Archive for the ‘Russell Kirk’ Category


The Essential Russell Kirk — R.J. Stove

January 17, 2014
True to his Gothic strain, Kirk abandoned Episcopalianism for Catholicism in, significantly, the year 1964: just after C.S. Lewis's death, and just before Eliot's. About the last year, in other words, when recognizable Anglican thinkers existed, and could be taken seriously. Yet Kirk had been so fundamentally Catholic for the whole of his adult life that his formal conversion, like Chesterton's, merely ratified a world-view already established in every essential

True to his Gothic strain, Kirk abandoned Episcopalianism for Catholicism in, significantly, the year 1964: just after C.S. Lewis’s death, and just before Eliot’s. About the last year, in other words, when recognizable Anglican thinkers existed, and could be taken seriously. Yet Kirk had been so fundamentally Catholic for the whole of his adult life that his formal conversion, like Chesterton’s, merely ratified a world-view already established in every essential

The case of Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994) forces upon America’s foreign well-wishers an all too urgent question: why does the United States export so diligently, and take such pride in, its very worst modern literature? There is a whole alternative canon of worthwhile recent American authors–including Kirk himself–whose names mean virtually nothing abroad; whereas every deadbeat psychopath, deadbeat drunk, deadbeat drug-fiend, deadbeat thug, deadbeat adulterer, deadbeat homosexual, deadbeat communist, and deadbeat plagiarist who ever drew breath on American soil appears assured not only of reverential Hollywood treatment but (if he does not commit suicide first) of the Nobel Literature Prize.

Is it that the concept of a recognizably adult American writer perplexes foreigners? Is it–more regrettable still–that this concept perplexes Americans (surely not)? At any rate, the nature of Kirk’s reputation is instructive. Here is an American writer who gives the impression of having been born fully mature, and who has always attracted a devoted following within his homeland, while being largely unknown elsewhere. Today the number of Australians familiar with his output could comfortably be fitted into a broom cupboard, and still leave space for several brooms.

Given a modicum of justice, this will now change. The Essential Russell Kirk is a godsend for anyone who cares about post-war American intellectual history, a far more intrinsically interesting and varied subject than the post-war intellectual history of anywhere else in the English-speaking world. One can accord this volume no higher compliment than to say that Kirk himself would have approved of it. From the editorial comments and the strong binding, to the main text’s handsome typeface (Perpetua) and superlatively designed index, everything possible has been done to ensure that the book can win for Kirk a fresh, loyal and repeated readership.

Those who, to some extent, already know Kirk’s writing will find their knowledge dramatically enriched. With enrichment, moreover, will come increased admiration towards Kirk himself, an admiration that will shade into genuine devotion, because Kirk may well be the most deeply lovable of recent American thinkers. (Someone at ISI Books has managed to unearth, for the frontispiece, a rare photograph of Kirk smiling. All other portraits of Kirk which this reviewer has seen are decidedly on the stern side, as if Kirk were an old-fashioned, bespectacled Midwestern banker unenthusiastically contemplating a customer’s overdraft.)

To indicate something of where Kirk stood, it will help to mention the two most important influences on his thought: Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot. From these influences, in Kirk’s case, a kind of double-edged Anglophilia resulted. Neither Burke nor Eliot, of course, had been English-born. Nevertheless both men explained England to itself in ways that a native could never have done. Besides, both men, however well-informed they were about Continental European philosophies, stayed recognisably un-Continental themselves in most respects. To be markedly separate from Continental trends without becoming parochial: this is a rare achievement, which Eliot managed even better than did Burke, and which Kirk managed in turn.

Like Burke and Eliot, Kirk used English in a way rather different from any native Englishman’s. Unfailingly clear, he takes subtle pleasure in original linguistic touches, with an expressive and Latinate penchant for the subjunctive mood. If his theme requires a genuinely obscure noun–“neoterist” (p.175), “philodoxer” (p.189), or “caducity” (p.542)–then use that noun he does; but he scorns obscurity as a goal.

In this context he quotes with approval one of his heroes, the nineteenth-century judge and political philosopher Sir James Fitzjames Stephen: “Eccentricity is far more often a mark of weakness than a mark of strength” (p.377). Editor George A. Panichas puts the matter well (p.xiv): “He [Kirk] is never laborious to read. His prose is distinctly one of temperateness: vigorous, sophisticated, eloquent, lucid … It is a style that emerges from his high regard for paradigms of intellect and character and culture, for the need for roots and order, for the idea of limit, of measure, of proportion, and above all humility.”

In addition, it must be stressed, self-reliance. Frugalitas is a favoured term of his; and one would shudder to think how your average mollycoddled Manhattan scribbler could possibly have coped with the unpretentious but firm tests of fortitude which Kirk set himself. Like so many possessors of well-furnished intellects allied to well-controlled literary idioms, he proved to be a born travel-writer. He spent part of World War II at an army camp in the Great Salt Lake Desert, which he unforgettably evoked long afterward (p.298):

“If I sank into sleep–an easy thing to do in the sun, for the nearest tree, a scrubby juniper, was miles distant–the little lizards slid across my face. One looked across the salt and alkali, where nothing at all lived, into Nevada on the horizon. This was a region almost devoid of human history … barren beyond belief, but not, I think, God-forsaken.

“Here it was that I commenced, very languidly, to move from my Stoicism toward something more. It was not towards pantheism that I moved, for the rattlesnake, the lizard, the grey sagebrush, and the bitter juniper-berry do not inspire Wordsworth’s love of divine handiwork. Yet the consciousness of a brooding Presence stirred in me something of the desert prophet whose name I bore … The desert knew no benevolence; it was terrible; but awe and veneration being close allied, truly the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”

As with wildernesses in America, so with wildernesses abroad. His account of visiting the Hebrides (pp.305-319), published in 1956, is as moving as his beloved Dr Johnson’s reportage of Hebridean life almost two hundred years earlier. The crofters whom Kirk describes seem astonishingly similar to their eighteenth-century kin, though doubtless their descendants nowadays have acquired all the blessings of modernism familiar elsewhere, such as cyberporn and Third World immigrant inundations. Like Johnson, Kirk had a naturally threnodic soul, as free from capitalist as from Rousseauist arrogance.

On settling at Mecosta, Michigan, he lived amid the utmost simplicity–“The Sage of Mecosta”, admirers called him with wry affection–in a house his ancestors had built, “Piety Hill”. He married rather late, at the age of forty-five; eventually he and his wife had four children, all girls. When Mrs Kirk obtained a television set, her husband literally threw it off the roof.

He refused even to take driving lessons, condemning the automobile (p.551) as “that mechanical Jacobin”. (A readable thesis could be written on non-driving writers of our time: including Kirk, Kingsley Amis, Clive James, and the late Catholic historian Michael Davies.) As early as 1963 he denounced “the obsession with economics–a Benthamite and Marxist obsession–[which] has oppressed nearly all discussions of Americans’ wants for a good many years, and only now is beginning to give way to some serious talk of … how we may keep life tolerable” (p.43). From which it will be inferred that Manchester-School barbarism had no place in Kirk’s outlook.

“Tolerable” is a thoroughly Kirkian adjective. To the limited extent that he ever advocated a directly political plan, he wished it to espouse bearability rather than dramatic meliorism, let alone bringing about the millennium–a proletarian or plutocratic millennium, according to taste–by next Wednesday. Notwithstanding his guarded support for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign (a campaign so ineffective in the short term, so portentous in the longer), he quoted with approval (p.xxxviii) George Gissing’s verdict on politics: “the preoccupation of the quarter-educated”.

He loathed the mainstream American collegiate schooling of the 1950s, which differed from its present-day counterpart only in that its vices did not yet include mass-murder, such as at the University of Texas in 1966 and at Virginia Tech in 2007. Based on the rejection of hard thought, such schooling inevitably succumbed to what Kirk astringently called “the drug of ideology”. Ideologues, Kirk lamented (p.352), “are Burkhardt’s ‘terrible simplifiers’. They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to men possessed by devils.”

With relish he quoted (p.367) Raymond Aron’s tart observation: “The main difference between the progressivism of the disciple of Harold Laski or Bertrand Russell and the Communism of the disciple of Lenin concerns not so much the content as the style of the ideologies and the allegiance they demand.” Nor did such ideologies become more satisfactory to Kirk when they assumed democratizing forms. Fantasists who still suppose that Mesopotamia can somehow be turned into Massachusetts, with a sufficient expenditure of American blood, will gain no comfort from Kirk. For, as he warned (p.379):

“The great line of division in modern politics–as Eric Voegelin  reminds 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.”

