New Study Illuminates Kirk's 'Moral Imagination'

At a time not many years ago, when progressive voices recurrently warned of the rise of “right-wing ideologues” who were coming soon to destroy the American way of life, conservative man of letters Russell Kirk (1918-1994) stepped forward to dismiss this concern and to offer clarification. The author best known for such seminal works as The Conservative Mind (1953) and The Roots of American Order (1974) claimed that first of all, in the words of H. Stuart Hughes, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”

Kirk explained that ideology does not mean political theory or principle, although the term is commonly employed in that sense. “Ideology,” he said, “really means political fanaticism–and, more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.

The ideologue–Communist or Nazi or of whatever affiliation–maintains that human nature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means, though these means ordinarily involve violent social revolution.” One of Kirk’s heroes, old John Adams, once described ideology–in its belief that human nature can be reshaped at the whim of self-appointed elites–as “the science of Idiocy.”

Kirk went on to note that conservatism, as opposed to ideology, “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 Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, Dr. Wesley McDonald of Elizabethtown College offers a bracing and meaty examination of Kirk’s thought and its opposition to ideology, demonstrating also how the traditionalist conservatism Kirk espoused differs from the ideology of the left–and the right. This is a necessary task, for while it would be foolish to join American liberals in believing that the greatest danger facing the United States today is the rise and spread of “conservative ideology,” some rightward-leaning individuals seem willing to confirm leftist fears by proudly embracing their own silly version of the “science of Idiocy.”

The interim goals of the conservative ideologue are often well meaning, but their end goal is ludicrous: Just a few more Republicans elected to national office, a strong and long-lasting upward spike in the American economy, a signal victory over Islamofascism, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and as a result we will witness something approaching the end of evil, and all will be mai-tais and Yahtzee as far as the eye can see.

Balderdash, Kirk might say, and in his new book McDonald demonstrates why. Citing the influence of the British statesman Edmund Burke and the American humanist educators Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More upon Kirk, McDonald has crafted an extended essay demonstrating how the conservative philosophy of Kirk was shaped. It sprang not from cloud-castle dreams of creating heaven on earth, but rather by what he, with a nod to Burke, termed the “moral imagination”–an expression that appears throughout Kirk’s works.

What is this moral imagination? According to Kirk it is the power of knowing man, despite his weaknesses and sinful nature, as a moral being, meant for eternity. It recognizes that human beings, after all, are created in the image of God. The moral imagination, wrote Kirk, “is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty–inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only–of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.”

McDonald demonstrates ably how, because of Kirk’s recognition of the moral imagination, his traditionalist beliefs and ways differed in several respects from the conservatism espoused by many who crowd under conservatism’s banner today. Unlike a number of prominent conservative figures today, Kirk was a localist and regionalist rather than a nationalist, and a proponent of agrarian and small-community life rather than cosmopolitan concerns. He advocated fair trade over free trade, and was a champion of the free-market economy on a humane scale rather than no-holds-barred laissez-faire capitalism on a large scale. Running against much of the modern conservative grain, Kirk was a strong conservationist who took seriously a belief that man is responsible for being a responsible steward of the Earth. (On one occasion he wrote, “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.”)

Perhaps most pertinently to current affairs, Kirk believed in a prudent rather than an interventionist foreign policy, and strongly doubted the likelihood for success in grafting elements–such as democracy–of one culture upon a separate culture that has no tradition of that element. He believed this not because of ethnocentrism or any other malign reason, but because he knew the plain fact that culture arises out of the traditions of a particular people who have lived on the same land over a long time. Kirk held out little hope for treating culture as a portable commodity to be “poured in from the top,” like consummated soup.

McDonald works to draw these distinctions and make prudent divisions, elaborating upon the differences between traditionalist conservatives and the modern neoconservatives in particular. He notes that the conservative movement as it has developed is really a blending of several streams of thinking–anti-communists, libertarians, and traditionalists, primarily. The author’s sympathies lie with the Kirkians, and he has little use for libertarians and neoconservatives, who tend to invoke Russell Kirk as a name to conjure with, but themselves hold little sympathy with Kirk’s philosophical legacy and example.

The libertarians have a surface similarity with some aspects of traditionalist conservatism, but they end as worshippers at the shrine of the autonomous self, which is antithetical to the life of local loyalties and small-community culture advocated by Kirk. The neoconservatives, on the other hand, are held in low regard by McDonald–as did Kirk, during his lifetime–for their international adventurism, love of a large, activist federal government, and disdain for “the permanent things:” those timeless norms of belief and behavior that humanity ignores at its peril. C. S. Lewis wrote of “mere Christianity;” Professor McDonald’s work is no brief on “mere conservatism.”

On a note of full disclosure: This reviewer vetted the first two chapters of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology for factual accuracy. With that said, a close reader might yet quibble about one or two minor matters of phrasing. But on the whole McDonald has produced a study that will serve as a major resource for scholars who seek to better understand the philosophy that guided one of the wisest and most prescient thinkers of 20th-Century America.


To purchace Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, click here.