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Deidre McCloskey and the Enrichment of the World

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Economics, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Property, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 26, 2016 at 6:45 am

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The following excerpt is adapted from my review of Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality; the original review, which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, is available here.

If it’s true that Wayne Booth inspired Deirdre McCloskey’s interest in the study of rhetoric, then it’s also true—happily, in my view—that McCloskey has refused to mimic Booth’s programmatic, formulaic methods and boorish insistence on prosaic succinctness. Bourgeois Equality is McCloskey’s third volume in a monumental trilogy that began with The Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), each published by the University of Chicago Press. This latest volume is a Big Book, alike in kind but not in theme to Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2000), Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (1990), or Herald Berman’s Law and Revolution (1983) and Law and Revolution II (2006). It’s meandering and personal, blending scholarship with an essayistic style that recalls Montaigne or Emerson.

McCloskey’s elastic arguments are shaped by informal narrative and enlivened by her plain and playful voice. At times humorous, rambling, and deliberately erratic, she gives the distinct impression that she’s simply telling a story, one that happens to validate a thesis. She’s having fun. Imagine Phillip Lopate articulating economic history. McCloskey is, in this regard, a latter-day Edward Gibbon, adopting a mode and persona that’s currently unfashionable among mainstream historians, except that she’s more lighthearted than Gibbon, and unashamedly optimistic.

Writing with an air of confidence, McCloskey submits, contra Thomas Piketty, that ideas and ideology—not capital accumulation or material resources—have caused widespread economic development. Since 1800, worldwide material wealth has increased and proliferated; the quality of life in poor countries has risen—even if it remains unequal to that of more prosperous countries—and the typical human being now enjoys access to the food, goods, services, medicine, and healthcare that, in earlier centuries, were available to only a select few in the richest parts of the globe. The transition from poverty to wealth was occasioned by shifting rhetoric that reflected an emerging ethical consensus. The rhetorical-ethical change involved people’s “attitudes toward other humans” (p. xxiii), namely, the recognition of shared experience and “sympathy,” as Adam Smith stated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Attributing human progress to ideas enables McCloskey to advocate the norms and principles that facilitated economic growth and social improvement (e.g., class mobility and fluidity) while generating extensive prosperity. Thus, her project is at once scholarly and tendentious: a study of the conditions and principles that, in turn, she promotes.

She argues that commercialism flourished in the eighteenth century under the influence of ideas—such as “human equality of liberty in law and of dignity and esteem” (p. xxix)—that were packaged in memorable rhetoric and aesthetics. “Not matter, mainly, but ideas” caused the Great Enrichment (p. 643). In other words, “[t]he original and sustaining causes of the modern world […] were ethical, not material,” and they included “the new and liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the new and democratic social idea of dignity for them” (p. xxxi). This thesis about liberty and dignity is clear and unmistakable if only because it is repetitive. McCloskey has a habit of reminding readers—in case you missed her point the first, second, or fifty-seventh time around—that the causes of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Enrichment were ideas, not “narrowly economic or political or legal changes” (p. 470). She maintains, to this end, that the Scottish Enlightenment succeeded in combining the concepts of liberty and dignity into a desirable form of equality—not equality of outcomes, of course, but of opportunity and treatment under the law. And the Scottish model, to her mind, stands in contradistinction to the French example of centralized, top-down codification, command, planning, and design.

A perennial villain lurks in the pages of her history: the “clerisy,” which is an “appendage of the bourgeoisie” (p. 597) and often dubbed “the elite” in regular parlance. McCloskey calls the clerisy “the sons of bourgeois fathers” (p. xvii) and “neo-aristocratic” (p. 440). The clerisy includes those “artists, intellectuals, journalists, professionals, and bureaucrats” who resent “the commercial and bettering bourgeoisie” (p. xvi). The clerisy seeks, in different ways at different times, to extinguish unfettered competition with exclusive, illiberal, irrevocable grants and privileges that are odious to free society and offensive to the rights of average consumers. “Early on,” says McCloskey, referring to the period in Europe after the revolutionary year 1848, “the clerisy began to declare that ordinary people are misled in trading, and so require expert protection and supervision” (p. 609). The clerisy since then has been characterized by paternalism and a sense of superiority.

Because the clerisy is shape-shifting, assuming various forms from time to time and place to place, it’s a tough concept to pin down. The word “clerisy” does not appear in the book’s index to permit further scrutiny. By contrast, McCloskey’s general arguments are easy to follow because the book is separated into parts with questions as their titles; subparts consisting of onesentence headings answer those questions.

