Thursday, May 25, 2017

Russell Kirk: Christian Humanism and Conservatism

January 10, 2014

Russell Kirk (1911-1994) at his typewriter

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) at his typewriter

by Vigen Guroian

During a dinner conversation with Russell and Annette Kirk in Washington, D.C., just five months before Dr. Kirk’s death, Russell turned to me and quipped, with his familiar chuckle and impish smile, “Vigen, they are now calling me a theologian!” I did not ask him who was saying such a thing. I realized that he was speaking only half seriously and with ironic intent. Yet if, for instance, one examines Redeeming the Time, a superior collection of some of Russell Kirk’s later lectures and essays, it certainly appears that matters theological had begun to occupy an increasing portion of his mind.

The lead essay in Redeeming the Time poses a question: “Civilization without Religion?” The answer Kirk gives is that a civilization in which the religious cult has withered will not survive. “What ails modern civilization? Fundamentally, our society’s affliction is the decay of religious belief,” Kirk writes. “If the culture is to survive and flourish, it must not be severed from the religious vision out of which it arose.” Of course, there are those who seem to desire nothing so much as that very severance, which is why it is so important that “reflective men and women…labor for the restoration of religious teachings as a credible body of doctrine.”[1]

The final essay in Redeeming the Time is titled “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on The Sky.” This line is from G. K. Chesterton’s epic poem “The Ballad of the White Horse.” Chesterton biographer Maisie Ward explains that the poem honors “Christian men, whether they be Saxon or Roman or Briton or Celt,…banded together to fight the heathen Danes in defense of the sacred things of faith, in defense of the human things of daily life, in defense even of the old traditions of pagan England,…‘because it is only Christian men / guard even heathen things.”[2]

Most of Kirk’s interpreters have failed to dig deeply into his views on religion and culture. This failure might be explained by the fact that most commentators have been interested in his political thought: Kirk on conservatism, Kirk on natural law, Kirk on the American Constitution, and so forth. Yet Kirk often stated his belief that political questions are rooted in matters of morality, and that both of these, in turn, are grounded, explicitly or implicitly, in religious faith.

In fact, Kirk did not think of himself chiefly as a political thinker. It is also true, as Kirk indicated at our dinner that evening, that he was no theologian. I am convinced, however, that he was pleased when he chortled about some people having noticed the degree to which his thought was theologically informed. For faith is a presupposition of most everything that Russell Kirk wrote and said about politics or the good commonwealth. Kirk may not have been a theologian, but he took religion seriously. What is more, from first to last he expressed great admiration and respect for the long and venerable tradition of Christian humanism, a tradition with which he identified strongly. In this chapter, I argue that Russell Kirk himself exemplified this tradition, and that its influence on his thought was definitive.

 

Kirk the Christian humanist

In The Sword of Imagination, his posthumously published autobiography, Kirk states that humanism in just “one form—that of Erasmus and More—did enrich Christianity.”[3] This is no late judgment, however. In an article written in the 1950s, titled “Pico Della Mirandola and Human Dignity,” Kirk observes that the best of the Renaissance Christian humanists, among them Pico, believed that “for human dignity to exist, there must be a Master who can raise man above the brute creation. If the Master is denied, then dignity for man is unattainable.”[4] “For all his glorification of Man,” Kirk adds, Pico, and men such as Thomas More and Erasmus, did not believe, as do the modern secular humanists, that “man makes himself. [Rather,] it is only because man was created in the image of God that man is almost angelic.”[5]

In other words, these great Christian humanists believed that man is a theonomous being, which is to say that God has revealed the fullness and perfection of our human nature in the God-man, Jesus Christ, who is himself, according to Saint Paul, “the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). The dignity of the human being is grounded in the imago Dei, which God has given to humankind through his creative act. With the use of his rational and spiritual powers, man can aspire “to struggle upward toward the Godhead.” Yet the Renaissance humanists did not believe that this perfection (sanctification) in the image of God was inevitable or that it obeyed some law of progress or evolution. Pico and those like him understood that by misusing these very same powers man is capable of denying and degrading the image of God within him and sinking “to the level of the brutes.”[6]

Like the Renaissance or Christian humanists, modern secular humanism propounds, often, a doctrine of the dignity of man, but unlike the former, secular humanism attributes this dignity solely to human reason and autonomy. It rejects the Christian vision of theonomous man, whose dignity comes from God who created him in the image and who has entered into a covenantal relationship with man to secure his salvation from a fallen estate.

