[This review was published in the Fall/Winter issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 458-463.]


The Roots of American Order

Russell Kirk

Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway


Beyond the Dreams of Avarice

Russell Kirk

Peru, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Company


            These are two very different books, both of them excellent, by a thinker who shares with few others the top rank in the conservative intellectual renaissance that has occurred since World War II.

            Beyond the Dreams of Avarice is a gathering-together of essays on a variety of topics written by Kirk in the 1950s and originally published in such journals as Commonweal, Sewanee Review, The Freeman, the Wall Street Journal, and Yale Review.  Despite the essays’ being almost forty years old, they speak to us with as fresh a voice as if they were written yesterday.  Approximately half have to do with the American scene, half with Britain.

            All of it is vintage Kirk.  No doubt he could tell us of some nuances in his intellectual migration, but he has had a grasp on what he calls “the permanent things” for so long that his life’s work bears an unusual consistency, bringing an Olympian critique to bear, in the most readable and eloquent of styles, over a period of several decades.

            The essays deal with events and personalities that grow, if anything, more interesting with age.  He tells, for example, of the great disillusionment that occurred among the socialists of Britain after a few short years of the Atlee government’s confronting reality.  I recall, from my work preparing my book on socialist thought, what an impression that failure made on European socialism, and even on American “liberal” thinking, piercing what had theretofore been utopian expectations.  So it is like visiting an old friend to read about Kirk’s first-hand observations of it, written shortly after the event.

            I had not been familiar with the writings of Orestes Brownson, who started out as a socialist and an atheist, but underwent a conversion to Catholicism in his early forties.  If Kirk’s judgment is to be credited, Brownson deserves a careful reading.

            Nor had I been aware of the poetry of Roy Campbell.  I like a book I can learn from, and that will send me scurrying to still other books as though a bloodhound on a trail.  There is intellectual adventure in that.

            In these brief comments, I will not be giving Beyond the Dreams of Avarice the full attention it deserves.  That is because I wish to devote the majority of my review to The Roots of American Order, which is just as readable, eloquent and interesting, but which adds to those qualities the monumental intellectual task of reviewing the entirety of the history of Western civilization to select and discuss the events, movements, ideas and personalities that Kirk understands to have most laid the foundation for American society.

            This is a book, first published in 1974 and now reissued with an excellent epilogue by Frank Shakespeare, that can serve as the primer for those, if there are many left in today’s culture, who aspire to an “educated” status.  It gives precisely what most young students of history want, but what many say standard courses don’t give: a review that stresses what is most important, without becoming bogged down in excessive “dates and detail.”

            In academia recently, there has been a great deal of debate over what should go into “the canon,” i.e., into the list of books that should be presented as part of a general education.  Should many of the old classics be relegated to the dustbin of the past and supplanted by works from Latin America, Asia and Africa?  In that context, those of us who wish our children well grounded in Western civilization first and foremost may be caught asking ourselves “now let’s see, what precisely are the more important works of the West?”  Kirk necessarily addressed this question as he prepared his book; and he has provided at least a partial answer.  There are certainly other parts of the Western heritage to be brought in that he has either not mentioned or to which he has had to give short shrift; but the things he does mention are clearly candidates to be included.

            From all that I have just said, it is apparent that I am of quite friendly disposition toward Kirk and his scholarship.  This is, however, a journal of ideas, in which we seek to take seriously the content of ideas, and in that context we owe it to Kirk as a serious thinker to come to grips with his ideas and not simply to pass them along, even with commendation, without a searching look.  I will devote the rest of this review to such a discussion.  Necessarily, I have chosen for examination those about which my own mind has led me to different conclusions, since it is as to them that I have something to add. 

1.  Kirk’s Opposition to “Ideology”

            In common with a good many conservatives of the traditionalist school, Kirk opposes “ideology,” which he defines as “abstract ideas not founded in historical experience.”  As so defined, the word points to the “rationalistic fallacy” and human pretension that lie behind the gigantic systems of ideas that, especially in the modern age, compete with each other over social programs and worldviews about life.  It was “defecated rationality” that made an aberration of the Enlightenment, that warped Bentham’s views of the world, that carried classical liberalism afield, and that has made the world Left such a vehicle for hubris since the early nineteenth century.

            Traditionalist conservatives don’t seem to realize it, but this is not unlike the way in which Ayn Rand saw what she was doing.  That philosopher, magnificent as to many things, was convinced that her perceptions were products of pure reason, strictly deductive inferences from the nature of “man qua man.”  To Rand, the competing understandings were products of irrationality.  I hold her in high esteem for many things, just as I do the traditionalist conservatives, but just the same it has always seemed to me that the world of intellect is much more complicated than that.  There are giant systems of thought that serve to “mediate” reality for human beings, because the complex reality of life cannot be grasped in the absence of such mediation.  Each of those mental systems has arisen as a human enterprise, with its own vast stock of experiences and perceptions (and, not coincidentally, its own sociology reflecting the interests it serves).  Take, say, the socialist worldview as found in Lassalle, that millions of people are entrapped by life and are exploited by the strong, calling into play the need for the state as a liberating mechanism.  No doubt this outlook serves the needs of the alienated leftist intellectual subculture as a weapon against the hated bourgeoisie, and has served as the justification for the “have-nots”’ claim to be “victims” in need of help.  But it is not purely a fabrication formed out of air, separate from experience.  Those who advocate it have marshaled their evidence and their arguments.  Such people include many who are highly intelligent and well-meaning.  Is it sufficient to say, with Ayn Rand, that they are simply “being irrational,” creatures of the dreaded “Beast of Unreason”?  Instead, their arguments must be met head on, on the merits, with better evidence, better reasoning.

