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Posts Tagged ‘Russell Kirk’

Trent England of Save Our States Interviews Allen Mendenhall

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics on May 31, 2022 at 7:00 am

Russell Kirk on Higher Education

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, higher education, History, Humanities, Imagination, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 12, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

Russell Kirk isn’t known as a policy wonk. The Great Books, not the mathematical or statistical models of economic technicians, were his organon of choice. He devoted essays to broad, perennial themes like “the moral imagination,” “liberal learning,” and “the permanent things.”

Read his numerous columns about higher education, however, and you might come away with a different impression, one of Kirk as a political strategist with a strong grasp of educational policy.

Kirk wrote on a wide variety of issues involving higher education: accreditation, academic freedom, tenure, curriculum, vocational training, community colleges, adult education, college presidents, textbooks, fraternities and Greek life, enrollment, seminaries, tuition, teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, student activism, British universities, urban versus rural schools, boards of trustees, university governance, the hard sciences, grade inflation, lowering academic standards, libraries, private versus public schooling, civics education, sex education, school vouchers, university presses, and more.

One of his go-to subjects implicates several of those issues: federal subsidies. He believed that federal money threatened the mission and integrity of universities in numerous areas.

For starters, he believed that federal subsidies—and, it must be added, foundation grants—created perverse incentives for researchers, who might conform to the benefactor’s “preferences” and “value judgments.”[1] Recalling the proverb that “[t]he man who pays the piper calls the tune,”[2] he cautioned against financial dependency on outside influences, which, he worried, could impose ideological conditions on grants to advance or purge particular viewpoints.

Moreover, the grantors, whether they were foundations or the government, would, he believed, quantify the value of their funded work according to measurable outcome assessments that were “easily tabulated and defensible.”[3] The intrinsic value of reading Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, or Euripides, however, is not easily assessed in instrumental terms.

More fundamentally, Kirk viewed federal involvement in higher education as a step toward the centralization and consolidation of power at the expense of local variety. He foresaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education long before it occurred.[4] Fearing the growth of an “educationist hierarchy” or an “empire of educationism” corrupted by “sinecures” and “patronage,”[5] he favored small, private, liberal-arts colleges, which, he believed, flourished when they committed to mission and tradition.[6]

“The American college—the small liberal arts college—is worth preserving,” Kirk wrote, “but it can be preserved, in our time of flux, only if it is reformed.”[7] Kirk’s reform was reactionary, not progressive.[8] It rejected the popular focus on vocation and specialization and sought to train “men and women who know what it is to be truly human, who have some taste for contemplation, who take long views, and who have a sense of moral responsibility and intellectual order.”[9] Even if they can’t be calculated precisely, these vague-yet-discernable qualities of literate people are beneficial to society writ large, in Kirk’s view. In other words, there’s an appreciable difference between literate and illiterate societies.

Kirk decried the alarming escalation of tuition prices. In 1979, he wrote, “Attendance at colleges and universities is becoming hopelessly expensive.”[10] Forty years later, the costs of attending college have risen exponentially. Kirk opposed federal aid or scholarships to students,[11] but not, from what I can tell, for the economic reason that the ready availability of federal funding would enable universities to hike tuition rates to artificially high levels. Perhaps, even in his skepticism, he couldn’t conceive of university leadership as so systematically exploitative.

We continue to hear echoes of Kirk’s observation that the typical college student “oughtn’t to be in college at all: he has simply come along for the fun and a snob-degree, and his bored presence reduces standards at most American universities.”[12] Elsewhere, he claimed that “[w]e have been trying to confer the higher learning upon far too many young people, and the cost per capita has become inordinate.”[13] The question of why students attend college is closely related to that of the fundamental purpose of college.

Uncertainty regarding the point of higher education—whether it’s to develop the inquisitive mind, expand the frontiers of knowledge, equip students with jobs skills, or something else entirely—seems more pronounced today in light of technological, economic, and population changes. Moreover, it remains true that “most of the universities and colleges are forced to do the work that ordinary schools did only a generation ago.”[14] Shouldn’t higher education accomplish more than remedial education? Doesn’t it have a greater end?

Kirk certainly thought so—at least if higher education were properly liberal. “By ‘liberal education,’” he explained, “we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’”[15]

Kirk’s surprising wonkishness, and his facility in policy debates, always submitted to this overarching goal: Defending order against disorder, in both the soul and the larger polity.[16] “The primary purpose of a liberal education,” he said, “is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.”[17]

The aspiration of policy wasn’t policymaking. Kirk’s short-term strategies serviced a paramount objective: Namely, to seek wisdom, virtue, truth, clarity, and understanding. You can’t simply quantify the value of that.

[1] Russell Kirk, “Massive Subsidies and Academic Freedom,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1963), 608.

[2] Ibid. at 607.

[3] Ibid. at 611.

[4] Russell Kirk, “Federal Aid to Educational Bureaucracy,” National Review, Vol. 10 (February 25, 1961), 116.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Federal Educational Boondoggle,” National Review, Vol. 5 (March 15, 1958), 257.

[6] See generally Russell Kirk, “The American College: A Proposal for Reform,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1957), 177-186.

[7] Ibid. at 177.

[8] Ibid. (“our age seems to require a reform that is reactionary, rather than innovating”).

[9] Ibid. at 182-83.

[10] Russell Kirk, “More Freedom Per Dollar,” National Review, Vol 31 (April 13, 1979), 488.

[11] Russell Kirk, “Federal Scholarships,” National Review, Vol. 2 (November 24, 1956), 18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russell Kirk, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” Vol. 23 (May 18, 1971), 534.

