Russell Kirk frequently warned those who read his essays and books and attended his lectures not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Even at the most mundane level of everyday life, the Sage of Mecosta offered good advice. If we spend all of our days dreaming about what might be—let alone what might have been—we’re liable to end up like Miniver Cheevy (or even Richard Cory). Insisting that everything be perfect is a great way to ensure that your house suffers irreparable water damage from the minor leak in your roof while you try to decide between the six colors and four shapes of architectural shingles that Home Depot has to offer.
But there are greater depths to Dr. Kirk’s advice than the surface level of pragmatism. His words of wisdom flowed from the same place as his opposition to ideology. Leo Strauss argued that the classical and Christian worlds had set the bar too high for man to be able to reach it, and his students declared that the genius of the philosophers of the modern era (starting with Machiavelli) can be found in their embrace of a sort of “idealistic realism”—aiming for a standard that’s just high enough to give men something to strive for, but low enough that the goal is actually possible to reach.
As usual, Strauss was wrong, and his students (perhaps deliberately) more so. The evidence can be found all around us—or rather, in what’s not around us. Where are the modern Parthenons and Pantheons? The Chartreses and Notre Dames of the 20th and 21st centuries? The Homers and Dantes and Thomas Aquinases? The various Trump towers may be marvels of engineering, but a mathematical problem solved in steel is different from a monument in word or in stone to the human spirit.
Men of earlier ages aimed high, but they met their aims, in large part because they recognized the limitations of man. They didn’t demand that everything be planned out in advance. There was no blueprint for Notre-Dame de Paris; no outline for the Commedia. They placed stone upon stone, word after word, and from their efforts something glorious took shape.
The fundamental failure of the modern age stems from the refusal to accept the inherent limitations of a fallen world, and the consequent insistence on making the perfect the enemy of the good. The great successes of the modern world—advances in technology and medicine, for example—are the exceptions that prove the rule, because they were made by men who were willing to experiment, to try something they weren’t sure would succeed, to accept something good (say, a moderate extension of life) rather than to insist on the perfect (the elimination of death). That the basic techniques of modern science and medicine were established in the late medieval world and only refined since then is more significant than 21st-century man is willing to admit.
Nowhere is the modern tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good more obvious than in the political demand that reality conform to ideology. Kirk found in Edmund Burke, the prototypical conservative, the source of his pragmatic advice, but “conservatives” today are much more the descendants of Thomas Paine, an atheist radical and Burke’s bête noire on the subject of the French Revolution, than they are of Burke. Paine is typical of the modern ideologue in his insistence that changes in external social and political institutions are more likely to better the lot of mankind than the conversion of hearts and minds, much less the literal conversion of fallen man to membership in the Body of Christ. If we can conceive of the perfect world, we can build it, even if that may mean that those whose vision doesn’t match up with ours might need to be sacrificed—literally—for the sake of the glorious future in which they will not share.
As late as 30 years ago, American conservatives still cited Kirk on the dangers of ideology, even as they, in the final days of the Cold War, had fallen prey (as Kirk saw with perfect clarity) to the siren song of ideology themselves. Today, most self-identified conservatives who remember his name reject Russell Kirk precisely because he wasn’t an ideologue, because he believed that true diversity (rather than the fake diversity that goes under the name of multiculturalism) is a Christian principle that flows from the nature of the Godhead Itself, because he insisted that there are no political solutions to cultural problems (which is why he joined the masthead of Chronicles), because he was a patriot of Mecosta, Michigan, rather than a nationalist of the American empire based in the fever swamps of Washington, D.C.
Whatever their failings, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had read Russell Kirk, and both presidents honored him with invitations to visit the White House. The thought of a Kirk being invited to an audience with an American president post-1992 is, in the immortal word of Wallace Shawn, “inconceivable!” There is no left and right anymore, no Burke-Paine debate to speak of in contemporary politics. There is only ideology, the sword of the revolution—the enemy of the good, in relentless pursuit of a perfection unobtainable here, east of Eden.
First published in the October 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.