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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.

The Conservative Mind After Forty Years: An Interview with Russell Kirk


The Conservative Mind After Forty Years: An Interview with Russell Kirk

by Russell Kirk, William H. Mulligan, Jr. and David B. Schock
January 9,2013
Russell Kirk was a major figure in American intellectual history. His second book,
The Conservative Mind, was a landmark historical study of conservative thought. The book captured a wide readership and stimulated interest in conservative ideas.Q: I know it can be hard sometimes looking back at something that was done forty years ago, but I would like to go back today and discuss how you came to write The Conservative Mind. As you started on the project, what did you hope to accomplish intellectually?

Kirk: When I was an instructor at Michigan State University I reflected that there had been no published book on American conservative thought and I began thinking of preparing an anthology which I meant to call The Tory’s Home Companion. That passed through my mind. I was thinking of getting a doctorate and writing on some such theme and I decided to go to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and write a doctorate on the thought of Edmund Burke. That book on Burke eventually developed into The Conservative Mind, a book about Burke and his followers and his long tradition of thought both in America and Britain. So all this came about without any very deliberate designs and changed the complexion of American thought.
Continue reading

Ray Bradbury: A Bright Life That Burned Right by Robert Woods



Ray Bradbury: A Bright Life That Burned Right

by Robert Woods

Nov.2, 2012
On all lists of the best science fiction and fantasy writers of the twentieth century, Ray Bradbury is always present, and usually at the top. However, popular acclaim does not always translate into high literary craft. The discerning reader should carefully look at the full body of Bradbury’s writings to determine if all, or even some of his works, merit scholarly attention. He sub-created worlds that explored the widest range of human experiences and humane themes. Often he spoke about his dislike of being classified in genres he believed were artificial. As an author that transcended and sometimes blended narrow genre classifications, Bradbury saw himself merely as a writer. While his stories have the common features of science fiction and fantasy, these characteristics were simply functional toward the greater end of telling a fine tale about human beings being human. Even though there are dangers facing humanity, repeatedly the greatest dangers in Bradbury’s stories are not hidden on Mars, not found in big government, but common human beings who have forgotten what it means to be fully human and fully alive.
While fiction is about a great deal more than ideas, such as the delight in the story, and the way that stories move us as humans, there are ideas and ideologies in fiction. The short stories and novels of Bradbury speak of the widest range of human experiences and ideas.  Drawing from Mortimer Adler’s list of the great ideas in humane letters, readers have noted that within Bradbury’s body of work, one encounters beauty, chance, change, citizenship, courage, custom and convention, desire, duty, emotions, eternity, evolution, experience, family, fate, God, good and evil, habit, happiness, honor, immortality, judgment, knowledge, law, life and death, love, memory and imagination, nature, opinion, opposition, philosophy, pleasure and pain, prudence, punishment, reasoning, religion, senses, sin, soul, temperance, time, truth, virtue and vice, will, wisdom, and world.
While some misguided critics have observed a Norman Rockwell nostalgia within a few of Bradbury’s works, these same critics are blind to the George Orwell echos in these same pieces. In Dandelion Wine there are indeed glimpses of old, small town USA, but within this town there is a serial killer and more than one profound statement about the loss of our humanity to the ever present technological temptation for the newer to be seen as always better. The more astute readers have noted a sense of longing co-mingled with a sense that all is not as it should be within Bradbury’s writings. Both his short stories and the collection of stories crafted into longer novels embody the reality of the fall and ever present signals of transcendence and a hoped for recovery of our garden heritage.  
While Ray Bradbury’s writings were first found in amateur and pulp magazines in the 1930’s, his stories would eventually be published by Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and The New Yorker. Not a large number of twentieth century writers can claim that their works were adapted for comics, radio, television, stage and film. Many of these adaptations were scripted by Bradbury himself.  Even the film adaptations of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 reached a larger audience, but sadly with much of the rich literary textures and meaningful metaphors lost in translation from the book to the screen.
