“I see the imminent death of 20,000 men, / That, for a fantasy and trick of fame, / Go to their graves like beds . . . ”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Modern Age, the flagship journal of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, edited now for almost half of that time by George A. Panichas. Russell Kirk (1918-1994), the founder and first editor of Modern Age, always took great delight in even the smallest coincidences in life, and so he is no doubt pleased to see The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by Panichas, appear in 2007.
Kirk should be pleased, too, with the result of his editor’s efforts. Panichas has made a near-perfect selection of 42 essays, arranging them in nine sections that touch on every major theme of Kirk’s more than 40 years of intellectual endeavor. Moreover, he has gone beyond the call of duty as editor, carefully trimming sentences and passages for the sake of concision while leaving Kirk’s arguments unaltered. He introduces each essay with a short paragraph or two placing it in historical context and tying its theme to the overarching subject of the section in which it appears. Each of those sections receives a slightly longer introduction, and Panichas has written a Preface to the entire volume that is far more illuminating than much longer, even book-length, treatments of Kirk’s thought. The first-time reader of Kirk, or those who have read him before through the lens of other authors, will benefit greatly from this Preface. Panichas can offer insights that others have missed simply because he does not impose an external structure on Kirk’s thought but takes him on his own terms.
Since Kirk was the first to admit that he was not himself a systematic philosopher, imposing another thinker’s philosophical structure on his writing is not likely to help us understand Kirk, or to gain insight from him. (Combining Kirk’s insights with those of other, more systematic thinkers to produce a synthesis is another matter altogether.) As Panichas explains,
The fact is that there is no single terminal point, no fixture, in Kirk’s expository concerns and aspirations; there is only the constant and living necessity to press and press the essences of an idea or a thought, to wrestle ceaselessly with words and meaning, and to proceed towards a deeper recognition of the nexus of the old and the new, of cause and effect, of human and divine truth.
This “deeper recognition” was as much imaginative and historical as philosophical and rational, and so it is appropriate that one of the longest sections of the book concerns “The Moral Imagination,” a term that Kirk borrowed from Edmund Burke but ultimately made his own. The moral imagination, Kirk writes, “signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events” and “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” While Kirk was not received into the Catholic Church until 1964, his understanding of the moral imagination was, from the beginning, an intellectual Incarnationalism. (The same is true of his understanding of natural law, which, as W. Wesley McDonald shows in Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, Kirk identified with the moral imagination.)
Those who dismiss Kirk as “simply an essayist” or who complain that his most famous work, The Conservative Mind, is not a philosophical exposition of conservatism but a series of biographical and historical sketches fundamentally misunderstand Kirk’s own philosophical presuppositions. When Kirk wrote of “The Idea of Conservatism” or “Our Sacred Patrimony” or “Principles of Order” (the titles of the first three sections of this volume), he had to do so through a discussion of a particular person or historical event, because he did not believe that principles could ever be wholly separated from the people and the culture which embodied them. Goodness and truth and beauty may be transcendent (as Kirk did indeed believe), but we know the good, we experience order and justice, by interacting (personally or imaginatively) with good and just men, which enables us (should we so desire) to become good and just ourselves. The loss of such men entails the destruction of order and justice in society at large—the destruction, finally, of civilization. Even natural law cannot be known in some pure form outside of the incarnate world or, indeed, outside man himself. Philosophical abstraction from the people and places and historic institutions of human life is the beginning of ideological thinking; taken too far, it becomes the death of the moral imagination.
This is illustrated nicely by the essays Pani-chas has chosen for “Principles of Order.” In each one, Kirk examines one thinker—Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocque-ville, and his friends T.S. Eliot and Eric Voegelin—to help us understand better the life that we, personally and in society, should desire to lead. His description of Tocqueville’s method in Democracy in America could be applied equally to Kirk’s own work:
By his extensive acquaintance with England, by his political career, by his investigations into American life, and by his unassuming erudition, Tocqueville was prepared to pronounce with authority concerning human and social nature. He wrote with extreme care, anxious to be moderate, zealous to be just.
That care to be moderate and just by no means implies an uncritical acceptance of the ideas of those whose imagination is perverse or diabolical—or, perhaps worse yet, nonexistent. Panichas’s sixth section, “The Drug of Ideology,” presents Kirk the critic at his best. From his earliest writings, Kirk insisted that “The conservative mind and the ideological mind stand at opposite poles.” This claim has occasionally caused confusion even among Kirk’s friends and admirers, some of whom think that it shows that Kirk was actually hostile to systematic thought. Kirk’s disdain for ideology, however, is not an attack on systematic philosophy but on the very modern tendency to reduce all of human life to a system in order to manipulate it. In his essay “The Drug of Ideology,” Kirk makes this plain:
“Ideology” does not mean political theory or principle, even though many journalists and some professors commonly employ the term in that sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism—and, more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.
Kirk’s attack on ideology, far from being a disparagement of reason, was made in the defense of older political, philosophical, and theological traditions—the Permanent Things.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, much more in Manhattan”; and, like the Polish pope he so greatly admired, Kirk attacked all ideologues, whether of the left or (putatively) of the right. Capitalism, he never failed to remind us, is a Marxist word; to call oneself a “capitalist,” therefore, implies something very different from supporting economic freedom. The truth is that the economic order is made for, and by, man; it is not akin to physics, nor must man serve it.
