The Catholic as Conservative

Russell Kirk, widely known as the “Father” of modern American conservatism, is no longer in fashion among the majority of those calling themselves conservative. He is respected, of course, and in great demand as a lecturer. But by any objective measurement, Russell Kirk is not one of the stars of the conservative movement today. One could search the pages of National Review or The American Spectator for the last ten years and barely know that Kirk existed. When he publishes a book, it is not with a major New York publisher, but with small, relatively obscure presses. The same can be said of his power and influence within the movement. Kirk is the president of a foundation whose annual grant expenditures would not even pay the rent for one of the better-known foundations.

Even on the intellectual level, Kirk’s relationship to conservatism today is ambiguous. The three most energetic factions within conservatism are the libertarians, the neoconservatives, and the Rockford Institute Muchananite populists. The libertarians and the neoconservatives have long received Kirk’s criticism. The Rockfordites are more cordial to him, since they share certain principles and sympathies, including a love for the culture and traditions of the American South. But Kirk has never been comfortable with the nationalist and populist strains that dominate the Rockfordites’ agenda, and his name no longer appears on the Chronicles masthead.

In short, Russell Kirk may be the Father of modern conservatism, but many of his children have either disowned him or cannot recognize his paternity. This is a tragedy for conservatism, because there is a remarkable amplitude to Russell Kirk’s Christian humanism that stands in marked contrast to the narrowing tendencies of these other factions within conservatism. Compared to the philosophic breadth of Kirk’s worldview, the libertarians, neoconservatives, and Rockfordites are ideological. Each possesses a part of the truth, but each lacks imagination. By imagination I do not mean mere inventiveness, but the faculty of perception that Burke and Coleridge first defined, and that Kirk, throughout his writings, has deepened and refined.

Russell Kirk has received his share of tributes, but most have been exercises in piety. The best tribute that I can pay to my acknowledged teacher is to take a frank look at the criticisms that have been leveled against him and determine whether they strike home.

When conservatives gained (limited) access to power in the presidential elections of 1980, the movement underwent a transformation. Prior to 1980, conservatives were preoccupied with questions of first principles, of theory. They were, after all, out of power, and had the leisure to consider what the ideal polity should be. There was, in fact, furious conservative political activity — the kind of activism that led to the victory of 1980 — but the psychic weight of the movement remained on the side of principle rather than pragmatism. After 1980, the reverse became true. Suddenly it was necessary to find conservatives who could play the political game within the bureaucracy, the media, and the cultural power centers. Conservatives had to look good in front of the cameras, as well as in the committee rooms and cloakrooms. The very personality of the conservative movement was transformed. The new kind of conservatives in the corridors of the national capital bore little resemblance to their predecessors and progenitors.

Russell Kirk’s rhetorical style, as well as his subject matter, are more suited to the reading chair than to the spotlight. Since Kirk’s conservatism was based on a rejection of modernity, he deliberately cultivated a mannered prose, full of archaic diction and leisurely rhythms. Like another conservative, Walter Scott, who built himself a medieval country estate, Kirk built a Victorian villa, and filled it with furniture salvaged from old hotels and churches that were being demolished. He has always identified with nineteenth-century men-of-letters — such as Orestes Brownson and Walter Bagehot — who wrote for the quarterly reviews. He is a practitioner of that most Victorian of literary forms, the gothic tale or ghost story.

Depending on one’s tastes and sensitivities, one will find this Victorianism either charming or irritating. But the harshest criticism of Russell Kirk has come from those who argue that his retreat from the modern world into this nineteenth-century pose vitiates his intellectual contribution. They view the antiquarian tone of Kirk’s prose and worldview as a retreat into fantasy.

This charge has been formulated in its most telling form by some neoconservatives. They accuse Kirk of not “facing up to modernity,” to quote the title of a book by one of their principal writers, Peter Berger. In particular, they consider the notion that America was founded on Burkean principles to be a product of Kirk’s perhaps overactive imagination. The neoconservatives believe that the American political order is essentially an expression of modernity, a creation of the Enlightenment.