Contrast such sober realism with the recent geopolitical raving of one Michael Ledeen: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

Not only did Kirk eschew the doctrine of salvation via armed cant or via counting noses; he seems never to have found it remotely attractive. Religious through and through, he boasted of having “a Gothic mind”, albeit one subdued by a certain classical formality. The macabre exercised a permanent influence on him–he wrote numerous ghost stories, influenced by M.R. James more than by any American models–and it is easy to see why. Abjuring programmes of human perfectibility, he felt at ease with the marching, swaying and flickering of superhuman forces.

True to his Gothic strain, Kirk abandoned Episcopalianism for Catholicism in, significantly, the year 1964: just after C.S. Lewis’s death, and just before Eliot’s. About the last year, in other words, when recognizable Anglican thinkers existed, and could be taken seriously. Yet Kirk had been so fundamentally Catholic for the whole of his adult life that his formal conversion, like Chesterton’s, merely ratified a world-view already established in every essential. (He retained, admittedly, a certain fondness for Protestant clergymen who could write and cogitate, Richard Hooker being the chief of them.)

Those conversant with the anti-urban and anti-capitalist B.A. Santamaria will find in Kirk something of a kindred spirit, but with one crucial difference. Santamaria, like Charles Maurras — whose motto had been La politique d’abord! – remained first, last and all the time an activist. Kirk chose Candide’s path: Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Many of us would argue that Kirk’s was actually the better route, particularly since it allows for individual rectitude, such as Kirk had aplenty.

Joy at the thought of Kirk’s oeuvre being made available to a new generation of university students is slightly marred by the realization that perhaps he is wasted on the young. There comes a time in almost every literate youth’s life (it normally ends more or less concurrently with his last undergraduate hangover) when P.J. O’Rourke’s paeans to narcotics-fuelled anarchism seem not just intermittently amusing but a veritable Summa Theologica.

At a somewhat later and less priapic stage, such a youth is liable to the number-crunching temptation: in other words, to assuming that if only enough trade unions are won over, enough manifestoes issued, enough well-wishers embedded in enough academic committees, Jerusalem will have been rebuilt, without a particle of genuine religious conviction having been necessary.

Kirk is, by contrast, for readers old enough to possess what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life”: readers who can appreciate the dreadful gap between what Christendom was as recently as the 1940s, and what it has become since.


The Drug Of Ideology 3 – Russell Kirk

January 16, 2014
We live, then, in an insecure society, doubtful of its future, an island of comparative but temporary sanctuary in a sea of revolution; and neither the old isolation nor the old received opinions of the mass of men seem calculated to hold out unassisted against the physical force of revolutionary powers and the moral innovations of modern ideologies. This is just such a time as has required and produced, repeatedly in the course of history, a reexamination of first principles and a considered political philosophy.  Russell Kirk, 1984

We live, then, in an insecure society, doubtful of its future, an island of comparative but temporary sanctuary in a sea of revolution; and neither the old isolation nor the old received opinions of the mass of men seem calculated to hold out unassisted against the physical force of revolutionary powers and the moral innovations of modern ideologies. This is just such a time as has required and produced, repeatedly in the course of history, a reexamination of first principles and a considered political philosophy.
Russell Kirk, 1984

The final installment of Russell Kirk’s essay defining the ideologue and ideologies. Although he never lived to see the emergence of liberalism as the rudder of our secular ship of state and the crowning of Barack Obama Captain along with his European style democratic socialism and its mesmerizing entitlements, he knew of its dangers. This is from The Drug of Ideology, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics. Kirk passed in 1994.


Ideology and American Society
The American soil is not well prepared for pure ideology
. Half a century ago Santayana wrote that “it will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.”The hammering of ideology has been heard since then political religion has not yet triumphed. Though, as Aron knows, the United States has its political illusions, these are not precisely identical with the illusions of the French intellectual of the Left:

“The ‘American way of life’ is the negation of what the European intellectual means by the word ideology,” Aron remarks. Americanism does not formulate itself as a system of concepts or propositions; it knows nothing of the “collective savior,” the end of history, the determining cause of historical “becoming,” or the dogmatic negation of religion; it combines respect for the constitution, homage for individual initiative, a humanitarianism inspired by strong but vague beliefs which are fairly indifferent to the rivalries between the churches (only Catholic “totalitarianism” is considered disquieting), the worship of science and efficiency. It does not involve any detailed orthodoxy or official doctrine. It is learned at school, and society enforces it. Conformism if you like, but a conformism which is rarely felt to be tyrannical, since it does not forbid free discussion in matters of religion, economics, or politics.

Yet a hankering after ideology has existed since early times in America, though never well satisfied; and at moments, during the past forty or fifty years, it seemed as if ideology were about to capture the American mind. That ideology, if it had come to exercise an hegemony over American thought, would have borne the name of Liberalism. Communism, though it contrived to entrench itself in some high places among American intellecuals, never attracted so great a share of them as went over to Marxism in France or Germany or Italy or even Britain; while Fascism took no root hum at all.

Something called Liberalism, nevertheless, became very nearly a secular orthodoxy among American writers and (more especially) American Professors. No one was quite sure what Liberalism amounted to — which kept it from becoming a full-grown ideology. To some, Liberalism meant anti-religious opinions; to others, socialism, or a managed economy; to a different set, absolute liberty of private conduct, untrammeled by law or tradition; to a number, perpetual doubt for the sake of doubting; to one lot, old-fangled Benthamism.

This Liberal secular orthodoxy is decaying now, to the alarm of its principal champions, some of whom defend it with the zeal of genuine ideologues, although they are not quite sure just what they are defending. Nowadays these champions, confronted with the revival of conservative ideas, alternate between the argument that conservatism is getting nowhere at all, and the contention that conservatism is so dreadfully powerful as to drive persecuted liberals into holes and corners.

As a matter of fact, the precepts of Liberalism still dominate a great many American writers and professors, who sometimes are intolerant in the mime of liberal toleration; but the odds are that this Liberal orthodoxy cannot now harden into a true ideology. The fantastics of the New Left dearly would love to embrace a rigorous ideology; but they fall out so much among themselves and within themselves, that no body of secular dogmas takes form.

America needs nothing less than it needs ideology. Not abstraction but prudence, prescription, custom, tradition, and constitution have governed the American people. We have been saved from ideology by political tradition. We still subscribe, however confusedly, to the norms of politics, we still cherish the permanent things.

For nearly two centuries, the outward forms of government in this nation have altered little. Although during the past four decades, and particularly during the past ten years, the actual functioning of our political system has changed rapidly, still the facade of the political edifice looks much as it used to. Within, nevertheless, the house is being transformed — even if a few desire a radical transformation. No system of laws and institutions is immutable. Can the American Republic direct such change into actions which will reconcile with our historical experience and our prescriptive institutions that spirit of the age which now shakes the house?

Change, as Burke said, is the means of our preservation: as the human body exhausts old tissues and takes on new, so must any vigorous society. Yet rash and mindless change, striking to the heart of society, may destroy continuity which invigorates a nation. The character of change in America probably will be determined, for good or ill, within the next few years.

Whatever our civil discontents at present, we stand in little peril of a political revolution which would destroy our national foundations. The American people remain, in some ways, the most conservative in the world — though their conservatism is not so much the product of reflection as it is of habit, custom, material interests, and attachment to certain documents, notably the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Our difficulty, indeed, is not just now the clutch of ideology, but rather complacency — the smug general assumption that the civil social order, in essence, always will be for our sons what it was for our fathers.

“With conservative populations,” Brooks Adams wrote, “slaughter is nature’s remedy.” He referred to a complacent democratic conservatism of the crowd. If American order, justice, and freedom are to endure, some of us must look into the first principles of politics and apply the wisdom of our ancestors to the troubles of our time. To preserve all the benefits of American society — which may be lost not through revolution, but perhaps in a fit of absence of mind — we must turn political philosophers, as did our ancestors in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Like the English, the Americans usually have been reluctant to embark upon abstract political speculation. Except for the period just before, during and after the revolution, and – to a lesser extent – the years before and immediately after the Civil War, we have produced little political philosophy; we have trusted instead, to constitution, custom, convention, consensus, and the wisdom of the species.

Indeed, the Declaration and the Constitution, though drawn up by men of philosophical knowledge and power, are not in themselves manuals of political philosophy. The Declaration of 1776 is simply a declaration — and a highly successful piece of immediate political propaganda; such philosophical concepts as find expression therein are so mistily expressed as to mean all things to all men, then and now. The Constitution is not a tract at all, but a practical instrument of government, molded in part by necessary practical compromises

We will not repudiate the Declaration, nor much alter the formal Constitution. Yet no society can be bound by parchment. With vertiginous speed, the character of American society is being altered. Can a people whose modes of living, economy, and diversions differ radically from those of the eighteenth century continue to live in harmony and prosperity under a political system developed in very different circumstances? Can a people of whom the immense majority now dwell in megalopolis, for instance, govern themselves on the old principles of American territorial democracy?

