- PrefaceConserving and Renewing the Permanent Things
The year of our Lord 2018 was a year filled with great conflict and the breakdown of a great many cultural institutions and arrangements. The farsighted political commentator Walter Russell Mead observed that the greatest loser of the year was the post-World War II political order. And yet, as a number of observers have brought out, 2018 was the centenary of the end of the First World War, which had left between 15 and 19 million soldiers and civilians dead, with perhaps 23 million wounded. It had also left centuries-old institutions and arrangements in far greater disarray than anything seen in 2018. Indeed, the added difference is that the world of 2018 saw a smaller percentage of the world's people in dire poverty than at any point in history. More people than ever now have what are known as "first world problems," that range of difficulties that extends from the speed of one's internet to the inconveniences involved in solving actual problems of medicine, nourishment, and safety with plentiful material resources. This is not to discount the very real problems of health and safety in such places as Venezuela, North Korea, China, and various other places around the world, but it is important to note that such problems are much rarer than they used to be a [End Page 5] century ago. And yet the sense of doom and gloom is unmistakable. The cause no doubt has much more to do with the spirit. In 1975, Saint Teresa of Calcutta observed to a visiting journalist:
The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people. You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don't know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.1
We have grown far, far richer since 1975, and the words of the little Albanian nun remain. The widespread lack of relationship with God means a poverty of relationship and a poverty of meaning.
But 1918 was, again, much worse—a year in which institutions and human beings had been destroyed or damaged, the world lay in many places in shambles. It and the years following were years of doubt and outright unbelief. Even as the Allied economies started to chug back along into the "Roaring Twenties," the spiritual depression was evident enough in literature long before the economic Great Depression. Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald—all of them gave off the feeling of civilizational fatigue and emptiness that T. S. Eliot depicted so well in the last stanza of "The Hollow Men" (1925) when the speaker's attempt to repeat "For Thine is the Kingdom" is broken off:
For thine isLife isFor Thine is the This is the way the world endsThis is the way the world endsThis is the way the world endsNot with a bang but a whimper.2 [End Page 6]
But amid the physical and spiritual ashes, there were several figures born who would go on to build up the resources to survive the rough beast of modernity. Last year marked the centenaries of Madeleine L'Engle, Muriel Spark, Avery Dulles, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and last but not least the political theorist and activist, cultural essayist, Gothic writer, and all-around man of letters Russell Amos Kirk.
Kirk is perhaps the least-remembered figure among those mentioned, but his importance has probably grown since his death in 1994, while his memory has been rekindled greatly since the appearance of Bradley J. Birzer's award-winning 2015 biography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative.3 Birzer, who holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair at Hillsdale College, is a prolific historian of nineteenth-century America who, like Kirk, sees America as part of Western civilization—defined not in terms of skin color, as many critics these days would have it, but...