Recently, I strongly recommended the latest book by James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. The book has lingered in my mind, and I can’t help but to continue to draw from it. Smith’s broad point about human nature—that we are what we love, not what we think—is related in part to Russell Kirk’s rejection of ideology. Both men assert that individuals and communities are shaped by our practices, habits, and loves.
In an early chapter, Smith argues that virtues are taught or passed on to our children through practice, repetition, and imitation. He states that learning virtue “isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.” Through imitation and practice, being virtuous becomes second nature. Just as the skilled typist doesn’t have to think about where the “t” key is located on his keyboard, the virtuous person doesn’t have to think about being compassionate. Compassion is just part of a virtuous person’s nature.
Similarly, Russell Kirk believed that we are shaped by our context, history, and tradition. We can only see the horizon more clearly than our ancestors because we are standing on their shoulders. Humans do not live in a vacuum. “Tabula rasa” is an unhelpful fiction.
Kirk rejected “ideology” because human nature cannot be reduced to goddess reason. Contra Kirk, the modern ideologue thinks in slogans and talks in bullets. He thinks that progress will be achieved only if we unfasten the fetters of our past.
Both Smith and Kirk reject the ontology of the ideologue and combat his influence where it is found in the church and culture.
To illustrate the shared ontology of Smith and Kirk, consider this Russell Kirk passage with a few Smith-inspired additions:
In any culture worthy of the name, men must be something better than the flies of a summer; generation must link with generation [through imitation and practice]. This is not a work that can be accomplished through [simply teaching] positive law or the creation of international commissions. Yet if a people forget the [practices] of their fathers and the [liturgies] of their [religion], the consequences will soon be felt in [their families, churches, communities, and countries].
Russell Kirk, “The Common Heritage of America and Europe.“
The Smith-Kirk connection makes sense to me. As our starting point, we admit that men are more than “heads on sticks.” If men are to be more than flies of a summer, we must link to the past by practicing the liturgies and virtues of our fathers.