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Eliot, Kirk and the Moral Imagination

The following is adapted from a speech on the occasion of the republication of Russell Kirk's Eliot and His Age, given to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute student group at Central Michigan University in September 2008.

What makes T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk so important that we should be here tonight to discuss them? Well, for one, both fathered "ages"--the twentieth century was, according to Kirk, "The Age of Eliot" and Kirk himself inaugurated the contem- porary Conservative Age with the publication of The Conservative Mind in the early 1950s. Both men recognized that there is no culture without cult, cult in this instance, for Kirk, "a joining together for worship--that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that human community grows." Additionally, both Eliot and Kirk agreed that a worldview is only viable inasmuch as it reflects what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, which he defined as, "the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment--especially the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art."

For Eliot, the moral imagination derived from his Anglo-Catholicism; for Kirk, his Roman Catholicism. Devoid of moral imagination, all systems--political, social, economic, familial and spiritual--are bound to fail. True conservatives, both men believed, place moral considerations ahead of ideology. In fact, both held that true conservatism is the negation of ideology.

Dr. Benjamin Lockerd, in his excellent new preface to Eliot and His Age, quotes Kirk: "Recovery of moral understanding cannot be merely a means to social restoration: it must be its own end, though it will produce social consequences. In the words of T.S. Eliot, 'If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.'" Eliot hints at this jealous God in his verse play, "Murder in the Cathedral":

Those who put their faith in worldly order. Not controlled by the order of God, in confident ignorance, but arrest disorder. Make it fast, breed fatal disease, Degrade what they exalt.

Eliot witnessed the results of catastrophically destructive ideologies. He had seen nationalistic fervor ignite the conflagration of world wars; he had seen the passion for atheistic "social justice" strip whole populations from nations; he had witnessed members of his own generation embrace fascism and members of the succeeding generation embrace Marxist solutions; he had witnessed the tremendous sway of Freud and Jung, which had pointed the way to so many blind alleys for so many writers of so-called Modernist sensibilities.

Revisiting Eliot's works--and being able to do so with Kirk's invaluable guidance-- serves to remind readers that nurturing one's mind also nurtures one's character, and that chasing after utopian goals as ideologues often do is a fool's errand. As Kirk wrote about Eliot's masterpiece, "The Four Quartets":

Ideology, it must be remembered, is the attempt to supplant religious dogmas by political and scientistic dogmas. If one's first premise is that religion must be a snare and a delusion, for instance, then it follows that Eliot becomes an enemy to be assaulted, rather than a pilgrim whose journey one may admir--even if one does not believe in the goal of that quest. Truly there exists such a state as the invincible ignorance of the learned. If Liberalism, or Socialism, or Communism, has become a god-word, not to be questioned; if Science has become an uncritical faith, amounting really to Scientism-- then the captive of ideology will be unable to read with understanding what Eliot wrote painfully and carefully.

Both Kirk and Eliot understood that there is no terrestrial paradise, only that which exists in the hereafter. The best one can hope for is a world that cherishes its traditions, holds on to them, nurtures them, and passes them on to one's immediate community, family, and the world-at-large. This is a world that constantly renews itself not through revolution, but through regular revisits to those texts that reveal the best of humanity's thoughts and practices guided by a moral imagination that acknowledges something greater than the whims of the individual, something more honorable than political ideologies, something that places humanity under the rubric of the Divine to keep in check the arrogance of earthbound makers--those artists, intellectuals, and leaders who cease placing themselves as creations of something bigger, something more noble, something beyond even the best human minds to fully comprehend.

Lacking this, we are ideologically hidebound, pushing our personal agendas in attempts to reverse the Fall and reclaim an earthly paradise.

Lacking this, we find ourselves morally bankrupt--enslaved by our own appetites, greed, lusts and desires; subject to not only the bankruptcy of our financial and business institutions, but cultural bankruptcy as well--the decadence of what now passes for art and entertainment and the horrors perpetrated from one to another on an hourly basis.

Lacking this, we are Eliot's "Hollow Men," manifested in the evils of socialism espoused by George Bernard Shaw, Lenin, and Marx; the atheism proudly defended by Bertrand Russell; the dystopian visions of H.G. Wells--and for the rest of us the myriad of social and political correctives and their unforeseen consequences generations later. And, as Eliot concluded in that poem: "This is how the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper." For, when the moral compass is bent, it no longer serves as a trusted guide through the troubles that demand a moral response.

Bruce Edward Walker is manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network.