Russell Kirk


American Political Theorist, Moralist, Historian, Social Critic, Literary Critic and Fiction Author

Author Quotes

What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.

What Madison and other Americans found convincing in Hume was his freedom from mystification, vulgar error, and fanatic conviction: Hume's powerful practical intellect, which settled for politics as the art of the possible. . . . [I]n the Federalist, there occurs no mention of the name of John Locke. In Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention there is to be found but one reference to Locke, and that incidental. Do not these omissions seem significant to zealots for a Lockean interpretation of the Constitution? . . . John Locke did not make the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or foreordain the Constitution of the United States. . . And the Constitution of the United States would have been framed by the same sort of men with the same sort of result, and defended by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, had Locke in 1689 lost the manuscripts of his Two Treatises of Civil Government while crossing the narrow seas with the Princess Mary.

Those who neglect the roots of order, one may add, are compelled to water those roots desperately?after wandering in the parched wasteland of disorder. Upon our knowledge of those roots may depend what sort of order America and the world will have by the end of this century. It may be the order of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, rich and dehumanized; it may be the garrison-state controlled by ferocious ideology, as in George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four; or it may be an order renewed and improved, yet recognizably linked with the order that arose in Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London.

To be able to retain the fruits of one?s labor; to be able to see one?s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one?s property to one?s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one?s own?these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.

To narrow natural rights to such neat slogans as liberty, equality, fraternity or life, liberty, property, . . . was to ignore the complexity of public affairs and to leave out of consideration most moral relationships. . . Burke appealed back beyond Locke to an idea of community far warmer and richer than Locke's or Hobbes's aggregation of individuals. The true compact of society, Burke told his countrymen, is eternal: it joins the dead, the living, and the unborn. We all participate in this spiritual and social partnership, because it is ordained of God. In defense of social harmony, Burke appealed to what Locke had ignored: the love of neighbor and the sense of duty. By the time of the French Revolution, Locke's argument in the Second Treatise already had become insufficient to sustain a social order.

Today, as in the past, we ought to remind ourselves that the true natural law is not a mere congeries of appetites, and that it is not from the vagrant musings of the hour's judges that the natural law derives its high authority? The Catholic tradition of natural law, to borrow a phrase from Sir Ernest Barker, holds that law--in the sense of last resort--is somehow above lawmaking. This understanding, in effect, still prevails among many Americans, not all of them Catholics. They agree with Justice Frankfurter that natural law is what sensible and right-minded men do every day. Yet often the public's apprehension of the teachings of natural law is much decayed, in part because of the total secularization of instruction in public schools? Human nature is not vulpine nature, leonine nature, or serpentine nature. Natural law is bound up with the concept of the dignity of man, and with the experience of humankind ever since the beginning of social community.

True law necessarily is rooted in ethical assumptions or norms; and those ethical principles are derived, in the beginning at least, from religious convictions. When the religious understanding, from which a concept of law arose in a culture, has been discarded or denied, the laws may endure for some time, through what sociologists call cultural lag; but in the long run, the laws also will be discarded or denied. With this hard truth in mind, I venture to suggest that the corpus of English and American laws--for the two arise for the most part from a common root of belief and experience--cannot endure forever unless it is animated by the spirit that moved it in the beginning: that is, by religion, and specifically by the Christian people. Certain moral postulates of Christian teaching have been taken for granted, in the past, as the ground of justice. When courts of law ignore those postulates, we grope in judicial darkness.

Two centuries ago, the United States settled into a permanent political order, after fourteen years of violence and heated debate. Two centuries ago, France fell into ruinous disorder that ran its course for twenty-four years. In both countries there resounded much ardent talk of rights--rights natural, rights prescriptive. . . Fanatic ideology had begun to rage within France, so that not one of the liberties guaranteed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man could be enjoyed by France's citizens. One thinks of the words of Dostoievski: To begin with unlimited liberty is to end with unlimited despotism. . . . In striking contrast, the twenty-two senators and fifty-nine representatives who during the summer of 1789 debated the proposed seventeen amendments to the Constitution were men of much experience in representative government, experience acquired within the governments of their several states or, before 1776, in colonial assembles and in the practice of the law. Many had served in the army during the Revolution. They decidedly were political realists, aware of how difficult it is to govern men's passions and self-interest. . . . Among most of them, the term democracy was suspect. The War of Independence had sufficed them by way of revolution. . . The purpose of law, they knew, is to keep the peace. To that end, compromises must be made among interests and among states. Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists ranked historical experience higher than novel theory. They suffered from no itch to alter American society radically; they went for sound security. The amendments constituting what is called the Bill of Rights were not innovations, but rather restatements of principles at law long observed in Britain and in the thirteen colonies.

Ultimately culture is ?the elevation of character which distinguishes the civilized man from the brute.

We must nurture the moral imagination, which draws upon theology and history and poetic images.

