In reading various accounts and response to the contretemps surrounding Alan Wolfe’s essay on Russell Kirk, I recently came across an intelligent and thought provoking response by R.R. Reno at First Things. I found Reno’s discussion of ordered liberty and his comparing and contrasting the views of Hobbes and Kirk insightful:
Leaving aside the snide tone, Wolfe is correct to note that “everything Kirk says about religion and the social order is breathtakingly unoriginal.” Like so many before him, Kirk thought religion a crucial pillar of a healthy society. But Wolfe is quite wrong when his ends his observation by saying that Kirk is conventional, “except for the remark that without religion we would be in a constant state of war. Given the fact that so many wars have been fought over religion, there is no disputing the creativity of that observation.” Wolfe needs to be careful with his clever, superior lines. Was Hobbes an obvious idiot for saying that without the absolute power of the sovereign we would experience the war of all against all? But wait–don’t sovereigns launch most wars?
I don’t think you need to be a terribly subtle thinker to see that neither Hobbes nor Kirk is a fool. In fact, there is an important similarity between the two that Wolfe’s dismissive review fails to recognize and explore. Both Hobbes and Kirk view the power that imposes order as necessary to control base human impulses and to minimize their destructiveness. But there is also a very important difference. Hobbes saw human beings as pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding machines; as a consequence, order could only be imposed externally and harshly by the Leviathan. In contrast, Kirk viewed us as complicated spiritual, social, and physical beings. We can fear God and develop self-disciplining inhibitions that allow us to bring order to our lives, and, as a consequence, we can become free, cooperative agents in a democratic process that shapes society into a moral order capable of perpetuating self-disciplined, free social actors. This is the deep anthropological insight of the conservative ideal of ordered liberty.