Posts tagged with: russell kirk

Can you discern a nation’s spirit, even its economic genius, from the literature it produces? That’s long been a pastime of literary critics, including those who frequently see the “original sins” of Puritanism and capitalism in the stony heart of Americans.

Writing in Commentary Magazine, Fred Siegel looks at just this problem in a new appreciation of cultural critic and iconoclast Bernard DeVoto’s three-decade campaign to rescue American letters from the perception that European aesthetics were superior to the homegrown variety.

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

According to Siegel, DeVoto was the lone voice speaking out against the literary intelligentsia of the age. While it is true that DeVoto had his moments of clarity regarding literature, especially as it pertains to his insights that rescued Mark Twain’s work from a certain obscurity, Siegel nonetheless inflates DeVoto’s total contribution to cultural criticism.

Indeed, DeVoto was erudite and a prodigious writer. But, despite Siegel’s assertions, he wasn’t a particularly astute observer of the literary landscape. In fact, he was a bit of a cranky pants who wedged works he didn’t fully understand too quickly into an easy anti-American category. This strategy yielded diminishing returns for DeVoto’s reputation, which is probably the primary reason why his name is seldom if ever mentioned in the canon of literary criticism. Siegel’s rebranding attempt is not likely to help. DeVoto penned the monthly Easy Chair column for Harper’s from 1935 to 1955, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Across the Wide Missouri,” and wrote “Mark Twain’s America.” Siegel notes that DeVoto’s “most important book,” however, was the 1944 volume, “The Literary Fallacy.” In it, Siegel asserts, DeVoto “illuminated the inner life of modern liberalism as no one had before or since.” (more…)

Working as we do here at the intersection between economics and theology, the relationship between various kinds of classically liberal, libertarian, Austrian, and other economic modifiers and religion in general and Christianity in particular is in constant view. Sometimes the conversation is friendly, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the differences are less apparent, sometimes more.

Once in awhile a piece will appear on the Acton site or from an Acton writer that brings this discussion to the fore. Last week’s commentary by Anthony Bradley is a great example. Responses to his piece varied, but on a number of fronts his juxtaposition of the external coercive regulation of government and the internal moral guidance of religious faith was attacked.

Some equated religion with government, with the former being “merely unelected.” Others resorted to long critiques of the idea that religion and libertarianism have anything in common, engaging not only the substance of the issues but also delving into rhetorically questionable sidetracks, although some charitably noted, “At no point did Bradley seem to advocate the use of state force to promote Christianity.”

A few recent exchanges over at the First Thoughts blog contribute directly and helpfully to this conversation. Hunter Baker, an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and a contributor here at the PowerBlog, posted an excerpt from “a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along.” Baker calls the two groups “co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.” Baker’s comments were inspired in part by an earlier piece appearing in Religion & Liberty, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”

Joe Carter responded by highlighting a piece by Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” (PDF) which Carter calls “the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century.” In this acerbic and far-ranging essay, Kirk calls libertarians “the little sour remnant” and contends that beyond a shared opposition to collectivism, conservatives and libertarians have nothing in common.

There is no doubt some truth both to Baker’s and to Kirk’s claims. The question has in part to do with a definition of terms and the corresponding identification of those to whom “conservative” and “libertarian” refer. We must of course recognize that those who self-identify as libertarian or classical liberals are not a uniform party, and the same is true for religious or “social” conservatives. There are at least a half dozen or so schools or varieties of libertarianism, and there is diffusion and disagreement on any number of principles and concrete issues.

Arnold Kling makes a helpful distinction between “civil societarians” and other “strands” of libertarianism. My own way of parsing the terms is to distinguish broadly between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view (Weltanschauung). The former is much more limited in scope than the latter.

For the former, liberty is man’s highest political end. But it is not man’s highest end. Politics and its ends are means towards other, more diverse social and more important theological ends.

For those whose libertarianism is an all-encompassing ideology, as Kirk says, for whom there is a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of civil social order, and indeed of human existence,” there can be little if any room for a competing and alternative system of faith and life, e.g. Christianity.

As Lord Acton said,

Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

That little modifier “political” makes all the difference. Lord Acton limits liberty as the “highest political end,” but immediately proceeds to relate and subsume politics to other spheres of life.

Kirk proceeds to point out some of the specific differences between the two worldviews, including the attitudes toward the existence of the State as well as moral duties and positive rights.

It is only in this latter sense of libertarianism as a worldview, as a competitor with and alternative to other worldviews (including Marxism and Christianity), that Kirk’s conclusion can be judged entirely accurate: “When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.”

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.”

Read “Obama and the Moral Imagination” on the Acton site.

More on this subject:

The Moral Imagination. By Russell Kirk. The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society. By Vigen Guroian. The Heritage Foundation

The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story. By David M. Phelps. Religion & Liberty

Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature? By Vigen Guroian. Religion & Liberty

The Morality of Narrative Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Bavinck on the Moral Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog