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Posts Tagged ‘Russell Kirk’

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

Allen 2

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

Allen 2

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.

John William Corrington: A Different Kind of Conservative

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Literature, Politics, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

A slightly different version of this article originally appeared here in The American Conservative.

When John William Corrington died in 1988, Southern conservatives lost one of their most talented writers, a refined Cajun cowboy with a jazzy voice and bold pen whose work has been unjustly and imprudently neglected.

A man of letters with a wide array of interests, an ambivalent Catholic and a devotee of Eric Voegelin, a lawyer and an English professor, Bill (as his friends and family called him) authored or edited over 20 books, including novels, poetry collections, and short story collections. His most recognized works are screenplays – Boxcar Bertha, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and Omega Man – but he hoped for the legacy of a belletrist. “I don’t give a damn about TV or film for that matter,” he once wrote somewhat disingenuously, adding that he cared about “serious writing – the novel, the story, the poem, the essay.” William Mills, who, after Bill’s death, collected the commemorative essays of Bill’s friends under the title Southern Man of Letters, declared that, should Bill have a biographer, “the story of his life will be very much the life of a mind, one lived among books, reading them and writing them.”

Bill was born in Ohio, a fact he sometimes concealed. He claimed on his C.V. that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, home to the Dixieland brass that inspired him to take up the trumpet. His parents, who were in fact from Memphis, had not intended to stay in Ohio but were seeking temporary work there to get through the Depression. Bill spent his childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he remained for college, taking his degree from Centenary College. He then earned a master’s in English from Rice, focusing on Renaissance drama, and later a doctorate in English from the University of Sussex in England. His doctoral dissertation was on Joyce’s Dubliners. He taught at LSU, Loyola University of the South, and California-Berkeley before tiring of campus politics and university bureaucracy. This was, after all, the late 1960s.

Film director Roger Corman discovered Bill’s fiction at this time and contracted with him to write a screenplay about the life of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Barron. As a child Bill was often bedridden with asthma, and his hobby was to build WWI and WWII model airplanes – as a young man he attempted to join the Air Force but was turned away for being colorblind – so Bill was already familiar with the Red Barron’s story. Having completed his assignment for Corman, Bill was confidant he could secure new sources of revenue when he left the academy and entered Tulane Law School as an already accomplished poet, novelist, and now screenwriter. During his first year in law school, he and his wife, Joyce, penned the screenplay for Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the popularity of which ensured they would always have a job in film and television. Bill’s grades in law school may have suffered from his extracurricular writing, but it was writing, not the law, that ultimately proved profitable to him.

Joyce wasn’t Bill’s first wife. He’d married briefly to a young Protestant girl whose father was a minister. Bill’s Catholicism and academic interest in mystical, pagan, and heretical traditions meant the marriage was doomed. Bill claimed it was never even consummated because she found sex to be painful. Over almost as soon as it began, the marriage was officially annulled.

Bill’s fascination with Catholicism, the South, and the works of Eric Voegelin, combined with his disgust for Marxism and campus radicals, made for a unique blend of conservatism. Early in his career Bill and Miller Williams went on the lecture circuit together to defend the South and Southern intellectuals against what they considered to be an anti-Southern bias within universities. Bill kept photos of Robert E. Lee and Stonewell Jackson on the wall of his study and named two of his sons after them. With the rise of the conservative movement during the Reagan Era and the slow separation of traditionalist and neoconservatives, epitomized by the controversy over Reagan’s nomination of Mel Bradford as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bill felt compelled to offer a Southerner’s perspective on conservatism. He considered his conservatism to be regionally specific, explaining that “I am a Southerner and for all my travel and schooling, I am not able to put aside the certain otherness that sets a Southerner apart from the rest of America even in the midst of the 20th century.” “The South,” he maintained, “is a nation buried within another.” His essay “Are Southerner’s Different?” was published thirty years ago in The Southern Partisan but still resonates even now when Southerners have become less “different.”

Calling something “different” presupposes another something that’s not the same. The title of Bill’s essay therefore begs the question: “Different from what?” Bill crafted the essay for an audience of Southern conservatives. At the expense of style he might have framed his question this way: “Are Southern conservatives different from conservatives in other regions of America?” To which he would have emphatically answered yes.

