Classic Kirk:
a curated selection of Russell Kirk’s perennial essays

A Note from the Editor

The Roots of American Order was first published in 1974, a year of national crisis, in preparation for the celebration of the U. S. Bicentennial in 1976. Russell Kirk wrote the book in an effort “to assist in renewing an appreciation of America’s moral and social order among the general public and among university and college students.”

The book examines America’s inheritance of ordered liberty by tracing its origins through Hebraic and Christian belief, classical philosophy and law, British political experience, and the experience of colonial and early-republican America.

In this opening chapter, Kirk explained that his historical study draws forth the “institutions and customs, and certain ideas and beliefs, which continue to nurture order in the person and order in the republic, down to our time.”

Order, the First Need of All

From The Roots of American Order (ISI Books, 2003)

Two centuries after the founding of the new nation called the United States of America, we need to renew our understanding of the beliefs and the laws which give form to American society. Our own society, like that of any other people, is held together by what is called an “order”. The character of that order is the subject of this book. What is “order”?

Imagine a man travelling through the night, without a guide, thinking continually of the directions he wishes to follow. That is the image of a human being in search of order, says Simone Weil, a woman who suffered much: “Such a traveller’s way is lit by a great hope.” Order is the path we follow, or the pattern by which we live with purpose and meaning. Above even food and shelter, she continues, we must have order. The human condition is insufferable unless we perceive a harmony, an order, in existence. “Order is the first need of all.”   

Before a person can live tolerably with himself or with others, he must know order. If we lack order in the soul and order in society, we dwell “in a land of darkness, as darkness itself,” the Book of Job puts it; “and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where light is as darkness.”   

When she wrote figuratively of a man travelling alone through the night, Simone Weil was thinking of herself. All through her brief life of thirty-three years, she sought to order her soul. She was French, Jewish, and Christian. In search of spiritual order, she studied Greek and Indian philosophy, Sanskrit, the Christian mystics, quantum theory. She worked in fields and factories so that she might come to understand and to share the life of hard toil.     

And at the same time, Simone Weil was thinking of social order in the modern world. Her slim book The Need for Roots has the subtitle “Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind.” She wrote it while exiled from France, then occupied by German troops; she wrote it at the request of the French provisional government in exile, as a study of how the French, should they be liberated from the Nazi domination, might find anew the roots of their order and so live together in peace and justice. 

Spiritual doubt and social disorder Simone Weil knew all too well. To understand the Spanish civil war, in 1936 she spent several weeks with the Republican army on the Catalonian front, a searing experience that haunted her to her death. To share the sufferings of her compatriots in occupied France, she determined in 1943 to eat not more daily than the subjugated French were allowed; she was then in an English sanatorium, in wretched health—and, in effect, she starved herself to death. Her several books were published after her death. 

Our twentieth century, Simone Weil wrote, is a time of disorder very like the disorder of Greece in the fifth century before Christ. In her words, “It is as though we had returned to the age of Protagoras and the Sophists, the age when the art of persuasion—whose modern equivalent is advertising slogans, publicity, propaganda meetings, the press, the cinema, and radio—took the place of thought and controlled the fate of cities and accomplished coups d’état. So the ninth book of Plato’s Republic reads like a description of contemporary events.”

This analogy of fifth-century Greece with our age is too true. One may add that our time of troubles also is like the disorder of the Roman republic in the first century before Christ, and like the catastrophic collapse of Roman civilization in the fifth century after Christ. As individuals and as a civilization—like that man without a guide in the darkness, like Simone Weil, like societies that are dust now—we people in the closing decades of the twentieth century grope for order. 

Like many other concepts, perhaps the word “order” is best apprehended by looking at its opposite, “disorder.” A disordered existence is a confused and miserable existence. If a society falls into a general disorder, many of its members will cease to exist at all. And if the members of a society are disordered in spirit, the outward order of the commonwealth cannot endure.    

We couple the words “law and order”; and indeed they are related, yet they are not identical. Laws arise out of a social order; they are the general rules which make possible the tolerable functioning of an order. Nevertheless an order is bigger than its laws, and many aspects of any social order are determined by beliefs and customs, rather than being governed by positive laws.     