[14] Russell Kirk, “Federal Education,” National Review, Vol. 4 (December 28, 1957), 592.

[15] Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 398.

[16] Ibid. at 400.

[17] Ibid.

What do “Change” and “Equality” Mean?

In Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics on November 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

As the elections of 2020 near, the left has weaponized two principles that are now prevailing orthodoxies on college campuses, in the mass media, and among activist blatherskites: change and equality.

Examples of change?

Senator Sanders and Senator Warren advocate differing forms of “free college” at public institutions of higher learning. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed eliminating the Electoral College. Andrew Yang backs a government-funded “universal basic income” program.

These are specific policies. What about large-scale models of government like socialism, openly embraced by Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez?

Which brings us to equality. “Equality,” today, refers to diverse causes: gender equality, marriage equality, income equality, transgender equality, racial equality, housing equality, healthcare equality, environmental equality—in short, you can affix the term “equality” to just about any hot-button political issue or mobilized interest group and find some politician supporting it.

Change and equality sound nice in theory, but what, exactly, do these words mean? The eminent thinker and man of letters Russell Kirk provides key insights into the nature and limitations of change and equality.

THERE ARE MANY KINDS OF “CHANGE”

Is change always for the better? Isn’t there regress, deterioration, degeneration, and decay? Wouldn’t we need a conservative disposition—an understanding of history in its immeasurable complexity—to know the difference between change that’s good and change that’s bad?

“When a society is progressing in some respects,” Kirk warns, “usually it is declining in other respects.” The French Revolution certainly brought changes: widespread violence, corruption, the beheading of innocents, the massacring of clergy, looting, chaos, food shortages, and the destruction of churches. The Russian Revolution promised change and delivered it in the form of war, mass murder, riots, starvation, and dictatorship. The Chinese Communist Revolution successfully instituted changes that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

If you want change for the sake of something different, the object is transformation itself, not a definitive outcome. What do you achieve? The creed of change implies that you can never get things right: the only correct state is that of perpetual flow and flux.

“You’re on the wrong side of history,” we’re told by those who demand change. They value progress as the summum bonum, as though the past were devoid of good people and useful data, as if it were a monolithic evil from which you must flee and hide your eyes. But you should not move forward—you should not change—without the past to guide you.

We must be mindful of the debts we owe our ancestors, without whom, after all, we wouldn’t have the ideas, luxuries, technologies, and freedoms we enjoy. Kirk exemplifies a proper attitude toward change in his Concise Guide to Conservatism: “Change is essential to a good society,” but it must take place “within the framework of tradition.” He adds that “progress is possible only so long as it is undertaken upon the sure footing of permanence.”

I like asking progressives what society would need to look like for them to become conservatives. What is their teleology, their ultimate goal for culture and governing institutions? What achievement would they preserve and defend?

Change can be dangerous. The wisdom of generations—the taking of the long view—acts as a check against those radical changes that lead to loss of life and violations of the dignity and bodily integrity of every human person.

EQUALITY IS AN ILLUSION

Equality raises the questions: Equal to what? Equal in what sense? But this means it is a signifier without a signified. There’s no such thing as equality in the tangible, phenomenal world.

Every lawyer knows on some level that differentiations between people are inevitable.

“Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law,” Kirk writes, “but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things.”

Why? Because justice, in Kirk’s view, demands “sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.” Moreover, “In the name of equality, the collectivist establishes a political and economic order which subjects a great mass of individuals to the will and whim of a new managerial elite.”

The law categorizes us: citizen and noncitizen, parent and child, minor and adult, alive and dead, employer and employee, buyer and seller, debtor and creditor, single and married, majority and minority, donor and donee, plaintiff and defendant, prosecution and defense, innocent and guilty, solvent and insolvent, offeror and offeree, payer and payee, promisor and promisee, landlord and tenant, agent and principal.

Nobody escapes labels under the law: human, mother, father, child, spouse, brother, sister, niece, nephew, cousin, aunt, uncle, descendant, heir, client, guardian, bystander, driver, owner, resident, patient, insured, devisee, witness, litigant, student, taxpayer, guest, signatory, broker, trustee, volunteer, testator, mortgagor, investor, author, licensee, victim, subscriber, decedent—the list goes on.

Everyone fits within more than one of these classifications, which are not necessarily hierarchical. The flesh-and-blood people to whom they refer, however, are not treated equally in all circumstances. They cannot be because no one can occupy an identical position in society, nor hold the exact same provisions in the exact same settings within the exact same jurisdiction.

We have different jobs, careers, ages, obligations, goals, talents, and familial statuses. The law treats people differently because of their different roles and responsibilities in specified contexts. Taxonomical differences are natural and inevitable, flowing from the diversity of human experience.

Laws by definition discriminate: they state who may or may not do something, who possesses or protects rights, who creates or enforces rules, who must or must not act in particular situations, which acts are proper or improper in light of unique circumstances. Discrimination is inevitable. The operative question, then, is on what basis laws discriminate. Some bases are acceptable, whereas others are not.

Aristotle maintained that the telos, or the purpose, of the law is to achieve goodness and virtue. Accordingly, laws discriminating on the grounds of race are presumptively invalid because they have no bearing upon human intent or action, on the pursuit of goodness or virtue. Rather, they involve an immutable characteristic, a trait people cannot help, an unchosen quality of the human body.

Goodness and virtue, by contrast, involve choices. A person acts morally by selecting one course of action over another. The law incentivizes good behavior and punishes crime or mischief. It shouldn’t penalize people for acts they didn’t or couldn’t commit, for properties they are incapable of changing or affecting.