For my part, I do not think that we could construct a brand-new constitution better calculated to reconcile the claims of order and the claims of freedom than does our old Constitution — whatever its anomalies and difficulties today. If that is true, then we will do well to seek means for reinvigorating the Constitution and making sure it deals adequately with the conditions of the twentieth century; otherwise it may be altered out of recognition by an extravagant “judicial reinterpretation,” unsupported either by precedent or by public consensus — or, in the long run, it may be discarded altogether by an impatient Executive Force, Congress, and people.

And we must remind ourselves that beneath any formal constitution — even beneath our Constitution, the most enduringly successful of such formal documents — lies an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define, but really more powerful: the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.

So the examination of our present discontents cannot be confined to an exercise in formal constitutional law. To discuss the future of American politics, we must confess that, vastly important though they are, the Declaration and the Constitution do not constitute the be-all and end-all of political wisdom; and that, when the file affords no precedent, we must turn fruit legal brief to political philosophy.

Recourse to political first principles is attended by risks. Scarcely anything could be more ruinous than to turn the American people into a set of half-schooled coffee-house philosophers, ideologues bent upon gaining Utopia instanter, terrible simplifiers in politics. Yet in the exigencies of our decade, a people cannot govern themselves wholly by the decisions and the rhetoric of 1776 and 1787.

The intellectual and political leaders of our age have the duty of guiding public opinion into prudent consideration of the  means for harmonizing our prescriptive politics with modern condition that require some tolerable action. I am saying that there exists real danger of our drifting mindlessly into the mass-age, unaware that order and justice and freedom are fragile; and that today, as much as in 1776 or 1787, we need to discuss questions concerning the vitality of the good civil social order.

Ever since the Civil War, political thought has languished in the United States. For important political theory almost always is developed out time of troubles, when thinking men, forced to examine their first principles, seek means to avert the imminent collapse of order, so as to restore some measure of justice and security to a wounded society. The political writings of Plato and Aristotle came out of such an age. So did Cicero’s works and Dante’s, and Hobbes’s, and Machiavelli’s, and Hooker’s, and Loc] and Burke’s, and Marx’s.

The nature of the confusion which provokes exposition of political theory may be the inadequacy of an old order, morally and administratively, as it was in the society of Calvin and of Rousseau; of confusion may be the consequence of a new order’s search for sanction, was in the society of Bodin or of Bentham. Doubt and violence are the agents of social speculation. Prescription, legal precedent, and muddling through suffice for ages or nations that experience no serious threat to things established.

Thus the political ideas of Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, though rooted in English and colonial experience and mightily influence the legacy of English political philosophy, took form as prudent endeavors to restore order and justice to a commonwealth distressed by revolution. Thus the ideas of John Randolph and Calhoun were expressed as a defense of established institutions in the Old South.

Once the triumph of the Union, however, had put an end to the debate between North and South, and once swelling prosperity of the United States after the Civil War combined with the nation’s comparative isolation to make any foreign menace trifling, American can political speculation sank to a lower level.

No political philosopher of remarkable stature appeared during the closing third of the nineteenth century, and the bulk of what passed for political thought in this country was simply the reflection of various English and German liberal ideas, adapted to the American climate of opinion. There seemed to be no need for reference to first principles; Things were in the saddle, and most men were content to let things ride mankind. Warning voices like those of Henry and Brooks Adams were rather despairing protests than expressions of political philosophy.

As the First World War approached, and as the economic and moral problems of the post-war era became pressing, ideas were granted some small hearing, it is true, so that Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More and George Santayana asked the right questions. Yet Things galloped on; the New Deal, fortunately perhaps, was the expression of vague humanitarian aspirations and positive grievances, not of any coherent “liberal” or “radical” system of thought. Nor was America’s participation in the Second World War governed by any body of general ideas: caused by the combination of moral indignation with fear of Germany and Japan, American intervention stood bewildered for want of first principle when the problems of the peace had to be confronted.

The genius of American politics, as Daniel Boorstin suggests, consists in an innocence of abstract doctrine and theoretic dogma; and this is quite as true of the genius of English politics. Yet possibly the immunity of these nations from the curse of ideology has resulted not so much from a deliberate contempt for theory, as from two peculiar advantages that today are much diminished: first, a comparative physical isolation from other powers that made possible the postponement of grave decisions; second, an underlying set of moral and political assumptions, common to nearly everyone in these societies, which were the products of a venerable historic experience, and which served the purpose that political dogmas serve in nations less governed by general prejudice, prescription, and custom.

Yet a time may come in the history of nations when the previous security against foreign intervention is destroyed, and when tradition and established usage are so weakened that they cannot stand unbuttressed against the assaults of ideology.

Such an era is America’s near the close of the sixties (when this piece was written). The dissolution of America’s old political and military isolation requires no comment; we survived by a single generation the end of Britain’s comparative isolation. The breaking of the cake of custom is the subject of many books, though all its intricacies have not yet been explored.

It must suffice to say here that with the triumph of modern technology, the ascendancy of general literacy and secularized schooling, the extreme mobility and fluidity of twentieth-century American society, the disappearance of many elements of authority and class, and the diffusion of positivistic ideas — why, tradition and custom in the United States, though by no means effaced, have lost much of their old power.

We live, then, in an insecure society, doubtful of its future, an island of comparative but temporary sanctuary in a sea of revolution; and neither the old isolation nor the old received opinions of the mass of men seem calculated to hold out unassisted against the physical force of revolutionary powers and the moral innovations of modern ideologies. This is just such a time as has required and produced, repeatedly in the course of history, a reexamination of first principles and a considered political philosophy.


The Drug Of Ideology 2 – Russell Kirk

January 15, 2014
In genetics, as in other sciences, the ideologue recoils from his own conclusions only when the results indubitably are ruinous -- as in the notorious affair, in Soviet Russia, of Lysenko's theories about corn, faithful to Marxism but false to nature and productive of monstrous crop-failures. The Ideologue, I am saying, is not genuinely objective and not genuinely scientific. In essence, ideology is a passionate endeavor to overthrow the spiritual and moral order, as well as the social order; and scientific doctrine is no better than a tool for the ideologue.

In genetics, as in other sciences, the ideologue recoils from his own conclusions only when the results indubitably are ruinous — as in the notorious affair, in Soviet Russia, of Lysenko’s theories about corn, faithful to Marxism but false to nature and productive of monstrous crop-failures. The Ideologue, I am saying, is not genuinely objective and not genuinely scientific. In essence, ideology is a passionate endeavor to overthrow the spiritual and moral order, as well as the social order; and scientific doctrine is no better than a tool for the ideologue.

Ideology, Objectivity, and Scientism
Ideology is existence in rebellion against God and man,” EricVoegelin writes, “It is the violation of the First and Tenth Commandments, if we want to use the language of Israelite order; it is the nosos, the disease of the spirit, if we want to use the language of Aeschylus and Plato. Philosophy is the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order.” For a great while, Voegelin continues, ideology has held a mortgage upon science — that is, upon systematic thought.

But the ideologue does not think of himself as a simplifier or a sloganizer. He believes that he is objective and scientific, even dispassionate. An anti-collectivist ideologue (rather a rare breed, in this century), Miss Ayn Rand, even concocts a rigorous ideology called “Objectivism.”All faithful followers of systematized ideologies believe themselves to be objective; their adversaries, to a man, are subjective.

So permit me to digress here concerning “objectivity,” a word as much abused as “ideology.”The modern devotee of objectivity prides himself upon being a realist, a man who perceives the world as it truly is, without being deluded by visions, personal interests, or irrational emotions. But no man is more un-philosophical than one who fancies that he is totally objective.

Objectivity means the property or state of being objective. The word now implies absorption in, or concern with, external objects, as opposed to “subjectivity,” or concern with self and the interior life.

Yet historically considered, the terms “objectivity” and “objective” meant to medieval and Renaissance scholars quite the contrary of their twentieth-century connotations. From about 1300 when Duns Scotus defiled the term, until late in the eighteenth century, “objectivity” and “objective” were generally understood to refer to things perceived or thought, intentional, or representative; while “subjective,” during those centuries, meant things in their own form. This earlier usage is suggested by Bishop Berkeley (1709): “Natural phenomena are only natural appearances. They are, therefore, such as we see and perceive them .Their real and objective nature are therefore the same.”

For the past two centuries, however, “objectivity” has connoted “real objects”, as opposed to “subjectivity,” or concern with the subject of cognition, the mind. In addition, “objectivity” has come to imply concentration upon external objects of thought — things or other persons — as against attention to one’s self, one’s own ways, one’s own sensations.

In this sense, the “objective” man is one who concerns himself with external facts or what he believes to be “objective” reality, rather than with his own emotions, personality, and thoughts. The rationalistic, nineteenth-century usage is exemplified by a remark of John Fiske: “The only healthful activity of the mind is an objective activity, in which there is as little brooding over self as is possible.”

