Back to Kirk (The Roaming Reader: 3)

Back to Kirk! I’m still focused on the first book of the list I gave you in March: The Roots of American Order, by Russell Kirk. (We noted Kirk’s definition and description of “order” in the last post.)

Worth reading.

In the short, first chapter, “Order, the First Need of All”, Kirk tells the story of a scholar born in Russia. He had been a moderate Socialist in 1917, a Menshevik. He fled to Odessa on the Black Sea, but what did he find there? “Bands of young men commandeered street-cars and clattered wildly through the heart of Odessa, firing with rifles at any pedestrian, as though they were hunting pigeons. At any moment, one’s apartment might be invaded by a casual criminal or fanatic, murdering for the sake of a loaf of bread. In this anarchy, justice and freedom were only words.”

So what did this scholar learn?

“Then I learned that before we can know justice and freedom, we must have order. Much though I hated the Communists, I saw then that even the grim order of Communism is better than no order at all. Many might survive under Communism; no one could survive in general disorder.”

Kirk contrasts this story to our American experience. “In America, order and justice and freedom have developed together; but they can decay in parallel fashion.”

While this volume was published in 1974 and reflects the thought and writings of Kirk since the early 1950s, we clearly see its relevance for today. Such is the nature of wisdom.

I lost myself in this book.

Cups of tea encourage me as I read and write. Thankfully, spring is peeking in the windows. Next week is supposed to be warm and sunny here in Indiana!

Kirk presents historical scope, digging back millennia to expose our roots. He unveils wisdom. Often, I marked paragraphs that need to be quoted. Not just pithy sentences.  Kirk crafts key thoughts into paragraphs so tight, one wonders where to start and end a quotation. His well is deep and satisfying.

I sat down again with the book yesterday to review in preparation for writing and I found that whatever section I was wanting to review, I was drawn in, desiring to read it over and read on. But I don’t have time to keep reading it over. That’s why I mark up books, so they become friends I can return to without having to start from the beginning. “Ah! Hello, dear book! Yes, yes. Rereading highlights, checking out sections marked for quotations, I drink again at the well.

Oh, my land, the Table of Contents caught my attention.

The Table of Contents is composed of 10 such pages!

Each of the twelve chapters is entitled, but after chapter one, all the chapters have four to six subtitles followed by listings of topics within each sub-section. When I first read the book, I spent two reading sessions just reading and highlighting the outline of thought delineated in the table of contents. The historical sweep was too great for me to consider all at one time. What a roadmap!

So, are the chapters long and overwhelming? No! They range from forty-some to fifty-some pages each, and they flow well.

The chapters develop like a genealogy, unfolding our heritage: (titles only) 2, The Law and the Prophets; 3, Glory and Ruin: the Greek World; 4, Virtue and Power: the Roman Tension; 5, the Genius of Christianity; 6, The Light of the Middle Ages; 7, The Reformers’ Drum; 8, The Constitution of Church and State; 9, Salutary Neglect: the Colonial Order; 10, Eighteenth-Century Intellects; 11, Declaration and Constitution; 12 Contending Against American Disorder.

Kirk writes, “Order is the path we follow, or the pattern by which we live with purpose and meaning.” He explains, “This word ‘order’ means a systematic and harmonious arrangement — whether in one’s own character or in the commonwealth. Also ‘order’ signifies the performance of certain duties and the enjoyment of certain rights in a community: thus we use the phrase ‘the civil social order.'”

Note the two layers Kirk identifies: order “in one’s own character” and order “in the commonwealth.” Throughout the 477 pages of this volume, Kirk moves between these two layers and shows their connection to each other. Whenever I saw them referenced, I highlighted them.

I like the various ways Kirk identifies these two entwined layers (personal character and society or the commonwealth) in the roots of order. “Old and intricate, these roots give life to us all. We can distinguish two sorts of roots, intertwined: the roots of the moral order, of order in the soul; and the roots of the civil social order, of order in the republic.”

Kirk explains, “Seeking for the roots of order we are led to four cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London.  …The order which American experience is derived from the experience of those four old cities. If our souls are disordered, we fall into abnormality, unable to control our impulses. If our commonwealth is disordered, we fall into anarchy, every man’s hand against every other man’s. For, as Richard Hooker wrote in the sixteenth century, ‘Without order, there is no living in public society, because the want [the lack] thereof is the mother of confusion.’ This saving order is the product of more than three thousand years of human striving.”

It appears that Kirk saw the world largely by the light of the same sun as Lewis. May we accept the light of the “risen son” shining upon us and our world.

Kirk shows that our laws and form of government have roots in these two orders, “the inner order of the soul” and “the outer order of the society.” He claims that order is the first need of both the individual and the commonwealth (society or community). Our government and our laws are built from these, not the other way around. That is, our government and our laws do not produce the order but express order that originates in the soul and the community.

Kirk’s four cities represent the “legacy of order” that America has received from previous peoples: the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and the medieval world through the Reformation, “particularly in Britain.”

I would say that the legacy of order from all peoples stems back further to the mind of the Creator, who created us, male and female, in His image, infusing us with purpose (the reason for order of any kind) and destiny (the forward motion of history). He created not only the physical universe, but the invisible, ordering principles or laws behind the material world (such as the sow-reap principle and the law of reversal).