Reading Americans have encountered Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury’s most recognized novel) at some point in their educational experience. Unfortunately, this great novel has been misread and misrepresented over the decades. To say this work is primarily about, or even mainly about censorship, is akin to saying that The Wizard of Oz is about a yellow brick road. There is censorship in Fahrenheit 451 as there is a yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz, but only the most superficial reading sees book burning as the primary focus of the work. Reading “companion or parallel stories” such as “The Fireman,” “The Library,” “The Pedestrian,” “The Garbage Collector,” “The Smile,” “To the Chicago Abyss,” and “Long After Midnight” will confirm that Fahrenheit 451 is a masterpiece of dystopian fiction exploring anti-intellectualism and a loss of truth, goodness, and beauty in human civilization.
Because of these and related humane themes, Ray Bradbury’s works, as a whole, are in sustained conversation with the Great Books of the Western World.  Sometimes these connections are in the form of allusions, sometimes quotes, and sometimes homage by imitating the structure and even voice of a master author. In Fahrenheit 451 and “companion stories” set within this dystopian milieu characterized by disdain for sustained reading, thinking, and conversing, the reader is reminded of the following authors and works:  Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Dante Alighieri, Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Little Black Sambo, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe, the Bible, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Revelation, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Luigi Pirandello, George Bernard Shaw, John Milton, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Eugene O’Neill, John Dewey, Alexander Pope, Plato’s Republic, Charles Darwin, Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Aristophanes, Mahatma Gandhi, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Thomas L. Peacock, Abraham Lincoln, Lord Byron, George Washington, Galileo Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Washington Irving, John Donne, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Magna Charta, and the Constitution. There are even story titles of Bradbury that pay literary tribute to his most beloved author Charles Dickens—“Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine.”  Other stories and authors include, “The Golden Apples of the Sun” (W. B. Yeats), and “I Sing the Body Electric” (Walt Whitman).
As with other Bradbury writings, there is often an earlier life or version before the published date. While Something Wicked This Way Comes was published in 1962 (50 years ago and still in print), there were earlier kernel versions in short stories—”The Electrocution” 1946,  “The Black Ferris” 1948, a screenplay entitled “Dark Carnival” 1955, another screenplay “The Marked Bullet” 1956, as well as an unpublished first-person novel Jamie and Me. Something Wicked This Way Comes should be read as a companion story to Dandelion Wine. Even Bradbury clustered these two stories with Farewell Summer and called these the Illinois trilogy. Whether read as a moral fable, Christian allegory, or a moralistic horror tale, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a novel that should be rescued from the middle school reading list and the bin of literary obscurity and given due attention. Beyond being a masterfully crafted exploration of numerous humane themes, it is a delightful, at times, but ultimately enlightening, tale about the sin of narcissism and the possibility of human connectedness in the presence of that most damnable of sins.
Throughout his life, Bradbury spoke often of his autodidactic formation in library stacks. This is evidenced throughout his writings that show influence by, and respect of, the adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, L. Frank Baum, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, and Herman Melville. In turn, the books and stories of Ray Bradbury have been admired by figures as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Christopher Isherwood, Ingmar Bergman, John Huston, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Neil Gaiman and R.L. Stine.
As early as 1954 and as late as 2007, Ray Bradbury received prestigious awards such as the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, two PEN/O. Henry Prizes, A National Book Foundation medal, an Emmy for the screenplay of his The Halloween Tree, and a Pulitzer citation for his extraordinary writing career. A cursory search of data about Bradbury on the world wide web will yield much contradiction. The political left and political right claim him as embracing their beliefs. In truth, we do know that he considered Ronald Reagan the greatest president, and this is coming from a man whose life spanned sixteen different presidents. Bradbury was also honored by President George W. Bush in 2004 with the National Medal of Arts.
Generally, Bradbury was not a political creature in a formal sense. His concern was with communities. People who lived, worked, laughed, cried, feared, conversed, celebrated and died together were at the heart of his writings, not ideologies and political regimes. The true, the good, and the beautiful are constantly manifested. There is also an ever present hint of the transcendent. Sometimes it is a sense of the divine, sometimes a most ominous evil, and sometimes a goodness that moves those of us who love its presence to praise the author of all goodness and truth.