Fiske is echoed by another enthusiast for this sort of objectivity, John Dewey, in Democracy and Education (1916): “The idea of perfecting an `inner’ personality is a sure sign of social division. What is called `inner’ is simply that which does not connect with others — which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as a thing which a man might have internally — and therefore exclusively.”

In the “objective” paradise of Dewey and his disciples, as in Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), everybody belongs to everybody else — and not one’s body merely, but one’s mind, becomes public domain. Dewey was bent, though perhaps only half consciously, on creating an impersonal society: that is, a society in which strong personalities would be eliminated.

For there is no personality, really, except inner personality, subjective personality; if, then, its perfection is denounced as rotten, human beings are expected to efface personality altogether. They become “other-directed men.” Lacking belief, loyalty, and self-reliance, dependent upon an unattainable perfect objectivity, they are moved only by fad and foible, and are blown about by every wind of doctrine. Objectivity of this sort terminates in pusillanimity.

Many twentieth-century writers and scholars praise “objectivity” as impartial and accurate; and they disparage “subjectivity” as sliding toward illusion, partisanship, and emotional disturbance. Thus most sociologists, say, profess devotion to objectivity; while poets, concerned with personal experience, are allegedly immersed in subjectivity. It remains most doubtful, nevertheless whether any man may so wholly divest himself of prejudice, early opinions, and private experience as to manifest a thoroughgoing objectivity.

In the social studies, for instance, not a few doctors of philosophy call “objectivity” what really is their own ideology. Thus they praise to the skies a book that advocates a positivistic view of man and society; if that book expouses the cause of centralized planning, the omnicompetent state and the progressive standardizing of all aspects of life, it is “objective” – that is, the book conforms to reality, or to what should be reality. If a book takes another tack, holding by religious conceptions of man and prescriptive opinions of the free and just society — why, the authors of so disagreeable a work must be nasty subjectivists.

For in an age of strong ideological tendencies, many people who profess devotion to “objectivity” may be self-deluding victims of a curiously inverted “subjectivity,” indulging an intolerant zeal for “tolerance,” a passionate attack on passion, a bigoted denunciation of bigotry. In such circumstances objectivity” is confounded with ideological preference, and the “objective” ideologue demands conformity to his notion of reality — or of what ought to be the state of society.

In actuality, “objective” and “subjective” approaches to true perception are not inimical, but rather co-ordinate, and even symbiotic. Accurate understanding of external objects, distinct from consideration of self, is the essential method of modern science; but the knowledge gained from personal experience and meditation is necessary for the classification and ordering of phenomena. Thus poetic insight, if “subjective,” nevertheless broadens and deepens the vision; while scientific examination, if “objective,” confirms or corrects the private judgment.

To resume, nevertheless the typical ideologue thinks of himself perfectly objective. The core of his belief is that human nature and human society may be improved infinitely — nay, perfected — by the application of techniques of the physical and biological sciences to the governance of men. Nearly all nineteenth and twentieth-century radical movements drew their inspiration in considerable part from this positivistic assumption; Marxism is only one of the more systematic products of this view of life and thought.

For the convinced positivist-ideologue, traditional religion has been a nuisance and a curse, because it impedes the designs of the ideological planner. Science with a Roman S, should supplant God. The religious teacher would give way to the “scientific” manager of the new society.

This rather vague claim that society ought to be regulated on “sc principles has held an appeal for some physical and biological scientists, and the less such scientists have known of humane letters, history, and political theory, the more enthusiastic they have tended to be for a new order which would sweep away all the errors and follies of mankind by a rational application of scientific theory and method.

The high achievements of physical and biological science in the nineteenth century gave powerful reinforcement to the advocates of “scientism” in sociology and politics. Religion, moral tradition and the complex of established political institutions were irrational and unscientific and subjective, it seemed; surely the scientists must show the preachers and politicians the way to a better world. H. G. Wells was the ablest vulgarizer of scientistic ideology.

But since the middle of the twentieth century, a good many intelligent people have been taking a second look at the claims of pure science, of the “science of society,” and of religion. Fresh scientific speculation has called into question the soundness of many of the assumptions of the mechanistic physics and the Darwinian biology of the nineteenth century; while a revival of serious theology and a renewed interest in political theory have strengthened the position of people who think that they were not born yesterday. The catastrophic social events of our century, moreover, have caused some of us to inquire whether there is not something fundamentally wrong with philosophical and scientific and sociological postulates which promise us the terrestrial paradise but promptly deliver us at the gates of a terrestrial hell. Fascism, Nazism, and communism all have claimed to be scientific.

A good representative of reformed scientific opinion is Dr. Edmund W. Sinnott, dean of the graduate school of Yale University, writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 1956). After presenting very fairly and even evangelically the case for scientific positivism and objectivity, he proceeds to demolish it. With Aristotle, Sinnott recognizes final causes: he is a teleologist.

What animates every organism, what constitutes its nature, is purpose: “If it be accepted, the idea of purpose, of intention, of the motive power of a goal or ideal rather than of an organic `drive,’ changes the orientation of our psychical lives.” Man, he argues, is drawn toward a goal; and that goal often cannot be perceived or apprehended through the methods of exact science. “The closest contact with reality for many people is through this unexplained, mysterious urgency in life experienced in flashes of insight, for these carry with them a great weight of authority.” So here an eminent professor of science has stood up for subjectivity, for the man of vision, for Carlyle in Leith Walk or Pascal murmuring “Fire, fire, fire!”

“The days of the evolutionary optimists are gone,” Sinnott continues, “who believed that progress is the nature of things and that man is bound to grow better almost automatically. If we are to find a way out of our troubles, we must appeal not only to the rational attitudes and methods of the scientist but also to man’s inner spiritual motivation. Love may turn out to be a more valuable resource than logic.”

For Sinnott, science cannot supplant religion; both science and religion “have indispensable contributions to make to the great task of building of a society in which men will not only be safe and wise and happy and by gain the serene confidence that their lives are in harmony with the universe itself.”

So scientism — the facile application of the teachings of natural science to the affairs of mankind — is on boggy ground today: social “objectivity,” like social Darwinism, is parting company with much present scientific theory. The representative ideologue is unaware how very old-fangled he is becoming his notion of what pure science teaches.

Yet it would be foolish optimism to mistake the speculation of some leading philosophers of science for the convictions of the whole body of teachers of science, researchers, and scientific technicians. A professed man of science still may remain as much an ideologue as any agent of the Chinese “Cultural Revolution.”

At the convention in 1956 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for instance — meeting only a short time after Professor Sinnott wrote — there still were exhibited (together with more encouraging opinions) certain depressing examples of the influence which scientistic ideology still exerts upon American society. Consider a research-project in “intellectual potential” described to the Association by its authors, an associate professor of psychiatry and an associate professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University.

The purpose of this research-project was to discover whether heredity determines individual intelligence to any marked degree. These two professors studied the behavior of a thousand infants in Baltimore, all about forty weeks old, excluding babies with damaged brains from consideration in their general conclusions. Upon the “developmental score” employed in this study, ninety per cent of the infants scored between 90 and 120, with 100 as the norm. Race, economic status, and education of parents seemed to have no discernible effect upon the scores of particular babies. Therefore, the professors announced, one baby seems to be as intelligent as another; and undeniable variation of children at a later age must be “wholly a result of education and environment.”

“Intelligence,” an educationist said once, “is simply what our tests test.” This particular research project appears to me a tolerable example of an ideological mortgage upon the work of science. Leaving aside certain logical and statistical fallacies involved in this project, still the range between 90 and 120 indicates a very considerable difference in infant minds.

But the principal foolishness of such a survey is its claim to measure human intelligence at a stage when the human creatures concerned could not yet be called rational beings. One might as well try to determine the swiftness of a fawn by examining the creature in embryo, as to try to determine the power of the human intellect by observing the behavior of a baby a few months old. Man’s rationality is made possible by his mastery of words and his employment of his hands. A little baby knows no words, and therefore no general concepts; he can use his hands to little purpose, and therefore is not yet even a tool-using animal.

Of course all small babies seem much the same in intelligence; for none of them has, at that stage, much intelligence distinctively human; they are almost identical in their poverty. If a thousand forty-weeks old baboons or chimpanzees had been observed and tested alongside the human infants, doubtless the apes would have come out much better on the development-score, for their nature matures much more rapidly than does the human.

Therefore, one supposes, we ought to conclude that the differences between baboon baby and human baby are matters of education and environment, and baboons should be entitled to the privileges and immunities of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This latter-day tabula rasa doctrine of the psychiatrist and the teacher of pediatrics, I suspect — though I do not know the professors in question — is theologically inspired. It is “democratic,” in the Jacobin meaning of that word. All people ought to be equal, the egalitarian ideologue commences; but if persons are unequal in intelligence from a very early age, then it may be difficult to establish among them equality of condition; so the “scientific” dogma must be made to fit the ideological dogma, and Jonathan Edwards and Sam Jukes will be demonstrated, by “development-scores,” to be naturally as much alike as two peas in a pod.