His ordering purposes, according to the Genesis account, are for us to be fruitful, multiply, subdue the earth as God’s stewards and caretakers, and enjoy fellowship with Him and one another. Genesis begins with a picture of properly ordered souls, walking together with God in the cool of the day, in harmony with Him, each other, and nature. The patterns of order showcase beauty, harmony, and peaceful pleasure for all. So, I agree with Russell Kirk that a properly ordered society is the expression of properly ordered souls.

By the way, the tea in this cup is Bigelow’s Ginger Peach Turmeric herbal tea. Pleasant!

Kirk holds a biblical view of human beings: they are created in God’s image by God, and thus have innate dignity; they are also finite and flawed. Mankind is not capable of producing a utopia, but humans can improve their personal, social, and political orderings.

From Kirk’s perspective upon human history, he rejects “ideology” and embraces a conservatism that he claims is not “ideological,” although some have turned forms of conservatism into forms of ideology.

One would be confused, except that he defines “ideology” in the first chapter: “By definition, ‘ideology’ means servitude to political dogmas, abstract ideas not founded upon historical experience.” You see that his entire text grounds his views of social, political, and religious order in human experience — history, not in abstract notions of what some think should be. “Ideology is inverted religion” and he describes the ideologue as a person who oversimplifies reality. “Communism, fascism, and anarchism have been the most powerful of these ideologies,” he explains, that “menace the more humane social orders of our time.” Nearly 50 years later, is this still true?

Wisdom is an accumulated wealth to be spent prudently. In his concluding chapter, “Contending Against American Disorder,” he notes that “the tree of American order has grown” but it has also been shaken from time to time. He observes the shaking that the Civil War and its attending issues preceding and following it caused. Writing in the 1970s, he observes the shaking during the 60s and 70s.

“Whenever people cease to be aware of membership in an order — an order that joins the dead, the living, and the unborn, as well as an order that connects individual to family, family to community, community to nation — those people will form a “lonely crowd,” alienated from the world in which they wander. And to the person and the republic,” [note the soul level and the civil level] “the consequences of such alienation will be baneful.” (Prescient, yes, but seems like an understatement to me.)

Kirk claims that order is grown slowly over time; it is not forcefully manufactured or proclaimed. Kirk describes the orders established by Cromwell, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin  as “caricatures of order” and “pseudo-orders.”

This closing chapter is worth reading, and I’d like to quote a paragraph or so. I find the following paragraph to be inspiring even in the context of warning.

“To protest against the existence of order is to protest against well-being, justice, freedom, and prosperity. Happiness is found in imaginative affirmation, not in sullen negation. Gratitude is one form of happiness; and anyone who appreciates the legacy of moral and social order which he has inherited in America will feel gratitude. The pursuit of happiness is not altogether vain. One finds happiness in restoring and improving the order of the soul and the order of the republic — not in acts of devastation that make a desert of spirit and of society.”

Dr. Kirk* died in 1994. His writings throw us the rope connecting us to our legacy, anchoring us in our own time, connecting the past with the present, so we have wisdom to pass to the future.

Kirk’s final sentence calmly encourages us — Americans of his future and our today: “Other hands may renew that order’s structure and improve it with prudence and love, in God’s own good time.”

“In God’s own good time.”


More musical “order” to lift your spirits and bolster your faith:

* Kirk: Scottish, Northern Middle English, Danish word for “church.” Then there is Admiral James T. Kirk of the Starship, Enterprise in the Star Trek fictional saga. There is also the young, self-assured Charlie Kirk of the real-life movement, Turning Point, USA. Russell Kirk looks rather dowdy next to James T (William Shatner, in his younger days) and today’s towering Charlie Kirk. Russell Kirk was a thinker from Michigan. Yes, Michigan. He was loyal to his home roots. Check him out on Lots to explore there!!!

Categories: Christian Reader, Government, Perspectives on Culture, The Roaming Reader | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Back to Kirk (The Roaming Reader: 3)

  1. Rick Shepherd

    I just feel like something good is about to happen!…..I just feel like something good is happening todaaay!…..

    Thank you for sharing, Karen!….Rick and Mary Shepherd

    • Karen Thomas Olsen

      Great! Love the harmony of the Gaither Vocal Band! And I can just imagine how beautiful it is today down in your Georgia mountains with the sun streaming over the hills and through the trees. We have a sunny day here in Fort Wayne, Indiana today. God’s gracious gifts. Thank you, Lord!

  2. Karen Thomas Olsen

    Thank you for your biblical insights!


    Karen, the essence of Kirk’s words about order leading to freedom has its roots in the words penned by David via his poetry, especially Psalms 119 and 19. Following his salute to the creational Word for the “heavens,” David amplifies the various “freedoms” emerging from the “order” of “the law of the Lord”–reviving the soul, making wise the simple, giving joy to the heart, giving light to the eyes, enduring forever, altogether righteous, is your servant warned, there is great reward. Kirk’s “properly ordered soul” is presented by David with these riveting words: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance,” (Ps. 16:6) That’s a hearty amen for my life as well!!

    • Karen Thomas Olsen

      Marty, thank you for your biblical insights! Psalm 16:6, which you quote, consoles and encourages, especially in light of Romans 8:28-29. Life is impossible without order; order cannot exist without design, which cannot exist without intelligence. And we are back to Logos — the LORD, without whom nothing would exist that exists. “In God we trust,” is affirmed by even our bills and coins (such “filthy lucre”) in our functionally secular country. “In God we trust.” Lord, enable us.

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