Home | Author's Note | Foreword | Prologue | Introduction
Book Synopses | Afterword | Indexes | Commentary | About Us|Books
Originally published: 1974
477 pages
Chapter 4


Russell Kirk

Of all the necessities of social construction, order comes first. It is the foundation upon which all organization is built. We strive for justice, we attempt to balance opportunity and obligations, and we expect to enjoy our rights.  But without order we cannot do any of these things. Humankind has been seeking order since prehistoric hunters and gatherers discovered that cooperation (or in modern economic parlance, the division of labor) increased success.
     Russell Kirk, a magnificent historian of ideas, describes the development of the concept and practice of order. This effort is not just a recounting of history useful though that would be. Kirk provides something more: his explanation of not just what works, but why.
     The “why” most interested and defined Kirk. His explication of how the roots of civilized freedom came to exist rests on a simple notion, that of a transcendent moral order. The positive consequences of a moral social context appear almost limitless; the negative consequences of a society where ethical behavior is not suffused throughout are barbarism, anarchy, and ultimately totalitarianism. The differences are as stark and as simple as that. However, it must be understood that achieving a “good” society is not even remotely as easy to do as it is to describe.
     Kirk, like the figures whom he discusses in his book, delved into the machinations of human society and came to comprehend square one: the imperfectability of man. With that as his starting point, Kirk investigates how we can nevertheless make society operate at its highest potential. He argues that although man is not perfectible, and although we cannot successfully legislate morality, we can understand it, teach


it, and practice it. When we do, we generally achieve our societal goals. If society falls to the point of quagmire where it seems necessary to mandate morality by means of laws we are essentially fated to failure.
     It becomes clear that order is something more than just rules or laws. Order consists of individuals voluntarily fulfilling their various societal duties and enjoying the concomitant rights that ensue. Today we hear incessant talk of rights, but Kirk proposes that the first business of a social order is the willing and voluntary performance of duties, almost as if we are bestowing gifts (not on one another, but on society as a whole). From duty fulfilled we become settled enough to begin to enjoy rights. Along with the paired reality of rights and duties Kirk notes that order comes before freedom by necessity and before justice by design. Without order there is no freedom, for unfettered freedom is nothing but anarchy; without order there is no justice, for there are no agreed-upon and common rules by which to judge.
     Around 500 BC the Greeks recognized the idea of rights and duties as an interdependent whole. Gaining this understanding was a long journey; it did not occur seamlessly or as a product of benign logic. As Kirk notes, however, with the advent of the Greeks’ awareness of mutuality a sense of public morality arose that was distinct from religiously based morality.
     Rights are what we imagine, then create. Although in due time we may see them as self-evident, the Greeks understood the invariability of duties in payment for rights. As these two concepts developed in social and personal thinking an ethical if-then equation was created: if we do not meet our obligations then we jeopardize our rights—eventually to the point of rendering them meaningless, or absurd.
     The austere concept of duty unadorned has been literally and universally captured in a familiar and quite un-legalistic form: the Golden Rule. Kirk offers that this rule is so utterly logical that it became the foundation of human interaction and interconnectedness in almost every society predating Christianity. The Hebrews had it long before Christ; the Chinese, Hindus, Buddhists, Islamists, Greeks, and Romans all embodied some form of it in their respective societies. The Golden Rule cannot be codified for mankind has too many facets, follows too many pathways, has too many views; this precept can only be lived. Kirk made the latter point as he traced the rule from its discovery and followed its application across the centuries. He explains that societies are living entities, continually judging, adjusting, and compromising to make our constantly evolving civil world work. Only some basic


premises can be written; only the most common aspects of human relationships can be controlled by the state while the rest of life has to proceed by informal but readily apparent agreement.
     In Roots Kirk analyzes the development of several other religious and secular principles that have been the foundation of social order. He examines the thinkers involved and their theories in seeking to understand which hypotheses worked when, and why, and which didn’t. He pays particular attention to the rise and fall of Greek and Roman societies. The Greeks understood and practiced many forms of government—from direct democracy to despotic oligarchy—and they understood that any form can work so long as both the rulers and the ruled are moral. From the time of the Greeks this simple comprehension led humankind on a journey more toward morality than to perfect governance (of imperfect people). How our species probed, tested, and understood that simple truth the last three millennia is the story presented in The Roots of American Order.
     After considering the various Greek designs Kirk proceeds to examine Roman law and society:

                  Certainly the Roman understanding of the rule of law still lives
                  in the modern world, restraining destructive impulses. This Roman
                  concept of law and obligation . . . is permanently embedded in the
                  American Constitution.

