"Four reformers met under a bramble bush. They were all
agreed that the world must be changed. 'We must abolish property,' said one. 'We must
abolish marriage,' said the second. 'We must abolish God,' said the third. 'I wish we
could abolish work,' said the fourth. 'Do not let us get beyond practical politics,' said
the first. 'The first thing is to reduce men to a common level.' 'The first thing,' said
the second, 'is to give freedom to the sexes.' 'The first thing,' said the third, 'is to
find out how to do it.' 'The first step,' said the first, 'is to abolish the Bible.' 'The
first thing,' said the second, 'is to abolish laws.' 'The first thing,' said the third,
'is to abolish mankind.'"
Robert Louis Stevenson
The Four Reformers
From the very start of his long and illustrious career as
an essayist and social critic, Russell Kirk warned that late liberalism is transmuting
America into the egalitarian and anti-human society relished by Robert Louis Stevenson's
Forty-five years ago, in an article entitled "The Dissolution of Liberalism,"
Kirk named this social philosophy "brummagemism," a local vulgarization of
Birmingham in England, where during the 19th century cheap and inferior knock-offs of
finely crafted articles were manufactured. In that article, Kirk argues that contemporary
liberalism is hawking a shoddy imitation of humanistic politics. Brummagemism
"tyrannizes over the soul of man" by imposing an "equality of condition
[and] uniformity of life and thought" through "pervasive state regulation,"
says Kirk. In the meantime, utilitarianism and pragmatism bridge the transition from the
old liberalism, whose moral vision was still deeply indebted to biblical faith, to a new
Machiavellianism "founded upon self-interest and creature comforts."
Under the new brummagemian order, radical moral skepticism evacuates the culture of the
last remnants of religious sentiment that inspired the concept of a free society. The sole
dogma is that a truly enlightened and progressive society needs no dogma. The result, Kirk
advises, is "a society which would deny men the right to struggle against evil for
the sake of good, or which simply cease[s] to distinguish good and evil."
"HUMILITY IN THE WRONG PLACE"
In his work Orthodoxy, the inimitable G. K. Chesterton mocked this liberal version of
virtue: "What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place," states
Chesterton. "Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon
the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be."
Fifteen years after Chesterton published Orthodoxy, in the inauspicious year
of 1929, a young Walter Lippmann propounded a no less damaging assessment of liberalism.
Lippmann comments in A Preface to Morals on the eviscerated and enfeebled
morality of his contemporaries, sounding a note that rings true for our present
circumstances as well:
If they deal with the young they are likely to say that they know of no compelling
reason which certifies the moral code they adhere to, and that, therefore, their own
preferences when tested by the ruthless curiosity of children, seem to have no sure
foundation of any kind. They are likely to point to the world about them, and to ask
whether modern man possesses any criterion by which he can measure the value of his own
desires, whether there is any standard he really believes in which permits him to put a
term upon that pursuit of money, of power, and of excitement which has created so much of
the turmoil and the squalor and the explosiveness of modern civilization.
When a political creed is no longer capable of handing on moral convictions to the
young, it forfeits the privilege to speak for them or to act in their behalf. And that is
where liberals are today, starting in the White House.
The souls of our children are in jeopardy. In recent days, the slaughter at Columbine
High School has reminded the nation joltingly of the danger of bodily harm to which to our
children are exposed even in their classrooms.
There is, however, a spiritual harm being done to the young that is even more damaging
and more pervasive. America has become unfriendly toward and unhealthy for children. It
has been pointed out repeatedly since the killings at Columbine High School that the two
young men who bloodlessly set out to murder their classmates and teachers were moved by a
diabolic imagination purveyed through the Internet and by shooter computer games. The
violence and vulgarity on television and video games that even the smallest children are
exposed to daily in America would have deeply offended my parents' sensibilities when they
were raising my brother and me.
I am not glorifying the past; I am, however, reviling the present moral climate. Our
lack of outrage at this situation and apparent inability to go to the heart of the matter
is no indication of a praiseworthy advance in our understandings of freedom or childhood
or parenthood. Nor is it a tribute to the free market or the democratic ideal: It is a
measurement, rather, of our piteous moral degradation as a society.
NURTURING THE MORAL IMAGINATION
In this past year, I published with Oxford University Press a book entitled Tending
the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination. Long ago
I was convinced by Russell Kirk in such books as Enemies of the Permanent Things
and Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning that at the root of the social
crisis is a lack of attention to the nurture of the moral imagination. My own reading to
my son, Rafi, and daughter, Victoria, proved to me the importance of a parental role in
this moral pedagogy. I witnessed firsthand how morally beneficial good stories are for
young children and that is when we must begin their moral education, when they are
Thus, in Tending the Heart of Virtue, I try to show how the best stories,
whether the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm and Hans Andersen or the fantasies of George
MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L'Engle, communicate faith, morality, and civic
virtue. Yet vast numbers of America's children never experience their felicitous influence
at home or in school.
