conviction of the tendency of everything to our good, and of the possibility of turning miseries into happiness, by receiving them rightly, will incline us to “bless the name of the Lord, whether he gives or takes away.”
Image: Russell Kirk outside his library at Piety Hill (Russell Kirk Center)