Except in the eyes of God, absolute equality, true equality, doesn’t exist. Attempts to attain it necessitate coercion, perhaps even the annihilation of certain people or the destruction of certain places and things. Yet I wouldn’t expect the government forcibly to remove someone else’s good lung to replace my bad lung to equalize our conditions. Besides, no two lungs are alike.

Equality, as a concept, is the enemy of another concept the left purports to champion: diversity. Every human being is unique. Every person has distinct skills, aptitudes, weaknesses, and temptations. Diversity involves differences. It is real, not an ideal like equality.

“Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization,” Kirk says. “Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence.”

We should celebrate the fact that no two people are alike, that our variety as a species makes us wonderful and marvelous. We’re in awe when musicians produce sounds we cannot produce, when artists render images we cannot render, when athletes leap or jump or run in ways foreign to our bodies, when writers arrange words on a page with a facility we lack.

Diversity is good and beautiful; seeking to eliminate it in the name of equality is cruel and misguided. We rightly fear societies in which one group uses political power and the apparatus of government to deprive individuals of their wealth and property in pursuit of hypotheticals like equality. Kirk reminds, after all, that the “aim of the collectivistic state is to abolish classes, voluntary associations, and private rights, swallowing all these in the formless blur of the ‘general will’ and absolute equality of condition—equality, that is, of everyone except the clique which rules the state.”

FOCUS ON PRINCIPLES, NOT JUST POLICY

Understandably, we focus on policy during election seasons. But maybe we should quiz candidates on their philosophical moorings. If we do, we might find that progressives have embraced quixotic concepts that lead, in practice, to violence and coercion rather than their intended outcomes.

Kirk cautioned against the siren songs of change and equality. We should listen.

Teaching Humbly and Without Malice

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Politics, Western Philosophy on September 4, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here at Law & Liberty.

Russell Kirk has been dead now for over a quarter of a century, yet he remains the subject of student conferences across the United States and of the recent bestselling biography by Bradley J. Birzer. And, wonder of wonders, he’s out with a new book.

Actually, it’s a new edition of a 1957 book. Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism in fact was originally called The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatisma swipe at George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928). This invigorating primer on the history and characteristics of American conservatism is of course suitable for female and male audiences alike, hence Regnery’s revision of its title.

In 12 brisk chapters, Kirk addresses the following themes: the essence of conservatism, religious faith, conscience, individuality, family, community, just government, private property, power, education, permanence, and change. He concludes with the question: “What is the Republic?” His answer: “a commonwealth in which as many things as possible are left to private and local management; and in which the state, far from obliterating classes and voluntary associations and private rights, shelters and respects all these.”

Anyone familiar with Kirk will recognize in the opening chapter the “chief principles” of conservatism that in The Portable Conservative Reader (1982) and The Conservative Mind (1953) he condenses into six “canons.” These involve a recognition of moral laws derived from God, a celebration of variety and diversity over coerced uniformity, the pursuit of justice, the protection of private property, a skepticism of power and centralization, a reverence for custom and tradition, and the rejection of utopianism or political programs predicated on a belief in the perfectibility of man.

Combining a Disposition to Preserve with the Ability to Reform

At a time when conservatism stands in need of definition and direction, this book remains strikingly relevant. “We need to undertake,” Kirk admonishes his readers, “the conservative task of restoring in our generation an understanding of that freedom and that order which have expressed and encouraged our national genius.” Decades have passed since he penned these lines, yet the task remains.

Freedom and order aren’t the only seemingly incompatible concepts that Kirk reconciles. He balances liberty with duty and charity, and clarifies how conservatives can be both individualistic and communitarian at once. He explains why conservatives may embrace permanence and change without contradiction: Progress—“genuine progress”—develops “within the framework of tradition.” Moreover, “grand principles endure” while “their application . . . alters.” A conservative thus “combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform.”

Kirk targets, as well, the canard that conservatism is the greedy defense of capitalism, that the man or woman espousing conservative views is “a monster of selfishness” who is “morally impure, ruthless, and avaricious.” This caricature is still with us, though few thinking people would accept it as true anymore. After all, the Left dominates corporate America, Silicon Valley, Big Tech, Hollywood, higher education, and the mass media—with certain obvious exceptions. Commonsense conservatism, by contrast, flourishes in rural, agrarian America, in the heartland, in Southern states, in flyover territory, among blue-collar workers—not among the wealthy elites or rich CEOs. The idea that a small group of Randian, egomaniac “fat cats” controls American society is simply ridiculous. Were he alive today, Kirk wouldn’t have needed to refute such silly stereotypes.

He warns that “very powerful forces are at work to diminish the influence of the family among us, and even to destroy the family for all purposes except mere generation.” If he only knew. His treatment of the family seems dated by current standards—not because he embraced old-fashioned views but because the threats to the family that he predicted turned out to be greater than he could have imagined. He could not, for instance, foresee the redefinition of marriage that occurred through judicial opinions.

What, according to Kirk, is the purpose of formal education? Is it to equip students with the skills they need to excel in the workforce? To ensure that a democratic citizenry is sufficiently informed to refine and improve governing institutions? To bring about opportunities for historically marginalized or disenfranchised peoples? No. “The purpose of education,” he says, “is to develop the mental and moral faculties of the individual person, for the person’s own sake.” One doesn’t need to attend a university or earn a degree to fulfill this goal.

