Towards the end of his life, conservative intellectual, Russell Kirk gave a series of lectures in 1987 titled The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky. GK Chesterton aficionados will know that line as from his poem The Ballad of the White Horse which takes place in the time of Alfred The Great.
The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.
The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.
One of Chesterton’s favorite topics was Eastern fatalism verses Christian hope (Western optimism), which, considering all the blackpills and distractions crossing conservative discourse lately, needs to be clarified before I go on.
Western optimism—Christian hope are the same thing. To be clear, Christian hope is built on immense suffering. To the uninitiated outsider, Christian hope doesn’t look like hope at all. It looks like torture.
The Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering Christ took to the crucifixion where he died for the salvation of man doesn’t look so optimistic. Whether you believe or not, the West grew into its prominence thanks to Christianity, where, for the first time, a God sacrificed something of his for creation.
Western optimism is the light at the end of the tunnel, seen, only because it’s dark. Western optimism is realistic; recognizing, that in order to get to that light, we must necessarily suffer, our children must suffer; all of this under the vague belief that light is worth something. If only a single generation enjoys the fruit of my suffering, it shall be worth it.
That brings us back to Russell Kirk. The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky was published into a short compendium, each chapter making up one of Kirk’s lecture. It’s about 130 pages, not including the index and it took me approximately 5 hours to read—it’s available for free to those with an Audible subscription, its about 5hrs, 30mins there.
Much like Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, it is required reading for any member of the Dissonant Right.
Please keep in mind that these lectures were given in 1987, during the Reagan Admin, so some information is defunct. It includes a chapter on computers that is wildly out-of-date but necessary to read because of Kirk’s prophetic ability; wherein he tells us, in 1987, exactly what Google, Twitter, Facebook, other mega-corporations, and government are going to do with computers.
The disembodied hand of a writer often reaches through the waves of placid time to slap you in the face and shout “I told you so” to render you vindicated by rite of shared philosophy and miserable because it’s come to pass. Kirk will descend from the heavens and beat you upside the head, presumable shouting “what did I tell you?” so many times that by the time you reach the half-way point, you’ll begin to wonder why you’re reading about a future that’s already come to pass.
Again, like Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, its prescriptive medicine. Its prescriptive, because it’s of its prophecies. Medicinal because of his answers.
You see, I’ve been trying to take my own advice, laid out in my last article: What Does the Disillusioned Right Do Now? I have an impressive library of classical philosophy, myth, and history, but it’s lacking in the American Conservative tradition. This reality was made painfully prescient by the death of Rush Limbaugh.
I was a Rush-baby, I grew up listening to him on the radio. His death was, in a way, a personal blow. Like losing that last connection to childhood. It’s strange, because as an adult, I wasn’t a ritualistic listener. Even after his cancer announcement, he’d been such a normal part of my life for so long that I couldn’t imagine a world where I didn’t hear him. It was in that sudden silence and the left’s disgusting celebrations, that I saw how truly powerful he was.
But the danger lies in the forgetting of him. Which appears to be what the right has done to those towering intellects of the old Conservative Traditions—Goldwater, Kirk, Tocqueville, Weaver, Burke.
The left doesn’t know Russell Kirk, we should introduce them. But first, we need to reacquaint ourselves with him. The Wise Men is a great place to start.
Kirk begins his lectures asking if America can build itself into an unrivaled Augustan Age like that of Augustan Rome. “Americans have to confront the problem of reinvigorating the written constitution and the unwritten constitution, lest the country sink altogether into a centralized “plebiscitary democracy”, a mockery of the original American pattern of politics.” That is, we must avoid the danger of what Tocqueville called “despotic democracy.” In order to do this, “we Americans must come to know Augustan ways.”
“Augustan Rome” was the fall of the Roman Republic, yes, this is true. But when he uses the word Augustan, Kirk is referring to “grand maturity.” That is, the best period for literary accomplishment, architectural greatness, and unrivaled artistic triumph. In politics, he means “even-handed justice” to restore the rule of law. In morals, he means a recovery of venerable standards.
