Russel Kirk on American Civilization


On to book number three: Russel Kirk’s The Roots of American Order.

Back in the 19th century Marx had leveled a new criticism against civilization, that the entire social order was nothing other than an elaborate ruse designed to hide the fact that the rich were exploiting the working class. Religion taught that rich and poor were equal before God, humanitarianism taught that the more fortunate should care for the less fortunate, and law operated on the idea that the rulers should behave in a just manner towards citizens, but these were nothing other than tricks to distract the workers from the fundamental injustice being done to them. As long as the workers believed in superstructures like humanitarianism,  religion, and justice, they would not revolt against the rich and create the communist paradise.

In the 20th century this sort of criticism was brought to other aspects of life like sex, law and ethnicity. Marriage, chivalry, sexual morals and even child-rearing were nothing other than tricks to keep women enslaved to men; law appeared to be about justice, but it was really system designed to give power to some and withhold it from others. Language itself was full of racist and sexist oppression: what since the days of Beowulf had seemed to be innocent quirks of the English language, such as using the term “Man” to refer to our species, or referring to evil as “darkness”, was nothing other than a plot to keep down women and blacks.

We just celebrated Martin Luther King Day, and it is worthwhile to note that while civil-rights activists from Harriet Beecher Stow to Booker T. Washington down to Dr. King had appealed to old American legal traditions and America’s Christian conscience to resolve the injustices done to America’s blacks, from the 70s onward the rhetoric of groups like the Black Panthers appealed to outside the American tradition, seeing it as hopelessly corrupt, impossible to reform, needing only to be swept away by revolution.

In this atmosphere Russel Kirk wrote The Roots of American Order. It is essentially a textbook on Western Civilization, but one that is planned backwards: the last chapters study America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but the whole book is designed to show just where the ideas and concepts originate.

Kirk starts with Hebrew monotheism, law, and limits placed on the Davidic monarchy. Then he looks at Greek experiments in democracy, Platonic philosophy, and Roman legal theory. He spends a great deal of time on medieval theology, the English and Scottish Reformation and Enlightenment movements, studies of English Law, and English history. All this serves as a prelude to his study of the American version of modern Western Civilization.

Kirk’s point is that if you are totally ignorant of things like the Bible, English history, St Augustine or David Hume, you are not equipped to launch an intelligent critique of America’s political ideals. You cannot read something like the Declaration of Independence without knowing where the words come from. To understand a culture from within and then criticize it is to be an active player in the creation of culture. To stand outside a culture, not want to understand it, and want to see it burn, is to be a barbarian. A barbarian cannot really change things, only destroy them.

Well, the barbarians have been running the country for some time now. Republicans or Democrats might be in office, it does not seem to matter. But at least Kirk has taught me to take the long view, to not be quick to judge people from different cultural backgrounds, and to appreciate just how rich and textured a thing like culture is.


One comment

  1. Excellent review. I’ll have to get a copy.

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