February 7, 2015


Russell Kirk's Historical Imagination (Gerald Russello, 2/05/15, Imaginative Conservative)

Kirk emphasized the specifically British roots of the American system, even while he placed the United States within the wider tradition of the West. As M. E. Bradford has pointed out with respect to The Roots of American Order, this approach is a typically "Burkean prologue" to the study of history.[19] That Kirk remained convinced that the British experience was the proper prism through which to judge American history is evidenced by one of his last books, America's British Culture, in which he compares the "literary" legacy of Greece and Rome with the "institutional" influence of Britain.[20]

Indeed, as the title indicates, the chapters of America's British Culture concentrate on the concrete connections between British and American ways of life. After discussing language and literature, the rule of law and the system of representative government, Kirk turns to "Mores and Minds," perhaps the most important chapter of the volume. It is a powerful argument for the persistence of habits of behavior over long stretches of time, even when the sources of those habits have been forgotten. The "traditional customs, [the] way of regarding the human condition, [and] principles of morality"[21] that compose American culture Kirk traces to America's original British settlers. "All spoke and read English, all lived under English law, all abided by many old English prescriptions and usages. Theirs was Christianity in British forms."[22] These habits remain, in a form recognizable to Tocqueville, whom Kirk relies on, and despite the mass immigration of other ethnic groups into the United States. These habits, Kirk implies, must be the basis for a regeneration of our political and cultural life; any other basis would be building on shallow foundations.

Kirk contended, that America, and American conservatives, ought to be oriented toward Europe, especially Britain. His emphasis on the British experience was not accepted silently by Kirk's fellow conservatives during the renascence of conservative thought in the years following World War II. These conservative critics suggested Kirk had done little more than create a "usable past," and one not very useful at that. In general, he was criticized for favoring the traditions and the institutions of aristocratic and pre-industrial Europe, rather than industrial and democratic-republican America.[23] Others, such as Thomas Molnar, argued that American history contained no conservative tradition pointing to universal truths.[24] More recently, critics have argued that Kirk was not writing history at all; works such as The Conservative Mind were "literature meant to achieve political ends."[25] And some have argued that, had he foreseen the political ends of his works as proclaimed by recent political figures, even Kirk might have questioned the value of his accomplishment.[26]

Kirk's reply to his critics remained the same. As he wrote in the early 1960s, the United States belonged to the "grander tradition and continuity" of the Western world.[27] American history, rich as it may be in some respects, simply cannot provide the full range of continuity when it is severed from its European (and specifically British) roots. As Kirk himself said, "the Present . . . is only a thin-film upon the deep well of the Past," and that past--even the distant past--continues to live and influence us into the present moments.[28] In his last books, Kirk continues his adherence to this approach, and believes Coke and Johnson are as relevant to American civilization as John Marshall and the Founders. Kirk acknowledges the rich diversity of Western tradition, but with the implicit qualification that we in the United States, while heirs to the entire history of the West, are shaped by particular portions of that history. We must accept the full tradition through the prism of our Anglo-American history; thus, a conservative in the United States wishing to revitalize the tradition does not have open to him the same set of choices that, say, a Bernanos or a Belloc had open to them in their circumstances, even though each in some way relies upon a common Western history.

We've had fairly good access to British television for some time, but now you can easily view shows from Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, etc.  And it's amazing how little difference there is among these cultures.  On the other hand, if you watch any French tv (Spirals, The Revenants) or Italian (Inspector Montalbano), it's an entirely different world.

Posted by at February 7, 2015 6:16 PM

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