Of course, the debate over the character of the American Founding is nothing more than an offshoot of the larger debate between modernists and anti-modernists. This is the heart of the matter. A recently published essay in the Wilson Quarterly by Mark Lilla states the neoconservative perspective on this conflict clearly and simply:

… modern thought carries within itself two tendencies moving in opposite directions, and … one must choose between them. Either one resigns oneself to living within the broad Enlightenment tradition that values reason, skepticism, and freedom, or one sets off with the counter-Enlightenment thinkers who abandoned those principles in the pursuit of order, authority, and certainty. The modern world offers no third alternative

A more lurid formulation of this dichotomy pits democracy, capitalism, and freedom against an Ultramontane theocracy, the manly acceptance of uncertainty against a craven retreat into the skirts of religious authority. At their most extreme, some neoconservatives have accused some traditionalist conservatives of being intolerant and even anti-Semitic. There have been many surprising variations on the theme of the conflict between modern and anti-modern; some religious neoconservatives, for example, have found it possible to baptize the Enlightenment.

There are many thinkers more qualified than I to argue both the philosophical issues and the thorny questions surrounding the nature of the American regime. What I would point out is that Russell Kirk cannot conveniently be dismissed as a quaint but deluded irrationalist. It is true, as Gerhart Niemeyer notes elsewhere in this issue, that Kirk is not a philosopher. But he has, in the course of his many books, developed what amounts to a major philosophical insight. Kirk is one of the few political thinkers of our time who has seen the importance of what Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination.”

Imagination as Hope

It would be difficult to overestimate the value and relevance of Kirk’s understanding of the imagination. The imagination constitutes the “third alternative” which for Mark Lilla does not exist. It mediates between the poles of order and freedom, skepticism and faith, the individual and the comunity.

There is no more pressing need in the moral and spiritual crisis of our time than the need to recover the imagination. We live in an era that is dominated by hollow pragmatism and utopian ideology. These two forces have made an unholy alliance in the form of the managerial state, which employs pragmatic means to impose ideological programs on the traditional institutions of the American people. Only a politics of imagination can help to lift us out of this morass. None of the three major factions within conservatism today — the libertarians, the neoconservatives, and the Rockfordites — possesses the wholeness of vision to respond adequately to this crisis. But the tradition of Christian humanism which Russell Kirk has described, and to which he subscribes, does contain the necessary resources.

For Kirk, imagination is not opposed to reason; it is the necessary complement to it. The problem with the modern understanding of reason is that it is deracinated, a narrower and more constricted version of reason than was understood by Aristotle and Aquinas. To the ancients, reason found its highest expression in the contemplation of being — the order of the cosmos. Josef Pieper, one of Kirk’s intellectual heroes, recounts the medieval understanding of human thought in Leisure: The Basis of Culture. According to the scholastics, the ratio, or discursive, logical faculty is paralleled by the intellectus, the intuitive perception of reality. “The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.”

But the advent of modernity caused a shift in the understanding of human thought and being. The Nominalists, and later, Descartes and Kant, denied the reality of the intellectus and elevated the ratio to preeminent status. The moderns begin in doubt, or skepticism — to use Lilla’s word — about reality, and proceed to treat reason (ratio) itself as the ground of being. Instead of Man the Knower, we have Man the Thinker.

The modern concept of reason is, at root, ideological. Reason, instead of the faculty by which we achieve knowledge of reality, becomes the means by which we construct systems that are imposed on reality. Modern reason had its apotheosis during the French Revolution, when it was symbolized by a beautiful woman who was paraded through the streets as a deity. These same streets would soon run with the blood demanded by the goddess Reason, the price reality had to pay for not conforming to ideological visions of perfection.

Modern conservatism dates from Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution, as Russell Kirk made clear 40 years ago in The Conservative Mind. Burke, though he lived at the end of the Age of Reason, was a precursor to the Romantics, who sought to recover the affective and intuitive pathways to reality. Burke’s first major book was an inquiry into “the sublime and the beautiful,” two terms that would mean much to the Romantics. Kirk’s own thought can be traced to the Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment.