He used the essay to compare three icons of conservatism – Ronald Reagan, George Will, and William F. Buckley – to ascertain whether they expressed regional distinctions within American conservatism and to suggest that each failed to formulate or represent the essence of conservatism. Constituted by disparate and oft-competing traditions, “conservatism” in America, he suggested, failed as a meaningful category of discourse in matters of national rather than local importance. Its characteristics among Southerners, however, were readily apparent.

Because Bill identified himself as a Southern conservative, he doubted whether he could sit down with Reagan, Will, and Buckley “over glasses of sour mash” and achieve “such sweet agreement on the range of problems facing the world” that “any opinion one of us stated might by and large draw nothing more than approving nods from the others.” He rejected as “mere sentimentality” and “downright delusion” the “notion that conservatives east, west, midwest and south” could “find themselves in agreement on most matters of public policy.”

Bill criticized Reagan for stationing marines in Lebanon “without a clear-cut combat role” or a “mission to achieve.” He doubted whether he and Reagan held “the same view of the use of military force.” Bill regarded his own view as “simple and founded purely on Roman principles: Avoid battle whenever an interest or purpose can be obtained by other means, political, diplomatic, or economic; fight only for clear-cut interests which can be won or preserved by force; fight when and where you will be able to achieve a determinable victory. If you engage, win – at whatever costs – and make sure the enemy suffers disproportionately greater loss than you do.” This view of war materialized in Bill’s first novel, And Wait for the Night, which, inspired by Hodding Carter’s The Angry Scar, depicted the devastation of the South during Reconstruction. And Wait for the Night begins with a long section on the fighting that resulted in the fall of Vicksburg. If there’s a theme common to Bill’s fiction about war, including his short stories and his third novel, The Bombardier, it’s pride in a soldier’s duty but sensibility to the horrors of war.

Bill’s dislike of Will arose from the controversy ignited by the failed Bradford nomination. Will had taken to the Washington Post to decry Bradford’s attachment to the “nostalgic Confederate remnant within the conservative movement.” Bradford’s singular offense was proposing that Lincoln was a “Gnostic” in the sense that Voegelin used the term. A friend and admirer of Voegelin who would eventually edit Voegelin’s works, Bill did not think Lincoln was a Gnostic. As Bill put it in a 1964 letter to Anthony Blond, the British editor who had published And Wait for the Night, Lincoln stood “in relation to the South very much as Khrushchev did to Hungary, as the United Nations apparachiks did to Katanga.”

Bill was one of those conservatives Will decried for having a not unfavorable view of the Confederacy. He once dashed off a missive to Charles Bukowski that referred to Lee as “the greatest man who ever lived” and he later asked to be buried with a Confederate flag in his coffin. A statue of General Sherman on a horse inspired – rather, provoked – Bill’s book of poems Lines to the South. Robert B. Heilman observed that 75% of Bill’s short stories involved the Civil War. Asked whether he was a Southern writer, Bill quipped, “If nobody else wants to be, that’s fine; then we would have only one: me.”

Unlike Will, Bill was not about to let Lincoln mythology become a condition for conservative office or to disregard the different historical circumstances that shaped political theories about the role of the central government in relation to the several states. “Will’s stance,” Bill announced with typical bravado, “comes close to requiring a loyalty oath to the Great Emancipator, and I for one will not have it. It is one thing to live one’s life under the necessity of empirical events long past; it is quite another to be forced to genuflect to them.”

Bill was unable to put his finger on what irked him about Buckley. Rather than criticizing Buckley directly, he criticized things associated with Buckley: “the Ivy League mentality” and “the American aristocracy.” Bill had an earthy dynamism and a brawling personality and didn’t take kindly to (in his view) pompous sophisticates who seemed (to him) to put on airs. He preferred the matter-of-fact, muscular qualities of those rugged Americans who possessed, as he mused in a rare moment of verbosity, “a hard-nosed intelligence, an openness to experience, a limited but real sense of classical past and a profound respect not only for institutions in place but for the work of a man’s hands and mind as well as a deep and unshakeable certainty of the role of divine providence in the affairs of humanity not to mention a profound contempt for inherited title, place and dignity.” This did not describe Buckley, at least not entirely.