Ironically, because of its very supposition of human autonomy, secular humanism degrades humankind. Kirk observes:

Despite all the cant concerning the dignity of man in our time, the real tendency of recent intellectual currents has been to sweep true human dignity down to a morass of mechanistic indignity. Joseph Wood Krutch, a generation ago, in his Modern Temper, described with a somber resignation this process of degradation. Without God, man cannot aspire to rank with the cherubim and seraphim. Freud convinced the crowd of intellectuals that man was nothing better than the slave of obscure and arrogant fleshly desires; Alfred Kinsey, unintentionally reducing to absurdity this denial of human dignity, advised his fellow-creatures to emulate, if not the ant, at least the snake—for man, so the modern dogma goes, lives only to lust. In this fashion phrases [like the dignity of the person] linger in men’s mouths long after the object they describe has been forgotten.[7]

Kirk closes “Pico Della Mirandola and Human Dignity” by quoting Emerson:

There are two laws discrete
Not reconciled,—
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.[8]

Kirk comments that in our day, the “law for thing” rules. Modern man’s remarkable inventions and technology possess enormous potential to enhance human life and relieve human suffering. Yet these powers can subvert human dignity and cheapen life if man views himself in purely instrumental terms. Just “when man’s power over nature is at its summit,”[9] he seems bent on “unkinging” himself, says Kirk. For instance, the biotechnological revolution is filled with the promise of wonderful preventative and curative medicine. Hubris and impiety, however, move modern man to tamper radically with the human gene pool and to treat individual life as a commodity and disposable good—this whether one is speaking of abortion, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research, or various reproductive technologies, including cloning. Denial, explicit or implicit, of the divine image in the human person lies at the heart of modern nihilism, says Kirk. Modern man not only commits deicide in his heart and mind but homicide with his hands and machines.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

The Renaissance humanists admired the philosophy, literature, and art of classical Greece and Rome. They endeavored to reclaim for their contemporaries this treasury of antiquity’s wisdom while remaining guided by the light of the Christian Gospel. They believed in the essential goodness of man and God’s intention to redeem each and every human being. But they were also acutely aware of human foible and sin. Therefore, they especially valued humility in personal conduct and magnanimity in public life. They were confident that God respects and will not contravene human freedom. Thus, they encouraged their contemporaries to endeavor “through moral disciplines of humanitas…to struggle upward toward the Godhead.”[10] Kirk recommends that we revisit the wisdom of these humanists, as it may assist us in our crucial struggle with the dangerously dehumanizing forces let loose by modernity.

Over the years, Kirk enumerated a list of writers and thinkers whom he credited with transmitting and deepening this tradition of Christian humanism. Included on this list were Richard Hooker, Edmund Burke, John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson, G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, and T S. Eliot, among others. For instance, in The Sword of Imagination Kirk recalls that during his study of Burke in the late 1940s he was drawn to “Richard Hooker and other great Anglican divines,” and that John Henry Newman became his principal instructor in classical dogmatic Christianity.[11]

Kirk, who entered into the Roman Catholic Church in 1964, believed in the personal God of Christian orthodoxy. His God was not merely the First Cause or Prime Mover of which the philosophers speak. Nor was he myth, symbol, or cipher for human self-transcendence. Kirk’s God is the triune divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the God who reveals himself to the whole of humankind through the Incarnation of the Son and through the church that is his Body. In an interview excerpted by William F. Buckley Jr. in Nearer, My God, Kirk states that lacking “the Resurrection…, what we call Christianity would be a mere congeries of moral exhortations, at best. The Resurrection in the flesh…proved that indeed Jesus the Son had transcended matter and was divine…[His] Resurrection…prefigures our own resurrection and life everlasting.”[12]

 

The tales Kirk told

Russell Kirk’s Christian humanism is as specific and particular as this confession of faith.[13] Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in the gothic ghost stories that he wrote, which he described as “experiments in the moral imagination.”[14] These are not typically modern tales of the occult. They are about divine judgment, forgiveness, and redemption. Through character and plot, Kirk illumines how the grace of God works in and penetrates through the whole fabric of human existence, indeed, the whole created order.

The early tales, written during the l950s and ‘60s, are noteworthy for their acerbic criticism of political rationalism and government-sponsored social engineering projects. Kirk gives us petty bureaucrats and government agents who, with unflinching and sometimes maniacal faith in technology and progress, threaten to bring grave harm to the complex ecology of human life. Without the slightest regret, they are intent upon ripping up the precious fabric of traditional community and old habits of life.

