As noted earlier this week on the PowerBlog, 2013 marks the 60th publication anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. This monumental work’s significance derives from its encapsulation of several centuries of conservative thought – fragments, to borrow liberally from T.S. Eliot, shored against the ruins of mid-20th century liberalism, relativism and other brickbats of modernity.
The importance of Kirk’s book (as well the remainder of his extensive body of work) should be obvious to those who share the Acton Institute’s Core Principles and possess a passing familiarity with Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles. For those new to principles espoused by Dr. Kirk, however, a brief and thoroughly incomplete overview of the latter is in order.
The Ten Conservative Principles began as Six Canons listed in the 1953 edition of The Conservative Mind. Kirk subsequently revised what began as his doctoral dissertation to add the poet and essayist T.S. Eliot to the list of preeminent Western conservative thinkers initially begun with Irish statesman Edmund Burke and originally ending with George Santayana. Similarly, he revised the Six Canons to what became a conservative’s Decalogue.
A conflation of Kirk’s principles for the sake of space limitations might read: There exists an enduring moral order; humankind is imperfectable; property rights are imperative for any free society; community is preferable to collectivism; personal passions abjured for prudence; political power restrained; and, finally, the need for reconciling permanence and change. This conflation hardly does justice to Kirk’s thought, but should serve as an entrée for those subsequently seeking the full 10-course intellectual banquet replete with Master Chef, sommelier and full orchestra. (more…)
In a new article at Intercollegiate Review, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the current state of “idea conservatives” and their place in the broader context of American conservative thought encompassing an amazing diversity of ideological subspecies. But it is ideas and core principles, more than anything else, that informs conservatism and its various movements, despite the many fractures and fissures. Gregg makes a compelling case for rooting “conservatism’s long-term agenda” in the “defense and promotion of what we should unapologetically call Western civilization.” His article is the first contribution to ISI’s symposium, “Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can We Make it Right?” Excerpt from the Gregg article:
… as the French theologian Jean Daniélou S.J. once observed, there is no true civilization that is not also religious. In the case of Western civilization, that means Judaism and Christianity. The question of religious truth is something with which we must allow every person to wrestle in the depths of their conscience. But if conservatism involves upholding the heritage of the West against those who would tear it down (whether from without and within), then conservatives should follow the lead of European intellectuals such as Rémi Brague and Joseph Ratzinger and invest far more energy in elucidating Christianity’s pivotal role in the West’s development—including the often complicated ways in which it responded to, and continues to interact, with the movements associated with the various Enlightenments.
Such an enterprise goes beyond demonstrating Christianity’s contribution to institutional frameworks such as constitutional government. Conservatives must be more attentive to how Judaism and Christianity—or at least their orthodox versions—helped foster key ideas that underlie the distinctiveness of Western culture. These include: (more…)
In my recent talks around town I have been asking questions about our capacity and desire for self-government as a community and nation. I recently gave a local presentation on President Calvin Coolidge and he helped inspire a greater desire to ask the foundational questions. In my view, Coolidge saw public service as a chance to educate Americans in civics, elevating the greater truths from our revolutionary and founding period.
Below is a great excerpt from Guinness’s forthcoming book:
Beyond any question, the way the American founders consistently linked faith and freedom, republicanism and religion, was not only deliberate and thoughtful, it was also surprising and anything but routine. In this view, the self-government of a free republic had to rest on the self-government of free citizens, for only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or a dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self-control, training and discipline, not self-indulgence.
The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behavior, but the secret of freedom is what Englishman Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable,” which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith. Faith and virtue are therefore indispensable to freedom – both to liberty itself and to the civic vitality and social harmony that go hand in hand with freedom.
Burke wrote in full agreement, “Manners [or moral standards] are of more importance than laws.” Rousseau had written similarly that mores, customs, and traditions, which are “engraved neither in marble nor in bronze but in the hearts of the citizens” form “the true Constitution of the State” and the “Keystone of the Republic.”
Tocqueville emphatically agreed. His objective in writing Democracy in America was not to turn Frenchmen into Americans, for liberty should take many forms. “My purpose has rather been to demonstrate, using the American example, that their laws and, above all, their manners can permit a democratic people to remain free.”
France elected a new president yesterday, the socialist Francois Hollande who has vowed to rein in “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism and dramatically raise taxes on the “rich.” Voters turned out Nicholas Sarkozy, the flamboyant conservative whose five-year term was undermined by Europe’s economic crisis, his paparazzi-worthy lifestyle and a combative personality. But Sarkozy’s defeat exposes “a crisis of identity and purpose that presently afflicts much of Europe’s center-right,” according to Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg in a new analysis on The American Spectator.
