While some books deserve their obscurity, others are unjustly forgotten; Russell Kirk’s early text, The American Cause, should be remembered. Not as developed and mature as his later work, still this little book reminds us of human nature and its limitations, thereby warning us against ideology and its violent tendencies. For Kirk, prudent acceptance of limitation—what he terms “resignation,” a willingness to enjoy an imperfect but decent society and state—is the genius of the republic.
Do Not Expect Perfection
While he knows American pluralism well, Kirk claims that “it is possible to write about a body of religious and ethical principle shared by the majority of Americans,” which he identifies as Christianity. Hardly a theocrat, he affirms toleration of “all religious convictions, and toleration even of disbelief in any religion.” Rather than religious rule, Kirk asks us to note that “[c]ivilization grows out of religion: the morals, the politics, the economics, the literature, and the arts of any people all have a religious origin.” Consequently, cultural renewal requires cultic renewal, Kirk believes, even though “the modern mind has been secularized so thoroughly that ‘culture’ is assumed by most people to have no connection with the love of God.” And while he warns that “our society’s affliction is the decay of religious belief,” it remains that the moral, political, and economic ideas founded upon our religious-cultural background are still the principles “to which most American’s are attached.” We benefit from a religious haunting of the public square, in other words. But ghosts can be exorcized, and civilizations without religion “have ended in slime.”
Kirk’s summary of Christianity is somewhat surprising. One expects, and finds, a Creator-God grounding a brotherhood of man spared the fate of “bitterly competing little organisms, with no moral obligations to one another.” Rather than fierce rivalry, we share familial relations, each “entitled to be treated as a son of God,” each entitled to “respect for his personality.” Yet Kirk spills more ink on sin, trial, and imperfection than fatherhood, brotherhood, and dignity. Do not forget, he stresses, that the human being is “an obstinate and perverse creature,” one who “repeatedly refuses or fails to follow in the steps of God.” Every nation and person does evil, “some people spend most of their lives in doing” so, and unless God redeems we are doomed to deny our kinship with God and sink into a subhuman state, even into slime.
No mere Deism, this.
Kirk sharply distinguishes the condition of this fallen world from the domain of grace. While “any person may attain … a peace beyond all understanding, an immortality … purged of the sins and flaws of the world,” such an attainment is not of this world, which is “a place of moral suffering, a place of trial.” It is “our Christian duty in this world always to fight for the right,” but it takes “all our energies merely to keep evil in check, or to make modest progress in human affairs from time to time.” A remarkable statement: it takes all our energies merely to control evil and occasionally advance a small degree—“on earth, we crucify perfect things.” Happiness “never can be attained upon this earth.”
Kirk concludes that “Christianity teaches resignation: not to expect perfection in this world. But it also teaches hope … in another realm.” Hope for heaven, but resign yourself to keeping evil in check on earth. Nothing more.
Resignation and the Grounds of Freedom
It seems odd to grounds liberty in resignation. We equate resignation with passivity, with an obsequiousness bordering on the inhuman, a bowing and scraping and licking of the boots of Fate. Instead, we take arms against a sea of troubles, we change the world, we liberate, emancipate, empower, critique, dissent—these are the images of freedom we’ve come to expect. Protest, not resignation; action, not acceptance of inherited limits. To us, Kirk’s guardedness seems like quietism, despair, even a willingness to collude with injustice.
And yet it is not so. While apparently counter-intuitive, resignation preserves ordered liberty. To explain why, I’m going to leave Kirk for a recent essay by Bill McClay on the ideal of mastery, the optimistic vision and belief “that the infirmities of the human condition were no longer a permanent given, but lay within the ability of human agency to alter … granting human beings an ever-expanding power to control their circumstances.” This seems more familiar to us, a sense that fortune is in our hands.
But mastery has shadows.
Anxiety accompanies mastery; now that one is capable of altering human infirmities and frailties, one is always responsible to do so. If frailty overtakes you, or an infirmity stubbornly resists alteration, it is your fault, you should have been able to do something about it—you are to blame. How are we to live in a world where suffering becomes “understood as something entirely accidental, and largely preventable”? McClay suggests that such a world will “contain little joy or exuberance,” but is a “tightly wound world, permeated with bitterness and anxiety and moral suspicion, in which human life will be at one and the same time deeply devalued and fiercely guarded.” The man of the future will not be the Ubermensch, but rather “an obsessive-compulsive handwasher who lives in constant fear of other people’s germs,” always scouting about for lurking dangers, always ready for a technical solution to what our ancestors squarely faced as an act of God. One could, he concludes, scarcely imagine a world more enervating to the “dignity and vigor” of human life.
