Slaying Ideology with the Sword of Imagination

I have always been jealous of one particular aspect of being a magazine editor: assigning books to specific authors. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could just ask your favorite authors or writers to review certain books? I know this isn’t exactly possible but the idea has a great deal of appeal. Given my inability to generate a great deal of content on this site I have attempted a poor man’s version of this ultimate editor dream. I have asked people I respect to review books I think they would have a unique perspective on. As I am able to convince them to do so I will post them here.

Starting this series off is Alan Cornett with a review of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley McDonald. Alan served as a personal assistant to Russell Kirk (1992-1993). Currently he lives in Wilsonville, Alabama where he serves as an evangelist. His frequent commentary on Christianity and culture can be found at Theosebes. See below for the review.

Slaying Ideology with the Sword of Imagination

For over four decades Russell Kirk fought the “armed doctrines” of ideology with the most powerful weapon man could possess: a well-sharpened sword of imagination. He did so not from Washington or New York, but rather seated at a typewriter in a converted toy factory in the Old Stump country of Michigan. Although dead for a decade now his voice is still heard through his voluminous writings, and also through his many disciples. One of those disciples, W. Wesley McDonald a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College, has written the most comprehensive survey to date of Kirk’s political philosophy.

Kirk broke onto the scene of serious political debate in 1953 during a time of liberal ascendancy and self satisfaction. Conservatism was denounced by such men as Lionel Trilling as not a philosophy at all, but rather an unfortunate psychological tendency in some people completely devoid of substantive ideas. Others dismissed conservatism as simply “the political performances of American business.” In the face of this, Kirk’s Conservative Mind traced a conservative intellectual heritage beginning with Edmund Burke, particularly his reaction to the French Revolution, and continuing through philosopher George Santayana (in later editions through poet and critic T.S. Eliot).

Kirk’s reply to the dominant liberalism has often been difficult for the Left, and even sometimes those on the self-identified Right, to grasp. As McDonald writes, “A central theme in Kirk’s work was to differentiate conceptually between conservatism and ideology. Conservatism is not an ideology, he strongly and repeatedly maintained. In fact, conservatism, by its very nature, constitutes an anti-ideology.” This is really the crux of the issue when discussing Kirk. McDonald points to the common difficulty many have in understanding this: “A practice common among scholars of modern ideologies is to call any set of political ideas or beliefs upon which people act an ideology.” Kirk profoundly disagreed with such an understanding.

McDonald writes, “Ideology means, he observed, political fanaticism or, more precisely, a Christian heresy that asserts ‘that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.’” Kirk opposed an adherence to abstract ideas that “fail to give prudent consideration to fact and circumstance,” McDonald correctly observes. Kirk was an advocate of the politics of prudence, as he titled one of his books of essays. Kirk was, as Harvey Wheeler observes, “seriously offering us the political theory of the Waverly novels.” Few political philosophers would ever conceive of such a thing.

When one really understands what Kirk is trying to do, much of the criticism offered by his opponents, and I believe, by McDonald as well, falls aside. McDonald states that it is his desire to get beyond the Kirk hagiographers thus rescuing him from being a museum piece. One somewhat suspects this to be a rhetorical tactic to disarm the skeptical reader, but McDonald does bring into scrutiny what he sees as Kirk’s failure to offer a comprehensive philosophy of conservatism, particularly as it relates to natural law, or a well laid out plan of action to enact his ideas.

Are there weaknesses in Kirk’s expression of conservatism? I think Dr. Kirk, well aware of man’s imperfection in a sinful world, would be the first to admit his own lack of perfection. But that is where Kirk’s understanding of conservatism so beautifully withstands the attacks of both Left and Right. As the “negation of ideology” conservatism itself is never “perfect”, but rather the prudent reaction to changing circumstances using one’s moral imagination and based upon the “Permanent Things”, eternal verities, which are perfectly expressed in the Christian tradition. Kirk himself never posed as the systematic philosopher some, including at times McDonald, appear to want him to be. Instead, Kirk was always a historian of ideas, immersed in the organic tradition of the West drawing from the collected wisdom of the race, the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Those who desire a conservative guidebook to follow are still searching for the ideology that Kirk so rightly rejected.

There is much to recommend in McDonald’s book. There is great sympathy for, and knowledge of, Kirk here. It is well organized by subject, and I found the chapter on education especially enlightening in this age of educational decay. And McDonald’s efforts to bring out the arguments of Kirk’s critics are quite valuable. Once those critiques are taken into account, and Kirk is accepted for what he always intended to be and not as what he never desired to be, we rediscover what a giant he is. We would be wise to stand on his shoulders.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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