by Bruce S. Thornton
A review of The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia by Roger Kimball (St. Augustine’s Press, 2012)
Roger Kimball has long been one of America’s most learned commentators on intellectual history, contemporary politics, fine art, and architecture. Longtime editor of The New Criterion and more recently publisher of Encounter Books, Kimball authored two of the best exposés of the left-wing corruption of the American university: Tenured Radicals and The Long March. The 21 essays in Kimball’s new book, The Fortunes of Permanence, cover a remarkable range of topics: relativism, multiculturalism, radical egalitarianism, the enduring importance of tradition, the delusions of socialism, “democratic despotism,” the dangers of sentimental “benevolence,” and the cultural significance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The essays also discuss a wide variety of individual writers: those unfairly demonized, like Rudyard Kipling; those insufficiently well known, like Leszek Kołakowski, Richard Weaver, and James Burnham; and those familiar yet still worthy of explication and reconsideration, like G. K. Chesterton and Friedrich Hayek.
In his essay on John Buchan, the now-forgotten inventor of the spy novel, Kimball shows easy familiarity not just with Buchan’s novels and other writings but also with his major biographers, his letters, his memoirs, and the estimations of his contemporaries, all punctuated with samplings of Buchan’s memorable prose. “It is a melancholy fact,” a character in Buchan’s novel John Macnab says, “that, while all men may be on a level in the eyes of the State, they continue in fact to be preposterously unequal.” Here is an author, Kimball makes clear, whose observations are relevant to where we find ourselves today.
Kimball’s survey articulates his two great themes. The first is the need to battle what he has elsewhere called “cultural amnesia”; the struggle requires recovering the great thinkers and writers of the past, “the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization” but “whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy.” Second is the importance of “discrimination,” or what Kimball calls “the gritty job of intellectual and cultural trash collector,” in which one identifies and disposes of the faddish and politicized ephemera that make up most of the art and writing celebrated by thebien-pensant elite. These efforts are essentially educational. As Kimball writes in his preface, today’s students are taught to “regard education as an exercise in disillusionment” and to “look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction.” His new book “aims to disturb that complacency and reaffirm the tradition that made both the experience of and striving for greatness possible.”
The book’s eponymous essay, “The Fortunes of Permanence,” establishes its framework. “Culture,” Kimball tells us, is in fact the activity of “cultivating,” which is what education should do. To be successful, this cultura animi, the “cultivating of the mind,” requires “time and continuity,” the “tips, habits, prohibitions, and necessities that have been accumulated from time out of mind and passed down, generation after generation.” In short, education requires tradition, what Kimball calls the “aegis of permanence.” Yet we live in a time when so much militates against tradition: “instantaneity,” a mania for the new and a suspicion of the past; the two-bit nominalism that argues against any intrinsic meaning in cultural products or values; the claim that truth is only a construct of power or language; and the multiculturalist claim that no value judgments can be made about different cultures. All lead not to “cultural parity,” Kimball writes, but to “cultural reversal,” the process whereby “culture degenerates from being a cultura animi to a corruptio animi,” as the wisdom of the past is disparaged or forgotten. And this corruption spreads throughout the whole of social and personal life, from today’s “pansexual carnival” to the Internet’s glut of disconnected information: “Data, data everywhere, but no one knows a thing.” The result is that we “neglect the deep wisdom of tradition and time-sanctioned answers to the human predicament.”
The recovery of this wisdom from Western culture animates all the essays here. Such wisdom is desperately needed these days, given the expansion of state power that has attended President Obama’s policies, with their explicit aim to institute radical-egalitarian “fairness” and to “spread the wealth around.” In such a fraught political moment, the essay “Friends of Humanity” is a timely reminder of political utopianism’s destructive consequences. Kimball nimbly surveys the ideas of socialist dreamers such as English novelist William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, both of whom “foresaw all manner of glorious things awaiting humanity now that the ‘priests and despots’ were on their way out.” Godwin’s screeds against “selfishness” and his sentimental raptures over “benevolence” are precursors of today’s progressive tirades against “Wall Street greed” and calls for “social justice.” And Godwin’s demonization of private property likewise finds its modern echo in the Obama administration’s dirigiste inclinations, its eagerness to divest the “rich” of their wealth and force them to “pay their fair share.” As Kimball dryly remarks of these eighteenth-century models: “Sounds pretty up-to-date, doesn’t it?”
Kimball finds an antidote to such fatuities in the work of Godwin’s contemporary, Thomas Malthus. Malthus countered the “Godwin-Condorcet brand of utopia” — which is “essentially disestablishing of the past and its legal, economic, and religious institutions” — with the sober reminder that the injustices wrought by those institutions were, in his words, “light and superficial in comparison with those deeper-seated causes of evil which result from the laws of nature and the passions of mankind.” As the bloody record of modern utopian political religions has shown, ignoring the irreducible complexity of human nature to construct schemes of abstract perfection always leads to slaughter of those who cling to their freedom and individuality.
Kimball’s “anatomy of servitude,” as he calls it — his analysis of cultural, educational, and political degeneration — doesn’t end on a Spenglerian note of inevitable decline. Such determinism would contradict the celebration of human freedom that recurs throughout these essays. We can choose a different course, and we have the resources to do so. First, there is “the depth and strength of the Anglosphere’s traditional commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority.” Second, we can look to the new “revolt of the masses,” a “specter of freedom” whose “core motivation centers around the rejection of the business as usual: the big-government, top-down, elitist egalitarianism practiced by both major parties in the United States.” Another resource the author doesn’t identify is his own work, through which readers have been broadening their understanding of the Western heritage for a generation now.
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton