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Against Conservatism

2) Against Mr. Russell Kirk

Author: Nathaniel Slattery
Posted: Month of the Holy Name, 9th Day, Year of Our Lord 2024

Below, I have begun to speak with you, Mr. Kirk, without having learned of you who you were. In this way, I hope to simulate a real conversation, where we do not often know a person with whom we shall never reconcile. This as opposed to those with whom I hope to reconcile, whom I know better and better. But with you I cannot reconcile because you have died, nearly a year to the date of when I was born, which is to say the 29th day of the Month of the Blessed Sacrament, which day is the birthday of my firstborn son and heir.

You are an interesting man besides for being compared to me, who am nothing in the eyes of the world, while you are very much. You were a fiction writer, for one thing. I wonder if I should have the privilege of reading your fiction, perhaps for review, and to find in it how much of the natural virtue which you uniquely propound in absence of supernatural virtues (evidenced by the lack of any mention of Catholicism in what I am reading of you) preserved you from vulgarity, cursing, blasphemy, or lust in your fiction.

For another thing, your personal life on the face of it appears to model the birth of the Conservative movement (perhaps because you brought it to term yourself) so much as my peers might understand it, that is, from the World War which they most remember. Here you were in the American army, and this brought you thoroughly into Europe, and the study of their thinking, and by this I mean Britain, and by Britain I mean Scotland, where John Knox made immortal certain most dusty portions of the soul of John Calvin.

But turning from that to a more understandable thing, without any need of background history: After World War II, America received a great influx of wealth (that of an empire conquering the world, making it best comparable to England, then to Rome, then to Greece, then to Persia, then to Babylon, and never once to the nation of Moses and Josue). From this wealth came decadence, and from the decadence came what you seem to understand to be Liberalism, or collectivism, or Communism’s ghost. And certainly this is demonstrable. And its comparison to today is very apt, and so I know why the men whom I love for Christ’s sake wish to study Communism’s enemies in America of your time, namely perhaps you and your peers who wrote these essays, in order to defeat it today.

Now, though, I ask you, as I have suggested in the first essay, why in the world has it come back? You died but a year before I was born. I inherited your world. Why have you given me and my peers such a world, in which the enemy which you appear to fear and against whom you worked, is not vanquished, despite your lifetime, and all these men in this book? Did you hate this enemy? Perhaps not. Perhaps, as God rejected Saul, you should have destroyed them, but you did not, because you did not have the true religion. Certainly, my peers seem to lead on to that conclusion.

Against Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom

Mr. Russell Kirk, I have not looked up your background as I did your editor’s, and so I hope to be more civil with you. Now, again opposite Mr. Meyer’s, your opening paragraph is wise and straightforward, all the way to the sudden turn at the end, where you say, “true freedom is not possible”, that is, without tradition (you call it prescription) and just authority.

Why this obsession with freedom? It is a very obscure word the way all people use it. It is true that Aquinas acknowledges a greater liberty of will for those most sinless and having more merit, but it is clear that his idea is different than yours, because his encompasses the Blessed Virgin, a tender fourteen-year old, as the most “liberated”, whereas yours compasses sin and material power, and you would have attributed more freedom to Herod than to our Lady.

The pagan Stoics had a picture of the virtues in their splendor and might, like glorious angels. They showed the absurdity of Epicureanism by imagining the fat, slovenly mistress Pleasure upon her throne of the soul and all these illustrious servants about her. Augustine then showed how ridiculous it was that the preening and effeminate master of the Stoics, called Vainglory, or the idea that immortality can be pursued by reputation, ought to sit that throne. We, in our turn then, should wonder who we are bidden to put on this throne? Is it the brilliant and beautiful, wise and attractive, hidden and untouchable mistress called Wisdom, Felicity, Eternal Beatitude? Is it the Blessed Virgin?

No, Mr. Kirk, but you would rather we put that Lady Liberty upon this throne, who appears to be a man in women’s attire, holding up a torch self-lit, in defiance to God, and crafted by French Freemasons.

Searching for the Good in Liberalism

This is not simply a picture of nothing. I have explained in detail elsewhere (my commentary on Beowulf, which will be published after this) how vainglory is the empty immortality afforded by the growth of a man’s name (See the Tower of Babel in Genesis). Well, then, liberty is the competition of all of these names and the political idea which the Romans had that ambitious men in perpetual competition would limit each other and thereby protect the freedom of less powerful men. Of course, this is disproved by the blood shed in the latter ages of the Roman Republic and the early ages of the Empire (before it was converted and this finally ceased with Theodorus the Great who loved God and Saint Ambrose [both you, pray for us, and God rest the Emperor’s soul]). 