In a massive tour de force such as this, readers are bound to take issue with certain interpretive claims. Historians will find McCloskey’s summaries to be too breezy. Even libertarians will accuse her of overlooking manifest wrongs that occurred during the periods she surveys. My complaints are few but severe. For instance, McCloskey is, I believe, either careless or mistaken to announce that, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, “under the influence of a version of science,” in a territory that’s never specifically identified, “the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people, and to elevate the nation’s mission above the mere individual person, recommending, for example, colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war” (p. xviii).

Let’s hope that it’s innocent negligence rather than willful distortion that underlies this odd, unqualified, categorical assertion. Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles (2016) and Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers (2016) describe how, in the United States, social Darwinism and eugenics were adopted primarily, though not exclusively, by the Left, not the Right. These recent books come on the heels of several scholarly treatments of this subject: Thomas M. Shapiro’s Population Control Politics (1985), Philip R. Reilly’s The Surgical Solution (1991), Joel Braslow’s Mental Ills and Bodily Cures (1997), Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race (2001), Stefan Kuhl’s The Nazi Connection (2002), Nancy Ordover’s American Eugenics (2003), Christine Rosen’s Preaching Eugenics (2004), Christina Cogdell’s Eugenic Design (2004), Gregory Michael Dorr’s Segregation’s Science (2008), Paul A. Lombardo’s edition A Century of Eugenics in America (2011), and Alexander Minna Stern’s Eugenic Nation (2016). These represent only a small sampling.

Is McCloskey unware of these texts? Probably not: she reviewed Leonard’s book for Reason, although she did so after her own book reached press. At any rate, would she have us believe that Emma Goldman, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene Debs, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger, John Maynard Keynes, Lester Ward, and W. E. B. Du Bois were eugenicist agitators for the political Right? If so, she should supply her definition of “Right,” since it would go against commonly accepted meanings. On the matter of colonialism and war, self-identified members of the Old Right such as Albert Jay Nock, John Flynn, and Senator Robert Taft advocated precisely the opposite of what McCloskey characterizes as “Right.” These men opposed, among other things, military interventionism and adventurism. The trouble is that McCloskey’s muddying of the signifiers “Left” and “Right” comes so early in the book—in the “Exordium”— that readers may lose trust in her, question her credibility, and begin to suspect the labels and arguments in her later chapters.

Other undefined terms only make matters worse, ensuring that McCloskey will alienate many academics, who, as a class, are already inclined to reject her libertarian premises. She throws around the term “Romanticism” as if its referent were eminently clear and uncontested: “a conservative and Romantic vision” (p. xviii); “science fiction and horror fiction [are] … offshoots of Romanticism” (p. 30); “[Jane Austen] is not a Romantic novelist … [because] [s]he does not take Art as a model for life, and does not elevate the Artist to a lonely pinnacle of heroism, or worship of the Middle Ages, or adopt any of the other, antibourgeois themes of Novalis, [Franz] Brentano, Sir Walter Scott, and later Romantics” (p. 170); “Romanticism around 1800 revived talk of hope and faith and a love for Art or Nature or the Revolution as a necessary transcendent in people’s lives” (p. 171); “Romantic candor” (p. 242); “the late eighteenth-century Romantic literary critics in England had no idea what John Milton was on about [sic], because they had set aside the rigorously Calvinist theology that structured his poetry” (p. 334); “the nationalist tradition of Romantic writing of history” (p. 353); “Romantic … hostilities to … democratic rhetoric” (p. 510); “[i]n the eighteenth century … the idea of autonomy triumphed, at any rate among the progressive clerisy, and then became a leading Romantic idea, á la Victor Hugo” (p. 636); and “the Romantic conservative Thomas Carlyle” (p. 643).

To allege that the clerisy was “thrilled by the Romantic radicalism of books like Mein Kampf or What Is to Be Done” (p. xviii) is also recklessly to associate the philosophies of, say, Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth with the exterminatory fantasies of Hitler and Lenin. McCloskey might have guarded against this misleading conflation by distinguishing German idealism or contextualizing Hegel or by being more vigilant with diction and definition. Her loose language will leave some experts (I do not profess to be one) scratching or shaking their heads and, more problematic, some non-experts with misconceptions and misplaced targets of enmity. One imagines the overeager and well-meaning undergraduate, having read Bourgeois Equality, setting out to demonize William Blake or destroy the reputation of Percy Shelly, about whom Paul Cantor has written judiciously.2 Wouldn’t originality, imagination, creativity, and individualism—widely accepted markers of Romanticism—appeal to McCloskey? Yet her unconditionally derogatory treatment of Romanticism—which she portrays as a fixed, monolithic, self-evident thing—undermines aspects of that fluctuating movement, period, style, culture, and attitude that are, or seem to be, consistent with her Weltanschauung.

