Friday, January 8, 2016

Beyond politics

.... Kirk consistently rejected the typical right-left division of modern politics. In part, this flowed from Kirk’s principled rejection of ideology.

Kirk understood ideology as “inverted religion.” Here, one senses Voegelin’s influence. With this phrase, Kirk rejected the tendency to think that we can realize heaven on earth through implementation of a political program. Whether such agendas were derived from socialism, libertarianism, progressivism, or even conservatism was, for Kirk, irrelevant. According to Kirk, there was a straight line between ideology in this sense and regimes willing to abandon all natural and legal restraints in order to realize political goals. Historically speaking, this has predominantly manifested itself on the left, assuming demonic form in the case of Communist governments. But there have also been instances in which ideology, in Kirk’s sense of the word, has flourished among sections of the right—nationalism (as distinct from patriotism) being a prominent example.

A second reason for Kirk’s rejection of the right-left paradigm was his longstanding interest in subjects that did not engage “political” questions, as such, but nonetheless were crucial in defining Western civilization. Here, Birzer’s discussion of Kirk’s relationship with T.S. Eliot is eye-opening. By any standard, Eliot was a man of the right and, as Birzer notes, was quite happy to discuss conservative ideas and figures in his correspondence with Kirk. Kirk was primarily interested, however, in Eliot’s poetry, spirituality, and sense of the mystical. Such things were, to Kirk’s mind, simply beyond politics and ought to remain so.

A third reason for Kirk’s dislike for right-left paradigms was his growing commitment to what Birzer describes as a type of Christian humanism that had decidedly premodern antecedents. These ranged from Aristotle and Plutarch to Dante, Erasmus, and Thomas More. Given that the right-left political division is very much a product of a post-1789 world, Kirk’s rejection of this way of looking at politics could be seen as underscoring his commitment to the abiding relevance of schools of thought (such as natural law) and thinkers (such as Aquinas) that helped define his Christian humanism but that don’t fit into the contemporary categories of right-left, conservative-liberal-socialist divisions. ....

Kirk regularly stressed that conservatism is, among other things, a matter of outlook and habits. He also noted that it involves awareness of certain constants in human nature, a respect for inherited wisdom, and a willingness to take religion very seriously. Nevertheless, for all its insistence that some things are beyond politics (something that modern liberalism seems incapable of appreciating), conservatism is also a modern political phenomenon with clear implications for political actors in the modern world, including the sphere of policy. .... [more]