LOGOS Journal: Beauty, Order and the Moral Imagination

This story is featured in the fall/winter 2021 issue of Lumen.

This quarter’s issue of LOGOS features a piece from Jared Zimmerer, widely known for his work with Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire. In this article, Zimmerer explores the wisdom of a 20th-century intellectual giant, Russell Kirk, on subjects of “Beauty, Order and the Moral Imagination.” Among other things, Zimmerer shows how Kirk’s aesthetics can lead to a renewal of society through a recovery of tradition – and not through the all-too-frequently demanded deconstruction deemed necessary by today’s elite. 

An important line regarding beauty comes when Kirk explains, “conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste.” Interestingly, Kirk mentions the idea of taste in the same breath as morals and politics, similar to the tradition of Plato and Aquinas. He continues by stating that “it is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality.” This certainly flies in the face of many modern notions about beauty and art, where subjectivity is often regarded as the final word on whether art is worthy of praise. For Kirk, “old truths, old laws, old boots, old books and old friends are the best.”

“Art reminds a community of where we come from and perhaps, what we certainly do not want to repeat.”

The recent “cancel culture” desires to erase the histories of many of the Founding Fathers, as well as writers such as Flannery O’Connor, and missionary saints like Junipero Serra. Of course, Kirk would vehemently disagree with the erasure of the past in such a progressive fashion, but he might also challenge the anger with a reminder that the present is certainly not stuck in the past. Rather, like the humane writer he is, he might remind people of their history in its fullest form, scars and all. When the public gains such insight, we can understand our roots without desiring to rip them out. In this way, art reminds a community of where we come from and perhaps, what we certainly do not want to repeat. 

The interesting thing about Kirk is that, as much as he is pinned as a traditionalist, he was never opposed to a certain type of progress. Instead, he never wanted tradition to be overridden by the Cult of Progress, meaning that as long as a new thing came along, in this case artistic expression, it must find itself within the Great Tradition, not opposed to it. The boredom and servitude Kirk is rightfully fighting against is an existential angst that occurs when the aesthetic environment surrounding a person is opposed to the tradition that understands what mankind needs for fulfillment based on the wisdom of the centuries before us. One of the hopes that Russell Kirk had was to reignite a desire for tradition in the postmodern age, what Kirk scholar Gerald Russello calls “the postmodern imagination.” 

“This type of existential searching is occurring in the postmodern imagination because modernity has yet to provide the answers to the deepest questions of humanity.”

The postmodern imagination is open to being captured because it has tried the scientism, determinism, and failed materialism of modernity and found it wanting. Kirk explains that this type of existential searching is occurring in the postmodern imagination because modernity has yet to provide the answers to the deepest questions of humanity. The conservative approach is a reintroducing of tradition and norms. 

[L]iterary aesthetics have the potential to open up the postmodern mind in a way that scientism does not. Scientism cannot explain the deepest longings of the human heart. Russello continues by stating that “modernity denigrated mystery in the name of scientific or politically revolutionary metanarrative.” Moreover, on the other hand, “postmodernists— . . . while recognizing mystery, saw it only as an opportunity to engage in an endless play of word games ultimately to no purpose and to no lasting effect.” The efforts of political or philosophical “word games” cannot reach into the depths of the mysteries that have been lost on the modern consciousness. Russello continues in saying that, “In contrast to both of these approaches, Kirk believed the central mysteries of life to be an opportunity for creation, through a constructive use of the imagination. All of history and tradition is brought into each moment and projected forward. Into this temporal stream, the individual’s action, tempered, Kirk hoped, by the moral imagination, would be added.” To present these mysteries to an audience so bereft of them and seeking them through science, politics or philosophical abstractions, Kirk believed that art has the capacity to break through the lack and falsities of modernity by way of the imagination.