The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia
By Roger Kimball.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2022.
Paperback, 360 pages, $26.00.
Reviewed by David Hein.
Not unlike a prime Bordeaux, this collection of essays, originally published in hardcover in June 2012, has suffered not at all from the passage of time. Betraying none of the customary unevenness of assembled writings, the twenty-one pieces composing The Fortunes of Permanence cover a range of topics—from the ACLU to Stefan Zweig—in literature, art, political theory, social history, theology, ethics, and science. Receiving more than a passing mention are John Buchan, G. K. Chesterton, the Marquis de Condorcet, T. S. Eliot, Friedrich Engels, F. A. Hayek, Samuel Huntington, Rudyard Kipling, Leszek Kolakowski, V. I. Lenin, Thomas Malthus, Karl Marx, Malcolm Muggeridge, Joshua Muravchik, Martha Nussbaum, George Orwell, Andrew Roberts, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Stove, E. P. Thompson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Richard M. Weaver.
Roger Kimball’s writing is probably already familiar to readers of The University Bookman: learned, sharp, witty, often wise and memorable. While grounded in an old-fashioned sensibility akin to Russell Kirk’s, Kimball’s prose is fresh, contemporary. Never fusty or overly self-conscious, his style is both elevated and demotic. Although not infrequently succumbing to a Buckleyesque predilection for sesquipedalianism, he typically employs short sentences within well-crafted paragraphs that make up chapters just long enough to advance his themes.
Providing piercing insights into and shrewd judgments on vital topics, Kimball regularly delivers the mot juste alongside dashes of humor. Indeed, his ability to dilate on weighty subjects while also conveying a sense of hope and even joy in living puts him in the same rhetorical camp as Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990), of whom Kimball observes: “If all good society were united in believing ‘X,’ he was likely to give ‘not-X’ a sympathetic airing. It was part of his life-long campaign against high-minded earnestness—which is not, I hasten to add, the same thing as a campaign against seriousness.” In Kimball’s work, too, we meet an author who enters the fray and takes on matters of great moment in a conscientious manner; but unlike many writers of our time, especially on the Left, he does so without suffusing his language with a rebarbative tone of high-minded—that is, arrogantly self-righteous—earnestness.
A model of readability, each of his essays both instructs and pleases. Kimball is a master of the telling quotation. Bookman readers will likely be familiar with two remarks by G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936): “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” And a favorite of Roger Kimball’s: GKC’s apothegm that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” But equally beneficial to our spiritual health is Chesterton’s assurance that “[a]n adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
As an author, Kimball is dedicated to holding together thinking, writing, and the virtues. One of his chapters in this book is devoted to the life and work of the latter-day southern agrarian Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963), who discussed the connections between prose and character in his book The Ethics of Rhetoric, published by Henry Regnery in 1953, the same year that Regnery brought out Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. A theme that goes back to the times of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, the morally responsible use of language is at least as needful now, an era of rhetorical dissembling and rampant plagiarism. Indeed, in his book’s lead essay, “The Fortunes of Permanence,” Kimball laments that Matthew Arnold’s “ideal of disinterestedness,” his “unwavering commitment to truth and honesty,” reflects a moral concern that “is not merely neglected but actively repudiated by many influential academics and intellectuals today.”
In his chapter on Weaver, Kimball notes that this eccentric University of Chicago English professor was often “at his best when applying himself to the concrete analysis of language.” Highly regarded as a teacher of English composition, he “understood with rare subtlety that rhetoric (as Aristotle insisted) is an ethical as well as an instrumental discipline. A debasement of language, he knew, was also a debasement of reality.”
Weaver was alert to the ways in which words acquire positive or negative connotations; that is, they take on a moral charge related to their current standing within the culture at large. Thus “progress” and “progressive” become good, even morally unquestionable, features of civilization, while “prejudice”—which once meant “prejudgment,” as in Edmund Burke’s statement praising “just prejudice” for its assistance in rendering “a man’s virtue his habit”—becomes nothing but a noxious weed to be extirpated. Regretting the effect of this semantic transformation on our moral vision, Weaver comments that “life without prejudice, were it ever to be tried, would soon reveal itself to be a life without principle.”
Kimball’s readers may experience his moral seriousness most acutely in those chapters in which he confronts problems that have only grown worse over the last dozen years. One is the decline of deep literacy. He observes that in the information age, data “are everywhere, but no one knows a thing.” Instant connections to databases have given users unprecedented access to information, but this access has become a crutch, leading to the atrophy of crucial abilities. Not only are citizens as a consequence less knowledgeable; these changes in our capacity to read and think deeply have had an effect, as Kimball observes, on our politics, our imaginations, and our ethics.
A related question concerns science itself: “Is there a point at which scientific development can no longer be described, humanly, as progress?” The French philosopher Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) would agree that this interrogation needs to take place. Humans require a moral perspective that transcends the quest for efficient technique. Functional advancement should not be our sole end. As Kimball notes, our “stupendous power” has inclined us to lay hold of every innovation that passes before our eyes, not only every enlargement of scientific knowledge but also every new development in manners and ethics. We need to learn “that promises of liberation often turn out to conceal new enchantments and novel forms of bondage.” A reader can ponder illustrations of this phenomenon taken from the day’s newspaper.
Another problem upon which Kimball focuses good attention is the divided state of the American republic. A major cause is society’s embrace of a contradiction: that between scorning racism and accepting racialism. Consequently, as he says, on page 1 of a college application will be words declaring a commitment to evaluate candidates without regard to race, gender, etc., and on page 2 will be language implying that it will be to the candidate’s advantage if she belongs to any of several designated victim groups.
As Kimball points out, the Presidential Executive Order in 1961 which directed government contractors to take “affirmative action” to ensure that workers would be hired “without regard” to race, sex, creed, and so forth has “resulted in the creation of vast bureaucracies dedicated to discovering, hiring, and advancing people chiefly on the basis of those qualities.” Consider the effects of this practice when joined to a denigration of the impulses that unite us. Martha Nussbaum (1947– ), for instance, frets that “patriotic pride” is—in her phrase—“morally dangerous.”
A conservative liberal in the tradition of Burke (1729–1797) and Tocqueville (1805–1859), Kimball is wary of a pattern of behavior that the author of Democracy in America would have recognized as a bad habit of democratic societies: a “passion for equality” which “tends to trump the passion for liberty.” Efforts to enforce equality can lead to “egregious inequalities,” as, in Tocqueville’s words, “democratic despotism” reaches out and “extends its arms over society as a whole.”
Like Tocqueville, Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) knew that in modern bureaucratic societies, the promise of humanitarian benefits may cloak actual threats to our liberties. Kimball’s chapter on Hayek is excellent, remarking the link between “the odious phrase ‘social justice’” and its effect in practice, which is “de facto injustice,” as advocates of social justice employ “the legal machinery of justice” to achieve “predetermined ends.”
The author’s preface to this new paperback edition contains several pages of appreciation devoted to the witness of Russell Kirk (1918–1994), whose principal commitments Kimball declares to be closely aligned with his own. Kirk “was the person most responsible for reinvigorating the intellectual heritage of conservatism.” Kimball recalls the thrill that his first reading of The Conservative Mind gave him: “At last,” he felt, “I have come home.” In their notable careers, both men have been concerned not merely to restore a particular political philosophy to intellectual respectability but also to guard against the loss of an inestimable cultural patrimony, comprising the props and mainstays of a civilization within which order, justice, and liberty can coinhere and flourish.
David Hein is Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and coauthor of Archbishop Fisher, 1945–1961: Church, State and World (Routledge).
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