Today was a milestone in my life. Since becoming avid reader of National Review my freshman year in high school, I have always dreamed of getting published in the flagship conservative magazine. Well, today it came true. I have a book review in the current issue of National Review [sub. req.]! For those of you who are not subscribers I will post it below. This is not likely to change my life in any serious way, but it does warm the cockles of my heart.
Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology
by W. Wesley McDonald
(Missouri, 264 pp., $44.95)
The typical conservative may be only vaguely familiar with Russell Kirk as a traditionalist thinker, and as one of the founders of modern American conservatism; and in the academic world, Kirk scholarship remains rare. As a result, Kirk survives mostly as an icon â€” remembered fondly but not really valued at his true worth.
W. Wesley McDonald, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College, has moved to fill this void by offering a stimulating intellectual biography of his mentor and friend. Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology avoids hagiography, and provides a serious and thought-provoking discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of Kirk’s work. McDonald seeks to make Kirk’s ideas understandable and accessible by examining them from the philosophical ground up; the result is a careful and engaging account of the battle of ideas at the heart not only of modern American conservatism but of Western political thought.
Central to Kirk’s philosophy is the connection between order in the soul and order in the commonwealth. A society’s politics reflects its culture, and hence its morality. Kirk sought â€” in McDonald’s words â€” to “rediscover, articulate, and defend those enduring moral norms, now blurred in our consciousness, by which civilized peoples have governed their conduct.” McDonald situates this effort within the concept of “ethical dualism,” as fleshed out in the work of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. In this view, man is torn between two natures: his lower self, which focuses on selfish and momentary goals, and his higher self, which has the ability to envision something nobler. The moral man checks his lower self and seeks to strengthen his higher self.
Out of this inner tension comes an outer tension, one between order and freedom. For Kirk, true freedom is not the libertarian’s total lack of external restraint but rather the opportunity to attain one’s own natural potential, and to live in harmony with the moral order. “Liberty,” writes McDonald, “can be found neither in individual self-gratification (as the utilitarian would hold) nor in flowing with one’s spontaneous impulses (as the Rousseauists would affirm), but resides instead in [what Babbitt called] the individual’s ‘ethical self; and the ethical self is experienced not as expansive emotion, but as inner control.'”
Just as man must check his lower self, so must society restrain man’s wilder impulses to build community. For Kirk, the goal of politics was the preservation of this genuine community. And in the same way man uses his moral imagination to envision something higher than his ego, society uses tradition, habit, ritual, and prescription to mold and protect community. McDonald sees this as central to an understanding of Kirk: “[Aristotle, Cicero, de Tocqueville, and Burke], among others, form within Western political thought an intellectual tradition in which community in its moral and social dimensions is valued as indispensable to civilized existence. The conservative thought of Kirk is, in fact, a summary and development of this tradition applied to the contemporary problem of community.”
Kirk’s critics sought, and continue to seek, to paint him as a reactionary defender of a nostalgic past or as a proponent of a conservatism more suited to Europe with its feudal history than to egalitarian America. But McDonald skillfully demonstrates that, while Kirk was certainly suspicious of change, he was fully aware of the need for it. As Kirk noted: “The endeavor of the intelligent believer in tradition is so to blend the ancient usage with necessary amendment that society never is wholly old and never wholly new.” But â€” given the centrifugal nature of modern society and its propensity for very rapid change â€” Kirk sought to emphasize restraint and prudence. The most serious problem of the 20th century, after all, was not the dead hand of tradition but rather the radical-utopian scheming of ideologues.
In today’s rootless society, with all its violence and decadence, this insight remains relevant. Kirk’s goal of repelling the assault on tradition and morality remains central to the conservative project: “If modern man is to be redeemed from the morally debilitating and socially disintegrative consequences of social boredom, [he] must be made aware once more of the ends or objects of existence. The will atrophies when man cannot perceive any end or object to existence.”
McDonald addresses, in depth, a range of other issues â€” including Kirk’s objections to libertarianism and neoconservatism, and his radical proposals for improving education. “For Kirk,” he writes, “culture precedes politics, and unless a healthy, vibrant civilized culture exists, no amount of ‘conservative’ political victories will have long-term significance.” Kirk was correct, and his insights into the moral and cultural underpinnings of the good society deserve a wider audience. McDonald has produced a challenging and informative work that will help introduce a new generation to Kirk’s intellectual achievement.
Mr. Holtsberry is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. He blogs about books and ideas at www.collectedmiscellany.com.