The story “Ex Tenebris” portrays S. G. W. Barner, Planning Officer, an arrogant and willful official who “has made up his mind that not one stone was to be left upon another at Low Wentford. With satisfaction he had seen the last of the farm-laborers of the hamlet transferred to the new council-houses at Gorst, where there was no lack of communal facilities, including six cinemas.”[15] There is no room in Barner’s plan for Low Wentford’s old and abandoned fifteenth-century church, All Saints. “No church had yet been erected in the newest housing scheme at Gorst: Cultural amenities must yield pride of place to material requirements, Barner had declared.”[16] The old church is emblematic of the spiritual reality to which human beings belong and upon which they depend for lasting meaning in their lives. If human beings ignore or reject that reality, they invite grave ill and suffering upon themselves.

Moved by a utilitarian, atheistic spirit, S. G. W. Barner callously uproots the lives of ordinary people. But as with other characters in Kirk’s stories, Barner runs up against a ghostly avenger and executor of divine judgment. The tormented spirit of a former vicar of the parish, one Reverend Abner Hargreaves, lures Barner one evening to the abandoned church. The weather has turned raw and rainy, and Barner suggests that the two take shelter in the church. “Safe in the church?” the vicar responds. “You and I? Never!” And Hargreaves grabs “Barner by the throat.”[17] The next day, Barner’s crushed corpse is found beneath the collapsed roof of the north porch. For the time being, at least, Low Wentford is spared. “The county council has relinquished the scheme for clearing the site of Low Wentford, indeed there appears to be some possibility that six or seven of the cottages near the bridge may be restored… Mrs. Oliver’s cottage, in any event seems secure. She weeds her garden and bakes her scones, and often sweeps the gravestones clean.”[18]

In his later stories of the 1970s and 1980s, Kirk becomes increasingly concerned with theological and mystical themes of time and eternity. He also asks his readers to consider what constitutes a life worthy of God’s favor and redemption. In these stories, Kirk deepens his Christian anthropology. Every human being, man and woman, is created in the image and likeness of God. Yet because sin corrupts human freedom, reason, and imagination, the struggle between good and evil that occurs in each individual heart is externalized into society and its institutions.

Through such heroes as Frank Sarsfield of “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” Father Raymond Thomas Montrose of “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost,” and Ian Inchburn of “The Reflex-Man in Whinnymuir Close,” Kirk convincingly, sometimes shockingly, makes his case about this struggle of good and evil. And he demonstrates that nothing less than eternal life lies in the balance. Thus, despite his having succeeded in not falling to the worst temptations of lust and violence, or perhaps just because of that, Fr. Raymond Thomas Montrose makes this moving penance at the close of “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost”: “In all of us sinners the flesh is weak; and the future, unknowable, has its many corridors and issues. . . . Puffed up with pride of spirit, by which fault fell angels, I came near to serving the Prince of the Air. From the ravenous powers of darkness, O Lord, let me be preserved.”[19]

Kirk frequently employs T. S. Eliot’s images of the Wasteland in his fiction. The terrain that Kirk’s characters inhabit is strewn with the faded images and broken objects of our civilization, shards of the past that once constituted a uniform culture informed by a vital Christian faith. This terrain is vividly portrayed in the opening scenes of “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding”:

Along the vast empty six-lane highway, the blizzard swept as if it meant to swallow all the sensual world. Frank Sarsfield, massive though he was, scudded like a heavy kite before that overwhelming wind. …He had walked thirty miles that day. …This was depopulated country, its forests gone to the sawmills long before, its mines worked out. The freeway ran through the abomination of desolation. …The village was more distant than he had thought. …A little to the west he noticed what seemed to be old mine-workings, with fragments of brick buildings. He clambered upon an old railroad bed, its rails and ties taken up; perhaps the new freeway had dealt the final blow to the rails.[20]

Like the sojourner-seeker of T. S. Eliot’s famous poem, Sarsfield comes upon a ruined church, once again emblematic of a land and people that are spiritually desolate.

Anthonyville Free Methodist Church hulked before him. Indeed the bell was swinging, and now and again faintly ringing in the steeple; but it was the wind’s mockery, a knell for the derelict town of Anthonyville. The church door was slamming in the high wind, …the glass being gone from the church windows. Sarsfield trudged past the skeletal church.[21]

The decay and despair, the violence and destruction, the brokenness and barrenness of modern life are not merely external to the self, however. The Wasteland exists inside of us as well. It is our total environment, deadly not only to our bodies, but more importantly to our souls.

