Published Humanitas, Volume X, No. 1, 1997
Redeeming the Time, by Russell Kirk. Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute. xxii + 321 pp. $24.95.
Russell Kirk was a principal architect of the modern resurgence of American conservatism, which emerged in the years following the Second World War. Historian George Nash has written that Kirk’s The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (1953) (in later editions expanded to include T. S. Eliot) gave American conservatives the identity and history they had been lacking. Although critic Lionel Trilling was able to state with some confidence in 1950 that liberalism was the sole intellectual tradition left in America, by the middle of that decade conservatism had arrived as a strong opponent of liberalism. Along with what Kirk called his “prolonged essay in the history of ideas,” three other books—Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, and Whittaker Chambers’s autobiographical classic Witness—enabled American conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s to collect what had been a disorganized and splintered body into a coherent social force.
Kirk remains among the most engaging and interesting writers of American conservatism’s so-called first generation, and the one most valuable to contemporary conservatives. He was a self-described “Bohemian Tory,” and one is as likely to find in Kirk’s writings stories of drinking bouts with European aristocrats, or tales of his beloved Michigan “stump country,” as of anything distinctly (and narrowly) academic. Few scholars or critics, then or now, are as capable as Kirk was of writing ghost stories and intellectual history with equal skill. While other conservatives possessed strong intellects, he achieved a fusion of intellectual power with mastery of style that recalls the age of Johnson or the great essayists of the nineteenth century. The scholarship necessary to assess Kirk’s place in the history of American letters has barely begun, but any analysis of American intellectual and political history in the last four decades must surely take account of his influence.
Kirk was a prolific writer, producing some thirty books and thousands of articles, essays, and reviews over his long career. The breadth of his work is the key to his appeal, not only to conservatives but to the average reader, for whom he wrote hundreds of newspaper columns. The variety of subjects and themes Kirk thought to write about reveal the “proliferating variety and mystery of human existence” that he considered a foundation of the conservative temperament. Like a kaleidoscope, Kirk refracted the good things of this world through a thousand otherwise normal places and persons.
His death in 1994 inspired a number of sympathetic eulogies and retrospectives, in both the conservative press and the more liberal, mainstream media. The New Republic, for example, contained a favorable analysis of Kirk’s work by critic John Judis, and featured a separate (and glowing) review of Kirk’s posthumous memoir, The Sword of Imagination, by the Southern historian and ex-Marxist professor Eugene Genovese. This recognition is more significant in light of the fact that many of these journals, even those of a conservative bent, tended to ignore Kirk’s work, especially in his last years. Such neglect says more about the state of American intellectual life than it does about the quality of Kirk’s work during the latter period of his life, when he produced major works of cultural criticism. In 1993 alone, Kirk published both an essay collection, The Politics of Prudence, and a learned study of the bases of American society and the phenomenon of “multiculturalism,” America’s British Culture.
Redeeming the Time is meant as a companion volume to The Politics of Prudence, and is the first of several forthcoming posthumous collections of Kirk’s writings. It is a selection on a wide range of topics, including the nature of historical consciousness, “America’s Augustan Age,” the perversity of recent popular fiction, and Kirk’s important lectures on natural law and the meaning of rights. The earlier volume concerned itself with a defense of conservative “prudential politics,” as opposed to the fanaticism of ideology, and was intended to guide the rising generation of conservative leaders in preserving order and freedom in the political realm. This collection, by contrast, is more far-reaching. It is an impassioned call to reinvigorate the realms of humane learning and the larger social order. Kirk’s purpose in the essays is to identify the correctives needed to renew our shaken culture.
At the outset of the volume, Kirk gives his impressions of the age: “In short, it appears to me that our culture labors in an advanced state of decadence; that what many people mistake for the triumph of our civilization actually consists of powers that are disintegrating our culture.” There is an urgency about these essays, and Kirk does not refrain from telling us that much has been lost already, and much that remains is in peril. Yet Kirk, deeply believing Christian that he was, found reason not to despair: “It remains possible, given right reason and moral imagination, to confront boldly the age’s disorders” (14). For the progress of history is not ineluctable; those “true molders of opinion,” in Dicey’s phrase, for whom Kirk wrote may yet exert their influence.
Imagination plays a crucial role in Kirk’s thought, and its importance is a recurring theme in these essays. Indeed, he argues that the quality of our public and private lives depends on “the sort of imagination that gains ascendancy among the rising generation” (308). Kirk traces the decline of Western civilization to a loss of moral imagination, which is the wellspring of every healthy society. Echoing the historian Christopher Dawson, Kirk reminds us that culture springs from cult, from organized worship that can provide a glimpse of the transcendent. Without it, Kirk avers, society will first turn to the “idyllic imagination” of Rousseau, “which, rejecting old dogmas and old manners, rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention” (72). But the idyll does not last, and soon turns—as in the United States during the last three decades—to disillusion and boredom. These in turn lead to the more pernicious temptations of the “diabolic imagination,” a state of personal and societal self-destruction glutted with indulgence in sensuality and corruption. As Kirk well knew, the irony of modernity’s obsession with comfort and consumption is that once a culture becomes decadent (that is, loses its objects of freedom and virtue), its material prosperity collapses as well. For it is only virtue—both in the soul and in society—that can support civilization. Otherwise, the “squalid oligarchs” of the knowledge class, whose pride distorts their view of themselves and of reality and who are in the grip of the unsound imagination, will assume control. And on the fringes of the knowledge class there will arise new Caesars, Kirk darkly predicts, who “observe the progressive enfeeblement of such a nation, and await opportunities” (303).
To recover the moral imagination, then, is the great task for modern conservatives; neither economic security nor sensuality is sufficient to preserve our society. In opposition to the lifeless rationalism of the social engineer, Kirk proposes two institutions through which moral imagination and virtue are formed and developed. He invokes first the study of the humane letters. Kirk employs Irving Babbitt’s definition of humanism as an ethical discipline intended to develop a truly human person through the study of great literature. Great literature teaches the norms of existence through story and analogy and allegory. Not that great literature is the stuff of homilies only; its practitioners provide both positive and negative examples. As Kirk says of Faulkner (and might well have said of others, such as Flannery O’Connor): “exhibiting the depravity of human nature, he establishes . . . the awareness that there exist enduring standards from which we fall away” (74). Great literature supplies examples to emulate and immerses us in a tradition larger than our own desires, and thus helps to redeem us from our pride.
The second institution of imagination and virtue is the family. In an essay entitled “Can Virtue Be Taught?” Kirk addresses the follies of educational theorists who believe indoctrination into some sort of ersatz “civic religion” can replace the presence and teaching of family and church in the inculcation of sound habits. Virtue, “the energy of soul employed for the general good” (58), is not founded upon ideology or abstract intellectual premises: the world of the Parisian coffee-house or local board of education is a world away, Kirk insists, from that of the old Roman or Puritan families. Virtuous habits are formed in individuals by their early family and social life. The process is informal and individual—Kirk uses the example of his own relationship with his grandfather—and must be protected from the imposition of “values training” or sophistry that attempts to substitute empty nostrums for virtue.
Redeeming the Time is a pointed, prescient and at times disturbing collection. It is filled with the sense of “the unbought grace of life” by which Kirk lived his own life, and through which we renew our commitment to the permanent values of our civilization.