Russell Kirk’s Reminder: Virtue Matters

Russell Kirk (Wikimedia)
The formidable 20th-century conservative warned that freedom can descend into immorality and that government is not the enemy.   

The year of our Lord 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, marks another notable centenary: that of the birth of Russell Kirk, a preeminent conservative of post-war America.

The conservative movement that emerged in the 1950s was not a glistening constellation of philosophically unified thinkers. William F. Buckley Jr. was responsible for wrestling libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists into a broad coalition capable of combatting the ascendant center-left, and National Review in its early days served as an arena for the various sparring factions. Though allied against a common enemy, each tried to suffuse the movement with its own understanding of conservatism.

Kirk led the traditionalist wing. In 1953, he had published his famous book The Conservative Mind, which proved that conservatism was not, as post-war liberals often characterized it, mere spastic curmudgeonliness but instead the fruit of a formidable Anglo-American intellectual heritage. His fondness for the wisdom of ancestors and his admiration of Edmund Burke nevertheless attracted the censure of conservatives who thought Kirk was acting from nostalgia rather than principle.

The battle lines were drawn on the issue of freedom and its place in politics. Is freedom the ultimate political goal? The libertarians said yes; so did Frank Meyer, whose “fusion” of libertarian and traditionalist philosophies called for politically free people to pursue tradition privately. Kirk, by contrast, asserted that the ultimate political goal is virtue, to which freedom should be subordinate.

No quantity of Aristotle citations will suffice to allay the libertarian’s concern that the primacy of virtue will produce a dominating and oppressive state. The traditionalist often hears the libertarian’s objection that coerced virtue is no virtue at all; Meyer, for instance, though not a libertarian, agreed with them on this issue and vigorously protested that “no man can act morally unless he is free to choose good from evil.” Kirk rejected Meyer’s statement as an exaggeration.

Civil freedom is possible only once order has been established.

In the traditionalist’s conception, the freedom necessary for morality is freedom of the will, which everyone has by nature. Meyer, however, was concerned with external constraints imposed by the state, which he thought diminished the moral worth of an action as far as they compelled it. Attendance at church on Sunday, for instance, is more commendable if one goes voluntarily than if the government compels it.

Yet this idea of freedom ignores how the individual is affected by the society in which he lives, and how he affects society. A government’s primary concern, as the ancient political theorists knew, is the well-being of its people, for which freedom is a tool. This becomes clear once one considers that civil freedom is possible only once order has been established. For that reason, the political order ought to encourage citizens to be virtuous, not merely leave them free to do anything as long as they don’t harm one another.

As a consequence of his traditionalist, virtue-centered political philosophy, Kirk can be convicted of more specific offenses against 21st-century conservative principles. His reservations about capitalism and about hyperextended freedom of expression stand out among them.

In his essay “Pornography and Free Speech,” for example, he prioritizes public morality over civil liberty and demonstrates conclusively that the free-speech absolutism of the Supreme Court of the Forties and Fifties as regards pornography is at odds with English common law, previous court rulings, and general practice. “In no state of the Union,” he writes, “two centuries ago, would foul speech or publication have been tolerated by the public authorities — notwithstanding provisions in state constitutions for freedom of speech and press.” Before the second World War, municipal committees, “composed typically of clergymen, police officers, married women active in civics, and perhaps a professor or two,” censored books, newspapers, and magazines in behalf of public decency.

The essay can help illuminate modern politics and its raging controversies about free speech. The New York Times has correctly perceived that conservatives and leftists have reversed their former alignments on the First Amendment, leaving the leftists to feel the other edge of the free-speech sword they once wielded zealously. To most conservatives today, the idea of municipal censors would seem an intrusive priggery or an alarming threat. Meanwhile, the Left has taken up the mantle of public morality, albeit using its own perverse persuasions. The peculiar result is that Kirk today has more in common with the worldview of moralizing near-socialists than with the worldview of most conservatives.

In Kirk’s conception of society, free speech plainly does not extend to indecent material, and the Christian standard is the best we have for judging what is indecent. In the libertarian conception, which is now dominant in the conservative movement, free speech should be as broad as possible, and the virtuous citizen can decide for himself whether to patronize lewd media. Libertarians’ almost paranoid wariness of government action at any level denies the very concept of public decency.

Kirk would probably find such paranoia reckless, particularly in view of the catastrophic decline in traditional morality since World War II. Meyer and the libertarians would likely attribute this decline to religious leaders’ failure to persuade people to adhere to their doctrines, and they would assert that the government is unable to coerce virtue.

A more plausible explanation, given fallen human nature, is that in a society that will no longer point its citizens toward the good, people simply wander into a licentious swamp. Perhaps government cannot make a people virtuous, but it can help a people preserve its virtue by restraining individuals’ worst impulses.

That is the lesson that Kirk strove to impart to the conservatives of the last century. The government is not necessarily the problem (apologies to Reagan). There is the dangerous and often unconstitutional excess of liberals and left-wingers who look to an ever-larger bureaucracy to enact their agendas. But countering that is the salutary and ordered competence of the traditionalist who is careful not to fall into utopian schemes.

Contra the libertarians, Kirk wrote:

Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individual, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.

This sounds like the makings of tyranny, but only because those right of center have trained themselves to fear the government even where it is good and necessary.

Traditionalism has occupied an eccentric fringe in the Republican party for the past several decades. Now that Trump has disturbed the consensus, thoughtful conservatives have a chance to revisit their principles. Kirk’s hundredth birthday is a perfect occasion for the conservative movement to arm itself with the weapon it has lacked virtuein its war against destructive ideology on all sides.


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