It drew its principles, as his The Roots of American Order so magisterially demonstrates, from more ancient and extensive sources, however, the great cities of Western civilization: Jerusalem, first and foremost, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia. In this sense, conservatism is the collective inheritance of mankind. Kirk was, if not the last, then certainly the most influential, exponent of the Midwestern vision of American politics and culture.
It was Midwestern regional writers and intellectuals who had long appreciated that the roots of every polity were fragile and precious goods only too easily shaken from the soil. It was the Midwestern spirit that, with the ancient Romans, recognized that civilization had been first established far away and that, therefore, the good citizen is the one who, with docility and piety, seeks to become civilized, by standing on the shoulders of giants or, better, by sitting at their feet and listening.
What Kirk really gave to American thought and to conservative politics, then—as the novelists Willa Cather and August Derleth would have recognized, and as the contemporary Midwest historian Jon K. Lauck has shown with great insight—what Kirk really gave to America, I say, was a vision of what our country would become if, and only if, it chose to receive the Western tradition according to the intellectual spirit and political tradition of its middle provinces.
It exercised considerable influence, but it also met with resistance from the expansive and moneyed establishment of the American northeast, the rugged libertarianism of the plains and far West in his letters, he refers to the Kansan chemical engineer Fred Koch and his offspring with suspicion , and the perennially hawkish conservatism of the American South for whose thought Kirk had great respect and sympathy but also reservation. And yet, as a native son of Michigan myself, I will say that we would be better off if we heeded his words. About the Author. As a Michigander himself, Wilson is particularly attuned to way these letters reveal a regional Kirk.
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This site brings together serious debate, commentary, essays, book reviews, interviews, and educational material in a commitment to the first principles of law in a free society. About Contact Staff. Russell Kirk. Pagan, Stoic, and Christian While the prose that Kirk wrote for publication was always rhythmic, allusive, and mannered, the letters we come upon here are often more workmanlike, concerned as they are with practical affairs in a practical tone.
He came upon it soon enough, and said as much in pitching to publisher Henry Regnery the manuscript that was to become The Conservative Mind : It is my contribution to our endeavor to conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization; and if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon. Kirk and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Libertarian individualism posed no challenge to the liberal or Marxist mindset, but merely played a variation on it. Kirk went on: Politically, it ends in anarchy; spiritually, it is a hideous solitude.
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His Prudential Vision The letters also outline the kind of prudential political vision Kirk hoped would emerge from his writings. What might that platform have looked like? Recent Popular Posts Popular.
Leave a Reply Cancel reply Your email address will not be published. Home About Staff Contact Archive. He alleges that "the typical libertarian of our day delights in eccentricity—including, often, sexual eccentricity" Doubtless, some libertarians exhibit sexual eccentricity, but the typical libertarian?
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Would Kirk, if he were alive today, dare to make this generalization of all, or even most, of the 1. My observation has been quite different: most libertarians are more sexually modest than the general public in the United States. The reason for this may have less to do with libertarianism as a doctrine, and more to do with the fact that libertarianism is an intellectual doctrine and requires a great deal of mental sophistication to grasp.
More intellectual people are also typically more sexually modest—so libertarians, having a greater proportion of intellectuals among them than the general public, are typically more sexually modest. It can also be said that conservative and left-liberal intellectuals tend to be more sexually modest than the general public, although conservative and left-liberal politicians are far from being so.
But Kirk does not say one word in criticism of the sexual eccentricities of conservative politicians Kirk also establishes an intellectual straw man. He writes, "The final emancipation from religion, convention, custom, and order is annihilation. Some libertarians are religious, and some are not—but no libertarian wants to eliminate religion, especially through coercion.
The same goes for adherence to non-coercive customs and conventions. After all, many libertarians celebrate traditional holidays and hold doors for people! Likewise, most libertarians subscribe to Friedrich Hayek's understanding of a spontaneous order in society—an order that is not centrally or consciously planned but nonetheless emerges out of the interactions of millions of human beings. It is impossible to eliminate every kind of spontaneous order, although these orders do evolve and replace one another over time.
But no libertarian wants to jettison all order. It is Kirk's primitive equation of order with top-down planning—what Hayek calls taxis— and more particularly, with central planning at a society-wide level, that lies at the basis of his accusation. Kirk, and G. Chesterton, to whose story "The Yellow Bird" Kirk refers , misconstrue the meaning of liberty as the freedom from all limitations.
They argue, instead, that limitations are quite necessary even to the very survival of the human organism. This is not controversial, but it is beside the point. Most of us—the ones who are still alive, at least—want some limitations in our lives, which we structure according to definite patterns that we do not like to see infringed upon. The alternative we face is whether we get to plan our lives, or whether somebody else gets to do it for us.