As he follows the success of Rome and the fall of Greece Kirk comments that the integrity of the Romans gave rise to their public impulses: “[T]hey were virtually incorruptible. The Romans may have been inferior to the Greeks in imagination and artistry, but they were a race of strong practical endowments, tireless administrators and organizers.” Yet most of all, they were men of law who understood its value not just its utility.  They understood the rule of law is based on laws being announced in advance.  It is the certitude of the law and the fact that men cannot change it by whim or in secret that allows people to function as a society.  Legal stability prevents a nation's rules from being simply a matter of who won the most recent election.  That comprehension allowed Rome to last a thousand years and to pass its lessons down to the Middle Ages frayed but understood.
     The Roman strategy for order rested on a separation of political functions and a system of checks and balances between the aristocratic Senate and the people’s representatives, called tribunes. Kirk


notes that Roman government did not derive from abstractions but developed out of circumstances and the times. During the drafting of the U.S. Constitution the esteem of the Roman example was so high “that the framers . . . would emulate the Roman model as best they could.” Of course, the question immediately arises: if Rome was so good, and great, what caused its downfall?  The answer, simply put, was that Rome became full of itself; it forgot its worthy separation of powers and checks and balances, and it suffered ultimately from the universal solvent—the human condition.
     Kirk observes that Roman society declined into fatuity and luxury when envy displaced integrity as its defining feature.  The downfall of Rome began when Julius Caesar was elected and then ruled as a dictator, with the initial approval of all involved.  But autocracy was not Caesar’s goal—that was cheap—he wanted to be revered as a god; an assassination soon followed.
     Eventually, as the centuries ensued and as the emperors became overbearing, to combat public envy a false equality of all citizens (achieved through vain or stealthy political intrigue or sheer power) became the rule.  This “equality” of citizens later (in eighteenth-century France ) was transformed into the “general will,” where citizen need and desire were supposedly expressed through legislative fiat.  That all or even most citizens agreed with such pronouncements was often questionable, and the antidote to the imposition of legislative mandates, reflective of the alleged general will, was to limit what the legislature could do in the first instance.  This was achieved by various means and ultimately found its written expression in the restraints that are core to the American Constitution  These issues are discussed at length in Bertrand de Jouvenel’s On Power (Chapter 15) and in several other synopses as well.  The agglomeration of power fostered by centralized government—which, again, is supposedly an expression of the general will of the citizenry—is the primary mechanism by which citizen control of  government is defeated.  That this is still the case in the twenty-first century is readily apparent.
     Rome collapsed as a result of the hubris of government by fiat. As Kirk explains, what the Romans came to forget was that the aim of power was not self-aggrandizement but public virtue; the prudence of respect and the reciprocity of obligation. Following Rome ’s demise, over the course of the Middle Ages this lesson had to be relearned again and again. The return of its salutary effects were seen most notably in the construction of the American experiment and as the


missing ingredient in the French Revolution of 1789.  (On this point see Friedrich von Hayek’s discussion of the French Revolution (1789) in The Constitution of Liberty [Chapter 14].)
     The path from Rome to the eighteenth century is the story of a fight for control of society between church and state and between both of these and the citizenry. These battles began with the Protestant Reformation, a reaction that flowered in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was a contest between God’s law and man’s, between priestly and secular rulers. It had become obvious that the church leaders of that era were more interested in temporal success than salvation. The disconnection between what the church propounded and what it practiced eventually toppled it from pretensions to authority.
     But, in Kirk’s phrase, there was still “a reserve of genius in Christianity,” something that ensured its self-preservation by making it a counterpart to temporal society. This aptitude came to the fore in the person of John Calvin, a Swiss lawyer and theologian. Kirk contends that Calvin—probably more than any other person during the thousand years between the decline of Rome and the founding of America —created a climate where church and state could complement rather than compete with one another. His intellectual feat was the joining of religious obligation of fealty to church and clergy and Scripture with equally valuable social and civic obligations—pay your taxes, obey the civil rulers, adhere to legal precepts, etc.—and he thereby helped make a functioning society possible.
     The application of the idea of responsibility to civic duty, which grew out of religious obligations, caused people to understand how order was to be achieved in both secular and religious affairs. Calvin’s influence was so fundamental and practical that he can be credited with having helped to make order pre-eminent in the theory and the practice of Western civic construction. His reality was the antithesis of the religious corruption of the Middle Ages when dispensations for any sin could be purchased from the clergy. The incongruous and sinister religion that Christianity had become was intolerable to those who witnessed the disjunction between the words in the Bible and the conduct of priests in the public square.
     Once religious corruption was made a public issue during the Protestant Reformation and the clergy were “forced” to resume pious ways, freedom of thought (that is, the clergy and the church were no longer controlling minds through religious terrorism) allowed the flowering of the Renaissance. The Reformation’s intellectual revolt


against thieving religious administrators (in both their temporal and spiritual aspects) became open conflict between the reformers and the clerisy. As Kirk explains the history of this era he observes that people no longer cowed by religious bullying could perceive a profound insight:

            Truth was knowable; order was real. Truth was obscured by man’s follies and passions, and order was broken by man’s appetites and desire for power. Yet right reason might disclose truth to men’s eyes again, and order might be regained by courageous acts of will.  