Cecilia Kirk Nelson comments on her father's regular practice of bedtime reading to his
four daughters in an essay entitled "A Literary Patrimony." She writes:
By sparking my imagination through fairy tales, and by providing perspective and reason
through historical novels, my father imparted a legacy to me. For through the printed
word, the wisdom of generations transcends the "provincialism of time" and
speaks to us across the ages and oceans.... Children's literature especially has a
universal appeal and...can transmit an imaginative, normative consciousness.
To ponder the crisis of modern education was for Russell Kirk to describe our failure
to transmit a religious and moral patrimony to the young. Here he stood in the company of
G. K. Chesterton. At the turn of the 20th century, in What's Wrong With the World,
Chesterton warned of the dim prospects for freedom and morality in light of that failure.
In that book, he speaks of "an ancestral responsibility...of affirming the truth of
human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice." And
[There] is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you
dare to tell it to a child. From this high audacious duty the moderns are fleeing on every
side; and the only excuse for them is...that their modern philosophies are so half-baked
and hypothetical that they cannot convince themselves enough to convince even a newborn.
This, of course, is connected with the decay of democracy.
Americans are not only failing to pass on to their children a strong and abiding sense
of what is good, beautiful, and true, but they are letting enter into their minds and
their hearts, their ears and their eyes, every variety of smut and ugliness and deceiving
phantasmagoria. This is the symptom of a grave crisis of conviction, a profound confusion
In The Idea of a Christian Society, published nearly 60 years ago, T. S. Eliot
assesses with startling prescience our present condition and he lays the blame
firmly on the liberal philosophy:
We are living at present in a kind of doldrums between opposing winds of doctrine, in a
period in which one political philosophy [liberalism] has lost its cogency for behavior,
though it is still the only one in which public speech can be framed. This is very bad for
the English language: it is this disorder (for which we are to blame) and not individual
insincerity, which is responsible for the hollowness of many political and ecclesiastical
Eliot argues that modern liberalism vacates the societies it husbands of the very
beliefs that made liberalism such a viable and powerful force in history. Liberalism
discards "as superfluous or obsolete" vital "elements in historical
Christianity" upon which it based its anthropology and doctrine of liberty. It
confounds these vital elements "with practices and abuses which are legitimate
objects of attack."
The outcome is that our deepest convictions about the dignity of the human person and
the transcendental nature of freedom are ripped from their religious sources and lose
legitimization. An empty and fruitless shell is left that may be filled with whatever
dogma or ideology is favored at the moment.
THE GROWING INSTITUTIONAL DANGER
In the meantime, a network of institutions is evolving in Western democratic societies
that threatens to destroy the core of what it means to be a religious person and a
believer in divine and human freedom. These institutions claim to be neutral about faith
and about God, but they are in reality non-Christian and growing increasingly
anti-Christian and atheistic.
Christians and others who adhere to historic faiths have little choice
but to participate in some of these institutions. Yet this participation subverts belief
in religious truth and obedience to religious authority. Eliot warns: "And as for the
Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma and he is in the majority he
is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism
holds the valuable advertising space."
Under the conditions Eliot describes, what can we do? We belong to a stream of history
and tradition whose headwaters draw deeply from biblical faith. This is our fact, our
situation, and our location. This stream is the living and life-giving tradition of our
I agree with Russell Kirk when he says in a lecture delivered at The Heritage
Foundation that, even in secularized America, nearly everyone who lives long in it,
"though he be Jew or Moslem or agnostic, conforms in a large degree to American
folkways and customs and conventions that are" deeply, historically influenced by
Christianity. If it is our intent merely to jump out of the stream, that is one thing. The
possibilities and consequences of such an action might be examined on some other occasion.
But if, even in these radically disjunctive times, our hope is for renewal of the
social order, then we must begin with our particular location in time and history. If the
stream in which we swim has become toxic, we must find ways to name and extract the
THE VITAL NEXUS:
RELIGION, LITERATURE, AND MORALITY
One answer to what can be done lies in the restorative role that religious persons of
literature and letters can play in such an environment. We have seen it at work in
citations from Kirk, Chesterton, and Eliot. In his well-known essay "Religion and
Literature," Eliot locates the vital cultural nexus of religion, literature, and
The common ground between religion and fiction is behavior. Our religion imposes our
ethics, our judgment and criticism of ourselves and our behavior toward our fellow men.
