T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk and the Moral Imagination

(Note: 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 and edited for the Acton Institute's "Religion and Liberty."

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 20th century was, according to Kirk, "The Age of Eliot," and Kirk himself inaugurated the contemporary Conservative Age with the publication of "The Conservative Mind" in the early 1950s.

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As an essayist, particularly writing for the magazine he launched and edited, "The Criterion," Eliot revealed himself a protector of what Kirk came to call "the permanent things." And, to Kirk, that's what a true conservative was — someone who protects important ideas from revolutionary fervor. James Person quoted Kirk from a 1993 interview: "There are permanent things in society: the health of a family, inherited political institutions that insure a measure of order and justice and freedom, a life of diversity and independence, a life marked by widespread possession of private property. These permanent things guarantee against arbitrary interference by the state"

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."

Eliot and Kirk believed that in a world 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.

In this regard, Kirk places Eliot in the tradition begun by Plato, continued by Virgil and Dante and into the 20th century by Robert Frost, Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner and William Butler Yeats. But while Yeats will forever be remembered as the greatest poet of the 20th century simply by the sheer volume of impressive verse he created, Eliot throughout his career avoided the occultism that obsessed Yeats, the nationalism of Yeats and the early hopes for political solutions that Yeats endorsed. In fact, Eliot is singular among the great poets of his era in a rejection of political solutions. He considered himself a royalist, but only inasmuch as he identified a royalist as a "temperate conservative."

Eliot witnessed the results of catastrophically destructive ideologies. He saw nationalistic fervor ignite the conflagration of world wars; he saw the passion for "social justice" strip whole populations from nations; he witnessed members of his own generation embrace fascism and members of the succeeding generation embrace Marxist solutions; he witnessed the tremendous sway of Freud and Jung, which 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 — or moral imagination.

Lacking this, we find ourselves morally bankrupt, enslaved by our own appetites, greed and desires; subject to not only the bankruptcy of our financial and business institutions, but cultural bankruptcy as well.

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.

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Bruce Edward Walker is communications director for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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