 

The task of Christian humanism

The entire body of Kirk’s work, fiction and nonfiction alike, alerts us to the fact that our culture is in the midst of a crisis which is eviscerating meaning and dehumanizing life. Yet Kirk was no despairing cynic. He thought it possible that a restatement of Christian orthodoxy could effect cultural recovery. “Given imagination,” he announces in “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky,”

Americans may refute the prophecies of decadence. Whether those wicked things on the sky will be erased in the age that is dawning, or whether the children of darkness prevail—why, that will be decided by the rising generation, in whose power it will be to give the lie to fatalists. …Providence, it seems, is quite often as retributory as it is beneficent, and ordinarily Providence operates through human agency. In the hope of moving the thoughts and sentiments of some few people…for the renewal of moral and political order—why, in that hope these lectures were delivered.[22]

Kirk recognized that, in an earlier age, the pressing requirements of justice and timely reform, both within the church and the political order, had moved Dante, Erasmus, and More to articulate their Christian humanism. Erasmus and More reacted to a dry and desiccating Scholasticism. They propounded a philosophy and social criticism that returned the focus of faith onto the human person in his or her freedom and creativity. In contrast to the utopianism of modern social radicals, however, all three of these great Christians understood the difference between a reform that conserves and replenishes and an innovation that tears down in pursuit of private fantasy. As Kirk writes:

Never deluded, the Christian humanist…does not despise the past simply because it is old, nor does he assume that the present is delightful simply because it is ours. He judges every age and every institution in the light of certain principles of justice and order, which we have learned in part through revelation and in part through the long and painful experience of the human race. When the Christian humanist says that much is wrong with our time, that it is out of joint, he does not mean that things ever were ordered perfectly, in all respects, in some past epoch; nor does he have a vision of a future society in which all the imperfections of human nature will be wiped away, and all desires perfectly satisfied. He can be historically eclectic; he may approve this feature of another age, and disapprove a great deal in any period.[23]

In Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution, Kirk claims: “Secular humanism is a creed or world view that holds we have no reason to believe in a creator; that the world is ‘self-existing’; that no transcendent power is at work in the world; that we should not turn to traditional religion for wisdom, but rather we should develop a new ethics or method of moral science.”[24] And in “Pico,” Kirk concludes: “If Things are to be thrust out of the saddle once more, and Man mounted (in Pico’s phrase) ‘to join battle as to the sound of a trumpet of war’ on behalf of man’s higher nature, then some of us must go barefoot through the world, like Pico, preaching the vegetative and sensual errors of our time.”[25]

It is difficult to imagine Russell Kirk traipsing barefoot anywhere—Kirk’s hiking boots were always at the ready. But whether barefoot or booted, Kirk relentlessly exposed “the vegetative and sensual errors of our time.” He understood deeply that the West owes its respect for the sacredness of human life to biblical religion and Christianity in particular. In this respect, the term “Christian humanism” is a redundancy. Christianity is belief in a God who has become a human being, and by his resurrection from the dead has shown and affirmed that every human person is of eternal worth. Jesus Christ is not just lawgiver, judge, or moral exemplar. When the Christian religion is reduced to fundamentalism, legalism, or moralism, even it might be turned into an instrument that destroys human personality and denies human freedom.

 

Christian humanism versus secular humanism

Russell Kirk was aware that others had also claimed the mantle of humanism, but in the name of secularism. The revival of Christian humanism in our time is spurred by the need to respond to the rise of this popular secular humanism and its half-truths. The philosopher and educator John Dewey was one of this ideology’s most ardent proponents. In his misnamed “Religious Humanist Manifesto,” Dewey stated that man’s animal nature and rational faculties fully accounted for human morality and civilization.[26] He argued that there is nothing “over” or “above” man to which he is related or that must be addressed. Like the Renaissance Christian humanists, Dewey and his followers attached a high value to education. But they believed that the methods and aims of modern education must be strictly rational and instrumental, aimed at developing skills of social intercourse and productivity that promote a just and harmonious secular realm. Education must not refer to anything transcendent nor be founded in moral or religious certitude.

It is easy to understand why Kirk opposed this sort of secular humanism. Even an agnostic, perhaps relying on some form of natural law philosophy, might well subscribe to a normative view of human nature and stand against relativism. But Kirk was not satisfied with such a position—and the reasons why are important to the thesis I have been pursuing.