Certainly a large part of what I most cherish in his fiction is the sheer celebration of the goodness of being. The very truth that we are, and that life is a gift to be treasured has been lost in much modern fiction. I have discovered an extraordinary amount in Bradbury’s writings that complement and parallel Christian conviction. Bradbury is what I often refer to as “old school humanist.” In other words, he affirms truth, goodness, and beauty. His works even explore, and frequently affirm, the essential nature of faith, hope, and love and other religious virtues. His characters often discuss and embody these realities. Beyond the pervasive sense of joy in many of Bradbury’s writings, reading such short stories as “The Man” and “Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned,” the reader is shown the most explicit sense of the residue of Bradbury’s Christian upbringing and the lingering effect of the faith on his soul.  
I begin my lectures and presentations about Ray Bradbury with a confession. The confession is simple and one of which I express a deep sense of loss and a degree of shame. I did not start reading Ray Bradbury until several years ago. I did not read him because I judged his books by their covers. I had a misinformed sense that I knew what his books would be about because the covers of his books told it all. One cannot be more wrong.  
It was an endorsement I read on a Russell Kirk book that came from Ray Bradbury. I thought, if Ray Bradbury liked Russell Kirk, and I liked Russell Kirk, then maybe, just maybe, I might appreciate Ray Bradbury. After going to the local bookstore and buying Something Wicked This Way Comes and reading it, I was hooked. My repentance then took the form of reading The Martian Chronicles and the delight and feeding of my mind was tremendous. I immediately went out and bought Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, and a collection of his short stories. I have never been the same since. As a matter of fact, every Halloween season for the past six years I’ve re-read Something Wicked This Way Comes, and every first day of the summer for the past several years I have re-read Dandelion Wine.  
Ray Bradbury’s passing brings to my mind numerous scenes in his novels and short stories where a character comes to the realization that life is a precious gift, and that gift is to be enjoyed. On numerous occasions, Ray noted his favorite novelist Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol makes this profound point when Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed by the ghosts that had visited him. That moment of “I’m alive, I’m alive,” is what it is all about in literature and life. For Bradbury’s own unique twist on this, read the short story “Jack-in-the Box.”
For the past few years I have been blessed to visit The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies and gain such insight of Bradbury’s life and writings from the top Bradbury scholar in the world (this is not an exaggeration), it has been equally as exhilarating giving lectures through The Big Read Events sponsored by the NEA where thousands of people read, think about, and discuss Fahrenheit 451. Even in my blogs I have a section “All Things Bradbury” as a partial testament that as a Professor of Great Books, I consider his writings as worthy to be added to the canon of the best books as any penned by modern authors.
Russell Kirk once noted with the possible exception of Roy Campbell, “the love of life burns brighter in Ray Bradbury than any other man of letters.”1 Ray Bradbury was born in Aug 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, and passed from this life in southern California on June 5, 2012.  While Ray Bradbury drifted from his childhood faith, one could easily make the case that a specifically Christian and positively religious worldview shaped the bulk of Bradbury’s works. His life and writings demonstrate an eye for the glorious all around us, and his celebration of life as a gift is to be most respected. In a key interaction between Guy Montag and Chief Beatty in Fahrenheit 451, Montag tells Beatty, “We never burned right.” In his life and fiction, Ray Bradbury burned right and leaves for all of us a literary legacy to be enjoyed and carefully studied.
An article I authored recently published St Austin Review, S/O 2012 V. 12, N. 5. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Musings of a Christian Humanist.
1. Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (Peru: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1984), p. 120.

Civilization without Religion? by Russell Kirk

Civilization without Religion?   

by Russell Kirk

Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. -1 Corinthians 16:13
Sobering voices tell us nowadays that the civilization in which we participate is not long for this world. Many countries have fallen under the domination of squalid oligarchs; other lands are reduced to anarchy. “Cultural revolution,” rejecting our patrimony of learning and manners, has done nearly as much mischief in the West as in the East, if less violently. Religious belief is attenuated at best, for many – or else converted, after being secularized, into an instrument for social transformation. Books give way to television and videos; universities, intellectually democratized, are sunk to the condition of centers for job-certification. An increasing proportion of the population, in America especially, is dehumanized by addiction to narcotics and insane sexuality.