We ought not to endeavor to revise history according to our latter day notions of what things ought to have been, or upon the theory that the past is simply a reflection of the present

We suffer from a strong movement to exclude such religious beliefs from the operation of courts of law, and to discriminate against those unenlightened who cling fondly to the superstitions of the childhood of the race. Many moral beliefs, however, though sustained by religious convictions, may not be readily susceptible of scientific demonstration. After all, our abhorrence of murder, rape, and other crimes may be traced back to the Decalogue and other religious injunctions. If it can be shown that our opposition to such offenses is rooted in religion, then are restraints upon murder and rape unconstitutional? We arrive at such absurdities if we attempt to erect a wall of separation between the operation of the laws and those Christian moral convictions that move most Americans. If we are to try to sustain some connection between Christian teaching and the laws of this land of ours, we must understand the character of that link. We must claim neither too much nor too little for the influence of Christian belief upon our structure of law? I am suggesting that Christian faith and reason have been underestimated in an age bestridden, successively, by the vulgarized notions of the rationalists, the Darwinians, and the Freudians. Yet I am not contending that the laws ever have been the Christian word made flesh nor that they can ever be.

What Christianity (or any other religion) confers is not a code of positive laws, but instead some general understanding of justice, the human condition being what it is? In short, judges cannot well be metaphysicians--not in the execution of their duties upon the bench, at any rate, even though the majority upon the Supreme Court of this land, and judges in inferior courts, seem often to have mistaken themselves for original moral philosophers during the past quarter century. The law that judges mete out is the product of statute, convention, and precedent. Yet behind statute, convention, and precedent may be discerned, if mistily, the forms of Christian doctrines, by which statute and convention and precedent are much influenced--or once were so influenced. And the more judges ignore Christian assumptions about human nature and justice, the more they are thrown back upon their private resources as abstract metaphysicians--and the more the laws of the land fall into confusion and inconsistency. Prophets and theologians and ministers and priests are not legislators, ordinarily; yet their pronouncements may be incorporated, if sometimes almost unrecognizably, in statute and convention and precedent. The Christian doctrine of natural law cannot be made to do duty for the law of the land; were this tried, positive justice would be delayed to the end of time. Nevertheless, if the Christian doctrine of natural law is cast aside utterly by magistrates, flouted and mocked, then positive law becomes pattern-less and arbitrary.

The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate. Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

The trouble with purging the school curriculum of religious knowledge is that ultimate questions cannot be answered without reference to religious beliefs or at least to philosophy. With religion expelled from the schools, a clear field was left for the entrance of the mode of belief called humanitarianism, or secular humanism--the latter a term employed by the cultural historian Christopher Dawson. During the past four decades and more, the place that religion used to hold in American schooling, always a rather modest and non-dogmatic place, has been filled by secular humanism. Its root principle is that human nature and society may be perfected without the operation of divine grace.

There are no lost causes because there are no gained causes.

There are six canons of conservative thought: (1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. Every Tory is a realist, says Keith Feiling: he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom. True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls. (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls Logicalism in society. This prejudice has been called the conservatism of enjoyment--a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot the proper source of an animated Conservatism. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a classless society. With reason, conservatives have been called the party of order. If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom. (4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power. (6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

These two bodies of opinion share a detestation of collectivism. They set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy. That much is obvious enough. What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.

The elevation of character is the key to a high culture, the decay of culture, or ?decadence,? occurs when there ?is the loss of an object, an end, an aim. Men and women become decadent when they forget or deny the objects of life, and so fritter away their years in trifles or debauchery.

The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition, or success or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he know that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.

The French Revolutionaries, hoping to transform utterly human society and even human nature, broke with the past, defied history, embraced theoretic dogmas, and so fell under the cruel domination of Giant Ideology.

The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.

The Hebrew prophets were men endowed with moral imagination.

The just society is one in which each man may seek the things which belong to his nature. By contrast, a system of economic totalitarianism treats the industrious and the idle, the able and the stupid, as if they were alike--which is contrary to the laws of justice. . . American society is imperfect; but all human societies are imperfect in some degree. The American economy has its faults; but they are faults that may be modified. A free economy, because of its opportunities for choice and competition, has always within it the possibilities of improvement; it does not repress the reformer. But a totalitarian economy, hostile to any sort of criticism, founded on envy and terror, cannot amend its ways without ceasing to be; it leaves no room for prudent reformation. When something in a free economy goes wrong, there is temporary trouble, but the variety of talents and the elasticity of the economic structure make mending fairly easy. When, however, something in a totalitarian economy goes wrong, there is general and serious suffering, because the master-plan of the regimented economy is inelastic and arbitrary. The free economy, in such conditions, penalizes only a few by loss of profit, or resort to bankruptcy. But when the totalitarian economy is brought to account for its mistakes, it seeks scapegoats; and the concentration camp substitutes for the bankruptcy-court.

The libertarian thinks that this world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering ego; the conservative finds himself instead a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required-and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding.

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American Political Theorist, Moralist, Historian, Social Critic, Literary Critic and Fiction Author