In A Program for Conservatives (later reissued as Prospects for Conservatives), Kirk insists, “The true conservative, in the tradition of Burke or of Adams, is a theist, for he sees this world as a place of trial, governed by a power beyond human ability to completely comprehend adequately.”[27] And in the first edition of his seminal work, The Conservative Mind, Kirk lists six canons of conservatism, the first of which is unabashedly religious. Conservatism, he maintains, is established on the “belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of duty and right, which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”[28]

Yet despite these claims about the relationship between conservatism and theism, Kirk includes in his pantheon of conservatism those who were not theists. One of these is Irving Babbitt, professor of French literature at Harvard from 1894 to 1933. Babbitt inspired and led the New Humanist movement that aroused considerable interest and controversy in America and England during the first four decades of the past century. Kirk discovered Babbitt early in his career. He was deeply impressed by Babbitt’s brilliant critiques of liberalism, modern education, and secular humanism. But after serious consideration, Kirk came to reject Babbitt’s view that the distinguishing mark of the human animal is the “ethical will,” which requires no reference to the divinity.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

In The Conservative Mind Kirk says little about Babbitt’s rejection of theism. Later, however, as he studied the work of T. S. Eliot and other Christian writers such as Christopher Dawson and Martin D’Arcy, Kirk saw fit to address the matter. Eliot had been a student of Babbitt at Harvard, and his criticism of Babbitt was particularly effective in persuading Kirk that this defect in Babbitt’s thought was significant.

Babbitt contended that there were two dominant types of secular humanism. The first is the scientistic sort that views technology as a savior that will bring into existence a new age of social justice and human flourishing. The second is the sentimental or Rousseauian variety, which maintains that man is corrupted by traditional society and must liberate himself from it in order to enjoy genuine freedom and happiness. Both, Babbitt rightly argued, are wedded to philosophical naturalism and moral relativism.

Eliot did not quarrel with this typology of secular humanism. But he rejected Babbitt’s claim that his so-called ethical humanism negotiated successfully a middle ground between naturalism and supernaturalism, thereby ensuring the dignity of the human person on purely empirical, philosophical grounds. Eliot argued that Babbitt could not have it both ways: he could not affirm human freedom and the ethical will while also rejecting theism. In other words, Babbitt’s ethical will is not what distinguishes man from nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, but rather man’s relationship to the supernatural. “Man is man because he can recognize supernatural realities, not because he can invent them,” wrote Eliot in an essay on the New Humanism. “Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below,” from an essentially closed system we call nature, “or something must come from above,”[29] from a source that transcends the bounds of that system and may even have brought it into being.

Thus, either man is explicable in terms of a self-existent total system that needs no God—the view of naturalism—or else human nature can be fully understood only by incorporating an account of humankind’s relation to a Divine Reality (or a Supreme Being). If it really is possible to fully explain human existence in terms of nature, then neither the freedom nor the morality Babbitt defended really exists, since every human thought and action is, in theory, fully explainable within the terms of a determinate series of causes and effects. Nature’s “law,” seen from a secular and scientific point of view, is necessity, to which freedom is alien. “If you remove from the word ‘human’ all that the belief in the supernatural has given to man,” writes Eliot, “you can view him finally as no more than a clever, adaptable, and mischievous animal.”[30]

Eliot did not deny that nature is “in” man and that man is “in” nature. But he insisted that this does not exclude the possibility that supernature is also “in” man” and man “in” it. Nature (or Creation) is not some “thing” upon which God acts from without; rather, God expresses himself “in” and “through” nature. The human being is the supreme example of God’s “indwelling” in nature, since God himself became human, just as he created humankind in his own image. That is why human existence genuinely transcends the necessity and determinacy of the “nature” proposed by secular humanism. The existence of the biblical God posits both divine and human freedom.

Kirk wrote a lengthy introduction to a new edition of Babbitt’s Literature and the American College, issued in 1987. In that introduction he favorably summarizes Eliot’s criticism of Babbitt. “Eliot’s argument is that Babbitt, like nearly all twentieth-century writers of Protestant or even Protestant-agnostic background, has rejected the religion of his childhood, but has not acquired other theological and moral premises for his writings.”[31] “The Christian humanism of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More clearly was a source of Babbitt’s own humanism,”[32] but his rejection of the “religious assumptions about the human condition” to which these humanists also held “starves” the very “moral imagination” that Babbitt wanted to defend.[33] Babbitt left open the gates to moral relativism, despite his heroic efforts to close them and hold back the tide of secularism.