Intelligence is what our tests test; and if tests reveal disconcerting individual differences — why, back to your development-scores, men. Having arrived at a tentative conclusion about certain infants by scientifically dubious means, then the ideologue hastily tacks on to his structure grand generalizations, quite unsupported even by his own evidence, concerning the native intelligence of adults. This is scientism in its worst sense: science enslaved by ideological prejudice.

In genetics, as in other sciences, the ideologue recoils from his own conclusions only when the results indubitably are ruinous — as in the notorious affair, in Soviet Russia, of Lysenko’s theories about corn, faithful to Marxism ism but false to nature and productive of monstrous crop-failures. The Ideologue, I am saying, is not genuinely objective and not genuinely scientific. In essence, ideology is a passionate endeavor to overthrow the spiritual and moral order, as well as the social order; and scientific doctrine is no better than a tool for the ideologue. Raymond Aron makes this point:

Communism developed from an economic and political doctrine at a time when the spiritual vitality and the authority of the Churches was in decline. Passions which in other times might have expressed themselves in strictly religious beliefs were channelled into political action. Socialism appeared not so much a technique applicable to the management of enterprises or to the functioning of the economy, as a means of curing once and for all the age-old misery of mankind.

The ideologies of the Right and of the Left, Fascism as well as Communism, are inspired by the modern philosophy of immanence. They are atheist, even when they do not deny the existence of God, to the extent that they conceive the human world without reference to the transcendental.

Ideology is intellectual servitude. And emancipation from ideology can be achieved only by belief in an enduring order of which the sanction, and the end, are more than objective, more than scientistic, more than human and more than natural.


The Drug Of Ideology 1– Russell Kirk

January 14, 2014
The ideologues are Burckhardt's "terrible simplifiers."They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to man possessed by devils.

The ideologues are Burckhardt’s “terrible simplifiers.”They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to man possessed by devils.

It’s not often I assign my category of definitions to an article but this one is truly deserving of what I had intended with that category: it creates a baseline for the terms ideologue and ideology which are so redolent and evocative of our times. Liberals have become our new ideologues, replacing the communists or fascists from yesteryear. Their secular ideology is at war with the Catholic Church and in many ways they are winning with a kind of subtlety that the serpent in the garden must be admiring greatly.


“We are not at an end of our struggle, nor near it. Let us not deceive ourselves; we are at the beginning of great troubles.”Burke goes on in the same prophetic passage, found in his Letters on Regicide Peace (1796), to say that”[i]t is with an armed doctrine that we are at war.”

Like Burke, Kirk never wavered in censuring the inroads of armed doctrines in the modern state. In “Thy Drug of Ideology,” he strives to help the reader to apprehend the duplicitous features of ideology, its sham abstractions and promises, its conditions of `intellectual servitude.

Here he identifies rigid forms of ideology since the last years of the eighteenth century — Jacobinism, communism, fascism, Nazism. In twentieth-century ideologists (“after the manner of Robespierre”) Kirk adduces evidence of a zealous rebellion against God and man that epitomizes abnormity in its most deformed energies and aspects.

In our age, most of the world has fallen into profound political disorder and while the United States may seem an island of tranquility (This dates the writing, doesn’t it? Must be the fifties.), comparatively speaking, in a sea of troubles, nevertheless we are not secure. In politics, as in letters, abnormity gains ground

One may discern the principal causes of social disorder. Some are the consequences of swift economic and technological change, and these cannot be examined at any length here. But also a social order begins to disintegrate — or is supplanted by a very different domination political custom and political theory are overwhelmed by ideology, when established political institutions are abandoned or permitted to decline, out of popular indifference and ignorance….

I am concerned with the desertion from political theory and tradition, and what may be done about it; with the neglect of institutions that maintain order and justice and freedom, and with the results of such dereliction. The permanent things of the commonwealth stand in peril, throughout the world. Our first necessity is understand the nature of ideology.

“Ideology” does not mean political theory or principle, even though journalists and some professors commonly employ the term in that sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism — and, more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise the operation of positive law and positive planning.

The ideologue – Communist or Nazi or of whatever affiliation — maintains that human nature and may be perfected by mundane, secular means, though these means ,ordinarily involve violent social revolution. The ideologue immanentizes religious symbols and inverts religious doctrines.

What religion promises to the believer in a realm beyond time and space, ideology promises to everyone — except those who have been “liquidated” in its the process — in society. Salvation becomes collective and political. “When the intellectual feels no longer attached either to the community or the religion of his forbears,” Raymond Aron writes in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1957), “he looks to progressive ideology to fill the vacuum. The difference between the progressivism of the disciple of Harold Laski or Bertrand Russell and the Communism of the disciple of Lenin concerns not so much the content as the style of the ideologies and the allegiance they demand.

As a term of modern politics and sociology, “ideology” may be defined tentatively. It is an alleged science of politics, dogmatic and often utopian, allied with the interests of a particular social class or political sect. Several powerful ideologies or quasi-ideologies have been at work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This word has passed through complicated changes of meaning, however, and often is misapplied.

In France, at the close of the eighteenth century, the term was employed by the disciples of Condillac, particularly Destutt deTracy, whose Les éléments d’ideologie appeared in five volumes between 1801 and 1815. The original “ideologists” or “ideologues” believed that all knowledge is derived from sensation, and that a science of ideas could be developed upon this basis, describing the history and evolution of thought, and applicable to politics, ethics, and pedagogy.

Thus originally “ideology” was a kind of climax of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, an attempt to systematize and apply knowledge obtained from sensory perception. The intellectual origins of ideology are described by a number of writers, perhaps most recently in two books by Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (1961) and Utopia, the Perennial Heresy (1967)

Napoleon, in 1812, looking with disfavor upon the ideological school, ruled Destutt de Tracy and his associates as “ideologists,” men of hopelessly abstract and fanciful views, unacquainted with the realities of the civil social order. From an early date, accordingly, “ideology” and “ideologist” or ideologue” became terms of derogation, implying misguided intellectuality as banefully applied to social concerns. Thus John Adams, in 1813, wrote of

Our English words, Idiocy or Idiotism, express not the force or meaning of it. It is presumed its proper definition is the science of Idiocy. And a very profound, abstruse, and mysterious science it is. You must descend deeper than the divers in the Dunciad to make any discoveries, and after all you will find no bottom. It is the bathos, the theory, the art, the skill of diving and sinking in government. It was taught in the school of folly; but alas! Franklin, Turgot, Rochefoucauld, and Condorcet, under Tom Paine, were the great masters of that academy!

The chief political thinkers of the English speaking world, at least, abjured ideology. In his Logic (1843), John Stuart Mill declares, “I would willingly have … persevered to the end in the same abstinence which I have hitherto observed from ideological discussions.” In America and Britain, long hostile toward what Burke called “the abstract metaphysician” in politics, the concept of ideology always has been unpopular — at least until quite recently.

About the middle of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and his disciples considerably altered the meaning of “ideology.” According to Marx — particularly in his Poverty of Philosophy (1900) — ideology is a cloak for class interests, an outwardly rational instrument of propaganda, a veil of argument produced to disguise and defend an established social order.

In Marx’s phrases, “The same men who establish social relations conformably with their material productivity, produce also the principles, the ideas, the categories, conformable with their social relations.” Thus Marx attacked social theories of his own time and of earlier ages as ideologies meant maintain capitalism, feudalism, imperialism, and other systems. Marxism itself, however, rapidly developed into an ideology, or dogmatic system of politics professing to found its structure upon a “reality” ascertained by sensory perception alone.

In the present century, Karl Mannheim distinguished between the “particular” and the “total” meanings of ideology. “The former,” Mannheim wrote, “assumes that this or that interest is the cause of a given lie or deception.The latter presupposes that there is a correspondence between a given social situation and a given perspective, point of view, or apperception mass.” In general, Mannheim takes the view that ideology is irrational, and in modern times merges with utopianism.

Since the Second World War, in serious discussions, “ideology” usually has meant a dogmatic political theory which endeavors to substitute secular doctrines and goals for religious doctrines and goals — what J. L. Talmon calls “political messianism.” The ideologue promises social, rather than personal salvation; and this salvation, occurring in time, is to be achieved through a radical transformation of social institutions, involving the destruction of existing law and institutions, and probably requiring violence against the present possessors of power. On principles allegedly rational and scientific, ideology is meant to reconstruct and perfect society and human nature.