The reasons for this widespread disarray on Europe’s right are partly structural. Many European electoral systems are designed to prevent any one party from governing in its own right. Many center-right parties consequently find themselves in coalitions with left-leaning groups. This blunts their ability to challenge left-wing social and economic policies.
Tendencies to tepidness are accentuated by the fact that European politics is dominated by career politicians to an extent unimaginable to Americans who don’t reside in Chicago. European center-right politicians are consequently even more focused upon acquiring and staying in office than their American counterparts. That means they are extremely risk-averse when it comes to challenging the European status quo — such as becoming associated with proposals for substantive economic reform or confronting the intolerant leftist hegemony that dominates European educational institutions.
A far deeper problem facing Europe’s center-right, however, is its intellectual-ineffectiveness. By this, I don’t mean that there aren’t any intellectually-convinced European conservatives and free marketers. In fact, there are plenty of such individuals. Their impact upon the public square, however, is minimal.
Such ineffectiveness has several causes. First, most non-left European think-tanks are explicitly associated with existing political parties and usually government-funded. Hence, the willingness of people working in such outfits to criticize their own side for failure to promote conservative principles — something many American think-tanks often do — is limited, if not non-existent.
Gregg also offers suggestions for revitalizing Europe’s conservatives. Read “Europe’s Right in Disarray” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.
On The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines how the left wages “a war of rejection and rationalization against whatever contradicts their mythologies.” Which explains why leftists get into a snit when you point out factual details like how Communist regimes “imprisoned, tortured, starved, experimented upon, enslaved, and exterminated millions” throughout the 20th century. And it makes it so much harder to wear that Che Guevara t-shirt without being mocked in public. Gregg:
Overall, the left has been remarkably successful in distorting people’s knowledge of Communism’s track-record. Everyone today knows about the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes. Yet does anyone doubt that far fewer know much about the atrocities ordered by the likes of Lenin, Castro, Mao, and Pol Pot? Do those Occupy Wall Street protesters waving red hammer-and-sickle flags actually understand what such symbols mean for those who endured Communism?
But while the left’s response to such awkward queries won’t likely change, the unanswered question is why so many left-inclined politicians and intellectuals play these games.
Part of the answer is the very human reluctance of anyone to acknowledge the dark side of movements with which they have some empathy. Even today, for example, there are Latin Americans inclined to make excuses for the right-wing death-squads — the infamous Escuadrón de la Muerte — that wrought havoc in Central America throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
The sheer scale of denial among progressivists, however, suggests something else is going on. I think it owes much to the left’s claim to a monopoly of moral high-mindedness.
Is it conceivable to endorse the cinematic adaptation of Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto Atlas Shrugged – as I do – while rejecting the flawed ideology which inspired it?
I would argue, yes. On the one hand, I place the Beatles at the pinnacle of 1960s pop music while concluding that their song “Mr. Moonlight” is wince-inducing to the point of being unlistenable. Likewise, I admire 99.9 percent of G.K. Chesterton’s body of work yet disagree with him on his assertion only men should vote. On the other hand, I disagree for the most part with Camille Paglia’s worldview yet admire her writing style and intellectual honesty.
So it goes with Ayn Rand. Her free-market views were a welcome antidote to New Deal policies and the malignant growth of government programs and crony capitalism. And for the same reasons I warmly welcome the first installment of the planned cinematic trilogy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – timed to coincide with the traditional Tax Day this coming Friday – which renders her themes in such a fashion they appear ripped from the headlines of today’s Wall Street Journal.
Atlas Shrugged-Part I captures the malaise of our times in its depiction of a United States of the near future when businessmen look to government to throttle competition by any means necessary (e.g. legislation and regulation) rather than innovating and investing to succeed. Part I ignores Rand’s anti-collectivism, rampant individualism, atheism and, for the most part, libertarian libertinism, to focus on her depictions of government looters and corporate rent seekers.
All this recommends the movie to lovers of liberty properly understood, to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. In fact, I’ll go so far as to encourage readers to see the film and skip the book.
My problems with Rand and Objectivism, the ideology of “enlightened self-interest” she founded, go beyond the oft-quoted admonition of Whittaker Chambers in which he expressed her autocratic intransigence led him to read Rand’s command to all detractors real and perceived “to the gas chambers go!” on every page. There is some truth to Chamber’s critique, to be sure, in that any worldview that rejects faith and community eventually succumbs to obduracy leading to what Russell Kirk labeled the “chirping sect” of libertarianism (a phrase he borrowed from T.S. Eliot).
By chirping sect, Kirk intentionally references Edmund Burke’s “insects of the hour” — those libertarians who splinter into ever smaller groups and thereby sacrifice both the personal and common good on the altar of their own narcissism masked as “individualism.” One need only read about the internecine strife within the Objectivist’s ivory tower to note the wisdom of Burke and Kirk. The CliffsNotes version: Arguing with Rand meant immediate exile to intellectual Siberia.