These afflictions are only some of the symptoms of social and personal disintegration. One has but to look at our half-ruined American cities, with their ghastly rates of murder and rape, to perceive that we moderns lack the moral imagination and the right reason required to maintain tolerable community. Writers in learned quarterlies or in daily syndicated columns use the terms “post-Christian era” or “post-modern epoch” to imply that we are breaking altogether with our cultural past, and are entering upon some new age of a bewildering character.
Some people, the militant secular humanists in particular, seem pleased by this prospect; but yesteryear’s meliorism is greatly weakened in most quarters. Even Marxist ideologues virtually have ceased to predict the approach of a Golden Age. To most observers, T. S. Eliot among them, it has seemed far more probable that we are stumbling into a new Dark Age, inhumane, merciless, a totalist political domination in which the life of spirit and the inquiring intellect will be denounced, harassed, and propagandized against: George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), rather than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) of cloying sensuality. Or perhaps Tolkien’s blasted and servile land of Mordor may serve as symbol of the human condition in the twenty-first century (which, however, may not be called the twenty-first century, the tag Anno Domini having been abolished as joined to one of the superstitions of the childhood of the race).
Some years ago I was sitting in the parlor of an ancient house in the close of York Minster. My host, Basil Smith, the Minster’s treasurer then, a man of learning and of faith, said to me that we linger at the end of an era: soon the culture we have known will be swept into the dustbin of history. About us, as we talked in that medieval mansion, loomed Canon Smith’s tall bookcases lined with handsome volumes; his doxological clock chimed the half-hour musically; flames flared up in his fireplace. Was all this setting of culture, and much more besides, to vanish away as if the Evil Spirit had condemned it? Basil Smith is buried now, and so is much of the society he ornamented and tried to redeem. At the time, I thought him too gloomy; but already a great deal that he foresaw has come to pass.
The final paragraph of Malcolm Muggeridge’s essay “The Great Liberal Death Wish” must suffice as a summing-up of the human predicament at the end of the twentieth century:
As the astronauts soar into the vast eternities of space, on earth the garbage piles higher; as the groves of academe extend their domain, their alumni’s arms reach lower; as the phallic cult spreads, so does impotence. In great wealth, great poverty; in health, sickness; in numbers, deception. Gorging, left hungry; sedated, left restless; telling all, hiding all; in flesh united, forever separate. So we press on through the valley of abundance that leads to the wasteland of satiety, passing through the gardens of fantasy; seeking happiness ever more ardently, and finding despair ever more surely.
Just so. Such recent American ethical writers as Stanley Hauwerwas and Alasdair Maclntyre concur in Muggeridge’s verdict on the society of our time, and conclude that nothing can be done, except for a remnant to gather in little “communities of character” while society slides toward its ruin. Over the past half century, many other voices of reflective men and women have been heard to the same effect. Yet let us explore the question of whether a reinvigoration of our culture is conceivable.
Is the course of nations inevitable? Is there some fixed destiny for great states? In 1796, a dread year for Britain, old Edmund Burke declared that we cannot foresee the future; often the historical determinists are undone by the coming of events that nobody has predicted. At the very moment when some states “seemed plunged in unfathomable abysses of disgrace and disaster,” Burke wrote in his First Letter on a Regicide Peace, “they have suddenly emerged. They have begun a new course, and opened a new reckoning; and even in the depths of their calamity, and on the very ruins of their country, have laid the foundations of a towering and durable greatness. All this has happened without any apparent previous change in the general circumstances which had brought on their distress. The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature.”
The “common soldier” to whom Burke refers is Arnold of Winkelried, who flung himself upon the Austrian spears to save his country; the child is the young Hannibal, told by his father to wage ruthless war upon Rome; the girl at the door of an inn is Joan of Arc. We do not know why such abrupt reversals or advances occur, Burke remarks; perhaps they are indeed the work of Providence.
“Nothing is, but thinking makes it so,” the old adage runs. If most folk come to believe that our culture must collapse – why, then collapse it will. Yet Burke, after all, was right in that dreadful year of 1796: for despite the overwhelming power of the French revolutionary movement in that year, in the long run Britain defeated her adversaries, and after the year 1812 Britain emerged from her years of adversity to the height of her power. Is it conceivable that American civilization, and in general what we call “Western civilization,” may recover from the Time of Troubles that commenced in 1914 (so Arnold Toynbee instructs us) and in the twenty-first century enter upon an Augustan age of peace and restored order?