The tragedy of Romanticism is that it lacked the proper metaphysical equipment to achieve a new synthesis. The Romantics suffered from what T.S. Eliot, another of Kirk’s heroes, called the “dissociation of sensibility” — the separation of ratio and intellectus that has afflicted modern man. The older and wiser Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge, came to revere Burke. In the face of industrialization and utilitarianism, the Romantics looked to the past to find an organic society untainted by the dissociation of sensibility. The danger inherent in this enterprise was and is nostalgia or sentimentality. Certainly the Continental, Ultramontane thinkers such as de Maistre veered dangerously close to a desire to return to a feudal political order. This is the irrationalism which Lilla and others rightly decry as a dark, reactionary movement toward “order, authority, and certainty.”

But The Conservative Mind is a history of conservatism that deliberately avoids Continental thought, concentrating instead on the Anglo-American tradition. This was a clear statement of Kirk’s political sensibility, but many have ignored it. By staying within the Anglo-American framework, Kirk signaled his preference for common sense and prudence as opposed to mere appeals to authority, whether that authority be ecclesiastical or aristocratic.

In The Conservative Mind there are two kinds of thinkers who fascinate Kirk. The first group are those who advocate a “politics of prudence.” What Kirk admires about such conservatives — including Burke, John Adams, Calhoun, and Tocqueville — is their ability to balance the terms that Lilla insists are irreconcilable. Relying on the lamp of experience and the accumulated wisdom of traditional institutions, these conservatives retain a commitment to order and authority while allowing for the maximum amount of freedom and skepticism. Their writings often have a philosophical flavor, but their minds were essentially historical.

But Kirk also singles out thinkers of a more philosophical bent — Coleridge, Hawthorne, Newman, and Eliot prominent among them. Each of these individuals strove to reintegrate classical and Judeo-Christian wisdom in a new synthesis appropriate to the conditions of modernity. They understood that liberalism was a powerful and implacable foe, slowly dissolving the social and moral bonds that hold communities together. The key to liberalism, they knew, was its utter secularity, its refusal to admit any absolutes.

What these two groups — the prudential politicians and the philosophical poets — have in common is the moral imagination. What, then, constitutes the moral imagination? Burke believed that it involved the ability to see the bare facts of life in the context of a moral, historical, and spiritual significance. The moral imagination stood against the reductionist mindset of the “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who viewed man as nothing more than as an acquisitive animal. To Burke, the “pleasing illusions” that invest our social relationships with meaning are more true than the modernist calculus, derived from Machiavelli and Hobbes, that claims to know the harsh realities of life.

There are at least three major dimensions of the moral imagination in Kirk’s thought: the presence of the past, the tragic sense of life, and a sacramental vision.

The Past as Present

The Presence of the Past. In the face of the ideological abstractions emerging out of the French Revolution, Burke upheld the political genius of traditional institutions. The two central concepts in Burke’s thought singled out by Kirk in The Conservative Mind are “prescription” and “prejudice.” As Gerhart Niemeyer points out, these terms achieve the status of symbols in Kirk’s thought. Prescription, which is the wisdom of institutions tested by time, is reflected in prejudice, which consists of the habits of judgment and discernment within the individual. Both of these terms signify the heightened awareness of the imagination, whether in the collective memory of the community or in the experience of the individual.

Kirk believes that an awareness of the continuing reality of the past is a vital part of the moral imagination. That is why he has championed the thought of John Lukacs, whose writings delve into the nature of historical consciousness. Kirk once singled out this passage from Lukacs for special attention:

Self-knowledge, and the existing potentiality of past-knowledge, are involved intimately with the imagination — a word which suggest a colorful mental construction on the one hand, and an inward tendency on the other…. The part played by the imagination, as Collingwood rightly puts it, “is properly not ornamental but structural”; and the meaning of this truth goes beyond our interest in history. If, for example, imagination is more than a superstructure of perception, the term “extrasensory perception” is, strictly speaking, misleading, for all human perception is, to some extent, extra-sensory.

