Rusell Kirk and Pope John Paul II on Redemption of Man, 2

Pope John Paul II and Russell Kirk defended freedom within the limits of truth and its authentic or right use. They knew it was crucial to distinguish license and liberty. But they have different approaches to truth.

An important passage in Redemptor hominis is this one: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world” §12

John Paul is unabashed in reference to the sayings of Jesus Christ and he has a rich notion of revelation and magisterium standing behind  his love of truth. This is appropriate of course for the supreme pontiff. But he also has a vigorous notion of reason as a spiritual capacity for natural knowledge of God and moral law. So in Fides et ratio he says: “This is why I make this strong and insistent appeal—not, I trust, untimely—that faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. The parrhesia of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason.” §48 The boldness of reason is not to be found in Kirk, nor is the parrhesia of faith as such.

So what do we find in Kirk, at this point in his writing, prior to his conversion to the Catholic faith?In Prospects for Conservatives he makes two references to “transcendent truth,” and many references to a permanent, and presumably knowable, order. He emphasizes the importance of myth and parable as the source of truth; myth is “susceptible of rational interpretation,” yes, but it is beyond calculative reason and science, or “utilitarianism” and “literalness.” (18) Not a fan of “pure-bred” metaphysics, or an abstract thinker “devoid of humility and reverence,” Kirk nevertheless speaks about the duty (and need?) to examine general or first principles. But with the invocation of Coleridge and Burke, this task is best left to the literary critic it seems.

Again, in his discussion of tradition, Kirk speaks of tradition as “transcendent truth” to a religious man. (233) He is a critic of private judgment and sceptics. But he does repeat the refrain this is truth “to a religious man,” to a “Christian.” And yet he even admits that traditions must not be superstitious, and they may need correction and change. Traditions are conflicting. Somehow, Kirk cannot really avoid the pressing if not paramount need for philosophy which he seems to fear as “defecated reason.” John Paul’s (which is Thomistic) account of the harmony of faith and reason should be welcome to Kirk or a Kirkean. For tradition seems to function as faith does in Thomas. The emphasis upon tradition is, of course, a proto-Catholic position already in early Kirk. And yet tradition has no ultimate authority without a magisterial office.

John Paul says that truth stands as a requirement and a warning for our love of freedom; the requirement we see brought out in tradition and myth. As for the warning against “illusory freedom” Kirk is at his splendid best, anticipating John Paul II in many respects. As mentioned previously, Kirk is a critic of consumerism and the atrophy of the heart. He devotes chapters to criticisms of sloth (boredom) and avarice. Kirk explores various “motives for integrity” that would round out and give substance to bare freedom — love of God, emulation of virtue, and care for family. Love of gain shows a reduced notion of human fulfillment and encourages selfishness.

John Paul said that “what is in question is the advancement of persons, not just the multiplying of things that people can use. It is a matter-as a contemporary philosopher has said and as the Council has stated-not so much of “having more” as of “being more”. Indeed there is already a real perceptible danger that, while man’s dominion over the world of things is making enormous advances, he should lose the essential threads of his dominion and in various ways let his humanity be subjected to the world and become himself something subject to manipulation in many ways — even if the manipulation is often not perceptible directly-through the whole of the organization of community life, through the production system and through pressure from the means of social communication.” §16

It is something of a surprise that one of the great American conservatives is so critical of the engines of prosperity in the mid-fifties. But Pope John Paul II certainly develops and intensifies the “prospects for conservatives” laid out by Russell Kirk in light of the vision of man as destined for love:

“With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to  this poor earth and all the stars.” (21)

We must return to the Kirk/Wojtyla comparison one last time on the issue of “gorgons and chimeras” or “what modern man has to fear.”.

Join us!

* indicates required