But I protest too much. These complaints should not diminish what McCloskey has accomplished. Would that we had more grand studies that mapped ideas and traced influences across cultures, communities, and eras. McCloskey takes the long view, as we all should. Her focus on rhetoric is crucial to the future of liberty if, given the technological advances we have made, the “work we do will be more and more about decisions and persuading others to agree, changing minds, and less and less about implementation by hand” (p. 498). Equally significant is her embrace of humanomics—defined as “the story [of] a complete human being, with her ethics and language and upbringing” (p. xx)—which materializes in casual references to Henrik Ibsen’s plays, challenges to the depiction of John Milton “as a lonely poet in a garret writing merely to the starry heavens” (p. 393), analyses of Jane Austen’s novels, and portrayals of Elizabethan England. Her historical and narrative arc enables us to contextualize our own moment, with all of its troubles and possibilities.

Best of all, her book is inspiring and exhilarating and brimming with rousing imperatives and moving calls to action. “Let us, then,” she says at one point, “not reject the blessings of economic growth on account of planning or pessimism, the busybody if wellintentioned rationalism of some voices of the French Enlightenment or the adolescent if charming doubts of some voices of the German Romantic movement, fashionable though both attitudes have long been among the clerisy. As rational optimists, let us celebrate the Great Enrichment, and the rhetorical changes in freer societies that caused it” (p. 146). At another point she encourages her audience to guard against “both cynicism and utopianism” (p. 540), and elsewhere to heed “trade-tested cooperation, competition, and conservation in the right mix” (p. 523). These little nudges lend her credibility insofar as they reveal her true colors, as it were, and demonstrate that she is not attempting—as is the academic wont—to hide her prejudices and conceal her beliefs behind pretended objectivities.

Poverty is relative and, hence, permanent and ineradicable, despite McCloskey’s claim that we can “end poverty” (p. 8). If, tomorrow, we woke up and the wealth of each living person were magically to multiply twentyfold—even fiftyfold—there would still be people at the bottom. The quality of life at the bottom, however, would be vastly improved. The current manifestation of global poverty shows how far we as a species have advanced in the last few centuries. McCloskey is right: We should pursue the ideas that accelerated and achieved human flourishing, that demonstrably brought people out of distress and destitution. Hard sciences and mathematical models are insufficient in themselves to convey the magnitude and splendor of these ideas and their accomplishments. Hence we should welcome and produce more books like McCloskey’s that undertake a “rhetorical-ethical Revaluation” to both examine and celebrate “a society of open inquiry,” one which not only “depends on rhetoric in its politics and in its science and in its economy,” but which also yields intellectual creativity and political freedom (p. 650). In McCloskey’s approach, economics and the humanities are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually illuminating and, in fact, indispensably and inextricably tied. An economics that forsakes the dignity of the human person and his capacity for creativity and aesthetics does so at its own peril and to its own disgrace. All economics is, at its core, humanomics. We could do without the latter term if we understood the former.


Barzun, Jacques. 2000. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. New York: HarperCollins.

Berman, Harold J. 1983. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

——. 2006. Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Braslow, Joel. 1997. Mental Ills and Bodily Cures: Psychiatric Treatment in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Cantor, Paul. 1997. “The Poet as Economist: Shelley’s Critique of Paper Money and the British National Debt,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 13, no. 1: 21–44.

Cantor, Paul, and Stephen Cox, eds. 2009. Literature and the Economics of Liberty. Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Cogdell, Christina. 2004. Eugenic Design. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cohen, Adam. 2016. Imbeciles. London: Penguin Press.

Dorr, Gregory M. 2008. Segregation’s Science. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kuhl, Stefan. 2002. The Nazi Connection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leonard, Thomas C. 2016. Illiberal Reformers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lombardo, Paul A. 2011. A Century of Eugenics in America. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ordover, Nancy. 2003. American Eugenics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Paglia, Camille. 1990. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Reilly, Philip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosen, Christine. 2004. Preaching Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, Thomas M. 1985. Population Control Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Stern, Alexander Minna. 2016. Eugenic Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.


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.

The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

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