Kirk therefore judges Eliot’s view of Babbitt’s thought to be “just.” Babbitt “said that economics moves upward into politics, and politics upwards into ethics; but on whether ethics moves upwards into theology, he was equivocal.” For whatever reason, “Babbitt refused to proceed beyond tradition’ to the religious sources of tradition.”[34] And this refusal left his philosophy deeply flawed.

Russell Kirk believed that only biblical theism is capable of combating relativism and renewing our culture. His theistic conservatism was a form of Christian humanism. Perhaps the most revealing evidence of Kirk’s strong identification with this great Christian tradition appears in his discussion of Eliot’s beliefs concerning Babbitt. In Eliot and His Age, Kirk writes that Babbitt’s “humanism…stung Eliot as if it had been a gadfly, rousing curiosity and inquiry; his reaction, after his leaving Harvard, was a gradual transcending of the humanist argument, a fulfillment rather than a rejection of Babbitt’s teaching. Like Thomas More and Erasmus, Eliot became humanist and Christian.”[35] Kirk could not have offered any greater praise for Eliot than this, precisely because Kirk himself had found and embraced the same good company.

Vigen Guroian

Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He and Annette Kirk are members of the editorial advisory board of the Clarion.

This essay was first published in Prof. Guroian’s Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life (2005, ISI Books).

 


[1] Russell Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1996), 15.

[2] Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London: Sheed and Ward, 1944), 245.

[3] Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 202.

[4] Kirk, Dreams of Avarice, 338. Russell Kirk’s strong appreciate for Pico is bound to be controversial. Pico is subject to various conflicting interpretations: as one of the more conservative Christian humanists, on the one hand, and as a radical Pelagian and precursor of all that goes wrong with modernity, its rationalism and naïve faith in human progress, on the other. I cannot negotiate fully this controversy here. But this much needs to be said: Pico is neither an Augustinian nor a Calvinist, but that does not make him a Pelagian, unless one classifies Eastern Christianity as Pelagian. Neo-Platonism and Pseudo-Dionysius influence Pico. Man is microcosm and possesses a gift of freedom attributed to the imago Dei. This is man’s dignity. Thus, Pico holds to a doctrine of human perfections much akin to the Eastern Christian doctrine of theosis (growth in the likeness of God into eternal life). I especially disagree with John Passmore, who, in The Perfectibility of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), maintains that according to Pico “man is born… without a nature but with the capacity to choose what nature he will adopt.” And it is absurd to say, as Passmore goes on to claim, that Pico’s anthropology approximates that of Sartre (see p. 104 of Passmore’s book). This is wrong because, as Kirk Demonstrates, Pico’s anthropology is based in biblical and orthodox Christian belief in the imago Dei. Humanity may grow and ascend to the likeness of the humanity of God in Jesus Christ or descent into the brutish and demonic. Only in this sense is human nature “indeterminate.”

[5] Ibid., 336-37.

[6] Ibid., 337.

[7] Ibid., 338.

[8] Ibid., 339.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 337.

[11] Kirk, Sword of Imagination, 231, 230.

[12] William F. Buckley, Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 124.

[13] Portions of this section are taken nearly verbatim from my introduction to Russell Kirk, Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004).

[14] Kirk, Ancestral Shadows, 402.

[15] Ibid., 5.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 16.

[18] Ibid.. 16-17.

[19] Ibid., 394.

[20] Ibid., 276, 277-78.

[21] Ibid., 278.

[22] Kirk, Redeeming the Time, 309.

[23] Kirk, Dreams of Avarice, 177.

[24] Russell Kirk, Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution (Dallas: Spencer Publishing, 1997), 187.

[25] Kirk, Dreams of Avarice, 339.

[26] Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Education: An Episodic History of the American University and College since 1953 (South Bend, IN: Gateway Editions, 1978), 63.

[27] Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1954), 99.

[28] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1953), 7-8.

[29] T.S. Eliot, “Second Thoughts about Humanism,” in T.S. Eliot: Selected Essays (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1963), 58.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Russell Kirk, Introduction to Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (Washington DC: National Humanities Institute, 1986), 58.

[32] Ibid., 10.

[33] Ibid., 59.

[34] Ibid., 59-60.

[35] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (New York: Random House, 1971), 140.

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