He Teaches Humbly and Without Malice

In our era of shouting pundits and social media sniping, Kirk’s mild manner, Victorian prose, and relaxed tone are charming reminders that, even when the stakes are high, we can be civil and reasonable toward detractors. He eviscerates sacred cows—for example, the notion of equality that, if instantiated, would lead to a “boring” world “in which everyone was the same”—cleverly yet with goodwill. The most egalitarian among us would entertain his controversial argument about equality because he does not provoke, incite, or inflame the passions. He teaches humbly and without malice.

Equality and diversity—ideals commonly associated with the Left—are, Kirk reminds us, incompatible to the extent that equality requires an eradication of the beautiful and remarkable distinctions that make each human being unique. The conservative is the true advocate of diversity, he points out, for it is the conservative who “desires to see the rich, invigorating, interesting variety of a society,” not to “pull everyone down to a dead level of equality.” Our equality before God and the law admits of natural and inevitable inequalities between people. Any other form of equality is the enemy of diversity.

If you believe the chief end of inquiry is to cultivate “human dignity, human personality, and human happiness,” and to understand and appreciate “the relationship between God and man,” then you’re a Kirkian conservative. All the weight of history, the entire strength of civilized society, depends on these for the preservation of freedom and order, which complement rather than oppose each other. In them, with God’s grace and providence, we put our hope for the future.

The Moral Imagination and the Common Law

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Philosophy on June 12, 2019 at 6:45 am

I thought I knew a lot until I had kids. One hot Sunday summer afternoon in Alabama, when I was driving my family home from church, my son, Noah, then five, asked about the origin of roads. From a father’s perspective, this curiosity was a sweet, welcome alternative to questions about where babies come from. I explained with resolute immodesty how road construction operated, under what timelines and conditions, and using which tools and implements. I smiled, thinking the matter settled, and turned up the radio.

Then my son, in his little-boy manner and vocabulary, objected that his inquiry was, in effect, less about the technicalities of engineering or labor and more taxonomical or definitional in concern. Why wasn’t the trail near our home, trodden beneath innumerable feet, a road?  Why weren’t the sidewalks in downtown Auburn roads? What made a road a road? How did construction workers know where to build roads? From whom did they take orders and derive their authority? Could he, Noah, build a road if he wanted to? How could anyone build a road from here to there if the property along the way belonged to someone else, even multiple owners?

I turned down the radio.

This perplexing interrogation led Noah—who, again, possessed merely the lexicon and sophistication of a child—to more grating appeals for clarity and qualification. What, he wondered, empowered governments to authorize the creation and maintenance of roads? Were there roads beyond government control? What was the difference between public and private? What was government? Where did it come from? Why did we have it?

The moment I caught myself trying to explain social contract theory to a five-year-old, I realized I had been not only humbled and humiliated but overmatched, not by Noah necessarily but by the impressive sum of human ignorance about everyday experience and activity.

Though not impulsively so, I’m reflectively Hayekian and thus managed to articulate to Noah my abiding belief in the limitations of human knowledge, the selectivity of human memory, and the fallibility of human intuition, and to emphasize the importance of subjecting our most cherished principles to continued testing so they may be corrected or refined as we mature in our understanding. Roads could not be the inevitable product of one man’s awesome imagination working in isolation; rather they were the concrete product of aggregated, uncountable ideas, applied variously depending on local circumstances. This fancy way of saying “I don’t know” seemed to satisfy Noah, who grew quiet about his objections and marvels and turned his attention elsewhere.

I, however, couldn’t quiet my restless urge for the kind of comforting certitude that ultimately cannot be achieved. It wasn’t roads but knowledge itself and its embodiment or expression in the law—in particular in our Anglo-American common-law tradition—that suddenly bothered and intrigued me. Noah’s inquisitiveness had reminded me of the opening lines to a learned book on the common law:

Legal history is a story which cannot be begun at the beginning. However remote the date at which we start, it will always be necessary to admit that much of the still remoter past that lies behind it will have to be considered as directly bearing upon the later history. […] [T]he further back we push our investigations, the scantier become our sources, and the more controversial and doubtful their interpretation.[1]

The common law is not just an historical and governmental system for resolving disputes through courts and case precedents, traceable to eleventh-century England and adopted by the United States and nearly half of the countries on earth, but also a mode of preserving and transmitting knowledge about the human condition that develops out of ascertainable facts rather than abstract speculation. It’s bottom-up, reflecting the embedded norms and values of the community as against executive command or legislative fiat.

To continue reading about the common law and the moral imagination, please download the remaining essay here at SSRN.

 

[1] Theodore F. T. Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law 3 (1956) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010).

What, Then, is Creativity?

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Teaching on January 9, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.

Last week a student asked me, “What is creativity?” I was unsure how to respond. I felt like the speaker from Leaves of Grass musing about a child, who, fetching a handful of grass, asks him what the grass is. “How could I answer the child?” the speaker wonders. “I do not know what it is any more than he.”

What is creativity? How could I answer the student? I did not know what it was any more than he. My ignorance on this subject nevertheless inspired me to seek understanding, perhaps even a definition, and then to proffer brief, explanatory remarks. Here they are, principally for his benefit but also for mine—and for that of anyone, I suppose, who cares to consider them.

