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6 Quotes: Russell Kirk on virtue

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This is the second in a series celebrating the work of Russell Kirk in honor of his 100th birthday this October. Read more from the series here.

The Acton Institute was fortunate to have Russell Kirk serve in an advisory capacity from the founding of the institute up until the time of his death. Throughout his career, Kirk was a champion of virtues, which he defined as “the qualities of full humanity: strength, courage, capacity, worth, manliness, moral excellence,” particularly qualities of “moral goodness: the practice of moral duties and the conformity of life to the moral law; uprightness; rectitude.”

Here are six quotes by Kirk on virtue:

On false virtue: “An arid virtue that is intellectual only must be unreliable at best, and dangerous often. . . . A false, carping, malicious “virtue” is worse than no virtue at all. The urgent need of the United States of America, near the end of the twentieth century, is for a virtue arising from habit and affection, rather than from ideological preaching.

On the ‘old virtues’: “Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light.”

On the diminishment of virtue in America: “ln no previous age have family influence, sound early prejudice, and good early habits been so broken in upon by outside force as in our own time. Moral virtue among the rising generation is mocked by the inanity of television, by pornographic films, by the twentieth-century cult of the ‘peer group.’ By example and precept, until quite recently, grandparents and parents conveyed to young people—or a considerable part of them—some notion of virtue, even if the word itself was not well understood. The decay of family, worked by modern affluence and modern mobility, has mightily diminished all that. As for the influence of the churches—why, more is left of it in the United States than in most countries; but in the typical ‘mainline’ church an amorphous humanitarianism has supplanted the emphasis upon virtue that runs through the Christian tradition.”

On envy and generosity: “Envy is a sour emotion that condemns a person to loneliness. Generosity is an emotion that attracts friends. . . . In the long run, the envious society brings on proletarian tyranny and general poverty. In both the short run and the long run, the generous society encourages political freedom and economic prosperity.”

On spirit and character: “The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.”

On life and love: “What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt.”

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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