Kirk’s On the Shoulder of Giants (Selections)

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“Thus there cannot be brothers and sisters in a mystical sense without a mystical father. There is no brotherhood of mankind, in short, without the fatherhood of God. The Christian calls this kinship in Christ.” (420-421)

“Among the beliefs and institutions which we have received from the giants, from the ‘democracy of the dead,’ two of the most important are the principle of personality and the principle of diversity. Savages know little of personality and diversity. These acquirements are the products of a high civil social order. By ‘personality,’ we mean strong individual character, the distinctive characteristics which mark a truly human person. By ‘diversity’ we mean the great variety of talents, tastes, occupations, classes, interests, aspirations, rights, and duties which mark a truly elevated culture; what has been called ‘proliferating variety.’ Whether a civilization is advancing or decaying may be judged by some examination of the degree of personality and the degree of diversity found in the society under consideration. A civilization in full bloom displays a wide range of strong personalities and an interesting variety of tastes, talents and orders, as did Elizabethan England or fourth-century Greece; a civilization experiencing decline reveals a dearth of hearty individual character and an oppressive uniformity of opinion and station, as did the Roman system in the fifth century after Christ or the Byzantine system near the end of its tether.” (423)

“. . . the belief that (as Marcus Aurelius wrote) we human beings are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet; but that we lose our dignity if, exceeding the limits of cooperation, we force others to imitate our personality, or slavishly mold our personality upon some collectivist model. Man has dignity only when he seeks to emulate not another man, but a divine image.” (424-425)

“Men and women who believe in the dignity of man, and in the ideal of service, never seek impersonality and uniformity.” (425)

“The slogans of the Utopian doctrinaire vary from one generation to another. At present, a word and a concept very popular with the advocate of impersonality and uniformity is ‘integration.’ I am not referring especially to the problem of white and colored students in school. . . . What I propose to touch upon, rather, is the assumption, at present heard in many quarters, that somehow everybody ought to be ‘integrated’—that is, everybody ought to be just like everybody else with no distinction of station, wealth, taste, family, aspiration, opinion, or character.” (425)

“But the trouble with this integrated society is that it is a life in death. All high aspiration, all real imagination, all personal and variety, all moral worth, are gone out of it; it is hideous. And I think that any thoroughly integrated society must be hideous.” (426)

“Truly human persons ought to be different from one another in many ways. There are certain enduring moral principles they all ought to obey; nor ought me and women to differ merely for the sake of differing, like so many irresponsible Bohemians. But they ought to recognize, and to defend, those incalculably valuable differences of talent, taste, station, and character which make life worth living. Life is not worth living in a tapioca-pudding society, in which the truly human person has been reduced to the condition of a mere constituent globule, exactly like all the other constituent globules. Tapioca-pudding is thoroughly integrated.” (426)

“For it is a law of all animate and vegetal nature that every living thing seeks, above all else, to preserve its distinct identity, which distinguishes it from other living things.” (427)

“Identity has primacy among motives, even in creatures that cannot be said to possess consciousness in any sense. We are obeying the deepest law of our being when we decline to allow some other living thing to swallow us up; when we refuse to allow ourselves to be reconstituted according to the grand design of some visionary energumen; when we prefer variety to integration.” (427)

“We need voluntary associations in every realm of our social existence to teach us our part in the contract of eternal society, to guide us in service, and to guard our identity. Without such associations, society decays into the mass-state, in which the identity of persons and groups is submerged. A nation which consists merely of a central government and an incoherent mob of private individuals, without local and voluntary associations to protect identify, cannot be free.” (428)

SOURCE: Russell Kirk, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” The Eleusis of Chi Omega 58 (September 1956): 417-430.

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