It follows that the various ideologies which have arisen since the concluding years of the eighteenth century — Jacobinism, socialism, communism, anarchism, syndicalism, fascism, Nazism, and others — all are opposed by conservatism, which is founded upon the concept that politics is the art of the possible, and the concept that the old and tried is preferable to the new and untried. In the aphorism of H. Stuart Hughes, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”

Yet, as I remarked earlier, today “ideology” frequently is used as if the term were synonymous with “political philosophy” or “political theory.”Tacitly, this assumption suggests that any theoretical foundation for politics or sociology must be involved either with social utopianism (often fanatical) or with veiled class interests, or with both.

This corruption of the term, produced in part by a vulgarizing of the concepts of Marx and Mannheim, makes sober examination of social first principles more difficult, particularly in a time when ideological passions and prejudices retain power throughout most of the world.

Real thinking is a painful process; and the ideologue resorts to the anesthetic of social utopianism, escaping the tragedy and grandeur of true human existence by giving his adherence to a perfect dream-world of the future. Reality he stretches or chops away to conform to his dream-pattern of human nature and society. For the concepts of salvation and damnation, he substitutes abstractly virtuous “progressives” and abstractly vicious “reactionaries.”

The twentieth-century ideologue, after the manner of Robespierre, thinks that his secular dogmas are sustained by the Goddess Reason; he prides himself inordinately upon being “scientific” and “rational”; and he is convinced that all opposition to his particular wave of the future is selfish obscurantism, when it is not direct vested interest.

One may add that ever since the modern scholar began to call himself an “intellectual,” he has tended to fall addict to the opiate of ideology; for the word “intellectual” itself, used as a noun of persons, implies an overweening confidence in Reason with a capital R, to the exclusion of faith, custom, consensus, humility, and sacred mystery.

The ideologue, in brief, is one of Orwell’s new-style men “who think in slogans and talk in bullets.” For the ideologue, humankind may be divided into two classes: the comrades of Progress, and the foes attached to reactionary interests.

All human actions may be judged in terms of ideological motive, the ideologue is convinced. An African leader who wishes to still settle for the practicable and to maintain amicable relationships with Europeans, for instance, must be a tool of “colonialists” or in the pay of a sinister capitalist cartel; it is inconceivable that such a leader should be sincere in his course of action.

On the other hand, a revolutionary, in Africa or elsewhere, always is right: just conceivably he may be over-zealous on occasion, but the purity of his motives is beyond question. The ideologues are Burckhardt’s “terrible simplifiers.”They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to man possessed by devils.


How Poetry Finds Laws of Moral Existence – Russell Kirk

November 17, 2011

Russell Kirk and friend

Pure Poetry Searches The Human Heart To Find Laws Of Moral Existence
So pure poetry, and the other forms of great literature, search the human heart to find in it the laws of moral existence, distinguishing man from beast. Or so it was until almost the end of the eighteenth century. Since then, the egoism of one school of the Romantics has obscured the primary purpose of humane letters. And many of the Realists have written of man as if he were brutal only — or brutalized by institutions, at best.

So arose Ambrose Bierce’s definition in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906): “Realism, n. An accurate representation of human nature, as seen by toads.” In our time, and particularly in America, we have seen the rise to popularity of a school of writers more nihilistic than ever were the Russian nihilists: the literature of disgust and denunciation, sufficiently described in Edmund Fuller’s Man in Modern Fiction (1958).

To members of this school, the writer is no defender or expositor of standards, for there are no values to explain or defend; a writer merely registers, unreservedly, his disgust with humanity and himself. This is a world away from Dean Swift — who, despite his loathing of most human beings, detested them only because they fell short of what they were meant to be.

Yet the names of our twentieth-century nihilistic authors will be forgotten in less than a generation (How True!!!!), I suspect, while there will endure from our age the works of a few men of letters whose appeal is to the enduring things, and therefore to posterity. I think, for instance of Gironella’s novel The Cypresses Believe in God (1951) (You missed that one, Russell).

The gentle novice who trims the hair and washes the bodies of the poorest of the poor in old Gerona, though he dies by Communist bullets, will live a great span in the realm of letters; while the scantily-disguised personalities of our nihilistic authors, swaggering nastily as characters in best sellers, will be extinguished the moment when the public’s fancy veers to some newer sensation. For as the normative consciousness breathes life into the soul and the social order, so the normative understanding gives an author lasting fame.

Real Love And Real Hatred Are Absent From Modern Novels
Malcolm Cowley, writing a few years ago in Horizon of the recent crop of first novelists, observed that the several writers he discussed scarcely had heard of the Seven Cardinal Virtues or of the Seven Deadly Sins. Crimes and sins are only mischances to these young novelists; real love and real hatred are absent from their books. To this rising generation of writers, the world seems purposeless, and human actions meaningless. They seek to express nothing but a vagrant ego. Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect [1959], has some shrewd things to say about the unjustified pride of the decade’s array of aspiring writers.

And Mr. Cowley suggests that these young men and women, introduced to no norms in childhood and youth except the vague attitude that one is entitled to do as one likes, so long as it doesn’t injure someone else, are devoid of spiritual and intellectual discipline empty, indeed, of real desire for anything.

This sort of aimless and unhappy writer is the product of a time in which the normative function of letters has been greatly neglected. Ignorant of his own mission, such a writer tends to think of his occupation as a mere skill, possibly lucrative, sometimes satisfying to one’s sanity, but dedicated to no end. Even the “proletarian” writing of the twenties and thirties acknowledged some end; but that has died of disillusion and inanition.

If writers are in this plight, in consequence of the prevailing “permissive” climate of opinion, what of their readers? Comparatively few book-readers nowadays, I suspect, seek normative knowledge. They are after amusement, sometimes of a vicariously gross character, or else pursue a vague “awareness” of current affairs and intellectual currents, suitable for cocktail-party conversation.

The young novelists described by Mr. Cowley are of the number of Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” Nature abhors a vacuum; into minds that are vacant of norms must come some new force; and often that new force has a diabolical character.

The Person Who Reads Bad Books Instead Of Good May Be Subtly Corrupted; The Person Who Reads Nothing At All Maybe Forever Adrift In Life
A perceptive critic, Mr. Albert Fowler, writing in Modern Age, asks the question, “Can Literature Corrupt?” — and answers in the affirmative. So literature can; and also it is possible to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all maybe forever adrift in life unless he lives in a community still powerfully influenced by what Gustave Thibon calls “moral habits” and by oral tradition. And absolute abstinence from printed matter has become rare. If a small boy does not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), the odds are that he will read Mad Ghoul Comics.

So I think it is worthwhile to suggest the outlines of the literary discipline which induces some understanding of enduring values. For centuries, such a program of reading though never called a program — existed in Western nations. It powerfully influenced the minds and actions of the leaders of the infant American Republic, for instance. If one pokes into what books were read by the leaders of the Revolution, the framers of the Constitution and the principal men of America before 1800, one finds that nearly all of them were acquainted with a few important books: the King James version of the Bible, Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare, something of Cicero, something of Vergil.

This was a body of literature highly normative. The founders of the Republic thought of their new commonwealth as a blending of the Roman Republic with prescriptive English institutions; and they took for their models in leadership the prophets and kings and apostles of the Bible, and the noble Greeks and Romans of Plutarch. Cato’s stubborn virtue, Demosthenes’ eloquent vaticinations, Cleomenes’ rash reforming impulse — these were in their minds’ eyes; and they tempered their conduct accordingly. “But nowadays,” as Chateaubriand wrote more than a century ago, “statesmen understand only the stock market — and that badly.”

Sheer Experience, As Franklin Suggested, Is The Teacher Of Born Fools.
Of course it was not by books alone that the normative understanding of the framers of the Constitution, for instance, was formed. Their apprehension of norms was acquired also in family, church, and school, and in the business of ordinary life. But that portion of their normative understanding which was got from books did loom large. For we cannot attain very well to enduring standards if we rely simply on actual personal experience as a normative mentor. Sheer experience, as Franklin suggested, is the teacher of born fools.

Our lives are too brief and confused for most men to develop any normative pattern from their private experience; and as Newman wrote, “Life is for action.” Therefore we turn to the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience, if we seek guidance in morals, taste, and politics. Ever since the invention of printing, this normative understanding has been expressed, increasingly in books, so that nowadays most people form their opinions, in considerable part, from the printed page. This may be regrettable sometimes; it may be what D. H. Lawrence called “chewing the newspapers”; but it is a fact. Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master.

Another fact is that for some thirty years we have been failing, here in America, to develop a normative consciousness in young people through a careful program of reading great literature. We have talked about “education for life” and “training for life adjustment”; but many of us seem to have forgotten that literary disciplines are a principal means for learning to adjust to the necessities of life. Moreover, unless the life to which we are urged to adjust ourselves is governed by norms, it may be a very bad life for everyone.


