During a long road trip this past week, I had the opportunity to listen to an audiobook version of The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky, a volume of eleven lectures by Russell Kirk, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and given delivered in the 1980s. The theme of the lectures was whether, on the heels of President Reagan’s election, our country was conceivably at the beginning of an “augustan age” which would see us reclaim the ideals and virtues of our forefathers and our sense of mission in this world.
These lectures were a followup to an earlier series of Heritage lectures, entitled Reclaiming a Patrimony, and were offered to “hearten” those who fought against America’s slide into decadence. As a result, Kirk writes in the foreword, “some cheerfulness has been allowed to creep in.” You can probably tell from the title that the allowed cheerfulness was not in excess. This essay version of the final lecture, from which the volume takes its titles, will give you an excellent feel for the overall substance of the lectures and Kirk’s writing style. It is worth the read.
Kirk’s mind is wide-ranging, and he tackles everything from the unique mission of America in history of the world; to differences between natural law, civil rights, and our ill-defined human rights; to whether virtue can be taught; to the nature and purpose of liberal education; the risks of computerizing our minds; and more. He references books, quotes scholars and writers ancient and modern, and sprinkles in humorous anecdotes, including his long-running battle with an tiny old television that friends and family kept reintroducing to his house in secret. His vocabulary is prodigious and intimidating at times, but never so much that I couldn’t keep up as I drove — and the five-and-a-half hours in his company flew by.
I’d offer a more extensive analysis, but honestly, my head continues to spin, and without the ability to take notes, I could not do it justice. Suffice it to say that were he alive today, I suspect Kirk would take little comfort in the accuracy of his observations regarding the direction of the country at the end of the last century, especially with regard to education, the information age and the knowledge economy, and prominence of sentiment. I suspect, instead, he might mourn the ways in which we failed to recognize and build upon the potential he saw 30 years ago.
And yet (to capture a bit of Kirk’s own “cheerfulness”) perhaps even now it is not too late, if not to salvage America, then to reclaim and preserve that which will serve to reseed civilization in the aftermath of these dark days, for our children and theirs.
Note: The audio version of these lectures is available from Audible for free with a trial subscription.