     Kirk arguably provides too much detail in this treatise on the development of the concept of right reason from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century. His motivation, though, was itself rational. He sought to establish an unassailable position from which to denounce the abuse of reason by the philosophes (the Paris “intellectuals” of the eighteenth century) during the peak of the Enlightenment. The utopian rationalism of this era was extreme; it relied upon mere abstractions—often intricately convoluted—to the detriment of an appreciation of real-world constraints. The philosophes focused almost exclusively on what might be, not on what was, and Kirk paints in vivid colors their myriad failed and chimerical efforts.
     Kirk observes that intellectual abstractions always offer a perfect design. The problem is that man is not perfectible, only malleable. The difference between what we should do and what we actually do is measured by the yardstick of self-interest. Thus, humanity’s goal over the centuries became not just to control self-interest but to direct it in a positive manner. In seeking this end, philosophers and theorists often went further intellectually than humanity’s overall character could achieve. Additionally, of course, there were the beneficial effects of self-interest to be considered; for virtually all material progress (and much spiritual progress) has been achieved by humanity because of self-interest, not in spite of it.
     Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations (Chapter 12), defines this latter concept as “enlightened self-interest.” The gist of his argument is that a person will do well for himself if he does well by others. The daily operation of enlightened self-interest in the totality of social interactions is so utterly complex that no one, not even Solomon, could write the rules for all people in all their  circumstances. Accordingly, 


individual conduct must be largely self-regulated. And, in order for each of us to accept everyone’s self-governance we must act wisely, with an enlightened self-interest that allows for the same self-interest to be practiced by those around us. This is the definition of a moral society. As Kirk demonstrates with his 2,500-year overview of human striving it is the only kind of society that can work.
     Kirk’s investigation of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason (c. 1750–1800), when utopian ideals began to be formulated, is a prominent theme in this book. As pure reason began to be applied to human circumstances people began to imagine what could be, as opposed to what was. Utopian thinking seemed inevitable. Reason, however, cannot ultimately overcome the human condition and thus the Age of Reason could never fulfill its promise.
     The boldest abuse of “reason” occurred with the French Revolution of 1789. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, what happened at the time of the Revolution was that the idealists ran down the stairs toward equality for all but jumped out the window halfway there to get to the ground more quickly, with predictable consequences. It is important not to confuse the utopian Age of Reason with reason itself and with rationality and logic. These latter tools help us negotiate the steps from anarchy to sane civil government while navigating the human condition, and they comprise the crucial engagements with reality that the French philosophes tried to skip in their rush to unattainable human perfection.
     The philosophies of John Locke and David Hume (late seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries respectively) also drew Kirk’s scrutiny. Although he shared Hume’s critical view of Locke’s rationalism, a calm reading of Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government (Chapter 1) allows a sense of just proportion to surface. Locke did not reason out the only blueprint by which humans could govern themselves. But he did study the human condition and discovered general principles with which to guide human action by means of a social framework. His goal was not to define a results-oriented system, but rather to describe a method of governance that would accommodate all the facts of human existence.
     Locke was primarily rational—not formulaic or simply idealistic. Readers need to recall his time and place, his fight against monarchy, and his clear understanding of what wasn’t working in order to fully appreciate Kirk’s approach to Locke’s achievements. A tolerance of Locke’s intellectual
meandering, a tolerance that Kirk regrettably didn’t