Starving The Imagination – Russell Kirk

November 16, 2011

Adoration of the Trinity (also known as Landauer Altarpiece; German: Allerheiligenbild or Landauer Altar) is a oil-on-panel painting by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, executed in 1511 and currently housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Direct Moral Didacticism Awakens Resistance In The Recipient
One of the faults of the typical “life adjustment” or “permissive” curriculum in the schools — paralleled, commonly, by similarly indulgent attitudes in the family — has been the substitution of “real life situations” reading for the study of truly imaginative literature. This tendency has been especially noticeable in the lower grades of school, but it extends upward in some degree through high school.

The “Dick and Jane” and “run, Spot, run” school of letters does not stir the imagination; and it imparts small apprehension of norms. Apologists for this aspect of life-adjustment schooling believe that they are inculcating respect for values by prescribing simple readings that commend tolerant, kindly, co-operative behavior. Yet this is no effective way to impart a knowledge of norms: direct moral didacticism, whether of the Victorian or the twentieth century variety, usually awakens resistance in the recipient, particularly if he has some natural intellectual power.

The fulsome praise of goodness can alienate; it can whet the appetite for the cookie-jar on the top shelf. In Saki’s “The Story-Teller,” a mischievous bachelor tells three children on a train the tale of a wondrously good little girl, awarded medals for her propriety. But she met a wolf in the park; and though she ran, the jangling of her medals led the wolf straight to her, so that she was devoured utterly.

Though the children were delighted with this unconventional narrative, their aunt protests, “A most improper story to tell to young children!” “Unhappy woman!” the departing bachelor murmurs. “For the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!”

The story of Pandora, or of Thor’s adventure with the old woman and her cat, gives any child an insight into the conditions of existence — dimly grasped at the moment, perhaps, but gaining in power as the years pass — that no utilitarian “real-life situation” fiction can match.

Well, Greek and Norse myths, for instance, sometimes are not very proper; yet, stirring the imagination, they do more to bring about an early apprehension of norms than do any number of the dull and interminable doings of Dick and Jane. The story of Pandora, or of Thor’s adventure with the old woman and her cat, gives any child an insight into the conditions of existence — dimly grasped at the moment, perhaps, but gaining in power as the years pass — that no utilitarian “real-life situation” fiction can match. Because they are eternally valid, Hesiod and the saga-singers are modern. And versions of Hawthorne or of Andrew Lang are far better prose than the quasi-basic English thrust upon young people in many recent textbooks.

The Consequences Of Starving The Imagination
If we starve young people for imagination, adventure, and some sort of heroism — to turn now to a later level of learning — they are not likely to embrace Good Approved Real-Life Tales for Good Approved Real-Life Boys and Girls; on the contrary, they may resort to the dregs of letters, rather than be bored altogether.

If they are not introduced to Stevenson and Conrad, say — and that fairly early — they will find the nearest and newest Grub Street pornographers. And the consequences will be felt not merely in their failure of taste, but in their misapprehension of human nature, lifelong; and eventually, in the whole tone of a nation. “On this scheme of things … a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order.” The Naked Ape theory of human nature, the “reductionist” notion of man as a breathing automaton, is reinforced by ignorance of literature’s moral imagination.

In one of his Causeries, Sainte-Beuve tells of a playwright standing at a friend’s window to watch a frantic Parisian mob pouring through the street: “See my pageant passing!” the author complacently murmurs. Art is man’s nature; and it is true enough, as Oscar Wilde said whimsically, that nature imitates art. Our private and public actions, in mature years, have been determined by the opinions and tastes we acquired in youth. Great books do influence societies for the better; and bad books do drag down the general level of personal and social conduct.

Having seen the pageant, the mob proceeds to behave as a playwright thinks it should. I suppose that a public which goes often enough to the plays of Tennessee Williams may begin to behave as Mr. Williams thinks Americans behave already. We become what others, in a voice of authority, tell us we are or ought to be.

An Ineffectual Endeavor To Teach Norms Is Better Than To Ignore Or Deny All Standards
So I think that in the teaching of literature, some of the theories of the life-adjustment education and permissive schools have done considerable mischief. Nowadays the advocates of life-adjustment education are giving ground, sullenly, before their critics. The intellectual ancestor of their doctrines is Rousseau. Though I am no warm admirer of the ideas of Rousseau, I like still less the doctrines of Gradgrind, in Hard Times (1845); so I hope that life-adjustment methods of teaching literature will not be supplanted by something yet worse conceived. After all, real adjustment to the conditions of human existence is adjustment to norms. Even an ineffectual endeavor to teach norms is better than to ignore or deny all standards.

A mistaken zeal for utilitarian, vocational training in place of normative instruction; an emphasis upon the physical and biological sciences that would push literature into a dusty corner of the curriculum; an attempt to secure spoken competency in foreign languages at the expense of the great works of our language — these might be changes in education as hostile to the imparting of norms through literature as anything which the life-adjustment and permissive people have done.

So I venture to suggest here, in scanty outline, how it is possible to form a normative consciousness through the study of humane letters. What I have to say ought to be commonplace; but these ideas seem to have been forgotten in many quarters. This normative endeavor ought to be the joint work of family and school. As the art of reading often is better taught by parents than it can be taught in a large class in school, so a knowledge of good books comes at least as frequently from the home as from the school. My own taste for books grew from both sources: my grandfather’s and my mother’s bookshelves, and from a very good little grade-school library. And if a school is failing to impart a taste for good books, this often can be remedied by interested attention in the family.

Tentatively, I distinguished four levels of literature by which a normative consciousness is developed. The upper levels do not supplant the earlier, but rather supplement and blend with them; and the process of becoming familiar with these four levels or bodies of normative knowledge extends from the age of three or four to the studies of college and university. We may call these levels fantasy; narrative history and biography; reflective prose and poetic fiction; and philosophy and theology.

Out Of The Early Tales Of Wonder Come A Sense Of Awe And The Beginning Of Philosophy

  1. Fantasy. The fantastic and the fey, far from being unhealthy for small children, are precisely what a healthy child needs; under such stimulus a child’s moral imagination quickens. Out of the early tales of wonder come a sense of awe and the beginning of philosophy. All things begin and end in mystery. For that matter, a normative consciousness may be aroused by themes less striking than the Arthurian legends or the Norse tales. The second book I had read to me was Little Black Sambo (1899). Learning it by heart then, I can recite it still. (One symptom of the grossing silliness of our time was the demand a few years ago, that Little Black Sambo be banned as “racist.”) Though I risk falling into pathos, I cannot resist remarking that even Little Black Sambo touches upon norms. What child fails to reflect upon the hubris of the tigers, of the prudence of Sambo?If children are to begin to understand themselves, and other people, and the laws that govern our nature, they ought to be encouraged to read Lang’s collection of fairy tales, and the Brothers Grimm (even at their grimmest), and Andersen, and the Arabian Nights, and all the rest; and presently the better romancers for young people, like Blackmore and Howard Pyle. Even the Bible, in the beginning, is fantasy for the young. The allegory of Jonah and the whale is accepted, initially, as a tale of the marvelous, and so sticks in the memory. Only in later years does one recognize the story as the symbol of the Jews’ exile in Babylon, and of how faith may preserve men and nations through the most terrible of trials.

Reading Of Great Lives Does Something To Make Decent Lives.

  1. Narrative History and Biography. My grandfather and I, during the long walks that we used to take when I was six or seven years old, would talk of the character of Richard II, and of Puritan domestic life, and of the ferocity of Assyrians. The intellectual partnership of an imaginative man of sixty and an inquisitive boy of seven is an edifying thing. My preparation for these conversations came from books in my grandfather’s library: Dickens’s A Child’s History of England (1910), Hawthorne’s Grandfather’s Chair (1840), Ridpath’s four volume illustrated History of the World (1897). Later my grandfather gave me H. G. Wells’s Outline of History (1920). In the fullness of time, I came to disagree with Dickens’s and Wells’s interpretations of history; but that was all to the good, for it stimulated my critical faculties and led me to the proper studs of mankind — and to the great historians, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Tacitus, and all the rest; to the great biographies, also, like Plutarch’s Lives and Boswell’s Johnson (1791), and Lockhart’s Scott. Reading of great lives does something to make decent lives.
  2. Reflective Prose and Poetic Fiction. When I was seven, my mother gave me a set of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels; and about the same time I inherited from a great-uncle my set of Hawthorne. That launched me upon novel-reading, so that by the time I was ten I had read all of Hugo, Dickens, and Twain. Fiction is truer than fact: I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain — if at all — unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences. I began to read Sir Walter Scott when I was twelve or thirteen; and I think I learnt from the Waverley novels, and from Shakespeare, more of the varieties of character than ever I have got since from the manuals of psychology.Such miscellaneous browsing in the realm of fiction rarely does mischief. When I was eleven or twelve, I was much influenced by Twain’s Mysterious Stranger (1916), an atheist tract disguised as a romance of medieval Austria . It did not turn me into a juvenile atheist; but it set me to inquiring after first causes — and in time, paradoxically, it led me to Dante, my mainstay ever since. In certain ways, the great novel and the great poem can teach more of norms than can philosophy and theology.
  3. Philosophy and Theology. For the crown of normative literary studies, we turn, about the age of nineteen or twenty, to abstraction and generalization, chastened by logic. It simply is not true that

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man.
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

It is not from vegetal nature that one acquires some knowledge of human passions and longings. There exist, rather in Emerson’s phrase, law for man and law for thing. The law for man we learn from Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius; from the Hebrew prophets, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and so many other Christian writers. Our petty private rationality is founded upon the wisdom of the men of dead ages; and if we endeavor to guide our selves solely by our limited private insights, we tumble down into the ditch of unreason.