The fiction that we read affects our behavior toward our fellow men, affects our patterns
We are living at a moment in the history of Western culture when "the common code
of morality" founded in biblical religion is being "detached from its
theological background" as well as being leached from the soil of the common life by
the acid rain of modern secularism, Eliot continues. But at precisely such times of
pollution and deprivation, "'morals' are open to being altered by literature,"
This may be for well or for ill. For the ground of our common life may devolve into the
swamp and muck of the diabolic imagination, or we may experience refreshment and renewal
at the enlivening stream of the moral imagination. Unhappily, Eliot concludes,
"modern literature is corrupted by...secularism, [so] that it is simply unaware of,
simply cannot understand the meaning of the primacy of the supernatural." A new
literary imagination that is open to religious faith needs to be birthed.
I wonder whether, if Eliot were alive today, he would be willing to broaden his
description of the realm in which either a moral or a diabolic imagination comes into
being. Would he, in the scope of his analysis, include also the visual images and spoken
words that saturate our popular culture through television, the cinema, video games, and
He certainly was alert to the often hidden yet powerful influence that ordinary
recreational reading may exercise on human believing and doing. He observes in
"Religion and Literature":
I incline to the shocking conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for
amusement, or purely for pleasure, that may have the greatest and least suspected
influence upon us. It is literature we read with the least effort that can have the
easiest and most insidious influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular
novelists, and of popular playwrights of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized
If we expand this to include the electronic and other entertainment and advertising
media, we gain an appreciation of just how powerful and pervasive the forces are that work
upon the imaginations of modern people. In times of decadence, the religious person of
letters may be better equipped than the moral philosopher to make the moral difference,
not by a dogged defense of dogma though an intelligent defense of dogma by
theologians and clergy is needed but by influencing behavior through new creations
of the moral imagination.
When the common base of morality is eroded, that which is favorable or objectionable
changes with the mood of the generation nay, the decade even. Those who enshrine a
false view of progress may regard this state of affairs with satisfaction; they may even
declare it to be evidence of the highest expression of human freedom. "Whereas,"
says Eliot, "it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people's moral
The religious man or women of letters may help ordinary humanity to grasp more surely
the quiddity of things and their true relations in a common life, founded upon the solid
ground of religious and moral existence. In our time, that activity of authorship ought
not to be limited to the printed word either. For millennia, poets and playwrights have
composed for dramatic performance. Today and tomorrow, they must author poetry and prose
that can also be translated into the images and spoken words of computer technology,
without making an idol or obsession of that invention. George Lucas is showing us the
power of this medium in his Star Wars trilogies.
"The author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human
beings, whether he knows it or not," writes Eliot,
and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not. I suppose
that everything we eat has some effect upon us other than merely the pleasure of taste and
mastication; it affects us during the process of assimilation and digestion; and I believe
that exactly the same is true of anything we read.
But Eliot himself knew that reading is not all of it. He did, after all, in his later
years turn almost exclusively to writing plays.
RECOVERING AND RENEWING MORALITY
Thus, it is the great challenge, the high calling, of religiously minded men and women
of letters to recover and renew true and substantial morality through imaginative writing,
whether in the form of the essay or narrative and poetry. And just as important, those in
positions to encourage and support this cultural activity must awaken to the need of it.
In these times, politics alone will not do, for politics has lost its moral compass. It is
like old blind King Lear lost and deranged in the desolate places.
Russell Kirk often said, "Nothing is but thinking makes it so." He easily
could have added, "Nothing is but imagining makes it so." The 20th century
Russian religious philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev was bold to say, "God created the
world by imagination." Kirk believed, just as certainly as did Eliot, that the
symbols and images of imagination are at least as real as the ideas and concepts of the
Twenty years ago, in Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Education, Russell
Kirk addressed this subject of the image and the age. There he observes:
When the images of reality have fallen to grossness, why wonder that the notorious
Identity Crisis afflicts every corner of society, fastening upon even the more promising
natures? Who am I only a cypher? Do I belong to anything enduring, or signify
anything more than a perishable and precarious body? How do I fit into this sensual
egalitarian world? Why wonder that some turn to fantastic and perhaps fatal imagery of
narcotic, for some the moments' relief from the pain of being human.
Yet it is "the image...that can raise us on high, as did Dante's high dream"
or draw "us into the abyss," Kirk continues. "It is [the] matter of the
truth or falsity of images" that ought to be concerning us most in this age when the
written word is being overshadowed by visual imagery that pours in upon us from radio and
television, signs on the highway and advertisements in slick magazines, the cinema and
videos, and on the Internet.