Every human, I think, is the handiwork of God. If humans are created in God’s image, and God is our creator, then humanity’s creativity is, or might be, a limited, earthly, imperfect glimpse into the ways and workings of God. “We too,” said Paul Elmore More, “as possessors of the word may be called after a fashion children of the Most High and sons of the Father, but as creatures of His will we are not of His substance and nature, however we may be like Him.”[1]

Inherently flawed and sinful, humans cannot create what or as God creates and cannot be divine. Our imagination can be powerfully dark, dangerous, and wicked. The Lord proclaimed in the Noahic covenant that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”[2] Construction of the Tower of Babel demonstrated that the unified power of ambitious men laboring together may engender impious unrestraint.[3]

Humans, however, being more rational and intelligent than animals, are supreme among God’s creation and bear the divine image of God. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?” asks the psalmist, adding, “and the son of man, that thou visitest him?  For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hath crowned him with glory and honour.”[4]

Saint Peter—or the author of Second Peter if that book is pseudographical—called humans potential partakers in the divine nature who have escaped the corruption of the world.[5] Saint Paul implied that followers of Christ enjoy something of Christ’s mind, some special understanding of Christ’s instructions.[6] He also suggested that followers of Christ, the saints, will judge not only the world but the angels,[7]beneath whom, in substance, we consist.[8]

What these passages mean, exactly, is subject to robust academic and theological debate, but surely humanity’s crowning artistic achievements—our paintings, sculptures, philosophies, architecture, poetry, theater, novels, and music—are starting points for exploration. What evidence have we besides these tangible products of our working minds that we who are not divine somehow partake in divinity?

Humans are moral, spiritual, social, creative, and loving, unlike the rest of God’s animate creation, only some of which, the animals, are also sentient. Aristotle and Aquinas, to say nothing of the author of Genesis, rank animals lower than humans in the hierarchy of living beings because, although sentient, they lack a discernable will, conscientiousness, consciousness, and capacity for reason that humans definitively possess. Moreover, animals provide humans with the necessary sustenance to survive, and our survival is indispensable to the advancement of knowledge and intelligence, themselves essential to the enjoyment and preservation of God’s creation.

All human life is sacred because of humanity’s godly nature,[9] which is a privilege with coordinate duties and responsibilities: to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue, or care for, the inferior creatures of the earth.[10] However awesome humanity’s creative faculties are, they are not themselves divine, and cannot be. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,” intones the prophet, “so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[11]

Russell Kirk titled his autobiography The Sword of Imagination. A sword is a bladed weapon with a sharp, lethal point and sharp, lethal edges. It’s the symbol of medieval warriors and Romantic knights. The imagination, powerful like a sword, can be wielded for the forces of good or evil. It’s unsafe. But it can be channeled for moral and virtuous purposes.

Only God can have created something from nothing. That the cosmos exists at all is proof of an originating, ultimate cause, of some supreme power that is antecedent to all material life and form. Human creativity, by contrast, is iterative and mimetic, not the generation of perceptible substance out of an absolute void.

Human creativity builds on itself, repurposing and reinvigorating old concepts and fields of knowledge for new environments and changed conditions. We learn to be creative even if we are born with creative gifts and faculties. Imitative practice transforms our merely derivative designs and expressions into awesome originality and innovation.

Creativity, then, is the ability of human faculties to connect disparate ideas, designs, and concepts to solve actual problems, inspire awe, heighten the emotions and passions, or illuminate the complex realities of everyday experience through artistic and aesthetic expression. The most creative among us achieve their brilliance through rigorous training and a cultivated association with some master or teacher who imparts exceptional techniques and intuitions to the pupil or apprentice; every great teacher was a student once.

Or so I believe, having thought the matter through. It may be that I know no more about creativity than I do about grass. But I know, deeply and profoundly, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and for that I am infinitely and earnestly grateful.

 

Notes:

[1] Paul Elmore More, The Essential Paul Elmer More (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972), p. 55.

[2] Genesis 8:21.

[3] Genesis 11:5-7.

[4] Psalm 8:4-5.

[5] 2 Peter 1:4.

[6] 1 Corinthians 2:16.

[7] 1 Corinthians 6: 2-3.

[8] Psalm 8:4-5.

[9] Genesis 9:6.

[10] Genesis 28.

[11] Isaiah 55:9.

What is Conservatism?

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on March 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

Conservatism in the sense in which I use the term refers to an attitude or disposition that rejects ideology (all-encompassing systems of normative theory and institutionalized practices that drive policy towards idealized or utopian ends) and radicalism or extremism (the quality of holding fanatical, severe, or drastic views).

Conservatives so styled are neither doctrinaire nor absolutist. They tend to be spiritual, or at least recognize in humans a need and desire for spiritual fulfillment and religious order. Change, they believe, is inevitable; it should occur prudentially, gradually, and naturally through civil debate, prescribed political processes, and nonviolence.

Conservatism predicates the necessity for moral order on the imperfectability of human nature and the limitations of human intelligence; its normative values are embedded, historical, local, contextual, and rooted in immemorial usage.

Conservatism views the past as a fund of wisdom and knowledge, not as a brooding evil to be discarded, erased, or escaped. It therefore respects cultural continuities.

Russell Kirk’s various iterations of conservative principles in different versions of The Conservative Mind are, in my mind, the surest expressions of conservatism to date.

Our Real Constitution—And What Happened to It

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on January 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Conservatism lost a giant when George W. Carey passed away in 2013. Thanks to Bruce Frohnen, his longtime friend, we’re able to hear anew Carey’s prudent admonitions in these strange and interesting times.

Before his death, Carey completed drafts of chapters on progressivism and progressive constitutional reform that later became substantial portions of two chapters in Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law, the book that Frohnen has now completed. The final product is an impressively collaborative effort that substantiates the idea of constitutional morality, which Carey spent years developing.

