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TWO GIANTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: BORN ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO

December 28, 2018 Comments off

Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic 

TWO GIANTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: BORN ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO

 By Stephen M. Krason

In the last few months of 2018, we marked the centenary of the birth of two men who profoundly shaped thought in the twentieth century: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Russell Kirk. Solzhenitsyn, who lived into the new millennium (he died at age 89 in 2008), was both a Nobel laureate in literature and probably the leading dissident in the old Soviet Union whose influence played no small part in the ultimate collapse of the Communist behemoth and the end of the Cold War. He was a great testament to how moral force can shape the course of political and social events even against overwhelming odds. Kirk was the leading figure in the post-World War II intellectual conservative revival, implanting traditionalist conservatism as a major force in American public discourse and ultimately helping to pave the way for the election of Ronald Reagan.

Solzhenitsyn’s odyssey from flirtation with communism in his youth to one of its most ardent, unremitting critics took place during his imprisonment in a Soviet labor camp for a private letter he wrote from the front near the end of World War II in which he criticized the tyrant Josef Stalin. Sent to internal exile after his imprisonment, he almost died of cancer. These experiences were the basis of three his best-known books, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward. The Soviet leadership allowed One Day to be published—the only of his works published in the USSR, though others circulated underground—as part of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization effort. Relating one day of the main character’s life in a Stalin-era labor camp, it turned out to be a decision that the top Soviet honchoes regretted because it began to make it apparent that circulating the truth about the realities of the regime could begin to cause it to splinter. What followed were years of harassment, efforts to discredit him, and even an assassination attempt by the KGB. In the meantime he and his work were becoming increasingly well known in the West, reaching its culmination with his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. This probably dissuaded the Soviet authorities from putting him back in prison. Instead they forced him into exile, which for him as a lover of his Russian homeland may have been almost as bad. In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union he returned to Russia for the last decade and a half of his life. In the late 1960s, he published his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, a three-volume account of the history and realities of the Soviet prison camp system that he wrote over the course of nine years. As he was writing the book, he kept parts of it with friends in different locations so the entire manuscript could not be seized by the KGB. It was smuggled to the West on microfilm to be published.

After his exile, Solzhenitsyn and his wife and sons settled in Vermont where he lived until after the end of the Soviet regime. He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1983, which is given annually to a person who has “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He was not happy with how life progressed in post-Soviet Russia, however. He believed that politically Russia needed to become a republic with a powerful presidential office and strong local government institutions, which explains both his curious support for Vladimir Putin and his belief that Russia had to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

Besides his books, Solzhenitsyn is best known for his 1978 Harvard University commencement address that was later published under the title of A World Split Apart. In it the great opponent of Soviet communism emerged also as a critic of the direction of the politics and culture of the West, which resulted in Western liberals abandoning him. In the address, Solzhenitsyn—who emphasized that his comments came “not from an adversary but from a friend”—called out the West for its consumerism, excessive legalism (with the results that law had become too complicated for the average person to understand, the necessity of voluntary self-restraint without legal coercion was ignored, and evil could not really be resisted), excessive stress on rights and imperviousness to obligations, “destructive and irresponsible freedom,” widespread media bias, and embracing of an amoral conception of politics. He identified as the root cause of all this the “rationalistic humanism” that first emerged in the Renaissance, which separated man from any transcendent standard. The West, he said, had rejected “the moral heritage of Christian centuries.” The fundamental cause of the agonies of the Communist East and the West were the same: the rejection of God. Once humanism discarded its Christian foundations, he said, it could not withstand the temptation to embrace ever more extreme leftist ideologies: liberalism gave way to radicalism, radicalism to socialism, and socialism to communism. It is clear that Solzhenitsyn’s assessment is as valid today as it was forty years ago.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) was a major early writing in the post-World War II conservative awakening. It talked about major British and American conservative thinkers, writers, and statesmen and explained—at a time when there was considerable confusion about what conservatism meant—the central principles of conservatism. Kirk was known as a latter-day follower of Edmund Burke’s thought and embraced what has come to be called traditionalist conservatism, which is well captured by his delineation of the “six canons of conservatism.” The first of these canons is the belief in a transcendent order, which can be found in Revelation, natural law principles, or simply sound traditions. The result is that political problems are, at bottom, moral and religious problems. The second canon is regard for what he called the variety and mystery of traditional life, as opposed to the leveling uniformity of radical perspectives. The third, related to the second, is that civilized society requires “orders and classes”—that is, natural differences and distinctions have to be recognized. In other words, egalitarianism contravenes the nature of things. The fourth is that property and liberty are closely linked. Political liberty will be stifled if the right of private property is suppressed. The fifth canon is that custom, convention, and prescription (i.e., a presumption in favor of long-standing institutions and customs) must be sustained. This is in opposition to those who would seek to reshape social life according to abstract notions and schemes. The sixth canon is that change and innovation are not the same thing. All things change, but the change must occur within the context of respecting the perennial things. Innovation or reckless change is the path not to progress, but destruction. Further, prudence is necessary to approach change sensibly.

Following Burke, Kirk also was known for emphasizing the notion of the moral imagination, which—as Kirk protégé W. Wesley McDonald defined it—involves “man’s intuitive power to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of the seeming chaos of experience.”

Kirk was the rare unaffiliated scholar, having left the academy after only several years in a faculty position in the 1950s because of what he saw as the evisceration of the liberal arts and serious academic concerns, though he did serve visiting professorships later in his career at places like Hillsdale College. His influence on American conservatism was seen not only in his own scholarship, but also in his role in founding National Review magazine and the journal Modern Age. He was also the first editor of Modern Age, which has long been published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). For decades ISI, which Kirk had a profound influence on, has made the case for the conservative tradition on American campuses. Kirk’s other main books were The Roots of American Order—an incomparable work that explains how America grew out of a Western cultural tradition that was symbolized by Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London—The Portable Conservative Reader, Eliot and his Age (focusing on the great British-American literary figure and essayist T.S. Eliot), Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning—his main work on education, which he wrote frequently about—his autobiographical Sword of the Imagination, and several novels and short stories. He was known especially for his ghost stories.

A convert to Catholicism, among Kirk’s close friends were the eminent Catholic constitutional lawyer William Bentley Ball and syndicated columnist and presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, whose 1992 primary campaign to unseat George H. W. Bush Kirk was the Michigan director of. As I discerned from my two books evaluating American liberalism and conservatism in light of Catholic social teaching, the traditionalist conservatism that Kirk represented was probably the closest of the leading American ideological perspectives to Catholic social teaching. Kirk tended to be critical of another of the schools of American conservatism, neoconservatism, and was an unabashed opponent of libertarianism. He was also uneasy with another school of post-War conservatism, fusionism, which tried to meld together conservative and libertarian thought. Later in his life, Kirk was also critical of what he saw as the foreign policy interventionism of some Republican leaders, which he saw as following the problematic internationalism of major Democratic presidents.

Today’s college students tend to be weak on twentieth-century history, even though most of our current life, culture, and politics was deeply, profoundly, and sweepingly shaped by it. They—and anyone seeking to learn about the influences of sound thought from an age that gave us so much unsound thought with often disastrous consequences—could do well to start with thinkers like these two intellectual giants.

 

Stephen M. Krason’s “Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic” column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and Associate Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and a lawyer. Among his books are: Liberalism, Conservatism, and Catholicism;The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic; Catholicism and American Political Ideologies, and a Catholic political novel, American Cincinnatus. This column originally appeared in Crisismagazine.com. The views expressed here are his own.

 

 

 

 

 

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