February 1, 2020


Russell Kirk's Beauty and Civilization (Bradley J. Birzer, January 31st, 2020, Imaginative Conservative)

Such men--that is, those few conservatives who fought the tapioca conformity of the masses--believed in three things, though each to varying degrees and with varying levels of sincerity and understanding.

First, Kirk claimed, Western civilization rests upon its Judeo-Christian foundation. From this, it derives its understanding of human dignity, natural law, and natural rights. Or, as Kirk put it so beautifully: "The first of these is the Christian faith: theological and moral doctrines which inform us, either side of the Atlantic, of the nature of God and man, the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, human dignity, the rights and duties of human persons, the nature of charity, and the meaning of hope and resignation." Without these, one could never expect order nor liberty.

Second, Western civilization maintains itself through the promotion and cultivation of the liberal arts, seeking conversation with the ancients as well as with those persons of the future, recognizing the centrality of reason and the Logos to all of time and creation. Or, again, to quote Kirk: "The second of these is the corpus of imaginative literature, humane letters, which is the essence of our high culture: humanism, which, with Christian faith, teaches us our powers and our limitations--the work of Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Dante, Shakespeare, and so many others." This conversation kept us grounded as well as just.

Third, and finally, Western civilization accepts and perpetuates a set of laws that are at once natural and above nature. "The third is a complex of social and political institutions which we may call the reign of law, or ordered liberty: prescription, precedent, impartial justice, private rights, private property, the character of genuine community, the claims of family and of voluntary associations." These communities recognize that which is universal and universally true, but they spring--often haphazardly and gothically--from the ground up, spontaneously.

Together, these three things did not form or constitute any kind of counter ideology or even the shadow of an ideology. Rather, they are and always will be an ante- as well as an anti-ideology. Ideologies, not surprisingly, attack and attempt to hijack each aspect of true and beautiful civilization. "However much these three bodies of conviction have been injured by internecine disputes, nihilism, Benthamism, the cult of Rationalism, Marxism, and other modern afflictions, they remain the rocks upon which our civilization is built."

One of the hardest things to accept when you engage in political battle is that you have won.  Surely Mr. Kirk would be astonished that the main problem facing museums, cultural sites, national parks, and the like--after this long period of attack--is overcrowding.  Westerners spend vast sums, travel great distances and suffer cheek by jowl conditions just to see the Mona Lisa, the works of Gaudi, the Grand Canyon , Hamilton or the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  

Of course, you need only look at the list of -isms he fretted about to see that none are taken seriously any longer.  And, while church attendance has inevitably declined from its record highs in the face of clergy sexual abuse scandals, the faithfulness of Americans has hardly budged.

And something else has happened, rather than simply scorn popular culture as some kind of wasteland, our best conservative thinkers have engaged with it and found something quite different, high culture.  Consider Paul Cantor, Titus Techera or the late Peter Augustine Lawler.  Even the Glop crew.  Study the tastes of the unwashed masses and you find that the conformity we demand and consume is hardly hostile to Western values.

Posted by at February 1, 2020 7:51 AM