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Reinvigorating Culture by Russell Kirk

CultureReinvigorating Culture

by Russell Kirk

Anyone who pushes the buttons of a television set nowadays [written in 1994, Ed.] may be tempted to reflect that genuine culture came to an end during the latter half of the twentieth century. The television set is an immense accomplishment of reason and imagination: the victory of technology. But the gross images produced by television are symptoms and causes of our civilization’s decadence: the defeat of humane culture.

The contrast between the success of technology and the failure of social institutions is yet more striking when we look at any large American city. Some time ago I spent a day in Detroit, once styled “the arsenal of democracy,” latterly known as “America’s murder capital.” I have known Detroit ever since I was a small boy, and have observed the stages of the city’s decay over the decades. Except for some financial and political activity, and a little surviving commerce, about the foot of Woodward Avenue near the river, old Detroit is a dangerous wreck. The length of Woodward Avenue, up to Eight Mile Road and beyond, one drives through grim desolation: Beirut in the midst of its troubles might have seemed more cheerful. One passes through Detroit’s “cultural center,” the Institute of Arts on one side of the avenue, the Public Library on the other. Immediately north or south of those splendid buildings, immediately east or west, extends the grimy reality of a broken and dying city. “Culture” has become something locked into an archaic museum.

Detroit’s technology has produced immense wealth in goods—and still does so, if at a diminished rate. Detroit’s society has produced an inhumane quasi-anarchy. Take Detroit as an ugly microcosm of America, and one may perceive the pressing need for a recovery of humane culture.

Our inherited culture is involved in great difficulties. I suppose that most people nowadays will assent to that statement. Forty years ago, not long after the Second World War, I often encountered people who waxed indignant at my venturing to suggest the possibility of cultural decadence among us. It is otherwise now.

Sometimes, true, I come upon men and women who profess to be well satisfied with our world, and with their diversions—rather nasty diversions, not infrequently—therein. Yet these are not tranquil people: instead they bring to mind a poem by Adam Mickiewicz:

Your soul deserves the place to which it came, If having entered Hell, you feel no flame.

As marvelous innovators in the physical sciences, as wondrously efficient creators of technology, we moderns surpass our ancestors. But as for humane culture, we seem bent on destroying our civilization. Can anything be done by way of reinvigoration? Continue reading

George Orwell’s Despair by Russell Kirk

George Orwell’s Despair


by Russell Kirk 

In the twentieth century, no novelist exerted a stronger influence upon political opinion, in Britain and America, than did George Orwell. Also Orwell was the most telling writer about poverty. In a strange and desperate way, Orwell was a lover of the permanent things. Yet because he could discern no source of abiding justice and love in the universe, Orwell found this life of ours not worth living. In his sardonic fashion, nevertheless, he struck some fierce blows at abnormality in politics and literature.

“There is no such thing as genuinely nonpolitical literature,” Orwell wrote in his essay on “The Prevention of Literature” (1945), “and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near to the surface of everyone’s consciousness….It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer, though a poet, at any rate a lyric poet, might possibly find it breathable. And in any totalitarian society that survives for more than a couple of generations, it is probable that prose literature, of the kind that has existed during the past four hundred years, must actuallycome to an end.” Soviet Russia supplies the proof: “It is true that literary prostitutes like Ilya Ehrenberg or Alexei Tolstoy are paid huge sums of money, but the only thing which is of any value to the writer as such—his freedom of expression—is taken away from him.”

George Orwell was a left-wing professional journalist, with some of the faults which that unhappy conjunction encourages. Occasionally he wrote hastily and carelessly; he was bitter and arrogant; desiring men to be as gods, he despised them because they had the effrontery to be loud and smelly and stupid. But also Orwell was much more than a leftwing professional journalist. He was fearless, kind, honest, consumingly earnest, and very English. He was the latest representative of the English radical tradition which extends through Langland, Bunyan, Cobbett, Dickens, and Chesterton-a paradoxical radicalism rooted in the experiences and the prejudices of a strong people. In a number of ways-his origins, his poverty, his pessimism, his mingled hatred and pity for the poor, in the subjects of his books—-he resembles George Gissing, who died at a similar age of similar causes after a similar life. Orwell’s radicalism was that which is angry with society because society has failed to provide men with the ancient norms of simple life family, decency, and continuity; the sort of radicalism which does not mean to disintegrate the world, but to restore it. Take him all in all, Orwell was a man, and there is none left in England like him.