To understand these words “civilization” and “culture,” the best book to read is T. S. Eliot’s slim volume Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948). Once upon a time I commended that book to President Richard Nixon, in a private discussion of modern disorders, as the one book which he ought to read for guidance in his high office. Man is the only creature possessing culture, as distinguished from instinct; and if culture is effaced, so is the distinction between man and the brutes that perish. “Art is man’s nature,” in Edmund Burke’s phrase; and if the human arts, or culture, cease to be, then human nature ceases to be.
From what source did humankind‘s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship – that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that human community grows. This basic truth has been expounded in recent decades by such eminent historians as Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Arnold Toynbee.
Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government – all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.
Out of little knots of worshippers, in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, India, or China, there grew up simple cultures, for those joined by religion can dwell together and work together in relative peace. Presently such simple cultures may develop into intricate cultures, and those intricate cultures into great civilizations. American civilization of our era is rooted, strange though the fact may seem to us, in tiny knots of worshippers in Palestine, Greece, and Italy, thousands of years ago. The enormous material achievements of our civilization have resulted, if remotely, from the spiritual insights of prophets and seers.
But suppose that the cult withers, with the elapse of centuries. What then of the culture that is rooted in the cult? What then of the civilization which is the culture’s grand manifestation? For an answer to such uneasy questions, we can turn to a twentieth-century parable. Here I think of G. K. Chesterton’s observation that all life being an allegory, we can understand it only in parable.
The author of my parable, however, is not Chesterton, but a quite different writer, the late Robert Graves, whom I once visited in Mallorca. I have in mind Graves’s romance Seven Days in New Crete – published in America under the title Watch the North Wind Rise (1949).
In that highly readable romance of a possible future, we are told that by the close of the “Late Christian epoch” the world will have fallen altogether, after a catastrophic war and devastation, under a collectivistic domination, a variant of Communism. Religion, the moral imagination, and nearly everything that makes life worth living have been virtually extirpated by ideology and nuclear war. A system of thought and government called Logicalism, “pantisocratic economics diversed from any religious or national theory,” rules the world – for a brief time. In Graves’s words:
Logicalism, hinged on international science, ushered in a gloomy and anti-poetic age. It lasted only a generation or two and ended with a grand defeatism, a sense of perfect futility, that slowly crept over the directors and managers of the regime. The common man had triumphed over his spiritual betters at last, but what was to follow? To what could he look forward with either hope or fear? By the abolition of sovereign states and the disarming of even the police forces, war had become impossible. No one who cherished any religious beliefs whatever, or was interested in sport, poetry, or the arts, was allowed to hold a position of public responsibility. “lce-cold logic” was the most valued civic quality, and those who could not pretend to it were held of no account. Science continued laboriously to expand its over-large corpus of information, and the subjects of research grew more and more beautifully remote and abstract; yet the scientific obsession, so strong at the beginning of the third millennium A.D., was on the wane. Logicalist officials who were neither defeatist nor secretly religious and who kept their noses to the grindstone from a sense of duty, fell prey to colobromania, a mental disturbance. . . 
Rates of abortion and infanticide, of suicide, and other indices of social boredom rise with terrifying speed under this Logicalist regime. Gangs of young people go about robbing, beating, and murdering, for the sake of excitement. It appears that the human race will become extinct if such tendencies continue; for men and women find life not worth living under such a domination. The deeper longings of humanity have been outraged, so that the soul and the state stagger on the verge of final darkness. But in this crisis an Israeli Sophocrat writes a book called A Critique of Utopias, in which he examines seventy Utopian writings, from Plato to Aldous Huxley. “We must retrace our steps,” he concludes, “or perish.” Only by the resurrection of religious faith, the Sophocrats discover, can mankind be kept from total destruction; and that religion, as Craves describes it in his romance, springs from the primitive soil of myth and symbol.
Graves really is writing about our own age, not of some remote future: of life in today’s United States and today’s Soviet Union. He is saying that culture arises from the cult; and that when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests upon the spiritual order.
