October 26, 2008


Russell Kirk & Postmodern Conservatism (Gerald J. Russello, October 23, 2008, First Things)

The problem Kirk faced, along with most conservatives, was that the Enlightenment, with its universalizing equality, secularism, and blinkered rationality, was already destroying traditional Western culture. How can a tradition be preserved if it is already dissolving into what theorist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity?”

Kirk’s answer was twofold. First, he uncovered (some would say, “created”) a counter-tradition, one that rested not on the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the ideological fervor of the French Revolution, or the modern vogue for limitless “rights.” Rather, it began with Edmund Burke’s defense of the lived experience of Britain as a bulwark of liberty and the protection of rights. Moreover, Kirk claimed that this tradition connected Britain and America, and included such varied figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson and Benjamin Disraeli, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, John Adams and W.H. Mallock.

The second strategy was more daring. Kirk was criticized, then and later, for writing in an anachronistic style, one not suited to confronting the seemingly rationalist arguments of liberalism. In order to defend what they thought to be worth conserving, some conservatives believed that they had to engage liberalism on its own terms, in a “dialectic” mode that is foreign to the conservative language of custom and tradition. Kirk rejected this approach.

As early as the 1950s, he had become convinced that liberalism would exhaust itself because it could not inspire and sustain what he called the “moral imagination.” For conservatives to buy into its premises would seal their defeat. Something else would replace liberalism eventually, and Kirk offered a richly imaginative vision of conservatism that could survive liberal modernity’s collapse. One element of that vision was a revived respect for religious faith.

As early as 1982, in an essay for National Review, Kirk suggested that “the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes [of postmodernism] may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives.” He went so far as to state that he thought that it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.”

David Hume and Thomas Jefferson accepted that Rationalism was itself irrational and, therefore, the final hope for deriving true wisdom solely by the exertion of your own mind was by the boards, but they were unbothered by this truth because the lives we live in our traditional Stupidity are quite lovely. The Post-Modernism of the Left, their minds undone by the need to accept what God has told us, embraces ugliness instead.

-Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism (Peter Augustine Lawler, Fall 2002, First Principles)
-ESSAY: Religious Conscience and Original Sin: An Exploration of America’s Protestant Foundations (Barry Shain, Online Library of Liberty)
-ESSAY: Democracy in Vermont: Small is beautiful in the Green Mountain state (Bill Kauffman, 9/13/04, American Conservative)

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 26, 2008 9:20 AM
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