a curated selection of Russell Kirk’s perennial essays
A Note from the Editor
Recently, a Japanese publisher wrote us requesting permission to reprint “The Shoulders of Giants,” a selection taken from the opening chapter of Enemies of the Permanent Things. It will appear in a forthcoming English classroom workbook used to prepare for university entrance exams.
One wonders if the aphorism to stand “on the shoulders of Giants” still holds true in our time of rapid technological and societal change? In this piece, Kirk contends that, “Gothic architecture in the eleventh century could not have existed without its foundations in the ninth and tenth centuries—or, for that matter, in the architecture of ancient Syria. Atomic physics in our sense could not have come into being without the speculative spirit of the seventeenth century—or, for that matter, without the intuitions of the pre-Socratic Greeks. Our civilization is an immense continuity and essence.”
The Shoulders of Giants
Enemies of the Permanent Things (Arlington House, 1969, pp. 27-34).
We are dwarfs mounted upon the shoulders of giants,” Fulbert of Chartres told his scholars in the eleventh century. The great Schoolman meant that we modern folk—and the people of the eleventh century thought themselves quite as modern as we do—incline toward the opinion that wisdom was born with our generation. In a number of respects, whether in the twelfth century or the twentieth, the living generation knows more than did its grand parents’ or great-grandparents’ generation. The folk of Fulbert’s generation knew more about the principles of architecture, for instance, than the folk of the tenth century had known. We people of the twentieth century, in our turn, know more about physics or chemistry, for example, than did the finest scholars at Chartres.
But for all that, Fulbert argued, we are no better than dwarfs mounted upon the shoulders of giants. We see so far only because of the tremendous stature of those giants, our ancestors, upon whose shoulders we stand. Gothic architecture in the eleventh century could not have existed without its foundations in the ninth and tenth centuries—or, for that matter, in the architecture of ancient Syria. Atomic physics in our sense could not have come into being without the speculative spirit of the seventeenth century—or, for that matter, without the intuitions of the pre-Socratic Greeks. Our civilization is an immense continuity and essence. Fulbert, Bishop of Chartres, was right: if we ignore or disdain those ancestral giants who uphold us in our modern vainglory, we tumble down into the ditch of unreason.
So if it is true that even our scientific knowledge, in considerable part, is a legacy from our forebears, it is still more certain that our moral, our social, and our artistic knowledge is an inheritance from men long dead. G. K. Chesterton coined the phrase “the democracy of the dead.” In deciding any important moral or political question, Chesterton writes, we have the obligation to consult the considered opinions of the wise men who have preceded us in time. We owe these dead an immense debt, and their ballots deserve to be counted. Thus we have no right simply to decide any question by what the momentary advantage may be to us privately: we have the duty of respecting the wisdom of our ancestors; and also we have the duty of respecting the rights of posterity, the generations that are to come after us. This complex of duties is what the old Romans called piety: reverence for our nation, our family in the larger sense, our ancestors, in a spirit of religious veneration. A French philosopher of our time, Gabriel Marcel, writes that the only healthy society is the society which respects tradition. We ought to live, Marcel says, in an atmosphere of “diffused gratitude”— of sympathy for the hopes and achievements of our ancestors, from whom we derive our life and our culture, and which we are morally obliged to pass on undiminished, if not enhanced, to our descendants. We are grateful to the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. This feeling or atmosphere of diffused veneration is weakened in our modern age, for many people live only for themselves, ignoring the debt they owe to the past and the responsibility they owe to the future. They are ungrateful; and ingratitude brings on its own punishment.
We ought to live, Marcel says, in an atmosphere of ‘diffused gratitude’— of sympathy for the hopes and achievements of our ancestors, from whom we derive our life and our culture, and which we are morally obliged to pass on undiminished, if not enhanced, to our descendants.