Ideology and the Politics of Prudence
Acceptance of an imperfect earthly order is a virtual vaccination against ideology, the “political fanaticism … alleged to point a way to a perfect society.” Americans, Kirk affirms, are not fanatics, for they are not ideologues, not revolutionaries, and mostly uninterested in political theories and speculations. Guided by a prudential regard for what is possible in politics—recall, mainly the checking of evil—“[m]ost Americans do not wish to turn the world upside down” and so rarely engage in class struggle, interference with other states’ internal affairs, and have no empire or aspirations thereof.
Given the modest hopes for temporal power, it shouldn’t surprise us to see Kirk’s antipathy towards ideology. Ideology is dangerous, rationalist, technocratic, demanding heaven on earth, constant improvement, and inexorably tends towards expanded governmental action in violation of the traditional rights, freedoms, obligations, and institutions in which most of us live and seek our happiness. Furthermore, as the 20th century demonstrated, following its ancestor of the French Revolution—ideology leads to cleansings, genocides, ovens, and wars. “Thinking in slogans ends with thinking in bullets,” the American knows, and so the American is “not a visionary, a dreamer,” choosing instead to follow long-established principles and institutions confirmed in their modest, tolerable workings for centuries, guided by religious beliefs confirmed by millennia. Prudence, reasonability, compromise, sobriety, caution, conservation, moderation, rather than upheaval, abstractions, vague and usually impossible dreams—those are the guiding lights of the experiment.
Not so for the ideologue. In another essay Kirk articulates why it creates “terrestrial hells.” First, ideology is an inversion and corruption of the religious impulse, one replacing salvation in the beyond with salvation on earth, often through revolution, and always with fanaticism. Second, ideology refuses compromise; any departure from the Absolute Truth is tantamount to heresy, it cannot be allowed, and thus the unforgiving dogmatism of its reach, including an unwillingness to accept the “next best thing” or offer tolerance to those who differ. Third, ideologues cannot abide difference of viewpoint, thus the constant and violent factionalization of the various camps, each retrenching more deeply in their fervor and orthodoxy. As a result, the ideologue cannot abide questions, or calm discourse, or compromise, or accept a tolerable amount of imperfection and impurity in the system. All must be made to conform, all must be brought to into accordance with the vision, all falsehood stamped out, and all dissent suppressed.
For the ideologues of mastery, resignation abandons our Promethean humanity, but rationalism—by which I mean a belief that there is nothing that cannot be mastered through some sort of policy, procedure, or equipment—never rests content. Of course, rationalism’s companion tends to be technique and the technocrats and specialists of technique—the masters. Faith in such masters tends to bring with it distrust in the judgment of ordinary people, even a supplanting of their own self-governance as the paternalistic masters “improve their lot.” Almost always, the masters trample local control, heedless of subsidiarity, local forms of knowledge, the history of a place, and local agency. Mastery tends to come at the expense of ceding responsibility to the masters; failing to do so would be to give in to fate, to not utilize the powers we have to bend nature and infirmity to our will.
Oddly then, and perhaps unexpectedly, the resigned embrace of a “tolerable world,” one in which evil is checked and progress welcomed but not demanded, is a world which tends towards agency for normal people and local community; certainly resignation safeguards the resources of tradition, common sense, custom, the little platoons of civil society, neighborliness, resourcefulness, thrift, common decency, private property, religion, and the organic institutions of society. Resignation allows for agency and the dignity of the normal person and their communities, which also safeguards our rights and liberty.
Isn’t it striking to find Kirk suggesting a “sober and prudent defense” of the American cause, while rejecting any zealotry for “vague ‘Americanism’?” Unlike the ideologue, he refuses “god terms” and “devil terms,” also refusing to claim that “a thing is good simply because it is American, or bad simply because it is not American.” No abstractions, no propaganda, no ahistorical absolutes, and thus no shrillness, no shrieking, and no demonization. Instead he defends high civilization, which demands compromise over difference in policy and wishes, tolerance in the face of difference of beliefs and doctrines, restriction of mastery and our will to power, and a keeping of the peace. Refusing to think in slogans, we also do not think in bullets, and social peace survives.
Such are the many, worthy fruits of resignation.
R. J. Snell is Associate Professor of Philosophy and director of the philosophy program at Eastern University where he co-directs the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His latest book (with Steve Cone) is Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University.