Ben Lewis

February 18, 2020

Was Russell Kirk a Pure Traditionalist?

In The Theme is Freedom, M. Stanton Evans wrote that Russell Kirk was "the traditionalist par excellence." What Evans meant was that the traditionalist wing of American conservatism was best represented (and perhaps founded) by Kirk. But does this mean that Kirk was a only a traditionalist, that he believed that men should follow any tradition simply because it was tradition? In the closing chapter of Prospects for Conservatives, Kirk supplied the answer:

Yet there can be error in tradition, and even a tradition made up of errors. Man always is compelled to choose among conflicting traditions, and to sort out from the mass of inherited precepts the maxims and customs which truly apply to his present situation in the world. This is a problem which cannot be solved by any hard-and-fast rule. There would be no problem of tradition if men were not in some important senses free. When men let their moral and intellectual freedom sink altogether into desuetude, and rely uncritically upon pure tradition, their society is liable to pass into decay, or at least find itself unable to resist the pressure of livelier societies: such appears to have been a condition in the civilization of ancient Egypt and of Peru. Routine without change, and change without routine, appear to be almost equally perilous.

In this opinion, Kirk seems to be echoing a similar sentiment as his friend Richard Weaver, who also cautioned against over-reliance on tradition, writing,

Traditions grow up insensibly and, as it were, vegetatively; they are adaptations and include strong emotional preferences. These facts in themselves may be good, yet they certainly create problems when traditions come into conflict and have to be reconciled. Since they are not rational creations, they are not susceptible to rational judgments unless one is willing to isolate intellectually their elements of value and truth. Yet this is a process disrespectful of tradition in the sense that it transcends tradition and looks for some higher guide. The only way a traditionalist can object to this is by saying that tradition expresses something not in the arguable realm, which is itself a grave commitment.

The question then becomes, how does a society respect tradition without becoming a slave to it? Clearly Weaver believed that tradition must be subjected to rational judgment, yet elsewhere he criticized the modern tendency of society to dispense with anything that could not be justified rationally. Kirk suggested that the task of rational judgment was not the duty of society as a whole, but of the most learned and wise members of it. In acknowledging the necessity for alteration to traditions, Kirk wrote, "This faculty of distinguishing between needful and imprudent alteration seems to be granted only to a few persons in each generation." But alteration, he ultimately believed, was essential:

Tradition cannot suffice to guide a society, nevertheless, if it is not understood and expounded and, if need be, modified by the better intelligences and consciences in every generation. It is not possible for the living to see with the eyes of the dead. Whatever wisdom exists in any generation is, in a sense, born with that generation' and that generation's wisdom seeks sustenance in tradition, but cannot be kept alive merely by tradition.
Wisdom has to be born over and over again; tradition is the element of continuity which enables each generation's wisdom to profit from the wisdom of preceding generations. The past exists only in the living; yet whether the living are aware of it or not, most of their experience and their apprehension of their own experience is determined by their legacy from the past. This is a condition peculiar to man. The vegetable, unaware of its inheritance, is unable to use its inheritance for its own improvement. Man cannot be like the vegetable, for he has reason, conscience, and consciousness, and he inherits an awareness of his ancestors. He is either better or worse than a vegetable, and whether he is better or worse depends upon his relationship to the sources of his being. It is tradition which makes it possible for him, short of mystical experience, to know his part in the 'contract of eternal society' which joins him to those who are dead and those who are not yet born, and also to a nature that is more than material and more than human.
If tradition sinks into mere unquestioning routine, it digs its own grave; for man then approximates vegetal nature, disavowing reason and conscience as correctors and restorers of tradition.

So while Russell Kirk was "the traditionalist par excellence," he was not a pure traditionalist. He recognized, as did Weaver, that rote tradition held no power to improve society or even preserve itself. In our age we do not suffer from an overabundance of respect for tradition, yet our task is still the same as the one that Kirk and Weaver recognized: to identify the traditions that are worth keeping and to preserve them - before they are gone forever.

About the author

Ben is a contributing editor for Bastion Magazine. In addition to Bastion, his articles have appeared at a variety of online outlets, including the Tenth Amendment Center and The Patriot Post. He and his family live in the last refuge for traditional manners, the American Midwest.

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