(BUCKLEY, RAND, KIRK, and STRAUSS – continued)
Aside from the pronouncements of some members of Congress, the major thrust of conservatism was organized around Buckley's National Review. And an early intellectual hero and contributor to the National Review was Russell Kirk (1918-1994).
Kirk graduated from Michigan State College in 1940. He received a Masters from Duke University in 1941 and in 1952 a doctorate from St. Andrews University in Scotland. In 1953 his book The Conservative Mind was published, a book described by his publisher as "one of the most influential books of the postwar period."
Russell Kirk's focus was on character, and there was religious devotion in his outlook that was compatible with Buckley's views. People should be humble, Kirk believed – like Christians were supposed to be before God. Pride, he pointed out, was the most ancient and cardinal of vices and evils. Western man with his overweening pride, his belief in progress and his secularism has tried to transform society, said Kirk, but he has failed. Modern man, he wrote, has believed that through government human nature and human society could be improved. Instead, claimed Kirk, everyone's goal should be the improvement of his own character. It was character, he believed, that "distinguished the civilized man from the brute." In modern life, he wrote, men and women forget or deny the true "objects of life and so fritter away their years in trifles or debauchery." The self-centered are not interested in the elevation of character, he complained. They are interested in pleasure seeking. It was, he wrote, their sloth of spirit.
Kirk was opposed to breaking with the ancient truths and virtues. Here was a point of view compatible with the Church's opposition to the human-centeredness that was a part of the Renaissance. The Renaissance, complained Kirk, produced a surge of the spirit and temper of the modern age. In the modern age, he claimed, people expected too much, denied eternal truths and denied the "nature of man." Focusing on self was okay if it involved improvement through more devotion and humble submission to God as a counter to impulses counter to traditional Christian values.
Kirk faulted Machiavellian (1469-1527), the humanist republican from Tuscany. Machiavelli had claimed that a ruler should be concerned with things as they were rather than what they ought to be, but he had denied the marriage between good government and God's will. Kirk was opposed to separating politics from traditional ethics and moral considerations. Kirk found fault with the proud intellectuals of the Enlightenment, man who favored questioning and believed in progress, and he pointed to the failures of the French Revolution.
Russell Kirk liked Plato. Plato, he claimed, understood the crucial need "to teach men how to bring their souls into harmony with divine order." Kirk elevated Plato's Republic from a utopia into a pragmatic metaphor. He wrote:
The Republic is an inquiry into the real nature of spirit and social harmony. It is an allegory of personal order, not a model constitution.
Central to character, claimed Kirk, was Christian love. The just and ordered society is one guided by Love. Christian love is the key to a rekindled and vibrant moral imagination capable of restoring order in the individual and the commonwealth. States and their agent planners should not try to intervene with their own designs. And the state should not try to make unequal things equal.
What Kirk admired about Western Civilization was the character of its best people. He connected this superior character with Western culture. Segregation of the races dominated the United States and South Africa at this time, and Russell Kirk wrote articles defending segregation in America's South and in South Africa. This was compatible with the editors of the National Review, who, in their August 24, 1957 issue, ran an unsigned editorial titled "Why the South Must Prevail." It argued that giving blacks the vote would undermine civilization in the South. Conservatives would change their view on this, learning not from antiquity and academic works but from experience.
Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.