Book Review: Beyond the Dreams of Avarice by Russell Kirk

Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. 339 pp. $4.50.

Russell Kirk is a non-utopian, as I read him; which means that he stands in opposition to the major social drift of the modern world, the confident expectation of unending temporal progress.

Utopianism of one sort or another is a dominant or recessive trait in most of us; it’ has been bred out of only a few. Any person who pins his hopes on a future perfect society is a utopian; so is the purveyor of leakproof social panaceas. Utopians, of course, fight among themselves to weed out the heretics from among the True Believers. The deepest cleavage is between the collectivist majority which anticipates the arrival of its heaven on earth as soon as a benign political power becomes co-extensive with society; and a visionary minority which believes that only one thing prevents innately inoffensive human beings from living by the light of pure reason and morals—the institution of government, which they would eliminate.

Standing off in lonely isolation is the non-utopian. Alongside the visions of the utopians, his offerings must appear shabby by comparison. For him, a heaven in heaven is at least a speculative possibility; but a heaven on earth—in the light of the known propensities of human beings already revealed throughout history—is sheer delusion. Man cannot manufacture a heaven on earth, and the Greek idea of hubris and the Christian doctrine of sin once kept him from trying. But when he jettisoned these, there was nothing to restrain his effort to build a new Jerusalem from scratch in this best of all possible worlds. Ever since the Enlightenment, his efforts to achieve utopia have been virtually unimpeded. More recently, collectivist utopians have had a free hand in several countries, but their new fangled heaven resembles nothing so much as the old-fashioned hell!

Even though the most profound and significant distinction among social theorists is that which distributes them into utopians and non-utopians, there is little or no current debate at this level. The beliefs which give an epoch its characteristic tone are seldom debated; they are taken for granted—even, in some measure, by those who do not share them. Thus the instinctive rebel against utopianism is not only called churlish and reactionary by the visionaries, he may actually feel that way. Our deepest beliefs lie so far back in the mind that, ]ike a pair of glasses, we do not see them; we see other things through them. We may argue or fight about the things we see, but the axioms which enable us to conceive what we see seldom rise to the level where they might be discussable.

So, Russell Kirk does not throw himself into the hassle between the utopians and their opposition, mainly because no such battle is going on. He has settled that issue to his own satisfaction, so he operates with premises which include an implicit denial of man’s capacity to attain a perfect society, or even frame a logically airtight social theory.

An airtight theory is one built along the lines of Euclid’s geometry, a self-consistent system in which any or all parts follow from or are implicit in any other. But Euclid started with axioms which are not self-evident, and whoever wants to play the rest of his game must accept them on faith. And obviously, dimensionless points, perfect circles, and planes without depths belong to some high abstracted world, not to the world we live in. The natural world is complex beyond our powers of imagining.

One of the most brilliant of the modern physicists, Werner Heisenberg, has declared that to deal adequately with all his data he needs not one, but four mathematical systems, and that these four do not seem to be mutually consistent. Science deals with probabilities, not certainties, and it entertains the possibility that “there are no mathematically exact laws in the physical world,” to use d’Abro’s words. How much less, then, the possibility of framing a theory of society to cover all the contingencies in which actual people become involved! The tendency of utopians is to convert this impossibility into an abstract doctrine of social alteration—an ideal mold for shaping everyone.

The utopian, then, offers the delusory assurance of a seemingly perfect theory, but Kirk has only tradition, prescription, and the wisdom of our ancestors. Answering those who hawk the vision of a future society peopled by “just men made perfect,” he points to history as the only sure gauge of what to expect from the future. “In politics,” Kirk affirms, “historical knowledge is the only reasonably reliable sort of knowledge. To reckon without the past is to expose ourselves to the wildest sort of utopianism. History is chastening to human presumption; it has a long record of broken social fancies.”

And again, “The true conservative does not believe that society can be properly governed by any inflexible creed of abstract doctrine . . . . Knowing his theology and his history, he takes it for granted that man is not a perfect nor a perfectible being, and that the prudent politician will endeavor to make life tolerable, not impossibly perfect.” He will not “risk the legacy of civilization through lusting after Utopia.” But neither, on the other hand, does he want to stop the clock or turn it back to some idealized past,

There is a counterfeit conservatism of mere prejudice and inertia, but the true conservative, as Kirk describes him, is a man of distinctive principles. It is not change that he opposes, but change for its own sake. He resists the “superstition that innovation must be progress just because it is novelty.

Russell Kirk knows that private property and freedom are inseparably connected. “The true conservative does defend private enterprise stoutly; and one of the reasons why he cherishes it is that private enterprise is the only really practicable system, in the modern world, for satisfying our economic wants; but more even than this, he defends private enterprise as a means to an end. That end is a society just and free, in which every man has a right to what is his own, and to what he inherits from his father, and to the rewards of his own ability and industry; a society which cherishes variety and individuality, and rises superior to the dreary plain of socialism.”

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind appeared three years ago one of the most disconcerting books which the collectivists and neo-liberals have had to face. This book and succeeding ones have evoked fierce disagreement and partisanship, but the author’s erudition and competence have not been successfully impugned. And his style is fitted to his theme, combining virility with elegance. Furthermore, Dr. Kirk’s conservatism is not merely cerebral. It is a body of convictions propounded with vigor and skill, but it is also something which Kirk feels in his bones. He is a conservative by instinct; nostalgia and love for ancestral ways color his thinking. He feels himself a part of “that great continuity and essence which is the civil social order we have inherited from a hundred generations.” So, of course, he has no panacea to offer those who want to replace their crumpling collectivist utopian scheme with some: other.

This fact, indeed, continues to be the chief complaint against Mr. Kirk, that he is a Man without a Plan—a complaint which misses the point by a mile. Kirk is a non-utopian on principle, i.e., he is a conservative; and if he is to be judged at all, he must be judged on the basis of how well he does what he sets out to do—present the alternative to utopianism.

Beyond the Dreams of Avarice is a book of essays, the essays of a social critic, the subtitle tells us. They deal with a variety of subjects; one is on American Traditions, another on the Conditions of Freedom, and so on. There is a long biographical essay on Orestes Brownson, the learned New Englander of a century ago. The egregious Dr. Kinsey is booted from off his Sinai along with his new commandments.

Going abroad, the Fabian debacle is noted and a resounding negative is returned to the question, “Does the State build homes?” Indeed, the several essays on modern Britain here collected say just about all there is to be said about England’s pathetic new “futile system.” Then there is a visit to the island of Eigg in the Hebrides and an account of an old Scottish castle on the auction block, both experiences furnishing material for reflection on the fate of man in the modern world. An essay on Pico della Mirandola warns that “in our lust for divine power, we have forgotten human dignity,” and the book concludes with the avowal that “some of us must go barefoot through the world like Pico, preaching against the vegetative and Sensual errors of our time.” Kirk may be unshod, but he is a long way from being unhorsed and his lance is couched against some important targets.


Edmund A. Opitz

Further Reading