THE AGE OF SENTIMENTS
More recently, in an essay entitled "The Age of Sentiments," Kirk advanced
further his thoughts on the crisis of the moral imagination. In this intriguing essay, he
argues that the Age of Discussion, which grew from the Enlightenment and earmarked
modernity, is all but over. We are entering a new era in civilization, Kirk advises, where
sentiments rule indeed, we are entering the Age of Sentiments. And this momentous
shift in mind and sensibility requires new cultural strategies for the nurture of the
Kirk is forthright about the course of events: The Age of Discussion, with its near
divinization in certain places of analytical and discursive reason, was not all that it
claimed to be. If it began with such hardy souls as Addison and Steele, Pope and Dryden,
Hume and Smith, and, of course, Edmund Burke, it collapsed into palsied and impoverished
Benthamite utilitarianism, Millsian egalitarianism, and Deweyite pragmatism. That is why
Kirk does not lament its passing too much. He confesses:
I suppose I made it clear that I am dragged kicking and screaming into the Age of
Sentiments. It is painful enough to be governed by other people's reasoning, without being
governed by their sentiments. Yet it should not be thought that I bow down in worship
before the late Age of Discussion. For the most part the Age of Discussion was an age of
shams and posturing.
Kirk decides to make the best of the situation, and even in his late years his optimism
about our humanity did not flag. So he sets out to understand the Age of Sentiments in
order to refurbish a moral imagination that might transform and redeem the time. He
defines sentiment as a human response to the world that rests somewhere between thought
and feeling. But it is not mere feeling. And it is more than just sensation or emotion.
"While it contains too much feeling to be merely thought," it does participate
in thought and "has a large influence over the will."
Kirk reminds his readers that for "David Hume and Adam Smith, sentiments exert
greater power, and indeed [are] better guides than reason though Hume remarks in
his Principles of Morals that sentiment and reason usually coincide." Kirk concludes,
"I suppose we may say that for Hume and Smith a sound sentiment is a moving
That is an important consideration and a valuable clue to solving the puzzle of an Age
of Sentiments. Russell Kirk understood that sentiments and imagination are quite closely
related and that the quality of the images that memory stores strongly influences how
sentiment moves people, whether to elevate or degrade life.
Throughout his mature years, and increasingly so, Kirk would remind his readers and
listeners of his philosophical mentor T. S. Eliot. For Eliot also identified this shift in
our civilization from an Age of Discussion to an Age of Sentiments. Eliot understood that,
in the transition, there is great danger of decline as well as the pregnant possibility
for grace and redemption.
Eliot was himself among the first of the post-modernists, but with a religious turn. He
showed in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, and the Four
Quartets that our civilization is broken and that its shards and fragments are
scattered along the paths we walk. Some of our contemporaries stumble over a single shard
and take it for the whole. Others sift nervously through the fragments hoping that this or
that one might bring peace or pleasure. Still others endeavor to persuade us that what is
broken can be put back together, like Humpty Dumpty, just as it was before.
A NEW MOSAIC OF LIFE
Eliot insisted that we see ourselves as pilgrims in the ruins and practitioners of the
moral imagination. Then it may be possible to piece together successfully these shards and
fragments into a new meaningful mosaic of life. The future is not mere fate not if
the God of biblical faith is real. For if He is real, then human freedom also is real, and
an undetermined future waits to be brought into existence through human and divine willing
This conviction, however, that God is real, and so human freedom is also, comes to be
in the hearts and minds of human beings not because it is practical or socially useful to
hold such a belief though that too may be but because the light of religious
and moral imagination shows that it is true about existence. The worst thing "of
all," wrote Eliot, "is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but
because it might be beneficial." Kirk added:
No man sincerely goes down on his knees to the divine because he has been told that
such rituals lead to the beneficial consequences of tolerably honest behavior and
commerce. People will conform their actions to the precepts of religion only when they
earnestly believe the doctrines of the religion to be true.
The new Gnostics and prophets of a post-modern order in which God is no longer needed
or wanted detest such religious speech. They would have the public believe that this talk
is either dangerous or fantastic, or both. At every opportunity, they interpose their
arbitrary prohibitions against it.
Yet they needn't prevail. Let those who are willing labor to bring into existence a new
religious humanism expressed through works of imagination of poetry, art, and
letters. Russell Kirk spoke with optimism:
The restoration of true learning, human and scientific; the reform of many public
policies; the renewal of our awareness of transcendent order, and the presence of the
Other; the brightening of the corners where we find ourselves such approaches are
open to those among the rising generation who look for purpose in life.