There is no shortage of examples of how a lack of historical imagination can cause grief in the present. For example, as a scholar with a high level of historical consciousness, Kirk knows how fatuous it is to proclaim “The End of History.” This premature pronouncement, made recently by the neoconservative Francis Fukuyama to a barrage of media attention, ranks with George Bush’s “New World Order” for stark ignorance of history. Moreover, Kirk has no brief for the notion of “global democracy” or the exporting of American institutions to the ends of the earth, and he criticizes at least one understanding of “democratic capitalism”:

If by the word “democratic” is meant the complex of republican political institutions that has grown up in the United States, over more than two centuries — why, the new paper constitutions now being discussed in eastern Europe cannot magically reproduce American history. If by “capitalism” is meant the massive and centralized corporate structures of North America — why, massive and centralized state capitalism is precisely what the self-liberated peoples of eastern Europe are endeavoring to escape. The differing nations of our time must find their own several ways to order and justice and freedom. We Americans were not appointed their keepers.

An imaginative sensitivity to the past teaches us about human nature, and particularly about human limitations. Hence the next facet of the moral imagination.

Tragedy Is Truth

The Tragic Sense of Life. Kirk often refers to this phrase, taken from the Catholic philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. The tragedy to which Unamuno refers is Original Sin, the fallen nature of mankind. The tragic sensibility recognizes the nobility of man, but it also acknowledges his fragility.

The tragic sense of life is opposed to ideology, which posits a belief in the malleability of human nature. But it would be wrong to suppose that the only real application of this tragic sense is to the shattered utopian schemes of fascism and socialism. There also is a messianic strain in American history, and it infects not only left-wing liberal-ism, but right-wing liberalism as well. For example, Kirk has little time not only for the messianism of “global democracy,” but also for George Gilder’s effusions about the technological wonders of a capitalist future.

Kirk believes that any form of political thought that reduces the complexity of human nature to simple abstractions is a dangerous departure from the truth of our tragic condition. He has criticized some of the policy proposals made by libertarians and neoconservatives because in his view they are based on the assumption that man is essentially Homo economicus. To narrow the range of human motivation to mere self-interest is not only misguided, it also downplays the virtues of sacrifice and solicitude for the common good.

Ironically, Kirk’s tragic sense has led him to advocate more radical political changes than many of his fellow conservatives. That is because he believes the social fabric has worn so thin that it cannot stand additional pressures. His desire to slash the federal bureaucracy, and his willingness to call for massive cuts in entitlement and welfare programs, have at times brought him into temporary alliances with the libertarians rather than with the neo-conservatives, who generally have made their peace with the welfare state.

Sacramental Vision

A Sacramental Vision. The source of Russell Kirk’s thought is his sacramental vision, his vivid sense of the createdness of the world. Unlike the moderns, to whom life is a matter of process, of constant activity, and of “becoming,” Kirk holds, with the ancients, that man’s highest calling is contemplating what is. Being precedes becoming; contemplation is prior to action. Kirk views this world sub specie aeternitatis.

This accounts for the enormous energy and “joy of being” (to quote Gerhart Niemeyer again) that emanates from Kirk. With figures like Dr. Johnson, Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis, Kirk shares a robust delight in the goodness and sacramentality of simple things, from food to fireplaces. Kirk’s definition of grace is where time and the timeless meet, where the natural is touched by the supernatural.

It is impossible to separate Kirk’s sense of transcendence from his love of particular people, places, and things. I learned this when I was assigned the job of driving Kirk from Hillsdale College, where he was teaching as a visiting professor, to his home three hours to the north in Michigan. These trips were leisurely, made on back roads, all of which Kirk knew intimately. As we drove through the Michigan countryside, Kirk introduced me to the particular delights of each small town along the way. In Homer, he took me to a dinner theater where I tasted the Greek wine Retsina for the first time. We always looked out for the black squirrels in Albion, as well as the sale table at the Albion College library. We never failed to stop in Charlotte at the ice cream parlor, which once had been the town’s railroad depot. And in Ionia we visited the orchard with its endless supply of apples, cider, honey, preserves, and the aromatic products of the bakery on the premises. Kirk knew the streets where the best examples of neoclassical architecture could be found, not to mention the best diners. Having come to Michigan from New York City, I found these drives to be educational in ways that I could not have imagined.

Walter Bagehot, another of the thinkers in Kirk’s pantheon, once wrote: “The essence of Toryism is enjoyment. Talk of the ways of spreading a wholesome Conservatism throughout this country: give painful lectures, distribute weary tracts …; but as far as communicating and establishing your creed are concerned — try a little pleasure. The way to keep up old customs is, to enjoy old customs.”