You will note the lack of economics here. Good. To the august mind, “economics are the least of our worries.” Augustan minds take long views, rather than short ones. GDP is not a barometer of national happiness, economic growth does not tell us the health or sickness of culture, nor does money in pocket count towards salvation—as they say, you can’t take it with you.
Kirk goes on, “the term august cannot be applied to a society whose people are blind and deaf to the transcendent. Such a society, lacking truth of myth which is life-giving, cannot long cohere, let alone display greatness.” Ideology, he continues, doesn’t endure past its seizure of power. “At the moment America lacks prophets, saints, and martyrs. America has no poet of the high dream on the model of Virgil; no historian like Livy who gives meaning to the obscurity of people’s past. We think of our comforts, and of what private advantages we may extract from our government.”
It’s there—that’s where hope lies! We have no saints, no martyrs, no poets of high Virgilian, Livian style. But neither does the left.
Most likely, there will not be any Augustan men of the Millennial generation, nor of Gen-Z. But Vigil and Livy were born of men and women. And therein, is the hope blackpilled conservatives must cling to. Our duty is to raise Augustan children. Ours is to build resilience in our families.
Augustan minds take long views, over short ones. Western optimism is Via Dolorosa.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under any illusion. For all that could right, everything can go wrong. It certainly feels that way and you’re well within your rights to feel hopeless. But the world turns and we can go no where but forward.
Kirk’s cause for hope isn’t that with plucky tenacity, popular policy, and overwhelmingly big-brained political acumen we can change the cultural discourse and save the Republic from itself. If that’s what you want, you’ve got the wrong philosophy.
We conservatives know, no matter how it breaks our collective hearts, no matter how harsh the truth—most men don’t want to be free, they want to be safe. Conservatism is to fight a losing battle with the hope that even a single generation may enjoy the fruits of liberty. This is made no clearer than in Wise Men, where Kirk reminds us that struggle between liberty and tyranny is always ongoing.
“Humanitarian liberals, [Orestes] Brownson wrote in his American Republic, are the enemies—if sometimes the unwitting enemies—of freedom and true order.” Orestes Brownson was born in 1805 and died in 1878 and he was one of the first men to write a response to Marx’s Communist Manifesto. I had never heard of him until I read this book and rest assured, I will be seeking out his works. What is most interesting to me, is that Kirk, using Brownson’s words, highlights the problems of specific lines of thought that were in problem after the Civil War, and then again in Kirk’s time.
Brownson wrote: “The humanitarian democracy which scorns all geographical lines, effaces all individualities, and professes to plant itself on humanity alone, has acquired by the [Civil] war new strength, and is not without menace to our future.” Kirk summarizes the rest, saying “Brownson declares that the humanitarian presently will attack distinctions between the sexes; he will assail private property, as unequally distributed. “Nor can our humanitarian stop there. Individuals are, and as long as there are individuals will be, unequal; some are handsomer and some are uglier; some wiser or sillier, more or less gifted, stronger or weaker, taller or shorter, stouter or thinner than others, and therefore some have natural advantages which other have not. There is inequality, therefore injustice, which can be remedied by the abolition of all individualities, and the reduction of all individuals to the race, or humanity, man in general. He [the humanitarian] can find no limit to agitation this side of vague generality, which is no reality, but a pure nullity, for he respects no territorial or individual circumscription, and must regard creation itself as a blunder.”
Gee, that sounds very familiar. For Kirk’s time, replace “humanitarian” with “social democrat” and it remains the same. For 2021, replace “humanitarian” with any one of our pet words “SJW” or “leftist”, “communist”, “postmodern Marxist”, “progressive”, “democrat”, “socialist”, “feminist”, “BLM protestor”, “Mitt Romney”, nothing changes but the coat of paint.
The fight against universal mediocrity is the same fight today as it was yesterday and will remain the same tomorrow. Our fight is civilization verses barbarism and sometimes, the barbarians have to win so that civilization may rebuild.