So it has come to pass, here in the closing years of the twentieth century. With the weakening of the moral order, “Things fall apart; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .” The Hellenic and the Roman cultures went down to dusty death after this fashion. What may be done to achieve reinvigoration?
Some well-meaning folk talk of a “civil religion,” a kind of cult of patriotism, founded upon a myth of national virtue and upon veneration of certain historic documents, together with a utilitarian morality. But such experiments of a secular character never have functioned satisfactorily; and it scarcely is necessary for me to point out the perils of such an artificial creed, bound up with nationalism: the example of the ideology of the National Socialist Party in Germany, half a century ago, may suffice. Worship of the state, or of the national commonwealth, is no healthy substitute for communion with transcendent love and wisdom.
Nor can attempts at persuading people that religion is “useful” meet with much genuine success. No man sincerely goes down on his knees to the divine because he has been told that such rituals lead to the beneficial consequences of tolerably honest behavior in commerce. People will conform their actions to the precepts of religion only when they earnestly believe the doctrines of that religion to be true.
Still less can it suffice to assert that the Bible is an infallible authority on everything, literally interpreted, in defiance of the natural sciences and of other learned disciplines; to claim to have received private revelations from Jehovah; or to embrace some self-proclaimed mystic from the gorgeous East, whose teachings are patently absurd.
In short, the culture can be renewed only if the cult is renewed; and faith in divine power cannot be summoned up merely when that is found expedient. Faith no longer works wonders among us: one has but to glance at the typical church built nowadays, ugly and shoddy, to discern how architecture no longer is nurtured by the religious imagination. It is so in nearly all the works of twentieth-century civilization: the modern mind has been secularized so thoroughly that “culture” is assumed by most people to have no connection with the love of God.
How are we to account for this widespread decay of the religious impulse? It appears that the principal cause of the loss of the idea of the holy is the attitude called “scientism” – that is, the popular notion that the revelations of natural science, over the past century and a half or two centuries, somehow have proved that men and women are naked apes; that the ends of existence are production and consumption; that happiness is the gratification of sensual impulses; and that concepts of the resurrection of the flesh and the life everlasting are mere exploded superstitions. Upon these scientistic assumptions, public schooling in America is founded nowadays, implicitly.
This view of the human condition has been called – by C. S. Lewis, in particular – reductionism: it reduces human beings almost to mindlessness; it denies the existence of the soul. Reductionism has become almost an ideology. It is scientistic, but not scientific: for it is a far cry from the understanding of matter and energy that one finds in the addresses of Nobel prize winners in physics, say. Popular notions of “what science says” are archaic, reflecting the assertions of the scientists of the middle of the nineteenth century; such views are a world away from the writings of Stanley Jaki, the cosmologist and historian of science, who was awarded in 1987 the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
As Arthur Koestler remarks in his little book The Roots of Coincidence (1972), yesterday’s scientific doctrines of materialism and mechanism ought to be buried now with a requiem of electronic music. Once more, in biology as in physics, the scientific disciplines enter upon the realm of mystery.
Yet the great public always suffers from the affliction called cultural lag. If most people continue to fancy that scientific theory of a century ago is the verdict of serious scientists today, will not the religious understanding of life continue to wither, and civilization continue to crumble?
Perhaps; but the future, I venture to say, is unknowable. Conceivably we may be given a Sign. Yet such an event is in the hands of God, if it is to occur at all; meanwhile some reflective people declare that our culture must be reanimated, by a great effort of will.
More than forty years ago, that remarkable historian Christopher Dawson, in his book Religion and Culture (1949), expressed this hard truth strongly. He wrote:
The events of the last few years portend either the end of human history or a turning point in it. They have warned us in letters of fire that our civilization has been tried in the balance and found wanting – that there is an absolute limit to the progress that can be achieved by the perfectionment of scientific techniques detached from spiritual aims and moral values. . . . The recovery of moral control and the return to spiritual order have become the indispensable conditions of human survival. But they can be achieved only by a profound change in the spirit of modern civilization. This does not mean a new religion or a new culture but a movement of spiritual reintegration which would restore that vital relation between religion and culture which has existed at every age and on every level of human development.