The two men had planned to split the chapters in half. Having few disagreements between them, they reserved the right to approve and edit each other’s contributions. Carey’s untimely passing changed these plans. To honor his friend, Frohnen consulted Carey’s work carefully, downplaying his own more “antifederalist” positions to accommodate Carey’s more federalist leanings. If Jefferson and Hamilton would have agreed that the size and scope of the American government has become dangerous and unmanageable, then it’s no surprise that Frohnen and Carey found common ground.

Constitutional morality denotes “the felt duty of government officials … to abide by the restrictions and imperatives imposed on them by a constitution.” It contemplates the “unwritten constitution,” a concept central to Frohnen and Carey’s argument that’s drawn from Russell Kirk and Orestes Brownson, both of whom Frohnen in particular has interpreted thoughtfully and skilfully. Kirk defined the unwritten constitution as “the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.” To maintain their authority and gain general acceptance in a community, written constitutions and positive laws must reflect the norms and values of the people they bind. Frohnen and Carey’s narrative is about how quasi-law in the form of executive decree and the administrative state have become divorced from the people they govern.

The narrative runs something like this. Rule by executive command and administrative agencies has resulted in a decline of the rule of law in the United States. Odd, extratextual interpretations of the United States Constitution have dislocated its content from the common understandings of reasonably prudent Americans. The Progressive Era facilitated a shift in our approach to law that was qualitatively different from the teachings of checks-and-balances, decentralization, separation-of-powers, and other such doctrines alive in the minds of our Founders, even those like Hamilton and the young Madison (as against the later Madison) who favored a strong national government. Consequently, we have found ourselves in a crisis of constitutional morality, there being little institutional and systemic accountability to curb the broad powers of bureaucracy, reckless and unelected federal judges, a delegating congress beholden to lobbyists and corporations, and the expansion of executive privilege, prerogative, and patronage.

Political rhetoric of limited government, common among Republican leaders, does not square with the manifest reality of the ever-growing managerial state. Heated discourse alone won’t suffice to roll back federal programs and agencies. “What is required,” say Frohnen and Carey, “is a retrenchment of the federal government into a much smaller but more detailed and legalistic form that allows more actions to be taken by other institutions, be they states, localities, or associations within civil society.” In short, these men call for devolution and subsidiarity. They make the case for localized control based on clear rules that are consistent with common norms and expressed in a shared idiom.

Championing the rule of law involves the recognition that, although morality does or should underpin laws, “we cannot use the tool of law to achieve perfect virtue, or freedom, or any other moral good.” Without denying the importance or reality of natural law, which is antecedent to human promulgation, Frohnen and Carey approach it cautiously, stating that it “is not a rigid code demanding that human law force all human beings into a straightjacket of specific individual conduct.” Seemingly skeptical of grand schemes for the magnificent systematization and organization of natural-law principles, they humbly submit that humans “can only do our best to develop practical lawmaking and interpreting virtues such that the laws we make will be efficacious in spelling out and enforcing duties in such a way as perhaps to encourage people to pursue virtue.” This nomocratic mode of thinking recalls Hume, Burke, Oakeshott, Kirk, and Hayek with its awareness of the limitations of human knowledge and its attention to the historical, institutional, and cultural embeddedness of standards and values.

If there is one take-home point from this book, it’s that government is not the instrument through which to facilitate the good, the true, or the beautiful. We should avoid the “new dispensation” that consists in “a government ruled not by formal structures and procedures but by the pursuit of putatively good policy through broad statements of programmatic goals and the exercise of broad discretionary power.” Disempowering the central government may be the obvious counter to this new dispensation, but we’ve been advocating that for decades. In fact, Frohnen and Carey believe that “there can be no simple return to the original dispensation,” which involved “the Framers’ constitutional morality, emphasizing procedure, caution, and restrained defense of one’s institutional prerogatives.”

With no quick and easy remedy at the ready, Frohnen and Carey encourage something less magnificent and extraordinary: civic participation in local associations and mediating institutions such as “families, unions, clubs, schools, and religious groups,” the kinds of little platoons that struck Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of America, as bulwarks against tyranny. “More important than any particular policy,” Frohnen and Carey aver, “is the attitude toward law and policy making that must be recaptured.” Although they suggest that some form of separation or secession may become inevitable, the corrective they envision is rhetorical and discursive. We must, in their view, shape the political discourse through private associations, which, in the aggregate, engender the bottom-up processes of rulemaking that reflect the normative orders of local communities rather than the top-down commands of a faraway, massive, impersonal sovereign.

Seth Vannatta on Conservatism and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on December 28, 2016 at 6:45 am

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At some point all writers come across a book they wish they had written. Several such books line my bookcases; the latest of which is Seth Vannatta’s Conservativism and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics.

The two words conservatism and pragmatism circulate widely and with apparent ease, as if their import were immediately clear and uncontroversial. But if you press strangers for concise definitions, you’ll likely find that the signification of these words differs from person to person. Maybe it’s not just that people are unwilling to update their understanding of conservatism and pragmatism—maybe it’s that they cling passionately to their understanding (or misunderstanding), fearing that their operative paradigms and working notions of 20th century history and philosophy will collapse if conservatism and pragmatism differ from some developed expectation or ingrained supposition.