Normative knowledge, then, is no burden, but instead a rich patrimony. Those who refuse it must be taught by personal experience—a hard master, as Benjamin Franklin says, though fools will have no other. Edmund Burke gave this concept of willing obligation to the dead, the living, and those yet unborn its most moving expression. We all are subject, he wrote, to “the contract of eternal society.” This immortal contract is made between God and mankind, and between the generations that have perished from the earth, and the generation that is living now, and the generations that are yet to come. It is a covenant binding upon us all. No man has a right to abridge that contract at will; and if we do break it, we suffer personally and all society suffers; and we are cast out of this civil social order (built by the giants) into an “antagonist world” of total disorder—or, as the New Testament has it, into the outer darkness, where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
We moderns, Burke continued, tend to be puffed up with a little petty private rationality, thinking ourselves wiser than the prophets and the law-givers, and are disposed to trade upon the trifling bank and capital of our private intelligence. That way lies ruin. But though the individual is foolish, the species is wise; and, given time, the species judges rightly. The moral precepts and the social conventions which we obey represent the considered judgments and filtered experience of many generations of prudent and dutiful human beings — the most sagacious of our species. It is folly to ignore this inherited wisdom in favor of our own arrogant little notions of right and wrong, of profit and loss, of justice and injustice. Burke, though the most prophetic man of his age, never thought himself taller than the giants from whom came his strength. This is no less true in the twentieth century, and in America. Our normative inheritance in the United States is of European and Asiatic origin: normality does not recognize frontiers.
In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega declared that American civilization could not long endure, were it severed from European culture. Ortega was right: American culture, and the American civil social order, share with modern European civilization a common patrimony. The principal elements in that inheritance are Christian faith (with its Judaic roots); the Roman and medieval heritage of ordered liberty; and the continuity of great “Western” literature. It is a legacy of belief, not of blood.
So far as race and nationality are concerned, the continuity between Europe and America is confused and imperfect. Take, for instance, my own little village of Mecosta, in the pine barrens of central Michigan, where my great-grandfather and his uncle settled fully a century ago. The original population of the region was composed of Pottawatomies and Chippewas. Among the first civilized folk to establish themselves here were negroes (escaped or emancipated slaves, most of whom had fled the southern states across the Ohio and north to Canada, and then had entered Michigan from Canada, after the Emancipation Proclamation). The descendants of those colored people are in Mecosta and round about still, mixed in blood with white and Indian, but forming a distinct community, centered about their own church.
To this same region of Mecosta, in the days of Michigan lumbering, came New Englanders and New Yorkers of old Puritan stock, among them my great-grandfather. There had arrived a little earlier numbers of German peasants, whose church of St. Michael remains their bond of union. These Catholics were joined, presently, by Irish settlers. In recent years, Mecosta has gained some additional population, chiefly Polish and Ukrainian, filtering from the industrial cities into the countryside. All in all, my little Mecosta is a microcosm of America, curiously diverse in ancestry and cultural origins. What link is there between a village and a nation like this, and the ancient communities of Europe?
Why, what joins the cultures on either side of the Atlantic is a complex of religious and moral and social convictions, given expression in literature, that Europe and America have received from common spiritual and intellectual ancestors. If this inheritance should be much diminished, all the elaborate fabric of our material civilization could not long survive, either side of the ocean, the collapse of this subtle inner order and this intricate institutional order.
The first article in this common patrimony, I have said, is the Christian faith, including its origins in Judah and Israel. All the important aspects of any civilization arise from its religion—even the economic system of that civilization. As Irving Babbitt wrote a generation ago, economics moves upward into politics, politics into ethics, ethics into theology. This is no less true in the United State of America than it was in ancient Egypt or than it is in modern India. And the United States is a Christian nation, notwithstanding the opinion expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his message to the Bey of Tunis. The great majority of Americans voluntarily subscribe to the faith we call Christianity. In the things which most nearly concern the private life and the public good, they draw their moral and intellectual sustenance from the Old World. (It may be true, as some critics argue, that much of the high rate of church-attendance in this country reflects not so much religious conviction as mere religiosity; but that always has been true of church-attendance everywhere.) The prophets of Israel, the words of Christ and His disciples, the writings of the fathers of the Church, the treatises of the Schoolmen, the discourses of the great divines of Reformation and Counter-Reformation—these are the springs of American metaphysics and American morality, as they are of European metaphysics and morality. They underlie the beliefs even of those Americans and Europeans who deny the validity of Christianity. And with Christian doctrine there are blended certain elaborate elements of classical philosophy.
In its immediate influence upon culture, perhaps the most important aspect of Christianity is its account of the human personality: its doctrine of the immortal soul, the unique character of every soul, the concept of human dignity, the nature of rights and duties, the obligation to practice charity, the insistence upon personal responsibility. European and American civilization has been erected upon the foundation of the dignity of man—upon the assumption that man is made for eternity, and that he possesses dignity because he has some share in an order this is more than temporal and more than human.
