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    Quotables: The Roots of American Order

    April 10, 2012 by Brandy Vencel
    The Roots of American Order
    by Russell Kirk

    Scholastic philosophy and medieval imagery are joined in Dante. His great poem was a synthesis of knowledge, in that he drew his ideas and his images from the Hebrew prophets, the classical philosophers, the Roman jurists, the Schoolmen, even the Arab scholars…In Dante, that same synthesis–that ordering and harmonizing of knowledge and belief–is expressed through poetic insights and symbols. Truth was knowable; order was real. {p. 222}

    As this disaster approached, Byzantine scholars and nobles fled into Italy. There, especially in Florence, they waked the West to a fuller interest in Plato and in the whole heritage of the vanished classical civilization. {p. 223}

    Now [Pico’s] “Dignity of Man” is the manifest of humanism. Man regenerate–“this, visibly,” Egon Freidell says, “is the primary meaning of the Renaissance: the rebirth of man in the likeness of God.” The man of the Middle Ages had been humble, conscious almost always of his fallen sinful nature, feeling himself watched by a wrathful God. Through pride fell the angels. But Pico and his brother-humanists declared that man was only a little lower than the angels, a being capable of descending to unclean depths, indeed, but also having it within his power to become godlike. How marvellous and splendid a creature is man! This is the theme of Pico’s oration… {p. 225}

    Man might make himself almost the equal of the heavenly hosts, the cherubim and seraphim, Pico taught, should man cultivate ardently his intellectual faculty. {p. 225}

    It is only because man has been created in the image of God that man can become almost angelic. {p. 225}

    [T]hrough the moral disciplines of humanitas, the classical heritage of humane learning, he struggles upward toward the Godhead. {p. 226}

    [W]e need to remind ourselves that when we call early America Protestant, we mean that America was Christian. The fundamental Christian convictions discussed in earlier chapters of this book were not undone at the Reformation. {p. 229}

    Protestantism was not a new religion, but a very old one. {p. 230}

    This should be borne in mind: despite the ferocity of the Wars of Religion, the similarities among various Christian bodies are more important than their differences, where we have to do with questions of the order of the soul and of the commonwealth. Hideously though Catholics and Protestants often dealt with one another, still their understanding of man and of society and come from one Christian root. {p. 230}

    The Renaissance, a conscious rediscovery of classical civilization, essentially was pagan in its view of human nature… {p. 231}

    Man is a creature of mingled good and evil impulses, the Church had come to teach: in the depths of the soul, there lingers an essence or spark of divine substance, potentially enabling man {if given grace} to exercise his will for good. This medieval teaching, which runs through Dante’s great poem, the Reformers denied utterly; they returned to the stern teaching of Saint Augustine. {p. 233}

    In the Middle Ages, the Church had taught that man can be saved both by faith and by good works. {p. 233}

    For truth, the Catholics turned to Authority; for truth, the Protestants turned to Private Judgment.

    By Authority, the Catholics meant the teaching authority of the whole Church, over the centuries, as expressed in Scripture, in tradition, in the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in the consensus of church councils, in the sayings and acts of saints, in papal decretals. By Private Judgment, the Protestants meant the individual Christian’s interpretation of the Bible, in the light of conscience, for the guiding of his actions. {p. 234}

    The Protestant ethic is rooted in what Luther called “the priesthood of all believers.” {p. 235}

    [I]t is somewhat more true to say that the Christian spirit, rather than the Protestant spirit only, helped to create American civilization. {p. 237}

    “Muddling through,” it is said, has been England’s method for meeting public difficulties. By comparison with the domestic struggles of other modern nations, surely, the English civil social order had been kept in tolerable balance through a principle called “moderation.” {p. 238-239}

    What had emerged was a national church differing from Rome and differing from Geneva, neither wholly Catholic nor wholly Protestant. {p. 240}

    It is Hooker, rather than Henry VIII, who deserves to be called the founder of the Church of England. {p. 240}

    The divines of the Church of England, or Anglican theologians, affirmed the primacy of the Bible, but declared also that church tradition should be respected, when it did not conflict with Scripture. {p. 240}

    Hooker and the Anglicans who followed him deliberately sought after moderation and balance–after what came to be called the via media, the middle way. For Hooker, this middle path was no mere splitting of the difference, no uneasy compromise of the moment: rather it resembled Aristotle’s golden mean, the prudent avoiding of extremes so that faith might be both strong and temperate. {p. 241}

    Hooker’s arguments…would be familiar…to nearly all educated men in eighteenth-century America. [C]ertain ideas of Hooker’s…passed into American social assumptions. They are his concepts of law, of continuity, of constitutional liberty, and of tolerance. {p. 242}

    It would be a disastrous error to try to impose upon all people and eras some uniform set of legal imperatives: the kingdom of England is not the kingdom of Israel. {p. 243}

    Over thousands of years, a people learn certain truths about the personal and the public order: mankind forms a consensus of opinion on certain vital matters. It is not simply the people living in any one year whose opinions we must consult, but more amply the conclusions of all the generations that have preceded us in time–a kind of filtered wisdom of the human species. {p. 244}

    Hooker is a convincing exponent of the idea of continuity–of the principle that in concerns of both church and state, we must seek to link generation with generation. {p. 245}

    Our religion, our culture, and our political rights are all maintained by continuity: by our respect for the accomplishments of our forefathers, and by our concern for posterity’s well-being. {p. 245}

    In secular studies, Scottish schools became renowned, so that the popular level of learning was higher in Scotland of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than in any other nation. That literacy and respect for learning, founded upon Bible study, also passed into America. {p. 257}

    Up from the Old World’s religious ferment bubbled the energy and the individualism of the nascent American order. {p. 258}

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  • Reply Kelly April 11, 2012 at 3:05 am

    That quote, “the conclusions of all generations,” reminds me what Chesterton says about honoring tradition. He calls it “the democracy of the dead.”

    Also, the last quote reminds me that I need to finish reading Albion’s Seed. I had checked it out from the libarary but had to return it after I finished the first part, which covers the Puritans of East Anglia who settled New England.

  • Reply Go quickly and tell April 11, 2012 at 1:18 am

    Changed my mind and added an entry using that portrait and a few of Kirk’s choice generalizations.

  • Reply Go quickly and tell April 11, 2012 at 12:46 am

    I apologize for creating confusion. I’m hoping this by-week will help folks catch up.

    I didnt have a favorite quote for Chpt 7. But I do have a favorite piece of artwork from this era ~ Raphael’s Portrait of Leo X.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 12, 2012 at 3:30 am

      No apologies necessary. I was a little grateful that we were not plowing ahead because I was concerned I was about to fall behind!

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