Postmodern conservatism

First Things, the magazine, has a fascinating article on conservative champion Russell Kirk, who would have turned 90 on October 19. Excerpt:

The problem Kirk faced, along with most conservatives, was that the Enlightenment, with its universalizing equality, secularism, and blinkered rationality, was already destroying traditional Western culture. How can a tradition be preserved if it is already dissolving into what theorist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity?”

Kirk’s answer was twofold. First, he uncovered (some would say, “created”) a counter-tradition, one that rested not on the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the ideological fervor of the French Revolution, or the modern vogue for limitless “rights.” Rather, it began with Edmund Burke’s defense of the lived experience of Britain as a bulwark of liberty and the protection of rights. Moreover, Kirk claimed that this tradition connected Britain and America, and included such varied figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson and Benjamin Disraeli, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, John Adams and W.H. Mallock. . . .

As early as the 1950s, he had become convinced that liberalism would exhaust itself because it could not inspire and sustain what he called the “moral imagination.” For conservatives to buy into its premises would seal their defeat. Something else would replace liberalism eventually, and Kirk offered a richly imaginative vision of conservatism that could survive liberal modernity’s collapse. One element of that vision was a revived respect for religious faith.

As early as 1982, in an essay for National Review, Kirk suggested that “the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes [of postmodernism] may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives.” He went so far as to state that he thought that it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.” (One of the earliest uses of the word postmodern was by the conservative Episcopalian cleric Bernard Iddings Bell, in a book of that title published in 1926; not surprisingly, Bell was an early influence on Kirk.)

Kirk had little patience for the trendy radicalism and sometimes simply nonsensical expressions of postmodern hacks. Nonetheless, he saw in postmodernism a chance to escape the strictures of liberalism and reconnect with the older, pre-Enlightenment tradition of the West. This approach has its weaknesses–Kirk, for example, too often simply assumed the existence of historical continuity, and perhaps did not sufficiently confront the corrosive effects of liberalism on the kinds of social forces he believed could sustain tradition. Nevertheless, his work stands as a stark alternative to a much bleaker postmodern future.

This is not the same as “postmodernISM,” of course, just a different way of taking advantage of the collapse of modernism. I fear though that we are on the verge of something beyond postmodernism, a new age of aggressive certainty in a completely different direction.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • David

    Unfortunately I beiieve the post modern age has not been influenced by the Kirks of the world. Modernism has simply morphed into into Postmodernism. Tell me what you think of what I wrote recently: “Over the last few decades Modernism has not gradually died; you might say that is has naturally “evolved” into Postmodernism. Postmodernism accepts Naturalism’s closed-box universe but rejects the “positive” assumptions of Secular Humanism, namely, its belief in man’s goodness, its morality, and its trust in reason and empirical science. Postmodernism also takes Darwinism’s assumption of the “survival of the fittest” and applies it as a driving force in all areas, painting a very bleak picture of human groups, their ethic, and their purpose. Postmodernism is Modernism without a conscience; it simply follows Naturalism to its logical conclusions. Within its closed box Postmodernism realizes there is no genuine basis for distinguishing between real good and evil; for recognizing absolute truth, knowledge of any kind, real beauty, or the uniqueness of man. Sadly, Postmodernism has become the overriding worldview in much of today’s culture. All one is left with is survival of the powerful.”

  • FW

    it is the Rule of Law that unites christians with deistic, enlightenment principles of our founding fathers.

    it can also be our guide for where we must see their measures as not infallible , but as important, just , and imperfect means to just end that will ever be imperfectly achieved in a sinful world.

    The inconsistency of the founders on the hideous and often murderous practices of race-based slavery is exactly identical to the myopia that Obama displays in his deep thought and excellent views on constitutional rule of law versus his hideous inconsistency on abortion.

    as with obama, the founders (with the notable exception of the adams brothers and a few others), bent to a contemporary and pressing political issue and created a situation that still vexes us in how our government was set up. The inconsistency of pro-choice politicians will leave lasting scars. But as with what the founders did, what was the realistic political alternative?

    (to get the southern slave states to join the union, the compromise was made to give them disproportional power in the senate. and the social effects of slavery and reconstruction and dred scott affects black society negatively to this day.)

    I look at these situations as exactly identical.

  • The Jones

    “Aggressive Certainty” is a good way to explain the modern day post-modern mindset. (whoa, say that three times fast) The big problem is that not only are people certain, and aggressively certain, but they do not even know the thing that they are certain of.

    Today’s pattern of “tolerance,” the implications of “homosexual marriage,” and the logical conclusions of “a woman’s right to choose,” are not weighed and decided on logically. It’s just treated as the only way their is. Christians have been ridiculed for their beliefs long enough that we are, on the whole, exempt from much of this. But even knowing where you’re coming from, it is very difficult arguing with a post-modernist about his belief.

  • Anon

    Kirk was a pre-modern, as anyone with a Biblical worldview would be. Advocating using works of the imagination to appeal to the post-modern does not imply believing anything like the post-modern/fascist epistemology.

  • allen

    I’ve noticed a certain “aggressive certainty” among postmodernists just chatting them up in the coffee shop. But there is an “internal contradiction” here. If someone really believes that he is an evolved vacuum fluctuation, how can his words be taken seriously? Or more to the point, if he really were, why should they be, I mean, from the speaker’s own viewpoint?

  • Anon

    Allen, they believe that words are just a mask for power.

    One must not expect truth from those who think that there is no truth, and that words are merely a mask for power.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Anon, I’m not saying at all that Kirk was in any way a postmodernist! The essay, I think, takes “post-modern” as a reference to time.

    And, the Jones, my thesis that postmodernism is metastasizing into something different is that its former relativism, which allowed for different beliefs, has changed into that “aggressive certainty” that allows for no disagreements.

  • allen

    Anon, thank-you. I really only meant that someone would be insulting the intelligence of his hearer if he stated to him that there is no truth, and then expected him to believe that that was true. He would have to be the most incompetent con-man ever, or very dull-witted himself.

  • Anon

    Allen, yet college professors do this successfully with their students all the time, alas.

    Dr. Veith, thank you for the correction to my understanding of what you were saying.


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