The Intemperate Professor and Other Cultural Splenetics,
by Russell Kirk.
Sherwood Sugden and Company, 1988.
143pp. paper, $7.95.

H. L. Mencken once said that the college professor, “menaced by the timid dogmatism of the plutocracy above him and the incurable suspiciousness of the mob, beneath him, is almost invariably inclined to seek his own security in a mellifluous inanity.” This is fine rhetoric, but it lacks the weight and validity of the good inside job, a task that Russell Kirk, who has taught at a number of colleges and universities (Michigan State, for one, from 1946 to 1953), performs exceptionally well. His criticism of professors in the present book is splenetic and biting, all right, but not more so than that expressed by some American teachers of the past—Henry Adams, say, or Irving Babbitt, and George Santayana, and V. L. Parrington. “He padded his bibliography,” Parrington wrote, “like a college professor seeking promotion.”

This book is a revised edition of the volume originally published in 1965 by Louisiana State University Press. It comprises a baker’s dozen of essays, arranged under four main rubrics—“Colleges and Culture,” “Religion, Morals, and Culture,” “Beauty, Community, and Culture,” and “Wealth and Culture,” under which you will find the author’s memorable essay, “The Inhumane Business Man.” There are discussions of science, religion, beauty, economics, manners, architecture, and other topics. Kirk ranges far and wide, but he never strays for long from his persistent concern with the problems of education. A long while ago he wrote “that in education we often find it prudent to row toward our destination with muffled oars.” In this book his oars are not muffled. The essays are sane and wise, and, for the most part, cheerful. “Splenetic criticism is cross, crusty, and testy,” Kirk observes, “but also the adjective signifies remedies for an inflammation of the spleen.”

Dr. Kirk does not condemn all professors, by any means. Among them he has found “a good many scholars of liberal minds and loyal hearts.” But he has scathing words for those “who feel they have been invested with the prophetic afflatus; and, having discarded theology and morals as so much antiquated rubbish, they are thrown back upon the dreary resources of twentieth-century nihilism.” He dedicates the new edition to the memory of Warren Fleischauer, who was his friend, a frequent reviewer for this quarterly, and a notable scholar and teacher. Kirk dedicated a fine study of Edmund Burke (1967) to John Abbot Clark (1903–1965) who taught English for many years at Michigan State University, and probably introduced Kirk, as he did this reviewer, to the writings of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. A shy, modest, learned man, Professor Clark never mistook in Stephen Leacock’s words, “the shadow for the substance or the casket for the gem.” In other books, Russell Kirk has praised such outstanding teachers as Richard Weaver, Gordon Keith Chalmers, Donald Davidson, and Frederick Wilhelmsen.

In the essay “An Outsider Looks at the Catholic College,” Kirk subjects that institution to a stringent examination and finds it deficient in a number of important respects. Because he sees the Catholic college as the last possible place where ethical and humanistic values are likely to prevail, he treats seriously the deficiencies he finds. He strongly endorses Irving Babbitt’s contention that “under certain conditions that are already in sight the Catholic Church may be the only institution left in the Occident that can be counted on to uphold civilized standards.”

For many years the author has been a resourceful champion of humanistic education. “Limitless enthusiasm has been generated for putting a man on the moon,” he writes, “but only obdurate gadflies still ask, ‘To what end?’” Kirk is indeed an obdurate gadfly. Clinton Rossiter was right in declaring, “It is the heirs of John Dewey, not those of Franklin Roosevelt, for whom Kirk reserves his most eloquent strictures.”

There is an especially provocative essay, “May Professors Profess Principles?” It deals with the case of Professor Jerome Ellison, an accomplished professional journalist turned teacher, who was dismissed from the faculty of Indiana University not long after being promoted to an associate professorship. The university administrators took great pains to point out that he was not dismissed because he wrote two articles for the Saturday Evening Post in which he described a considerable part of current college life at Indiana University and elsewhere as “an odd mixture of status hunger, voodoo, tradition, lust, stereotyped dissipation, love, solid achievement, and plain good fun. It drives a high proportion of our students through college chronically short of sleep, behind in their work, and uncertain of the exact score in any department of life.”

So here Russell Kirk scrutinizes some of the most important problems of our civilization, “the failure of our great wealth to produce greatness of mind and art, … the decay of religious sentiments into mere sociability, and the conversion of our universities into amusement parks.”

In a somber but hopeful conclusion, he prays that among us “there are men and women enough who know what makes life worth living, enough of them to keep out the modern barbarian, if they are resolute. If they are enfeebled, and if they cannot make common cause, the garment of our civilization will slide to the rag bin, and the cultural debris of the twentieth century will drift down the rubbish heaps of the future. Not many years of indulgence, I fancy, remain to us. But—as Henry Adams was fond of saying—the fun is in the process.”  

“Mere enlightened self-interest will submit to any strong evil. In one aspect or another, fear insists upon forcing itself into our lives. If the fear of God is obscured, then the tormenting neuroses of modern man, under the labels of ‘insecurity’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘constitutional inferiority,’ will be the dominant mode of fear. And these latter forms of fear are the more dismaying, for there are disciplines by which one may diminish one’s fear of God. But to remedy the causes of fear from the troubles of our time is beyond the power of the ordinary individual; and to put the neuroses to sleep, supposing any belief in a transcendent order to be absent, there is only the chilly comfort of the analyst’s couch or the tranquilizing drug.”

—Russell Kirk, “The Rarity of the God-Fearing Man,” in The Intemperate Professor and Other Cultural Splenetics

Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, edited by William McCann, recently reappeared under the imprint of Gateway Editions (Regnery Gateway, Inc.).