This word “order” means a systematic and harmonious arrangement—whether in one’s own character or in the commonwealth. Also “order” signifies the performance of certain duties and the enjoyment of certain rights in a community: thus we use the phrase “the civil social order.”

In this book, we examine the roots of order in the United States of America. Old and intricate, these roots give life to us all. We can distinguish two sorts of roots, intertwined: the roots of the moral order, of order in the soul; and the roots of the civil social order, of order in the republic. 

Although to some extent we trace the history of civilization when we describe the origins of our order, this book is not a comprehensive survey of culture—that work having been done by others. Rather, this book emphasizes certain institutions and customs, and certain ideas and beliefs, which continue to nurture order in the person and order in the republic, down to our time. No study could be more relevant to our present discontents. 

We examine, successively, the legacy of order received from the Hebrews; from the classical culture of the Greeks and the Romans; from the medieval world and the age of the Reformation, particularly in Britain; from the turbulent civilization of the seventeenth century; from the elegant civilization of the eighteenth century; and from America’s colonial experience. We discuss both the beliefs and the institutions out of which American order has grown. 

Seeking for the roots of order, we are led to four cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. In Washington or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles today, the order which Americans experience is derived from the experience of those four old cities. If our souls are disordered, we fall into abnormality, unable to control our impulses. If our commonwealth is disordered, we fall into anarchy, every man’s hand against every other man’s. For, as Richard Hooker wrote in the sixteenth century, “Without order, there is no living in public society, because the want thereof is the mother of confusion.” This saving order is the product of more than three thousand years of human striving. 

The “inner order” of the soul and the “outer order” of society being intimately linked, we discuss in this book both aspects of order. Without a high degree of private moral order among the American people, the reign of law could not have prevailed in this country. Without an orderly pattern of politics, American private character would have sunk into a ruinous egoism.    

Order is the first need of the soul. It is not possible to love what one ought to love, unless we recognize some principles of order by which to govern ourselves.  

Order is the first need of the commonwealth. It is not possible for us to live in peace with one another, unless we recognize some principle of order by which to do justice. 

The good society is marked by a high degree of order, justice, and freedom. Among these, order has primacy: for justice cannot be enforced until a tolerable civil social order is attained, nor can freedom be anything better than violence until order gives us laws. 

Once I was told by a scholar born in Russia of how he had come to understand through terrible events that order necessarily precedes justice and freedom. He had been a Menshevik, or moderate Socialist, at the time of the Russian Revolution. When the Bolsheviks seized power in St. Petersburg, he fled to Odessa, on the Black Sea, where he found a great city in anarchy. Bands of young men commandeered street-cars and clattered wildly through the heart of Odessa, firing with rifles at any pedestrian, as though they were hunting pigeons. At any moment, one’s apartment might be invaded by a casual criminal or fanatic, murdering for the sake of a loaf of bread. In this anarchy, justice and freedom were only words. “Then I learned that before we can know justice and freedom, we must have order,” my friend said. “Much though I hated the Communists, I saw then that even the grim order of Communism is better than no order at all. Many might survive under Communism; no one could survive in general disorder.” 

In America, order and justice and freedom have developed together; but they can decay in parallel fashion. In every generation, some human beings bitterly defy the moral order and the social order. Although the hatred of order is suicidal, it must be reckoned with: ignore a fact, and that fact will be your master. Half a century ago, perceiving a widespread disintegration of private and public order, William Butler Yeats wrote of what had become the torment of much of the modern world: 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.   

During the past half-century, the center has failed to hold in many nations. Yet once revolution or war has demolished an established order, a people find it imperative to search for principles of order afresh, that they may survive. Once they have undone an old order, revolutionaries proceed to decree a new order—often an order harsher than the order which they had overthrown. Mankind cannot be governed long by sheer force. 