Kirk continues, “Do Brownson’s phrases ring strange in our ears, in the year of our Lord 1987? Yes, they do, in some degree. And why? Because the humanitarian—that is, the folk who take it for granted that human nature and society may be perfect through a means purely human—have come to dominate our universities, our schools, our serious press, most of our newspapers, our television and our radio. The thought, and the very vocabulary, of this Republic have fallen under the domination of humanitarian ideology.”
The materialistic egalitarian—the barbarian—is the same foe; has been, and will be. But the question remains, can we build a new Augustan Age? I would say, not in my lifetime. Maybe not even in my children’s lifetime. But we may raise august men.
The family is under constant assault by the left, so it was in 1987: “the average American family has sunk into an unhealthy condition. I suggest that renewal and reinvigoration must come from within the family itself, or from the churches, or from the imagination and right reason of private persons.”
Kirk refers to the alternative of the family as the Universal Orphanage, a sad and loveless place of extreme individualism that leads to a sort of compulsory collectivism where “mere production and consumption, under direction of the state apparatus, becomes the exclusive ends of human striving.” In other words, you, worker bee, exist in a positive feedback loop, where your purpose is to create tax revenue for the state so that the state can give you welfare, necessitating the need for you to make tax revenue.
Fellow ladies, this is what feminism is for—to get you out of the home and making money for the state. “Why do more women work for pay eight hours a day? Why, for one reason, to help pay the family’s increasing taxes—to compensate for inflated prices caused by governmental deficit-financing. Thus, a circular process is set in motion. Eventually the state may find it necessary or advantageous to require all able-bodies mothers to work.”
It becomes necessary for us to suffer in the short term. One parent must work, one must stay home to raise children. That will be difficult. I was blessed enough to be raised in a two-parent household to be raised by my mother while my father worked. That decision was made for my benefit, despite that it meant no new cars or vacations, or extra goodies that my peers earned from their working parents who supplemented their lack of time with excess materialism.
“In the old complacency, the family had fancied that it was invulnerable—because from immemorial antiquity the family had been the source of human strength, security, and happiness. Yet, after what has been done by ideology and slaughter in China, Russia, and other lands, the family now knows that it is not impregnable to assault. Thus waked to its peril, the American family may device means for the recovery of its vigor.
Because it is natural, the family is resilient, with marvelous powers of reinvigoration. A human body unable to react is a corpse. Even in countries less fortunate than ours, the family retains powers of reaction. In the long run, though the topless towers fall and the captains and kings depart, two human institutions endure in one form or another: the family and the church. In the long run, the Chinese family will outlast the hideous folly of Mao; in the long run, the Russian family will survive the sinking of the Gulag Archipelago.”
The rest of Kirk’s lectures are dedicated to education, both grammar and higher. He rails against the same things we rail against: poor quality teachers, even poorer quality curriculum, and compulsory schooling, where children are bored to death and in that boredom tend towards violence for want of something to do.
His solution is the same as every conservative—a remaking of the classical model.
Kirk asks, can virtue be taught? It can be learnt in families where virtue is exhibited, but not taught as a formal process. Can our schools be saved? Yes, if families are willing teach and hold schools accountable. Although, he doesn’t go outright and say it, the answer is clearly homeschooling—we can save the rest by raising virtuous children.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the same place: the family.
At risk of inane repetition; a new Augustan Age won’t look like the old ones. It will feature small, bright spots of Augustan men and women raising Augustan men and women: “there never was an age in which a majority of men and women participated in a public process of discussions—though occasionally the majority may have entertained the illusion that they so participated.”
Kirk calls us a remnant; I’ve called us pilgrims. Regardless of the name, be assured that
“anyone who thinks seriously upon these tribulations must grow disheartened on some occasions; he may be tempted to confess himself one of those ‘men of the East’ who knows all too well what wicked things are written on the sky—tempted to shrug, sigh, and mummer, ‘what cannot be mended, must be endured.’ Yet if most people so resign themselves, indeed all is lost.”
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