English colonials are more conspicuously English than are true-born Englishmen; and Orwell was a colonial born in India in 1908. Also he was an old Etonian. In Burma he was a good policeman for five years, though he hated the work; he became a beggar and a slavey in Paris and London; he taught in England. Then he went to Spain, where he fought as a member of the anarchist P. O. U. M.—for Orwell, despite the flavor of Marxism in his books, detested Communists and Communism. Afterward he wrote much for the leftist press, but was suspect as a deviationist in that quarter. He had no great reputation until Animal Farm was published, in 1945; and he died shortly after the publication of 1984. His was a short life, and not a merry one. Continue reading

Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer by Russell Kirk

Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer

by Russell Kirk


Permit me to offer you some desultory reflections concerning the effect of the electronic computer upon the reason and the imagination. We are told by many voices that the computer will work a revolution in learning. So it may; but that accomplishment would not be salutary.

The primary end of the higher learning, in all lands and all times, has been what John Henry Newman called the training of the intellect to form a philosophical habit of mind. University and college were founded to develop right reason and imagination, for the sake of the person and the sake of the republic. The higher education, by its nature, is concerned with abstractions — rather difficult abstractions, both in the sciences and in humane studies. Most people, in any age, are not fond of abstractions. Therefore, in this democratic time, higher education stands in danger everywhere from levelling pressures.

In Britain, a few years ago, the member of the opposition who had been designated minister of education in a prospective Labour government denounced Oxford and Cambridge universities as “cancers.” Presumably he would have converted those ancient institutions, had it been in his power, into something like the Swedish “people’s universities” — that is, institutions at which everybody could succeed, because all standards would be swept away for entrance or for graduation. Every man and woman an intellectual king or queen, with an Oxbridge degree! The trouble with this aspiration is that those kings and queens would be impoverished intellectually-and presumably Britain in general would be impoverished in more ways than one.

Recently we have heard similar voices in the graduate schools of Harvard. Why discriminate against indolence and stupidity? Why not let everybody graduate, regardless of performance in studies? Wouldn’t that be the democratic way? If young people don’t care for abstractions, and manifest a positive aversion to developing a philosophical habit of mind, why not give them what they think they would like: that is, the superficial counter-culture? Continue reading

What Wicked Things Are Written On The Sky by M. D. Aeschliman

6-KirkWiseMen KnowWhat Wicked Things Are Written On The Sky

by M. D. Aeschliman

The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky by Russell Kirk.

Although Dr. Kirk knows how hard the tempest of our time really rages, he has not fled or been driven to the heath like Lear or Lear’s fool. His insight is abundantly apparent in his new volume of lectures, which takes its title fittingly from the greatest long poem of our century, G. K. Chesterton’sBallad of the White Horse.

He is at once a moralist, a historian, a social or “public” philosopher, and a man of letters, a confluence and conjunction of talents that reminds us of the high Victorians, especially of Arnold and Newman. As a social philosopher he follows in the line of Eliot, a line developed nobly in our time in a large body of more technical social science created by kindred spirits such as Daniel Bell, Peter Berger, David Martin, and Robert Nisbet. As a moralist and writer he also reminds one of Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Malcolm Muggeridge. As a religious thinker, he reminds one of churchmen such as Avery Dulles, Richard Neuhaus, and David H. C. Read. But as a historian, religious thinker, and writer Kirk has something of the statesman in him too, in this regard making one think of Lord Hailsham and Reinhold Niebuhr, who also came, late in life, to acknowledge the greatness and relevance of Burke. Continue reading

Capitalism and the Moral Basis of Social Order

by Russell Kirk

Russell-Kirk-in-hat-in-front-of-Piety-Hill-233x300A number of Americans, fancying that the world is governed mainly by economic doctrines and practices, are inclined to think that an era of international good feeling lies before us. I intend to sprinkle some drops of cold water on such hasty hopes. I have no faith in the notion that an abstract “democratic capitalism” is about to gain acceptance throughout the world.