No order ever has been perfect, and it is tempting to fancy that we could create a new order nearer to our hearts’ desire. A freshman once informed me that we have no need nowadays for the beliefs and institutions of yesteryear: he himself, he said, could outline a better moral system and better political pattern than those we have inherited. I asked him if he could build a gasoline engine, say, without reference to anything mechanical now existing. He replied that he could not. I observed that moral and social concerns really are more delicate and complex than a mere mechanical contrivance—and that even should his novel order be superior, apparently, to the old order, still no one would accept it but himself and a few followers. For people take the proofs of mankind’s experience as evidence of some soundness, and they tend to resist any new creation of some living person not conspicuously a better authority than themselves.    

That undergraduate was not singular in his repudiation of the experience of a civilization. Our times resemble those of the concluding years of the Roman Republic, the age of Marcus Tullius Cicero. As disorder washed about him, Cicero examined the causes of private and public confusion. “Long before our time,” he wrote in his treatise The Republic, “the customs of our ancestors molded admirable men, and in turn those eminent men upheld the ways and institutions of their forebears. Our age, however, inherited the Republic as if it were some beautiful painting of bygone ages, its colors already fading through great antiquity; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colors of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its form and outlines.”

Like Plato before him, Cicero understood that the problem of order is simultaneously personal and social: Roman men and Roman justice had declined together. It is so still. That is one reason why Plato and Cicero remain relevant to our present condition. 

“To freshen the colors of the picture” is the purpose of this book. We are concerned here with the social experiences and the ideas that blended in America to form a pattern of inner and outer order, still enduring. The popular demand for “relevance” in college and university, nowadays, has some justification; and this book is meant to be relevant to the disputes of our present hour. Those who ignore history, says George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it. Those who neglect the roots of order, one may add, are compelled to water those roots desperately—after wandering in the parched wasteland of disorder. 

Upon our knowledge of those roots may depend what sort of order America and the world will have by the end of this century. It may be the order of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, rich and dehumanized; it may be the garrison-state controlled by ferocious ideology, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four; or it may be an order renewed and improved, yet recognizably linked with the order that arose in Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. 

The higher kind of order, sheltering freedom and justice, declares the dignity of man. It affirms what G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—that is, it recognizes the judgements of men and women who have preceded us in time, as well as the opinions of people living at this moment. This higher kind of order is founded upon the practical experience of human beings over many centuries, and upon the judgements of men of vision and intellect who have preceded us in time. 

Against this higher kind of order, there contend in our age various ideologies—fanatic political creeds, often advanced by violence. By definition, “ideology” means servitude to political dogmas, abstract ideas not founded upon historical experience. Ideology is inverted religion, and the ideologue is the sort of person whom the historian Jacon Burckhardt called the “terrible simplifier.” Communism, fascism, and anarchism have been the most powerful of these ideologies. The simplistic appeal of ideological slogans continues to menace the more humane social orders of our time.   

The American order of our day was not founded upon ideology. It was not manufactured: rather, it grew. This American order is not immutable, for it will change in one respect or another as the circumstances of social existence alter. American laws are not like the laws which Lycurgus gave to the Spartans, never to be altered at all. Nor do we Americans emulate another people of old Greece, the Locrians—whose magistrates put a rope around the neck of any citizen who proposed a change in the laws. (If the reformer convinced the people of his wisdom, honors were heaped upon him; but if he did not persuade them that his proposals were desirable, he was hanged by the neck until dead.) As Edmund Burke said, change is the means of our preservation.    

But also we must have permanence in some things, if change is to be improvement. Americans generally retain a respect for their old moral habits and their old political forms, because those habits and forms express their understanding of order. This attachment to certain enduring principles of order has done much to preserve America from the confused and violent change that plagues most modern nations. 

No order is perfect: man himself being imperfect, presumably we never will make our way to Utopia. (If ever we arrived at Utopia, indeed, we might be infinitely bored with the place.) But if the roots of an order are healthy, that order may be reinvigorated and improved. If its roots are withered, “the dead tree gives no shelter.” Permanence and progression are not enemies, for there can be no improvement except upon a sound foundation, and that foundation cannot endure unless it is progressively renewed. The traveller in the wasteland seeks the shelter of living order. This book is meant to water roots, for the renewing of order and the betterment of justice and freedom. What Patrick Henry, in 1776, called the “lamp and experience” is our hope of order refreshed. 

© The Russell Kirk Legacy, LLC


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