Amen to that. The alternative to such a successful endeavor, a conservative endeavor, to reinvigorate our culture would be a series of catastrophic events, the sort predicted by Pitirim Sorokin and other sociologists, which eventually might efface our present sensate culture and bring about a new ideational culture, the character of which we cannot even imagine. Such an ideational culture doubtless would have its religion: but it might be the worship of what has been called the Savage God.
Such ruin has occurred repeatedly in history. When the classical religion ceased to move hearts and minds, two millennia ago, the Graeco-Roman civilization went down to Avernus. As my little daughter Cecilia put it unprompted, some years ago, looking at a picture book of Roman history, “And then, at the end of a long summer’s day, there came Death, Mud, Crud!”
Great civilizations have ended in slime. Outside the ancient city of York, where York Minster stands upon the site of the Roman praetorium, there lies a race-course known as the Knavesmire. Here in medieval times were buried the knaves – the felons and paupers. When, a few years ago, the race-course was being enlarged, the diggers came upon a Roman graveyard beneath, or in part abutting upon, the medieval burial-ground. This appeared to have been a cemetery of the poor of Romano-British times. Few valuable artifacts were uncovered, but the bones were of interest. Many of the people there interred, in the closing years of Roman power in Britain, had been severely deformed, apparently suffering from rickets and other afflictions – misshapen spines and limbs and skulls. Presumably they had suffered lifelong, and died, from extreme malnutrition. At the end, decadence comes down to that, for nearly everybody.
It was at York that the dying Septimius Severus, after his last campaign against the Scots, was asked by his brutal sons, Geta and Caracalla, “Father, when you are gone, how shall we govern the empire?” The hard old emperor had his laconic reply ready: “Pay the soldiers. The rest do not matter.” There would come a time when the soldiers could not be paid, and then a civilization would fall to pieces. The last Roman army in Italy – it is said to have been composed entirely of cavalry – fought in league with the barbarian general Odoacer against Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, in the year 491; on Odoacer’s defeat, the Roman soldiers drifted home, nevermore to take arms: the end of an old song. Only the earlier stages of social decadence seem liberating to some people; the last act, as Cecilia Kirk perceived, consists of Death, Mud, Crud.
In short, it appears to me that our culture labors in an advanced state of decadence; that what many people mistake for the triumph of our civilization actually consists of powers that are disintegrating our culture; that the vaunted “democratic freedom” of liberal society in reality is servitude to appetites and illusions which attack religious belief; which destroy community through excessive centralization and urbanization; which efface life-giving tradition and custom.
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.
So Gerontion instructs us, in T. S. Eliot’s famous grim poem. By those and some succeeding lines, Eliot means that human experience lived without the Logos, the Word; lived merely by the asserted knowledge of empirical science – why, history in that sense is a treacherous gipsy witch. Civilizations that reject or abandon the religious imagination must end, as did Gerontion, in fractured atoms.
In conclusion, it is my argument that the elaborate civilization we have known stands in peril; that it may expire of lethargy, or be destroyed by violence, or perish from a combination of both evils. We who think that life remains worth living ought to address ourselves to means by which a restoration of our culture may be achieved. A prime necessity for us is to restore an apprehension of religious insights in our clumsy apparatus of public instruction, which – bullied by militant secular humanists and presumptuous federal courts – has been left with only ruinous answers to the ultimate questions. What ails modern civilization? Fundamentally, our society’s affliction is the decay of religious belief. If a culture is to survive and flourish, it must not be severed from the religious vision out of which it arose. The high necessity of reflective men and women, then, is to labor for the restoration of religious teachings as a credible body of doctrine.
“Redeem the time; redeem the dream,” T. S. Eliot wrote. It remains possible, given right reason and moral imagination, to confront boldly the age’s disorders. The restoration of true learning, humane and scientific; the reform of many public policies; the renewal of our awareness of a transcendent order, and of the presence of an Other; the brightening of the corners where we find ourselves such approaches are open to those among the rising generation who look for a purpose in life. It is just conceivable that we may be given a Sign before the end of the twentieth century; yet Sign or no Sign, a Remnant must strive against the follies of the time.
Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Summer 1990)
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