There is an authenticity, a sense of felt experience, in Kirk’s thought, precisely because his life is continuous with his ideas. One can carp at the nineteenth-century language, customs, and architecture with which he surrounds himself, but for many of those who have visited his Mecosta, Michigan home, Piety Hill, there is a delight in these “pleasing illusions.” There is a larger, more meaningful world to be found there in the stump country of central Michigan than in the claustrophobic corridors of Manhattan and Washington.

The three constituents of the moral imagination — historical awareness, tragic sensibility, and sacramental vision — have their fullest expression within the Catholic Church. Russell Kirk’s conversion to Catholicism, though it came more than a decade after the publication of The Conservative Mind, could have been predicted from the worldview presented in its pages. Kirk’s imagination is rooted in the “order, authority, and certainty” provided by his Catholic faith, but his political thought is not based on mere appeals to Church authority. Rather, in the best Catholic tradition, Kirk’s thought balances the truths of revelation with a profound understanding of the natural order. In many ways, Kirk’s thought has deep affinities with Catholic social teaching. There is no greater interpreter of the meaning of “subsidiarity,” for example, than Russell Kirk. Decades before the communitarians came into intellectual vogue, Kirk was stressing the need to preserve local communities against the leveling tendencies of big government and big business.

A Continuing Adventure

There is, however, one contradiction in Kirk’s oeuvre. It concerns his attitude toward modern art and literature. Early in his career, Kirk followed his instincts and befriended some of the best writers living in England, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and Roy Campbell among them. He understood that these writers were employing highly innovative literary techniques to defend the moral and spiritual heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But aside from his Eliot and His Age, Kirk has dismissed nearly all of modern art and literature (with the exception of a few fantasy writers). This is a shame, because it encourages the belief on the part of his readers that the best art is behind us. The truly conservative approach requires us to be alert to the best art and literature of the present. Otherwise, we treat our cultural heritage as a museum, rather than as a living continuum which it is our duty to nourish. Whether he realizes it or not, Kirk has failed to challenge the philistines in the conservative movement. The moral imagination is still active today, if one knows where to look for it. That is how I have interpreted my own mission as a conservative — the way I have tried to follow in my teacher’s footsteps.

There is another danger associated with Russell Kirk’s writings, though it is not of his doing. The clarity and lucidity of Kirk prose, his ability to convey complex ideas and historical events in ways that can be easily under-stood, places him in the same category as a writer like C.S. Lewis. But those who read Lewis and Kirk often make the mistake of believing that their books are a substitute for engaging the original works and ideas. Those readers forget that Lewis and Kirk are calling them to undertake the same disciplines and intellectual adventures that they undertook themselves.

The very real danger, both now and in the future, is that Kirk’s writings will be treated as a pleasant background, like wallpaper. This process has already taken place. For example, Kirk has been asked to speak for certain organizations and think-tanks whose day-to-day policy papers contradict much of what Kirk stands for. The reality is that third- and fourth-generation conservatives have lost touch with their tradition. They have squandered the capital amassed by Kirk and the other great first-generation conservatives, such as Richard Weaver and Willmore Kendall. Like George Bush, these politicized conservatives are having a hard time with “the vision thing.”

Unless conservatives regain the moral imagination, and thus the humanism, represented by the writings of Russell Kirk, they will become irrelevant. Kirk’s greatness does not stem from any originality on his part; in this sense, he is one of the most humble intellectuals on the planet. Rather, Kirk is great because he has the truest and most inclusive vision of our spiritual and cultural inheritance. He is a bridge-builder — a pontifex maximus — to the classics of our culture. If we do not cross the bridges built by the likes of Russell Kirk, we will remain stranded in our own islands of ignorance.

  • Gregory Wolfe

    Gregory Wolfe is a writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. Both as a thinker and institution-builder, he has been a pioneer in the resurgence of interest in the relationship between art and religion—a resurgence that has had widespread impact both on religious communities and the public square. As an advocate for and exemplar of the tradition of Christian Humanism, Wolfe has established a reputation as an independent, non-ideological thinker—part gadfly, part peacemaker.

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