Bill’s outline for conservatism, unlike Reagan’s and Will’s and Buckley’s, involved what he called “traditional Southern thought and sentiment,” to wit, the land, the community, and a foreign policy of “decency and common sense,” which is to say, a “realistic, non-ideological orientation toward the rest of the world.”

This last aspect of his conservatism, couched in such plain diction, simplifies what is in fact a ramified element of his shifting Weltanschauung. He hesitated to “presume to enunciate a ‘Southern view’ of foreign policy” but acknowledged that “there remain a few antique verities stretching from President Washington’s Farewell Address to the Monroe Doctrine.” These verities had to be, he believed, “reviewed” and “reinterpreted” in light of what was then the most pressing threat abroad to American values at home: “the rise of a Russian empire bound together by force.”

The policy of containment that was a shibboleth for some policy experts during the Reagan years was for Bill a waste of time. “I do not recall that our liberal predecessors argued for the ‘containment’ of National Socialism as it ravaged Europe in the late 1930s and 40s,” he said. That did not mean he categorically favored military intervention. “Obviously,” he qualified, “direct military force to attain specific goals is not among our options.”

What then was among the options? Bill’s answer was less quixotic than it was unhelpfully obvious: “political economics.” He anticipated that the Soviet Union would “find itself pressing the last drop of economic usefulness out of the poor befuddled bodies of its subjects” if the West quit supplying the Soviets with “western technology, western food, and vast sums of western credit.” Despite its artlessness, this approach won the day but never played out as neatly or innocently as Bill envisioned it.

Within weeks of publishing “Are Southerners Different?,” Bill delivered a paper in Chattanooga that decried the “rise of ideologies from the Enlightenment egophanies of the philosophes through the scientism and materialism of the 19th century to the political mass-movements and therapies of the 20th century, including, but not limited to, National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism,” all of which, he claimed, had “resulted in a virtual decerebration of the Humanities.” Bill had entered a melancholy, meditative phase in which he began to portray political extremism of all stripes as a vicious assault on the humanities, those organizing aesthetic and social principles that “bear witness to the truth insofar as they penetrate noetically to the common experiential symbols of human beings.”

Bill resisted categories and defied simple classification. He informed Bukowski, for instance, that he had taken up the sonnet just to throw “dirt in the eyes of those would love to put some label on my ass.” Shortly after discovering Voegelin, Bill began to read Russell Kirk. Bruce Hershenson, then a producer with a Los Angeles television station who had come to prominence through a documentary on the funeral of John F. Kennedy, commissioned Bill to write a screenplay of Kirk’s Roots of American Order. Bill drew up the script, but it was never produced. Kirk later entrusted the script to Richard Bishirjian. (That script is now on file at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.) Bishirjian intimated that the script’s failure had to do with “the new political appointees at NEH that Bennett recruited.” These appointees, Bishirjian said, were “ideologues for whom John Locke, the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Jaffa define America.”

The heavy burden of the past on Southern consciousness suits Southerners for the type of humanistic inquiry that interested Bill: the humanities, according to him, “remember” and “re-collect” and “force upon us the memory of humanitas in all its experiential and symbolic variety.” “It is a handy thing for a writer to discover that his geographical and spiritual situations are parallel,” he said. “It makes the geography live, and lends concreteness to the soul.”

Bill’s soul, as it were, was shaped by the South, to which his spirit belonged. Tapping Robert Frost, he speculated that the symbolism of General Lee’s and General Joseph Johnston’s surrenders “made all the difference” in terms of his “development as a writer.” Whatever he wrote or thought, he knew he’d already lost. In a basic sense this is true of us all: life heads unswervingly in one fatal direction. Better to realize we’re fighting battles we cannot win: that we cannot, of our own accord, bring about a permanent heaven on this temporary earth. We may take solace and even rejoice in our shared inevitability. We all go the way of the South: We die, no matter how hard we try to stay alive.

 

Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

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