fully share, will perforce arise. It may be educational to pick apart historical thinkers in light of today’s knowledge and understanding of history, but it may be more edifying to watch their genius advancing among the realities and the interrelationships with which they had to contend when they first deliberated.
     The various social compacts or contracts of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and Locke and others—all of which Kirk clearly analyzes—have never existed except as ephemeral visions, unattainable in practice but still useful as guides to evolutionary political interaction. In contrast, it becomes clear via Kirk’s investigations and comparisons that the real-world social compact embodied in the conciseness of the Golden Rule and the enlightened self-interest of Adam Smith is the contract that we must sign with one another for any social system to function. Some theorists may attempt to convolute these simple observations with typical intellectual hubris but when they are put to the realities of life it is somewhat obvious how well they work.
     The utopian goals of the Age of Reason, despite the anomaly of its name, were rationalized visions untempered with factual considerations. Such visions eventuated in the massive destruction embodied in the socialism and communism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These and other totalitarian constructs suffered foreordained failure because they made allowances for neither economic incentives nor intractable vices that have ever motivated human behavior. The rationalists,
whom Kirk rightly criticized, denied progress as a goal and focused only on a supposed equality of result. While immediately attainable in theory a utopian equality of result can no more be brought into existence than can Merlin, the medieval sorcerer, bring the sun to a stop in its track.
     In Roots, Kirk stresses historical personalities and their understanding of their own times. He singles out specific individuals for the good or ill that they accomplished. Kirk’s studies enabled him to weave the story of government and morality with factual reference points; he considers the ethical behavior that is at the base of any formulation of governance and he finds the seeds that ultimately blossomed into a coherent political theory and platform.
     As Kirk reveals humanity’s history of government he hits a core note:

                [T]he lust for power is rooted in the corrupt nature of mankind. If
                that lust is not restrained by morality, then it will be kept in bounds
                only by force and a master.


His generally dim view of human nature, or the human condition, should not mark Kirk as a simplistic thinker. He saw the failings of our species as less than inevitable yet more than mischance. This was why he studied order as the basic condition of social existence. He contends that a justly ordered society can be established only through a truly universal ethical insight, almost inevitably grounded in a strong religious experience. Significantly enough, although the migrants who ventured to America did so for myriad reasons, all had firm religious underpinnings and this foundation allowed an ordered society to develop. As Alexis de Tocqueville concisely observes of America’s first immigrants:

            They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man . . . . While the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.

     This volume presents a study of the development of the understanding of order: common, rational, religious, and ultimately unbending. Kirk describes a continuum that is a bright spot in the human story. His rendition of this tale recounts important events that transpired and elucidates why. As Kirk succinctly comments, apropos of history, we need to “judge this path by its successes rather than its failures.” The combination of liberty and law is not easily achieved. To ensure the best chance for both conditions, the founders of the American experience leaned toward the side of order bolstered by guided self-control of the human condition. Today, as Kirk observes, there may be too much importance attached to laws and too little to mores. The modern, historically unknown demand for proliferating “rights” could be better served by greater understanding and adherence to one’s own duties and the rights of others.
     If one takes only a single concrete idea away from this work it should be that although order is the foundation of a successful social construct, order cannot be defined by words—much less laws. Order is truly founded in the reciprocal understanding of how we all fit together; it operates on a willingness to extend trust to others, that they will do unto us as they would have us do unto them. 
Kirk intones


that such order, as signified by the preposition “unto,” implies that we serve one another willingly, out of mutual gratitude, not solely because of duty.
     A society as economically, socially, and psychologically complex as ours, with its myriad and ephemeral relationships, cannot be described adequately in any single manner. Nor can it be reduced to statute. Indeed, as is obvious, the more government tries to proscribe the bounds and limits of our conduct the less free society becomes. If we cannot achieve a free society on our own perhaps it cannot be done, for all modes of public constraint eventually accede to virtually totalitarian demands for comprehensive politically correct administrative refereeing and judicial finality. Ultimately, this results in an intolerable smothering of both the good will and the necessary voluntary cooperation that allow a society to work. There is an inverse relation between the written rules, statutes, and injunctions that exist and the free society toward which we strive.

About the Author
Russell Kirk was born in 1918 in rural Michigan, an area he called home throughout his life. He was a consummate thinker, acknowledged as such by the media of his day and of ours. Recognition of his talents and lessons came early and continued throughout his life. He received his education at Michigan Agricultural College (reconstituted later as Michigan State University) and Duke University . He wrote about so many subjects in so many disciplines that to list them all would risk losing the forest for the trees. He wrote fiction as well as insight and commentary and he received awards in both fields. The Conservative Mind (Chapter 37), his best-known work, changed thinking about political reasoning in the mid-twentieth century. It still ranks as one of the key books of the conservative canon. Vindication for his life’s work, in the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, made Kirk’s early years of political philosophical struggle seem prescient.
     Kirk was a professor at Michigan State University until the decline of educational standards led him to return to his home in the northern part of the state, the place where he was most comfortable and productive. Kirk died in 1994 but not before completing his autobiography, The Sword of Imagination, a book through which interested readers can begin to appreciate the breadth of his knowledge and understanding.

Available through:
ISI Books
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
P.O. Box 4431
Wilmington , DE   19807-0431


Back to Top