            For his part, Russell Kirk holds to a Christian cosmology.  This coincides with an ability to champion “experience” and tradition because the West for almost two thousand years embraced that cosmology, making its elements part of its tradition.  If we begin with the truth of that cosmology, taking it as our starting place, then it follows that other cosmologies are false images, amounting in effect to exercises in human vanity.  But is it possible for a reasonable person not to start with that premise?  What if the Christian cosmology is “put to its proof,” just as the other great systems of mediation are?  Then we see that the proof is made by fallible human beings, often using types of evidence that are less than convincing.  It is the nature of a secular age that for many this forms a veil between themselves and the Truth that those who hold to the cosmology take for granted.  Unless we take its ontology as established, the Christian cosmology takes its place as another of the gigantic systems of interpretation.  Someone reading Kirk needs to understand that, in common with all other writers, his characterizations depend upon the acceptability of his premises.

            There is a major intellectual conflict, running over centuries, between those who, on behalf of one view or another, base their position on ontological certainty and those for whom the central intellectual issues are primarily epistemological.

            This is not to say that I think all systems of interpreted reality are equally valid.  Relativism has been used as a debunking mechanism to undercut ideas, institutions and acculturations by simply pointing out that “your way is just one among many.”  If that’s where the argument stops, it is insufficient.  We are left to examine the merits of each idea, institution and acculturation, based on our tools of judgment. 

2.  The Disagreement Within American Conservatism Over the Interpretation of Modern History

            I will not attempt to resolve the differences here, but wish merely to clarify as best I can the vastly differing interpretations that American “conservatives” of varying kinds give to modern developments.

            To conservatives such as Kirk, Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin and my good friend Otto Scott, to name just a few, whose analyses center around one version or another of the Christian worldview, Western civilization had a much better grasp of reality a few centuries ago, when the human attention was focused on God and society was structured in such a way as to reinforce that attention and to curb the excesses of a sin-prone humanity.  What is best in today’s life is whatever we have left from that earlier patrimony.  (Kirk manages to find quite a lot that is good in his book on the roots of American order.  This causes him to arrive in the end at an optimism that runs counter to the more despairing tone that he takes in the 1991 foreword to the other book.  He may actually have made differing assessments in 1974 and 1991, but I am more inclined to think that the exigencies of an “up-beat” theme, “the roots of American order,” forced him at least temporarily into a sanguine assessment that was at odds with his longer-term views.)

             It is in this context that many traditionalist Christian conservatives see the main developments of modernity, which have involved a shattering of the medieval consensus and have moved toward a relatively much more secular society, as destructive and decadent.  The Enlightenment in particular was “reason run amuck.”  Classical liberalism, championing a market economy, the rising middle class, individual freedom, limited government and religious toleration, including the separation of church and state, has formed the basis of much of what we call “conservatism” in the United States in the twentieth century; but it is important to note that to the thinkers I have been talking about classical liberalism has been part of the problem.  Accordingly, Russell Kirk is prone to see the roots of what is best in America outside, not within, the tradition typified by Jefferson, or Paine, of (in England) Bentham.

            Where they form common ground with classical liberals is in these two conservatisms’ mutual condemnation of the Left (and of fascism while it was an issue).  But despite this commonality, the traditionalist conservatives consider the Left an extension of the secular rationalism that earlier formed classical liberalism.  Individualistic ideology and socialist ideology are branches, they hold, of the same tree.  The latter may be more virulent and therefore deserving of more forceful condemnation, but the secular materialism of the bourgeoisie is only marginally preferable, if at all.  This comes through clearly in all of Kirk’s writing, but perhaps the most succinct statement of it is in Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.

             Compare this worldview with that of a classical liberal, whom in today’s parlance we know as a “limited government, free market conservative.”  The thinkers who led this school saw Europe and America’s breaking out of the Middle Ages as a great good, a throwing off of shackles: social hierarchy was broken down and titles of nobility were ended, opening the way for humanity at large to take part; established religions were denied their special place and the individual came to be sustained in the free exercise of religion; the mercantilist state was replaced by a constitutionally constrained government and a market economy; kings were replaced by republics; the franchise was extended over time to include all adults; revelation and faith gave way to empirical science.

            To this view, the Enlightenment was the culmination of a great progressive tendency that had long been at work shattering the closed system of medieval Europe.  None of these thinkers would defend the excesses of the French Revolution, but such horrors were to classical liberals the effusions of the mob, not, as Edmund Burke saw them in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the logical fruits of a move away from status and hierarchy.

            Classical liberals have seen it as a great tragedy that, beginning with the Romantic Movement in early nineteenth century Europe, an intelligentsia arose that felt a profound hatred against precisely the Enlightenment, the bourgeoisie, and classical liberalism.

            To the classical liberal, these products of anti-bourgeois alienation are in no valid sense an extension of classical liberalism, but have been enemies from the beginning.  True, they are parts of the West’s intellectual, social, political history since the break-up of the medieval consensus; but that makes them “branches off the same tree” only to someone who gives little weight to their differences.

            Thus, to the classical liberal there is a tripartite division in modern social thought: the ideas associated with the hegemony of medievalism, the philosophy of an open society championed by classical liberalism, and the varied collectivist products of the “alienation of the intellectual” that have come into being as the intelligentsia has allied itself with an assortment of unassimilated or disaffected groups.  This tripartite division differs markedly from the traditional religious conservative’s perception of a two-way division between the earlier God-centered society, on the one hand, and the various expressions of the hubris of, as Kirk calls it, modern “defecated rationality,” on the other. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Dwight D. Murphey