Monday, October 07, 2013

Kirk's Permanent Things and Hayek's Enduring Things

The Philadelphia Society's fall meeting was on "The Permanent Things".  The panels were designed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind in 1953.  "The permanent things" was a phrase that Kirk took from T. S. Eliot, and much of the discussion turned on the interpretation and assessment of that idea.

Almost all of the speakers were uncritical in their praise of Kirk.  The only critics were me and Alan Charles Kors.  Kors is a prominent historian at the University of Pennsylvania who is known for his studies of the intellectual history of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe.  Kors defended the French Enlightenment, which was a bold move before an audience of Kirkian conservatives.  I defended Friedrich Hayek's evolutionary conservatism as an alternative to Kirk's metaphysical conservatism.

Kors and I were in complete agreement.  That might seem odd, particularly since Hayek presented his Burkean evolutionary conservatism as rooted in the British and Scottish Enlightenment as opposed to the French Enlightenment. 

But Kors argued that what Burkean conservatives criticize as the excesses of the French Revolution--the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror--manifest the intellectual legacy of Rousseau rather than the philosophes.  After all, Rousseau was a vehement opponent of the philosophes.  Leaders of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire and Montesquieu opposed every form of despotism and supported the tolerance, liberty, and commercial spirit that they saw in Great Britain.  Robespierre's "Republic of Virtue" was inspired not by the thought of Voltaire or Montesquieu but by Rousseau's Social Contract.  For example, Robespierre's "Religion of the Supreme Being" was explicitly an attempt to enforce Rousseau's teaching that all citizens must embrace a deistic religion, and that neither atheists nor Christians can be true citizens.

In his speech, Kors often referred to Hayek in ways that suggested that most of French Enlightenment thought was in agreement with Hayek's evolutionary liberalism, which I defended in my speech.

In arguing that Hayek's evolutionary reasoning was superior to Kirk's metaphysical reasoning, I faced a problem that was implicit throughout this conference:  it is hard to develop any intellectual assessment of Kirk's thought, because he was not a moral or political thinker but rather a man of poetic imagination.  This was indicated in the first speech of the conference by Bradley Birzer of Hillsdale College.  Having recently  completed a biography of Kirk based on his study of Kirk's papers and correspondence, Birzer was in a good position to offer a general view of Kirk's work.  His main conclusion was that Kirk was not a political philosopher who developed his reasoning in a logically rigorous manner, because he was actually a literary or historical story-teller.  The appeal of Kirk comes from the imaginative, evocative style of his writing, not from any rigorous argumentation.  Birzer even admitted that Kirk often contradicted himself.  But still Birzer tried to defend Kirk's thought as coherent.

In one of the first critical reviews of The Conservative Mind--in The Freeman (July 1955)--Frank Meyer complained that Kirk's conservatism was "not a body of principles, but a tone, an attitude," an attitude of reverence for the wisdom of tradition.  Like Hayek, Meyer agreed that human reason needed to operate within tradition; but he also thought that we need to appeal to some rational principles in judging tradition.  After all, what we inherit by tradition is often in need of reform, and some traditions are so bad as to be tyrannical.  Occasionally, Kirk conceded this, but then he would never explain how this reformation of tradition was to be carried out.

So, for example, as Kors indicated in his speech, the oppressive traditions of the ancient regime in France needed to be overturned.  And those like Montesquieu and Voltaire offered arguments for prudent reforms that would move France towards the free, prosperous, and tolerant society that was emerging in Great Britain.

Similarly, I argued in my speech that the American Southern tradition of slavery was so obviously oppressive that it needed to be abolished.  Kirk was unclear about this.  He did say, in The Conservative Mind, that Southern conservatives were mistaken in founding their conservatism on slavery.  But he didn't explain why he thought they were mistaken.  Moreover, while Kirk appealed to a metaphysics of the "permanent things"--a transcendent moral order of divine law--as the first principle of conservatism, he did not confront the fact that the Southern Christian conservatives grounded their defense of slavery in the divine law of the Bible.

Like Kirk, Richard Weaver insisted that any healthy culture had to be grounded in a "metaphysical dream of the world."  Weaver also saw that the "metaphysical dream" of the Southern slaveholders sanctified slavery as conforming to the Bible.  And he offered no way to judge that Southern tradition as wrong.

My argument was that our evolved human nature supports a natural moral sense that allows us to recognize that the tradition of Biblical religion was wrong in sanctioning slavery, because we can see that slaves are not naturally adapted to their slavery, and that they will resist enslavement as exploitation or social parasitism.  We can then pass the Bible through the filter of our natural moral sense and eliminate those Biblical traditions that we know to be evil.

Some of the speakers at this conference--such as David Jeffrey--suggested that the only source of moral authority was divine law, and particularly the divine law of the Hebrew Bible.  It was not clear to me, however, that Jeffrey and others really believed that we should embrace all of the Mosaic law, which would require a brutal despotism.

There was a disturbing tendency for some of the speakers to imply a divine command theory of moral order--that there is no way to know right from wrong except by obeying whatever God commands.  One speaker even appealed to Kierkegaard as correctly seeing that all standards come from divine authority.

Frederick Ross made the same kind of argument in his Slavery Ordained by God (1857).  He insisted that what is right and wrong is determined completely by God's command.  Therefore, if the Bible sanctions slavery, it must be right; and the abolitionist argument that slavery is wrong because it violates a natural standard of justice is atheism and blasphemy.

Surely, the Kirkian conservatives would want to reject this.  But to do that, they would have to appeal to some natural moral experience that allows us to correct the mistakes that can arise in traditions of divine law. 


TeeJaw said...

The Bible may sanction slavery, but apparently Moses didn’t.

Larry Arnhart said...

Slavery was sanctioned in the Mosaic laws (see, for example, Exodus 21:20-21, Leviticus 25:44-46).