I began to immerse myself in pragmatism in graduate school when I discovered that its central tenets aligned rather cleanly with those of Edmund Burke, David Hume, F. A. Hayek, Michael Oakeshott, and Russell Kirk, men widely considered to be on the right end of the political spectrum even if their ideas diverge in key areas. In fact, I came to believe that pragmatism reconciled these thinkers, that whatever their marked intellectual differences, these men believed certain things that could be synthesized and organized in terms of pragmatism. I reached this conclusion from the same premise adopted by Vannatta: “Conservatism and pragmatism . . . are methods . . . guided by various common norms.” As such, they can lead to different political policies despite the consistently conservative character of their processes and techniques.

Read my review of Vannatta’s book in University of Dayton Law Review by downloading it from SSRN at this link.

The Conservative Mindset

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

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The following review first appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Some of the references, such as those to the presidential primary season, may be dated now, but they were timely on the date of original publication.

The presidential primaries are at last upon us. The leading Republican candidates, including frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have resorted to showmanship and grandstanding to make their case for the party nomination. Their harsh, uncouth rhetoric stands in marked contrast to the writings of Russell Amos Kirk, a founding father of modern American conservatism.

Books on Kirk exist, but they’re few. Fellow conservatives, many of them friends or colleagues of Kirk’s — like T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, F. A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss — have received more attention. In this regard, Kirk is the victim of his virtues: he was less polarizing, celebrated by followers and detractors alike for his measured temperament and learned judgments. He did earn numerous adversaries, including Hayek and Frank Meyer, who in retrospect appear more like ambivalent friends, but the staying power of Kirk’s congeniality seems to have softened objections to his most resolute opinions.

Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College who holds a chair named for Kirk, fills a need with his lucid and ambitious biography. Birzer is the first researcher to have been granted full access to Kirk’s letters, diaries, and draft manuscripts. He has avoided — as others haven’t — defining Kirk by his list of accomplishments and has pieced together a comprehensive, complex account of Kirk’s personality, motivations, and influences.

Birzer offers five themes in Kirk’s work, and less so his private life, which Birzer only touches on: his intellectual heritage, his ideas of the transcendent, his Christian humanism, his fiction, and the reach and implications of his conservatism. Kirk isn’t a dull subject. One need not identify as a conservative to appreciate his polished charm and idiosyncrasies. A plump, bespectacled gentleman who feigned disdain for technology, Kirk was something of a spiritualist with a penchant for the weird. He considered himself a Stoic before he had converted to Catholicism, a regeneration that makes sense in light of the relation of Stoic to Pauline thought.

As a young man Kirk spent four years in the military. His feelings about this experience were conflicted. He suffered from a blend of ennui and disenchantment but occupied his free time with reading, writing, and studying. He was horrified by the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States had decimated the most flourishing Western cultural and religious centers in the Japanese Empire, just as he was by the internment of Japanese Americans.

The tremendous violence of the 20th century, occasioned by the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism, impressed upon Kirk a sense of tragedy and fatalism. He came to despise totalitarianism, bureaucracy, radicalism, and “ideology” as leveling systems that stamped out the dignity and individuality of the human person. Hard to place along the left-right spectrum, he was as critical of big corporations and the military as he was of big government and labor.

When Kirk inserted himself into political debates he supported Republican politicians, becoming temporarily more interventionist in his foreign policy before returning to a form of Taftian isolationism, but he always remained more worried about reawakening the moral imagination than in having the right candidates elected to office. His was a long view of society, one without a fixed teleology or secular eschatology, and skeptical of utopian thought. Kirk advocated a “republic of letters,” a community of high-minded and profoundly sensitive thinkers devoted to rearticulating perennial truths (such as the need to pacify human violence, temper human urges for power, and cultivate human longing for the transcendent or divine) and preserving humanist institutions.

Kirk’s politics were shaped by imaginative literature and characterized by a rich poetic vision and vast cultural literacy. Fascinated by such disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, George Santayana, and most of the American Founders, Kirk was also versed in the libertarianism of Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, whose ideas he admired as a young man but vehemently rejected throughout his mature years. Burke and Babbitt, more than any other men, shaped his political philosophy. And his irreducible imagination made room for mysticism and a curious interest in ghosts.

Kirk’s debt to Burke cannot be overstated. “Like the nineteenth-century liberals,” Birzer says, “Kirk focused on the older Burke, but he countered their dismissal of Burke’s ideas as reactionary and exaggerated.” Kirk also downplayed Burke the Whig, who championed the cause of the American Revolution, which Kirk considered to be not a revolution but a conservative restoration of ancient English liberties. Kirk was wary about the Enlightenment, as was Burke, because the scientism of that period tended to oversimplify inherently complex human nature and behavior. Kirk also thought the Enlightenment philosophes had broken too readily from the tested traditions of the past that shaped human experience.

Kirk appealed to American patriotism — which he distinguished from reckless nationalism — in The American Cause (1957) (which he later renounced as a “child’s book”), The Roots of American Order (1974), and Americas British Culture (1993), drawing attention to what he saw as the enduring customs and mores that guard against utopian conjecture. Yet American patriotism was, in Kirk’s mind, heir to the patrimony of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. From the mistakes and successes of these symbolic cities Americans could learn to avoid “foreign aid” and “military violence,” as well as grandiose attempts to “struggle for the Americanization of the world.”

Disillusioned with academia after his graduate work at Duke, Kirk was offered a position, which he turned down, at the University of Chicago. Kirk fell in love with the University of St. Andrews, however, where he took his doctorate and wrote a lengthy dissertation on Edmund Burke that would later become his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. Kirk revised The Conservative Mind throughout his life, adding new permutations and nuances in an attempt to ensure the continued resonance of his cultural mapping.

