Russell Kirk and the Anamnesis of the West

Western culture itself has served as an anamnesis, an event that brings us back to right reason and reminds us of the sovereignty of the Transcendent. With the ideological assault in full force in the twentieth century, and the blood of the killing fields spreading darkly across the once varied landscapes, Kirk argued that only a return to the best of the western tradition could save the West. “Ideology cannot be rebuffed by a massive advertising campaign about the virtues of the market economy,” Kirk warned. “Only a grasp of sound moral and political principles, widely diffused, can resist the menaces and promises of fanatic ideology.” Writing in the late 1940s, T.S. Eliot had argued that westerners should “try to save something of those goods of which we are common trustees: the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout the last 2,000 years.” In his four-volume history of the western world, Order and History, Eric Voegelin followed a similar scheme, and Kirk did as well in his stunning 1974 work, The Roots of American Order.

Kirk began Roots with an attack on ideology and historical ignorance, rightly noting that for any soul or commonwealth to be ordered properly, an understanding of history and tradition must be prevalent. He compared the situation of America and the West to that of Cicero at the very end of the Roman Republic.

Before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ one which he said ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance.

We, like the Romans of 43bc, have forgotten our past, our traditions, and, hence, may not have a future. And like Cicero, Kirk is serving us warning. Our order, Kirk argued, is organic. That is, it is cultivated over long periods of time. It is fragile, and it requires frequent nurturing. If one generation breaks the continuity of generations, by believing itself uniquely superior to other generations, culture decays rapidly. This is what Lewis meant with the “Abolition of Man.” In essence, by breaking the continuity of generations, we abstract ourselves from reality and life, if we can even call it life. We will drown in our subjectivity and arrogant and hedonistic individualism. “The American order of our day was not founded upon ideology,” Kirk wisely wrote. “It was not manufactured: rather, it grew.” Hence, we must honor and reform (not revolutionize) what men and women left us, discerning through prudence which traditions are good and which need to be changed or discarded.

Iconographic Cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome

Like Eliot and Voegelin before him, Kirk rooted the American order in the symbolic cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. The patrimony of each of the iconographic cities culminates in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. From Jerusalem, the West learned “the order of the soul.” The Hebrew patriarchs and prophets gave to the West the concept of, and belief in, a Transcendent. This “is the high contribution of Israel to modern social order,” Kirk wrote, “the understanding that true law comes from God and that God is the source of order and justice.” Hence, man can understand that nothing he creates can last. Only those things that man discovers in the created order have permanent meaning. The Greek Sophists were wrong, as man is not, nor should he be, “the measure of all things.” In terms of politics, though, Kirk warned, the ancient Hebrews have little to teach us, with the exception of the vital importance of the covenant. Indeed, the covenant, an agreement between God and His people, forms the basis of political order, as it will later become the compact as well as the contract. Ultimately, though, the citizens of the West should recognize that “the most valuable thing in our common inheritance is the Christian religion.”

The Greek city-states also have little to offer the West in terms of political order, except examples of what not to do. For the Greeks never learned the virtues of peace and justice. Politically, one can learn from them only “a cautionary tale of class conflict, disunity, internecine violence, private and public arrogance and selfishness, imperial vainglory, and civic collapse.” In other words, the Greeks offer no political models. While the Greeks failed as a whole in politics, several Greek persons succeeded in discovering the philosophic tradition. Hellas, therefore, gave the West the “order of the mind.” Plato understood the need for the order of the mind and soul, as best represented in The Republic, an allegory of how to order one’s soul. Plato’s student, Aristotle, understood the fundamental and necessary relationship of the individual within the community. As a social animal, Aristotle noted, a man is only a man when he lives in community. To leave the community, one becomes either a beast or a god, but he certainly no longer can remain a man. Community, tradition, and family, according to Aristotle, define the very essence of the human person, giving him meaning. “It is in community that human beings realize their aim in existence,” Kirk explained. Only there, can one discover his gifts and use them for the common good. Ultimately, though, Kirk wrote, Hellas—despite the glories of Plato and Aristotle—failed because as a culture it never really understood the concept of a Transcendent, which led to the worship of individual city-states above all things. Their sin was the sin of statism and, often, the glorification of men as the highest end of the universe.

From ancient Rome, the West gained an understanding of the highest form of government, the Republic, with its many checks and balances. Though the Roman republic fell in 43BC, it did so only after teaching the world, and even the future empire, the necessity of virtue in its people. Kirk defined virtue as “energetic manliness” as well as piety toward one’s ancestors and immediate family. One can find energetic manliness in the best of the Romans—of both the republic and the empire. Too much territorial and military expansion, though, destroyed the virtue of the average Roman, and he become dependent upon an ancient welfare state, “the bread and circuses.” And, as St. Augustine reminded us in The City of God, their virtue remained the virtue of the pagans, and, based on will rather than grace, it necessarily turned to vice. Still, the men who practiced the virtues—such as Cato the elder, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius—have served as exemplars for all of subsequent world history. The Romans also gave the West an understanding of the “rule of law” which attempted to restrain the passions of men. In the end, though, the Romans were better engineers than artists or poets, as is evident by the ruins of roads, bridges, and buildings to be found throughout the three large parts of three continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia) that they conquered.

Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

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