Contrary to Rand’s individualism, the United States since its beginning has congregated in townships and parishes where true democracy flourishes under the express influence of religious faith. Nineteenth-century writers Alexis de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson both noted these communal incubators and conservators of liberty – small collectives that reflect their respective faiths to advocate for the good of all within their sphere.
As Tocqueville wrote in his seminal Democracy in America:
In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. Amongst the Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess the doctrines of Christianity from a sincere belief in them, and others who do the same because they are afraid to be suspected of unbelief. Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and the experiments of men. Thus the human mind is never left to wander across a boundless field; and, whatever may be its pretensions, it is checked from time to time by barriers which it cannot surmount. Before it can perpetrate innovation, certain primal and immutable principles are laid down, and the boldest conceptions of human device are subjected to certain forms which retard and stop their completion.
What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.
Elsewhere in his essay, Kirk delineates the differences between individualism as expressed by Rand and her like and the community spirit so intrinsic to our national character by invoking Eric Voegelin, whom, Kirk states:
[R]eminds us – is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats – that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.
In short, capitalism and the toxic individualism of Rand and others for the instantaneous benefits supposedly granted leads to liberty misunderstood in the forms of materialism and licentious behavior – both antithetical to liberty properly understood as the fully realized temporal life in community and faith.
So I’m thankful Atlas Shrugged-Part I avoids the toxic elements of Rand’s so-called “philosophy” and am hopeful the subsequent installments of the film trilogy steer clear of the same pitfalls. By all means, see the film and avoid the book.
Joseph Epstein’s essay, “T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture,” in the November issue of Commentary, strengthens the case for The Waste Land author’s enduring legacy. Epstein captures the high points of Eliot’s biographical and literary accomplishments in only eight pages – an admirable feat given the extent of Eliot’s influence on the past century. After filling out the checklist of Eliot’s early poetry, friendships, jobs, marriages, alleged anti-Semitism, and criticism by rote, Epstein concludes Eliot was a tremendous poet and literary critic more than likely destined to be forgotten due to the imminent collapse of Western culture.
One cannot help but agree with Epstein’s assessment of Eliot as an erudite writer and speaker who could fill a hall with 15,000 attendees – in Minnesota, no less – eager to hear the Nobel laureate speak on literature. Epstein notes it is doubtful any writer living today could match Eliot’s drawing power for a live audience. But the Internet and television render such expectations moot. For example, I don’t have counts on how many people visit Web sites devoted to Seamus Heaney, another Nobel laureate poet, but one can easily imagine a number such as 15,000 boosted a hundred-fold.
Likewise, I respectfully reject Epstein’s too-easy assessment of Eliot as the last of a dying breed and the end of culture. While admitting many of Epstein’s concerns about the present and future cultural climate, your writer is not quite ready to throw in the towel. Call me stubborn, foolish or naïve. But I witness culture thriving on a daily basis, from the glorious Gilead by Marilynne Robinson to the agrarian short stories, novels and poetry of Wendell Berry.
Let readers recall as well Eliot knew that our literary tradition evolved, subsuming all that was best from preceding generations as well as what was once considered avant-garde. It’s easy to dismiss contemporary culture simply because there’s so much Cracker Jack to riffle through before finding the prize.
Depicting Eliot as nothing more than a literary high-brow, in any event, misses the totality of a fascinating individual who boasted of his correspondence with Julius Henry Marx – the inimitable middle sibling Groucho of the Marx Brothers and You Bet Your Life television legend – and a English Music Hall regular who would have been more than likely pleased by the success of the Broadway musical Cats based on Eliot’s children’s book, Ol’ Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. (more…)
My commentary today looks at President Obama’s deft use of narrative — the art of story telling — to inspire and motivate. By his own admission, Obama has taken a page from the playbook of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”
Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, put the country on a “fundamentally different path,” when the nation was ready for it. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama said.
Obama has placed his own story into the great narrative stream of American history. For many, like the million or so people who jammed the National Mall yesterday, this story has them convinced that Obama is the one to, as he promised to do yesterday, “begin the work of remaking America.” I point out that “if religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative” to Obama’s.
Human actions are made intelligible as they are communicated through narrative. The ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre has observed that man is essentially a story telling animal, one that uses narrative to find truth, both through his own history and through connections to the stories of others. We enter human society, MacIntyre said, with an “imputed” character and then we learn what our role is and how others view us through that role. “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” MacIntyre wrote.
Those who wish to move nations, or start a social movement, understand how stories have been used since the dawn of time to create national or ethnic identities (beginning in the West with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid), to communicate religious truth (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and motivate social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All life is an allegory and can be understood only in parable.”