Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review | The Roots of American Order

“Order is the first need of all,” writes Russell Kirk, for it illuminates our path in life, restrains our passions, and orients our affections towards that which is proper. It gives man the ability to dwell peaceably in society, to know his rights and duties, and to exercise those rights and duties in a just and moral fashion. It goes beyond law and government to the very fabric of society itself, rising from the habits and the morals of the citizens. The good society is marked by an order of justice and freedom. The bad society establishes order through injustice and tyranny.

Written in 1974, The Roots of American Order spoke volumes to a country that appeared to be disintegrating in the wake of the Watergate scandals, the Vietnam War, and nationwide student revolts, reminding America of a social and political order that had endured in the face of revolution, invasion, and Civil War. Today, we may have moved past the era of Soviet Union politics,
but a new array of challenges face America. The modern welfare state has continued its ascent, American foreign policy is at a crossroads, and the call of the international community seeks to Europeanize much of American culture. A return to our foundations is as much in order today as it was in the 1970s.

Throughout The Roots of American Order, Kirk traces the development of American culture from the dawn of civilization to the War for Independence. The road to Philadelphia ran through four ancient cities, moving progressively westward on its way to the new world.

In Jerusalem, man found that he has a purposeful moral existence before God. The order of the ancient Jewish people was a religious order, and it was built on a shared faith and covenant. The ancient Israelite realized his sinfulness, his need for divine revelation, and the role of the law in liberating rather than restraining man. He learned to submit to the decrees of a God who was wholly other than him – one who was transcendent, just, and merciful.

In Athens, man found that he has an essence, that is, he has a human nature which tells him that which he ought to strive towards. He discovered the ideal of humanity, a man who has justly ordered his soul by bringing his passions and appetites under the rule of his reason. He discovered his telos, or purpose, as a political being, meant to live in a community bound together by bonds of friendship. Finally, he discovered that the deepest truths of human flourishing can only be discovered by humanity if they are illuminated by something outside of itself.

In Rome, man found that the world is governed by a natural law which endures across all cultures and generations. He found that the deepest cravings for order ultimately seek a moral law, that this moral law is the basis for each society’s particular scheme of government, and that this law is not enacted by human hands, but binds humanity to its tenets as the measure of the legitimacy of human law. He found that the only way to live in a just society is by living a life of virtue, labor, and piety.

In London, man discovered that by entering into society, man enters a contract made with the
generations, with all the rights to be enjoyed and duties to be executed. The rights of Englishmen, once established, placed even the highest power, the king, under the jurisdiction of the common law – a law built upon the customs and conventions of the English people, and established to secure their liberty. This complex society, built on precedent and long-standing social institutions, grants its inhabitants restraint on their viler passions, that they may live a free and just life.

Finally, these principles, coupled with a spirit of liberty and self-governance, came together in the vision of the New World, carried America through her War for Independence, and served as the blueprint for the constitutional government established in Philadelphia.

Throughout The Roots of American Order, Kirk presents a deep and thoughtful historical analysis of the religious, philosophical, and political movements that built the order established at Philadelphia. The tome (and it is a thick book, weighing in at 534 pages) is by no means exhaustive, but seeks to sketch out the general contours of American order and is an excellent entry point for any American conservative seeking to test the waters of American political theory.

by Nick Barden

The Roots of American Order will be available for purchase in the Generation Joshua store shortly. Stay tuned for more information!

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