This laughable idea is, of course, the bedrock of American political philosophy that produced our “checks and balances”. And it is seen, too, in your ranging about over the various eccentricities of the errors of liberals from 1780 onwards. Quite possibly, my readers do not know that Liberalism began before the Declaration, and it began in England (it first seems to have been applied to religious principles following Luther’s influence on England), well before Conservativism. Some of these Liberals have good things about them, you say, and so possibly if they all compete we might find out what Liberalism ought to be, and find out that it ought to be Conservatism.

What the Conservative always comes to realize is that society itself does not persist without some presence of the natural virtues. It is, of course, still passing away (this because of the destruction of the supernatural virtues, which otherwise produce a perfect society that persists after the destruction of heaven and earth: the Church). Since you are unwilling to say that the Liberals’ hatred of authority is not altogether wrong, but only wrong in its object (for you, the private sphere and not the political sphere, it seems). This is because it is the foundation of what you are trying to conserve from 1780. Then you look for the answer, the source of natural virtues, and you place it in tradition.

Mixing Opposing Thinkers

I am fascinated! Here you are looking directly at the beauty of Catholic philosophy, at the “Schoolmen” and Chesterton, and you put them alongside Burke and Kinsey as if they were the same school.

It is not a surprise, either, that you mix these people together and throw in Bernard Shaw. That last demonstrates in your own words what process is occurring here. For you say “One may acknowledge the acuteness of this insight without subscribing to the curious religion, or quasi-religion, which Shaw sets forth”. This recommendation is one which you hope is not followed in your own case with your readers, I take it, because you make an admirable defense of the whole concept of tradition. You call it prescription and say yourself that the former word was used almost exclusively in the Catholic sense of Sacred Tradition. You defend this lessened sense of the word in its import over “thousands of years”. All this without seeing the obvious suggestion to embrace Catholicism.

Thesis and Antithesis

What you are leading into, Mr. Kirk, is the lack of precision that seems necessary for Conservatism to persist. That is, you say we should submit to God and imply we should submit to church (uncapitalized), but you neglect to say which God and which church. And I do not think I have ever heard Conservatives specify, because it is necessary that you unite all your people by their opposing genera.

Submit to God means to submit to king. How can a country of a population of millions ever be reformed by these calls to a greater morality when there is no authority to enforce it, and, worse, the morality is up for debate?

I hear many people say that we are blessed for being a republic. I also hear them advocate for Christ the King. This comes from a fundamental confusion over the Mind of God. For there are two principles in the Creation: God and the nothingness from which we came. God is good, nothingness is evil. But heretics think that evil is a creative principle. Because God makes good come from even evil by His power, they think at worst that we ought to do evil and at best that we cannot avoid doing evil.

You have a paragraph that shows this thinking explicitly: You oppose political authority with higher authority (somewhat obscure), church with state, and faith with reason; saying that “such debates never are wholly and finally resolved”, as if there were no answer, that reality is a confusion insofar as it is a work of God, and that man’s life is meant to be endless competition and war with never a clear victor.

But these things are understandable. They are very obviously opposed to Catholic doctrine, which gives simple answers to all questions. Faith is above reason because its subject is that which we cannot understand as well as that which we can. Church is above state because it has authority over men’s souls as well as their bodies. The higher is above the lower, and all reality from light to the Blessed Virgin is made by God directly for to point man to Him. What jumble points? Only a line can point.

Generic Thinking as a Foundation in Conservative Philosophy

If liberals accomplish their schemes by referring to specifics (this particular poor black man), then conservatives do by referring to generics, without account for the lesser level. If anyone reads your great defense of prescription, they will see that it is so generic, that it avoids even saying which prescription or tradition is embraced or meant by these men whom you quote. This allows men who very likely are as far opposed to each other as heaven is from hell (perhaps I can find time to demonstrate this, because I know that these people are unknown to most) to appear side-by-side with you. This heavy authority and good argument then unites also your reader to you. He is, hopefully, converted from liberalism to conservatism.

This happened to me. Of course, once a week on the Lord’s day, I was driven to ask these conservatives who converted me, good men, mentors, the question: “Where should I go to church?” They had no specific answer for me. I was to figure it out myself. And it was similar for every specific question which I asked.

Genera is the only thing which conservatives have, and all else is chaos, as demonstrated by the presence of a priest on the author list of this book.