That is one of the many reasons that Kirk was unyielding in his criticism of libertarians, to whom, in an essay reprinted here, he famously applied T.S. Eliot’s label of “chirping sectaries.” Like all ideologues, the libertarians (Kirk believed) have a deformed vision of reality not simply because of intellectual misunderstanding but because of hubris.
The first Whig was the devil, Samuel Johnson informs us; it might be truer to say that the devil was the original libertarian. “Lo, I am proud!” The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority temporal or spiritual.
While Kirk genuinely admired some of the work of Ludwig von Mises, he correctly pegged Mises as “the disciple of Jeremy Bentham” and pointed out that Mises had referred to himself at the tenth-anniversary meeting of the Mont Pélerin Society, “though with a degree of irony,” as an “entrepreneurial Marxist.” The appellation “libertarian conservatives,” Kirk argued, was an oxymoron, akin to “Muslim Christians.” (He did concede that there are some who call themselves libertarians as a shorthand way of expressing their belief in “an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, free enterprise, and old American ways of life,” but he argued that they were mistaken: They were actually conservatives.)
Kirk believed a similar hubris characterized another group of putative conservatives, and one of the great surprises of this volume is that Kirk’s October 1988 Heritage Foundation lecture “The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species” is not included. While the speech has become (in)famous for the partial line “And not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States,” Kirk was as much concerned with the distortions introduced into American foreign policy by ideological preoccupations as he was with the particular ideologues themselves. He accused leading neoconservatives, including Irving Kristol and Michael Novak, of a “lack of wisdom” that manifested itself in their “puerile infatuation . . . with ‘a new ideology’ or ‘an American ideology.’”
To expect that all the world should, and must, adopt the peculiar political institutions of the United States—which often do not work very well even at home—is to indulge the most unrealistic of visions; yet just that seems to be the hope and expectation of many Neoconservatives. . . . Such foreign policies are such stuff as dreams are made of; yet they lead to the heaps of corpses of men who died in vain. We need to ask ourselves whether the Neoconservative architects of international policy are very different from the foreign policy advisors who surrounded Lyndon Johnson.
Not only would this speech fit this section of The Essential Russell Kirk perfectly, it also shows the Sage of Mecosta at his prophetic best, in both the strict and popular senses of the word. In the intervening years, that “most unrealistic of visions” of the neoconservatives has seemingly eclipsed their very ability to perceive reality. Even now, as their vision has destroyed all social and political order in Iraq, they lay the blame at the feet of the Iraqi people for failing to embrace their vision and the American people for failing to support it.
I mentioned above that the Tel Aviv quotation is partial; those who quote it always leave off the rest of the sentence: “And not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States—a position they will have difficulty in maintaining, as matters drift in the Levant.” Kirk was offering a warning to wayward neoconservatives to rein in their imperialist ambitions, and, with great sadness, he saw that statement vindicated as early as 1991, in the Gulf War. Horrified by the death and destruction rained upon the Cradle of Civilization, he subsequently abandoned his support of President George H.W. Bush, becoming the Michigan state chairman of Patrick J. Buchanan’s 1992 campaign for the Republican nomination for president. Anyone who knew him, or has even a passing familiarity with his writings, knows how much more he would have abhorred the current war, with its “heaps of corpses of men who died in vain”—much less the horrific attack last year on the civilian population in Lebanon, which may have been conducted by the Israeli Defense Force but was urged and defended by the neoconservative ideologues.
Those who say that no one could have known how the current war in Iraq would turn out are put to shame by Kirk, who, having no way of foreseeing a war that would occur almost a decade after his death, essentially predicted the outcome over 14 years before the war commenced. But then, he had an advantage that the ideological supporters of this war sorely lack: political imagination.
For Kirk, the most dangerous effect of “ideological sloganizing” is that it kills political imagination. Like his friend John Lukacs (a letter from whom Kirk quoted in “The Neoconservatives”), Kirk understood that historical consciousness depends as much upon imagination as it does upon reason—perhaps more so, since reason can only work upon the material presented to it by the imagination. It matters little whether George W. Bush is an intellectual moron; that he lacks even the limited political imagination that his father possessed was enough to ensure that his presidency would be disastrous.
Still, Kirk, in “T.S. Eliot’s Permanent Things,” offers us some hope for redeeming even this worst of times. While it may be hard for us to glimpse an end to the havoc being wrought by our current ideologues, “In the long run, it is the man of vision who prevails, not the eager little knot of intellectuals hot after novelties.” As Eliot himself wrote of the destruction of Christian civilization, “The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse,” so that one day we may “renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”
Panichas ends this collection, appropriately, with Kirk’s Epilogue to his posthumously published memoirs, The Sword of Imagination. Kirk’s last piece of writing, completed only after he learned that he was dying, “Is Life Worth Living?” is both Kirk’s “valedictory statement” (as Panichas puts it) and a profound meditation on the continuity of life and the afterlife, comparable to his perfect gem of a ghost story, “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond.” While Kirk had described his conversion as an intellectual one in “Belief Will Follow Action,” a chapter of The Sword of Imagination, the Epilogue makes it clear that, in the end, “the evidence of things not seen” was truly his reward. He expresses no doubt, no hesitance, as, brandishing “his Mogul sword,” he prepares to pierce the veil; indeed, Russell Kirk’s last word to us is “Forward!”
[The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, George A. Panichas, ed. (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 525 pp., $30.00]