Poetic And Moral Truth Changes Little With The Lapse Of The Centuries
“Scientific” truth, or what is popularly taken to be scientific truth, alters from year to year with accelerating speed in our day. But poetic and moral truth changes little with the lapse of the centuries. To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.

What I have been trying to describe in the preceding summary analysis is that body of literature which helps to form the normative consciousness of the rising generation: that is, to enliven the moral imagination. Here I have been historian and diagnostician; I have not endeavored to offer you facile remedies for our present bent condition.

If a public will not have the moral imagination, I have been saying, then it will fall first to the idyllic imagination; and presently into the diabolic imagination — this last becoming a state of narcosis, figuratively and literally. For we are created moral beings; and when we deny our nature, in letters as in action, the gods of the copybook headings with fire and slaughter return.

I attest the moral vision of men like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; some have begun to make a stand, in the republic of letters, against the diabolic imagination and the diabolic regime. A human body that cannot react is a corpse; and a body of letters that cannot react against narcotic illusions might better be buried. The theological virtues may find hardy champions in these closing years of the twentieth century: men and women who remember that in the beginning was the Word.


Introducing Moral Imagination — Russell Kirk

November 15, 2011

The redoubtable Russell Kirk, complete with pipe and cane...

The moral imagination is an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.
Russell Kirk. The Moral Imagination. in Literature and Belief

What Is “Moral Imagination”?
In the franchise bookshops of the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred eighty-one, the shelves are crowded with the prickly pears and the Dead Sea fruit of literary decadence. Yet no civilization rests forever content with literary boredom and literary violence. Once again, a conscience may speak to a conscience in the pages of books, and the parched rising generation may grope their way toward the springs of moral imagination. The first annual lecture at this new Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature is an endeavor to describe that high power of perception and description which has been called “the moral imagination,” and to relate that imagination to what Chateaubriand called “the genius of Christianity.” What once has been, may be again.

What is this “moral imagination”? The phrase is Edmund Burke’s, and it occurs in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke describes the destruction of civilizing manners by the revolutionaries:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows . . .

Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.

The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.

By this “moral imagination,” Burke signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events “especially,” as the dictionary has it, “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.

This moral imagination was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Vergil and Dante. Drawn from centuries of human consciousness, these concepts of the moral imagination — so powerfully if briefly put by Burke — are expressed afresh from age to age. So it is that the men of humane letters in our century whose work seems most likely to endure have not been neoterists [vocab: One who introduces new words or phrases; a neologist], but rather bearers of an old standard, tossed by our modern winds of doctrine: the names of Eliot, Frost, Faulkner, Waugh, and Yeats may suffice to suggest the variety of this moral imagination in the twentieth century.

The Spirit Of Religion Long Sustained This Moral Imagination
It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes
. As Burke suggested in 1790, letters and learning are hollow if deprived of the moral imagination. And, as Burke suggested, the spirit of religion long sustained this moral imagination, along with a whole system of manners. Such imagination lacking, to quote another passage from Burke, we are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

Burke implies that there exist other forms of imagination than the moral imagination. He was well aware of the power of imagination of Jean Jacques Rousseau, “the insane Socrates of the National Assembly.” With Irving Babbitt, we may call the mode of imagination represented by Rousseau “the idyllic imagination” — that is, the imagination which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention. We saw this “idyllic imagination” infatuate a great many young people in America during the sixties and seventies — even though most of those devotees never read Rousseau. The idyllic imagination ordinarily terminates in disillusion and boredom.

When that occurs, too often a third form of imagination obtains ascendancy. In his lectures entitled After Strange Gods (1934), T. S. Eliot touches upon the diabolic imagination: that kind of imagination which delights in the perverse and subhuman. The name of Sade comes to mind at once; but Eliot finds “the fruitful operations of the Evil Spirit” in the writings of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, as well. Anyone interested in the moral imagination and in the anti-moral imagination should read carefully After Strange Gods.

“The number of people in possession of any criteria for discriminating between good and evil is very small,” Eliot concludes; “the number of the half-alive hungry for any form of spiritual experience, or for what offers itself as spiritual experience, high or low, good or bad, is considerable. My own generation has not served them very well. Never has the printing press been so busy, and never have such varieties of buncombe [vocab: a variant spelling (esp US) of bunkum] and false doctrine come from it. Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”

And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls to its ruin

This “diabolic imagination” dominates most popular fiction today; and on television and in the theaters, too, the diabolic imagination struts and postures. The other night I lodged at a fashionable new hotel; my single room cost about eighty dollars. One could tune the room’s television set to certain movies, for an extra five dollars. After ten o’clock, all the films offered were nastily pornographic. But even the “early” films, before ten, without exception were products of the diabolic imagination, in that they pandered to the lust for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder.

Apparently it never occurred to the managers of this fashionable hotel that any of their affluent patrons, of whatever age and whichever sex, might desire decent films. Since Eliot spoke at the University of Virginia in 1933, we have come a great way farther down the road to Avernus [vocab: Ruined temple to Apollo, Avernus]. And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls to its ruin: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

So, having remarked the existence of the moral imagination, the idyllic imagination, and the diabolic imagination, I venture to remind you of the true purpose of humane letters. As C. E. M. Joad points out in his book Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (1948), what we call “decadence” amounts to the loss of an end, an object. When literature has lost sight of its real object or purpose, literature is decadent.

The End Of Great Books Is Ethical
What then is the end, object, or purpose of humane letters? Why, the expression of the moral imagination; or, to put this truth in a more familiar phrase, the end of great books is ethical — to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.

Every major form of literary art has taken for its deeper themes the norms of human nature. What Eliot calls “the permanent things” — the norms, the standards — have been the concern of the poet ever since the time of Job, or ever since Homer: “the blind man who sees,” sang of the wars of the gods with men. Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness — that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things. Such was the endeavor of Sophocles and Aristophanes, of Thucydides and Tacitus, of Plato and Cicero, of Hesiod and Vergil, of Dante and Shakespeare, of Dryden and Pope.

The very phrase “humane letters” implies that great literature is meant to teach us what it is to be fully human. As Irving Babbitt observes in his slim book Literature and the American College (1908), humanism (derived from the Latin humanitas) is an ethical discipline, intended to develop the truly human person, the qualities of manliness, through the study of great books. The literature of nihilism, of pornography, and of sensationalism, as Albert Salomon suggests in The Tyranny of Progress (1955), is a recent development, arising in the eighteenth century — though reaching its height in our time — with the decay of the religious view of life and with the decline of what has been called “The Great Tradition” in philosophy.

The Writer Is Under A Moral Obligation To Normality
This normative purpose of letters is especially powerful in English literature, which never succumbed to the egoism that came to dominate French letters at the end of the eighteenth century. The names of Milton, Bunyan, and Johnson — or, in America, of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville — may be sufficient illustrations of the point. The great popular novelists of the nineteenth century — Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope — all assumed that the writer is under a moral obligation to normality — that is, explicitly or implicitly, to certain enduring standards of private and public conduct.

Now I do not mean that the great writer incessantly utters homilies. With Ben Jonson, he may “scourge the naked follies of the time,” but he does not often murmur, “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” Rather, the man of letters teaches the norms of our existence through allegory, analogy, and holding up the mirror to nature. The writer may, like William Faulkner, write much more of what is evil than of what is good; and yet, exhibiting the depravity of human nature, he establishes in his reader’s mind the awareness that there exist enduring standards from which we fall away; and that fallen human nature is an ugly sight.

The better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation, commonly is the method of the literary champion of norms.

Or the writer may deal, as did J. P. Marquand, chiefly with the triviality and emptiness of a society that has forgotten standards. Often, in his appeal of a conscience to a conscience, he may row with muffled oars; sometimes he may be aware only dimly of his normative function. The better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation, commonly is the method of the literary champion of norms.

It is worth remarking that the most influential poet of our age, Eliot, endeavored to restore to modern poetry, drama, and criticism their traditional normative functions. In this he saw himself as the heir of Vergil and Dante. The poet ought not to force his ego upon the public; rather, the poet’s mission is to transcend the personal and the particular. As Eliot wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the very first essay found in Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (1932):

It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life. One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.



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