It may well be that some amount of government action is necessary to give every individual the maximum possible sphere in which he gets to make his own decisions. I certainly do not reject all government, and I am even a state employee, because I think that certain kinds of protections afforded by government can maximize individual liberty.
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Some libertarians, the anarcho-capitalists, will disagree with me here—but virtually all libertarians will agree that the purpose of political institutions, whether they be governmental or decentralized, competing, and private, is to protect every individual's ability to choose the limits to which he will be subject, with the exception of the inviolable limitations of not harming others and not infringing on their ability to have a similar level of choice.
Moreover, there are always the limitations posed by the laws of nature—laws that cannot be violated, although they can be used creatively to achieve our purposes. To get anything of substance done in this world, one needs to have a thorough understanding of natural laws—the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, economics, ethics, and even to a certain extent esthetics. In the words of Francis Bacon, "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. Rather, we ought to work within those limitations to make a better existence for us all.
Libertarianism does not see itself as opposed to the limitations of natural law. Quite the contrary: libertarians—even some of the utilitarians among them—consider their ideas derived from the laws of nature, with their inherent limitations. After all, if libertarians truly did not believe in limitations, they would say that socialism could work if people wanted it to work—since socialism not working despite people's best intentions is surely a limitation to what is possible!
More than halfway through the essay, Kirk comes to his senses and acknowledges that there are some respectable libertarians out there "who through misapprehension put up the cash for the fantastics. If these gentlemen are so smart, they must know what they are doing and must have good reasons for doing so. Perhaps the other libertarians whom they support are not as bad as Kirk supposes, or perhaps the gentlemen do not as readily support the caricatured doctrinaire libertarians as Kirk asserts.
Either case, or a combination of both, is entirely plausible. In every movement of any decent size, there will be fanatical, irrational, and dangerous people; I have met some of those among libertarians as well, and I do not support them or their agendas. On the other hand, there are many people whom Kirk considers "eccentrics" this is a negative term for Kirk who I believe are delightful, reasonable, and sane individuals. It is true that many libertarians spend too much time developing their abstract theory and not enough time attempting to implement it in the real world, but some libertarians have recognized this and are beginning to work—often quietly and indirectly—toward more tangible objectives than an ideal minarchist state or pure and functional market anarchy.
But the lack of practicality among some libertarians should not be a condemnation of libertarianism itself; it may simply be a natural outcome of the politically marginalized status that most libertarians consider themselves to have. If they can only effectively think and write at this stage, then this is what they will devote their attentions to. Following his disclaimer, Kirk makes his case for why an intellectual alliance between libertarians and conservatives is undesirable. He believes that libertarians are "mad" and exhibit "lunacy" and besides are so small a minority that they will have no impact on American politics, but one should not want to be associated with them and their "lunacy" He also accuses libertarians of splitting into ever-smaller sects and rarely coalescing again.
The Radicalism of Russell Kirk | The American Conservative
Libertarian sectarianism is, alas, all too prevalent a phenomenon for my liking—and Kirk's criticism here has some justice as applied to contemporary libertarianism. However, libertarians are no longer a minority so insignificant as to be dismissed as having no impact. Rodgers, and Charles Koch—multi-billionaires, all—on the international business scene, libertarianism can no longer be dismissed as a fringe movement. An impressive list of libertarian celebrities has been published by Advocates for Self-Government.
The number of libertarians is growing—especially among the intellectual and economic elite—while the number of conservatives is constant or declining. I say this to refute Kirk's allegation that libertarianism will always be insignificant and ineffectual. Moreover, the more successful libertarians—the people who have accomplishments outside the realm of developing libertarian theory—also tend to be less sectarian, so it is possible that a natural selection process will lead those libertarians to assume increasingly more influential positions in the movement.
As for the accusation of the madness of libertarians, it is an ad hominem attack and is simply unfair. I could easily say the same about Kirk's belief that cars are "mechanical Jacobins" and his complete rejection of television and computers. I will not say that this belief is madness—just a difference of opinion. I say this because, while Kirk's ideology seems thoroughly irrational and false to me, I believe that anyone can say, from his vantage point, that the vantage point of another constitutes madness.
This aids neither intellectual progress nor mutual good will among people. Every person, irrespective of the content of his thoughts, has reasons for thinking the way he does. Rather than dismissing him as mad, it is more constructive to try to understand his position, for we must, after all, coexist in the same world, preferably without exerting brutal violence upon one another.
This is the purpose of civil discussion—to establish a level plane of respect and consideration for all the participants and to evaluate ideas based on their content, not on name-calling.
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