The almost instant success of The Conservative Mind made Kirk an unlikely celebrity. The book featured sharply etched portraits of men Kirk considered to be representatives of the conservative tradition. Regrettably, and perhaps tellingly, Kirk tended to ignore the contributions of women, passing over such apposite figures as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, with whom he, as a mystic Catholic anglophile, had much in common. Kirk shared more with these women, in fact, than he did with Coleridge or Thomas Babington Macaulay, who appear in The Conservative Mind.

Kirk was also woefully uneducated about American pragmatism. He overlooked Burke’s influence on, and compatibility with, pragmatism. (As Seth Vannatta ably demonstrates in Conservatism and Pragmatism (2014), Burke “is a model precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions.”) Kirk failed to see the pragmatic elements of Santayana, whom he adored, and he seemed generally unaware of the work of C.S. Peirce. Kirk’s breezy dismissal of William James, Santayana’s teacher and later colleague, suggests he hadn’t read much of James’s oeuvre, for Kirk lumped the very different James and Dewey together in a manner that proved that Kirk himself was susceptible to the simplification and reduction he decried in others.

Conservatism, for Kirk, consisted of an attitude or mindset, not an explicit or detailed political program. Enumerating vague “canons” of conservatism that Kirk tweaked from edition to edition, The Conservative Mind was a “hagiographic litany,” a genealogy of the high-minded heroes of ordered liberty and convention. Kirk didn’t intend the book to be model scholarship. It was something more — an aestheticized bricolage cannibalized from Burke and Eliot and others, with inspirational and ritualistic value. It has never gone out of print.

Kirk is sometimes accused of being contradictory, holding simultaneously incompatible positions, in part because he lauded apparent antagonists such as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. “Kirk found something to like in each man,” Birzer says of Calhoun and Lincoln, “for each, from [Kirk’s] perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate.” Tension between rivaling conservative visions is reconciled in Kirk’s desire never “to create an ideology out of conservatism, a theology at the quick and the ready with which one could easily beat one’s opponents into submission.” Ideology, Kirk believed, was a symptom of totalitarianism, and as such was the common denominator of fascism and communism. Kirk believed his own philosophy was not an ideology, because he, like Burke, preferred “a principled defense of justice and prudence” to any specific faction or agenda. He recognized that change was necessary, but thought it should be guided by prudence and historical sensitivity.

For a history buff, Kirk could be positively ahistorical and uncritical, ignoring the nuances and particularities of events that shaped the lives of his heroes. He ignored Calhoun’s commitment to the peculiar institution, and with a quick wave of the hand erased slavery from Calhoun’s political calculus, adding without qualification that “Calhoun defended the rights of minorities.” Kirk made clumsy caricatures out of his assumed enemies, calling men like Emerson “the most influential of all American radicals.” Emerson had met Coleridge, whose Romanticism partially inspired Emerson’s transcendentalism. Yet Kirk loathed Emerson and praised Coleridge and saw no inconsistency in doing so.

Kirk was not alone during the 1950s. The decade witnessed a renaissance of conservatism, exemplified by the publication of not only Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but also Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Gabriel Marcel’s Man against Mass Society, Christopher Dawkins’s Understanding Europe, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. It was The Conservative Mind, however, that “gave one voice to a number of isolated and atomized voices.” It also lent intellectual substance and credibility to the activist groundswell surrounding such politicians as Goldwater a decade later.

When Kirk joined Buckley’s National Review, the manner of his writing changed. Previously he had contributed to literary and scholarly journals, but, as Birzer points out, his “contributions to the National Review slowly but surely crowded out his output to other periodicals.” Working for National Review also drew Kirk into personality conflicts that passed as theoretical disagreements. Kirk sided with Buckley, for instance, in banishing from the pages of National Review any writers associated with the John Birch Society. Kirk despised the egoism of Ayn Rand, scorned the label neoconservative, and did not take kindly to the doctrines of Irving Kristol. Yet Kirk held Leo Strauss in high regard, in no small part because of Strauss’s scholarship on Burke and natural rights.

Strauss is sometimes treated as the fount of neoconservativism, given that his students include, among others, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Paul Wolfowitz. But Kirk never would have considered the esoteric and conscientious Strauss to be in a league with neoconservative provocateurs like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, who indicted Kirk for anti-Semitism after Kirk, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, stated that some neoconservatives had mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States — a tactless comment that was blown out of proportion.

“Kirk never sought conformity with those around him,” Birzer argues, “because he never wanted to create a sect or a religion or a cult of personality.” Kirk labored for the sake of posterity, not self-promotion. “The idea of creating ‘Kirkians,’” as there are Straussians, Misesians, Randians, and Rothbardians, “would have horrified [Kirk] at every level of his being”; Birzer insists that Kirk “desired only to inspire and to leaven with the gifts given him,” adding that “[h]e did well.” “I hope,” Birzer concludes, “I have done at least half as well” in writing Kirk’s biography.

Bringing Kirk into renewed focus during a contentious election season, as the term conservatism is bandied about, contested, and abused by commentators as varied as David Brooks and Phyllis Schlafly, Megyn Kelly and Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and Michael Savage, Birzer reminds us that conservatism, properly understood, is a “means, a mood, an attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular political philosophy, party, or agenda.”

One wonders, watching the campaign stops and debate spectacles, the ominous political advertisements and alarmist fundraising operations, what’s left of this humane tradition in our current political discourse. When our politicians lack a responsible and meaningful awareness of the residual wisdom of the ages, we get the leadership and politics we deserve. Would that we had more Russell Kirks around to remind us of the enduring things that, in times like these, are hard to find and difficult to believe in.

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