Christianity always has been an immense moving force among Americans. The student who endeavors to ignore the power of Christianity in European and American culture is as foolish as would be any physician who should endeavor to ignore a patient’s personality. Christianity is the core of our civilization—its vitality, indeed. Even the virulent totalist ideologies of our century are influenced by Christian doctrines, or by a reaction against Christian principles; hate it though they may, the ideologues cannot break altogether with the Christian religion.
In its immediate influence upon culture, perhaps the most important aspect of Christianity is its account of the human personality: its doctrine of the immortal soul, the unique character of every soul, the concept of human dignity, the nature of rights and duties, the obligation to practice charity, the insistence upon personal responsibility.
The second article in our common patrimony is our theory and practice of ordered liberty: our system of law and politics. This is derived from Roman and from medieval sources—and in part, more remotely, from Greek philosophy and historic experience. To the classical and medieval ideas of justice, and to the classical and medieval social experience, there has been added a modern body of theory and practice—although too often we modern folk, including the scholars among us, exaggerate the importance of “liberal” contributions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of which latter contributions have not stoutly withstood the severe tests of our twentieth-century time of troubles.
The doctrines of natural law; the concept of a polity, a just and balanced commonwealth; the principle of a government of laws, not of men; the understanding that justice means “to each his own”; the idea of a healthful tension between the claims of order and the claims of freedom—these passed directly from Europe into American theory and institution. More than any other single figure, Cicero influenced the theory of both European and American politics—and through that theory, our political institutions.
To this general heritage, the English added their common law and their prudent, prescriptive politics; and the English patrimony was directly incorporated in the American social order. The founders of the American Republic, especially the lawyers and politicians among them, took for granted this English pattern of politics, modifying it only slightly to conform to colonial usage and to suit the new nation—and even then modifying it not in favor of some newfangled abstract scheme, but rather on the model of the Roman Republic.
The principle of elaborate restraints upon political power, for instance, is conspicuous in the political theory and practice of Britain and in that of the United States. It has been so since the beginning of American society. John Cotton declared in Massachusetts in the third decade of the seventeenth century: “Let all the world learn to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use—for use it they will. … This is one of the strains of nature: it affects boundless liberty, and to run to the utmost extent. Whatever power he hath received, he hath a corrupt nature that will improve it in one thing or other; if he have liberty, he will think why may he not use it…. There is a strain in a man’s heart that sometime or other runs out to excess, unless the Lord restrain it; but it is not good to venture it.”
Yet the third article in this common patrimony is more enduring, perhaps, than even political usage. Great works of literature join us in an intellectual community. And the ethical cast of enduring humane letters, working upon the imagination, is as normative as is religious doctrine or political principle. Humane literature teaches us what it is to be a man. Homer and Hesiod; Herodotus and Thucydides; Sophocles and Plato; Virgil and Horace; Livy and Tacitus; Cicero and Seneca; Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, and all the rest—these have formed the mind and character of Americans as well as of Europeans. The best of American literature is part and parcel of the normative continuity of literature, extending back beyond the dawn of history.
In all essential respects, then, Europe and America enjoy a common faith, a common system of law and politics, and a common body of great literature. They make one civilization still. These normative and cultural bonds have outlasted dynasties, empire, and even philosophies; though injured now and again by war or social dissolution, they rise with renewed vigor after every period of violence or decadence. Whether this heritage is to survive the twentieth century must depend, in no small part, upon the reinvigoration of a popular normative consciousness. Although I shall touch only glancingly in this book upon religious faith, the following chapters have to do with particular difficulties of the modern age in politics and in literature—and in education, which is concerned with the whole of our patrimony.
The soul of a civilization may be lost at the very moment of that culture’s material triumph. In our time, we run no risk of experiencing too little change; whether we like it or not, we ride the whirlwind of innovation. To give direction to this change, and to insure that generation may link with generation, some of us must undertake the rescue of the moral imagination.
Whether this heritage is to survive the twentieth century must depend, in no small part, upon the reinvigoration of a popular normative consciousness.
The undisciplined modern mind, thinking it pursues facts, often follows a corpse-candle to the brink of the abyss—and, sometimes, over that brink. “The Devil played at chess with me,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne, “and yielding a Pawn, thought to gain a Queen of me, taking advantage of my honest endeavours; and whilst I laboured to raise the structure of my Reason, he strived to undermine the edifice of my Faith.” If a man relies wholly upon his private rational powers, he will lose his faith—and perhaps the world as well, risking his nature at the Devil’s chess-game. But if a man fortifies himself with the normative disciplines, he draws upon the imagination and the lessons of the ages, and so is fit to confront even a diabolical adversary.
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