We find fairly widespread in these United States a “capitalistic” version of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism – more’s the pity. It is not a theoretical “democratic capitalism” that can preserve, unaided, order and justice and freedom. Materialism was an American vice when Alexis de Tocqueville travelled in the United States. That vice has not diminished in power. People who maintain that production and consumption are the ends of human existence presently will find themselves impoverished materially, as well as spiritually.
It is true that the masters of what once was the Soviet Union have modified their Marxism – and not the disciples of Yeltsin merely. Consider this passage from Mikhail Gorbachev’s book Perestroika(1987):

We must encourage efficiency in production and the talent of a writer, scientist, or any other upright and hard-working citizen. On this point we want to be perfectly clear:socialism has nothing to do with equalizing. . . . Socialism has a different criterion for redistributing social benefits: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”

Doesn’t this sound rather like democratic capitalism? If Perestroika and similar designs prevail in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, can any great obstacle remain to the universal triumph of democratic capitalism? Continue reading

Mark Twain and Russell Kirk against the Machine by Bradley J. Birzer

Mark Twain and Russell Kirk against the Machine

mark twainby Bradley J. Birzer

Though neither a humanist nor a Christian—nor, for that matter, even a romantic in the vein of Blake who feared the “dark Satanic mills” of Industrial England—Mark Twain identified the late-nineteenth century fear of the machine run amok perfectly in his last novel, the tragically whimsical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  One of the first to use time travel as a plot device, the story revolves around Hank Morgan, an engineer devoid of any poetry or sentiment.  As his German last name indicates, he is the man of “tomorrow.”  A practical man schooled in the servile rather than the liberal arts, Morgan can create almost any type of mechanism: “guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery.” A materialist, he “could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make a difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, [he] could invent one.”  He was also, Hank assures the reader, “full of fight.”  And, a conflict employing crowbars with one of his employees, a man named Hercules, results in severe blow to Morgan’s head, knocking him unconscious.

When Morgan awakes, he finds himself in Arthurian England.[1]  Whether he really has traveled back thirteen centuries or is merely in an insane asylum, Morgan decides that he will become, significantly, “boss.”[2]  True to his desires, Morgan slowly gains control of England.  The process, to be sure, is not an easy one.  Morgan has to fight monarchical government, aristocratic culture, the Catholic Church, and a population ignorant of classical economics.   This strange world, as he believes, is nothing but medieval darkness and superstition, a people kept from democracy and enjoyment of their natural rights by wicked forces.  To counter the traditional stalwarts of Arthurian society, Morgan builds factories, indoctrinates young boys in his schools—known as “man factories—and introduces laissez-faire competition in the market place.  To placate the knights of the Round Table, he forms a baseball league so that the participants can demonstrate their manliness in non-violent ways.  After living in Arthurian England for three years, he decides to establish universal suffrage and “overthrow the Catholic Church and set up the Protestant faith on its ruins—not as an Established Church, but as a go-as-you-please-one.”[3]  Fearing that Morgan has taken things too far, the Catholic Church imposes an Interdict upon Morgan and his followers.  Only a few remain faithful to Morgan, and an army of twenty-five thousand knights of Christendom challenge Morgan’s attempt at modernity.  In response, Morgan selects fifty-two loyal boys between the ages of 14 and 17 as his soldiers.  Why these?  “Because all the others were born in an atmosphere of superstition and reared in it.  It is in their blood and bones,” Morgan explains.  “We imagined we had educated it out of them; they thought so too; the Interdict woke them up like a thunderclap!”[4]  The fifty-two boys, Morgan, and one friend, hole up in a cave, awaiting the attack. Continue reading

What is the Object of Human Life? by Winston Elliott III

What is the Object of Human Life?

by Winston Elliott III
Russell Kirk

In the paragraphs below, from A Program for Conservatives, Dr. Russell Kirk addresses conservatives with words which remind us of our pilgrim status in this world of tears. We are not called to material success. We are called to obedience. We are called to love. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful will find their true place in our culture only when many more of us are obedient to 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. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.
He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that “they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.”
Winston Elliott III is Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative.
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