Heretical Excerpt

I must remember that I write for my good friend, Mr. Hatcher, and for all good Catholic men who have been raised into the error of Conservatism. Therefore, I remind my readers, Mr. Kirk, that this essay of yours is a highlight in a collection that is perhaps the most definitive of Conservative philosophy, entitled What is Conservatism?. Indeed, it is a long drawn out answer to the same question. Therefore, if I can provide an excerpt that is a clear pronouncement of heretical principles, then I have done my duty. My readers would then have to defend the excerpt, explain how it is not significant to the overall philosophy, or else change their affiliation with this philosophy. Here then is your excerpt, Mr. Kirk, which clearly propounds the Modernist heresy:

“Now it does not follow that an unquestioning acceptance of received opinions and long-established usage will of itself suffice to solve all personal and public problems. The world does change; a certain sloughing off of tradition and prescription is at work in any vigorous society, and a certain adding to the bulk of received opinion goes on from age to age. We cannot live precisely by the rules of our distant forefathers, in all matters. But, again to employ a phrase of Burke’s, the fact that a belief or an institution has long been accepted by men, and seems to have exerted a beneficent influence, establishes in its favor “a legitimate presumption”. If we feel inclined to depart from old ways, we ought to do so only after very sober consideration of ultimate consequences. Authority, prescription, and tradition undergo in every generation a certain filtering process, by which the really archaic is discarded; yet we ought to be sure that we actually are filtering, and not merely letting our heritage run down the drain.

“Similarly, the general principles and valuable institutions which we have inherited from past generations must be applied and utilized with prudence; there the exercise of right reason by the leaders of any society sets to work. We possess moral norms, the Decalogue for instance, but the way in which we observe those norms must be determined in our time by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that wise men in our age must reconcile exigency and enduring standard.”

And there is the simple example, without any understanding whatsoever of the history or reality of Conservatism, besides the fact that you, Mr. Kirk, are a prime figure in it. And this not by political involvement, but by philosophy, which is the soul of any secular movement. And so your error, in which you modify the Ten Commandments according to the modern times, which is such a clear example of the heresy of Modernism that a theologian who loves Modernism would flinch at it (because, at least since Pius X [pray for us], they hate to say anything that reveals their thinking too precisely), makes Conservatism as a whole as dangerous a thing for Catholics to propound as is Communism or Feminism. If they find themselves Conservative, then they must not simply assume this to be a separate thing from the philosophical movement which you helped form, especially in America, where many of them are located, but they must prove it, find the separating principles tangibly, and then rename themselves. This I have done myself, for I am a reactionary Monarchist in my political philosophy, a traditionalist in the genera of my philosophy, and an Irish Roman Catholic in my theology. I recommend all the same to my friends (that they might hold all the same positions as Blessed Charlemagne [pray for us]).

But I fear they shall hold onto the Conservative title with a vice-grip, fearing as Catholics always seem to fear, that they might find themselves suddenly alone without the approval of the world. And this in a supposed democracy, no less! What if they should have no power? But if God be for us, who can be against us? Caesar? Yes, certainly, until Constantine comes.

Against Marxism

The next part of your essay is the usual Conservative tactic of opposing the greater and more obvious error of Marxism in order to preserve your own loose-fitting alliance of peoples. This really is better handled elsewhere with your peers, as the above is a much more damning argument against you. God rest your soul and provide for your final conversion.

I wish to say one more thing to you, Mr. Kirk, in this copious essay. I am a poor man, sitting early in the morning in my house at a knife-sharpening table, trying to run a traditional butchery and pork business. There is a storm outside, and rats are running back and forth above my head. It has been a cold, bitter winter, and I am expecting my next child and my first pig slaughter any day now. God knows if they shall happen contiguously.

I am a man pressed up against, rubbed raw, and mortified by reality. I am a happy man because I know my God and not for any other reason. Not for money, or food, or children, or a wife, or good pork, though all these things make me happy, insofar as they make me think of God. If you take a man like me and isolate me from the penance enjoined upon our father Adam and our father Noe, then you will get a Conservative, as has happened in Mr. John Horvat II (See my review on Return to Order, whenever it is finished). This is because men are designed by God for wisdom, and wisdom is the measurement of new apprehensions against first principles. But a Conservative watches the news too much, apprehends the same old urgent dangers of Communism, and repeats the wisdom against it as if it were the only thing ever to exist. Me, I listen to the rats, grind the meat, prepare for the birth of my next child, go to Mass, go to town, and apprehend new dangers all the time, finding them contiguous with the abstractions of old dangers. And do you know what I see as threatening me, the world of my children, more than anything? Conservatives. They are the ones that would throw away my meat because a rat is located within a square mile, as if I store it in the attic with them. If it were not for them, my children would never learn what a Communist is. They are the ones that bring Communism into rural places. They are the ones that make jokes about transgenderism in the earshot of a two-year-old girl. The Communists are out in the city, and we avoid them. If they should take power, oppress, and starve us, then good, we will keep our souls. But it seems far more likely we shall lose our souls to what is said by Conservatives than what is done by Communists.

Thus ends it.

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