The Sword of Imagination (Russell Kirk)

Kirk, Russell.  The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.

This is an unusual memoir, as Russell Kirk narrates his intellectual life in the third person.  It is a fascinating account of the intellectual currents that would later merge into post-WWII conservatism (which is to be distinguished from the banal variety today).   True conservatism means the defense of Permanent Things.  Modern day conservatism is simply libertarianism that is too scared to go all the way.

Kirk does a great job describing his studies at St Andrews, Scotland.  No doubt it provided fodder for his ghost stories.  He also shows the big difference between real scholars and American university guns for hire.  

“The St Andrews scholars of that generation were truly learned men who reda, who thought, who were civilization incarnate…Kirk reflected that some of his American professorial colleagues had no books in their homes except free copies of textbooks” (88).

Following Kirk, we should understand our goal for society should be something like a “mannered aristocracy.” In one devastating but undeveloped remark, Kirk notes that “Many Americans labor under the illusion that they exist in a classless society–and are startled if informed that the classless society was the goal of Karl Marx” (110).  Kirk should have drawn the logical conclusion: if you don’t believe in some form of aristocracy and cultured nobility, you are at root an egalitarian.

Kirk gives us a neat overview of the beginning of modern American conservatism overlapping with the Eisenhower generation.  As he was always wont to point out, conservatism is the negation of ideology. It does not negate, however, conservative impulses (143).

“If Communism is the inversion of Christianity, [then] Ayn Rand, reacting against practical communism, negated the negation” (144).

Among his more interesting acquaintances was the Archduke Otto von Hapsburg of the old imperial dynasty. Archduke Otto’s family can best summarize the goal of conservatism and why it should never be identified with small-govt American conservatism.  “When Theodore Roosevelt inquired of Franz Joseph how he saw his imperial place in modern times, the Emperor answered, “To protect my people from the government” (208). That’s monarchy in a nutshell.  We are too much infected with the Whig notion of progress to really understand this. As a general rule, monarchs saw themselves as last-stand efforts to save the people from monied interests (or in our times, technological experts).  No monarch ever dreamed of the power over a people that Anthony Fauci has.

As with many of the older books by Eerdmans, this is bound with chains of iron.  The spine of the book will never crack.  Unfortunately, you might get carpal tunnel syndrome from reading it.  


Samuel Johnson: Selected Essays

Johnson, Samuel.  Selected Essays, ed. David Womersley.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Samuel Johnson was a modern-day Ecclesiastes.  He puts constantly before our minds the weighty issues of life and the inexorable reality of death and finality.  James Boswell may have written about Johnson, but he could never write such a book as this.

Johnson’s Style

He is the greatest of the English prose authors.  When you read Johnson, note that the last sentence of a paragraph is filled with parallelism.  Consider, speaking of the book reviewer who is tasked,

“With the hopeless labor of uniting heterogenous ideas, digesting independent hints, and collecting into one point the several rays of borrowed light, emitted often with contrary directions” (R No. 23).

We often speak of those great writers with whom we disagree, but also yet with whom we cannot dismiss.  Johnson is one of them.  He is too powerful a force to ignore when he contradicts you.  Let’s take his odd claim that good literature must deal with good themes (Rambler No. 4).  This claim seems manifestly false.  Why would Johnson say it?  I think he means that such knowledge would have to be experiential knowledge, which would mean that the authors were evil in character.  On a less alarming note, such literature normally sells well among the unlearned, base, and ignorant (think of today’s Fifty Shades of Gray).

Johnson doesn’t mean every type of literature. Older romances were generally okay, since they dealt with the fantastic and would not likely be imitated today.  Realistic fiction, however, when coupled with moral ambivalence, is another matter. I think that is Johnson’s point.  Johnson, however, is aware that this isn’t a hard and fast rule.  He writes of a “manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings” (R No. 14).

Johnson argues that art imitates nature; therefore, bad art imitates bad nature.  This claim is a bit harder to shake.


“The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope” (R No. 2).

“We know that a few strokes of the axe will lop a cedar; but what arts of cultivation can elevate a shrub” (R No. 25)?

“That friendship may be at once fond and lasting, there must not only be equal virtue on each part, but virtue of the same kind” (R No. 64).

“Exercise cannot secure us from that dissolution to which we are decreed; but while the soul and body continue united, it can make the association pleasing” (171).

“To proceed from one truth to another, and connect distant propositions by regular consequences is the great prerogative of man” (R No. 158).

Tristram Shandy (Sterne)

Sterne, Laurence.  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Before you judge Tristram Shandy for not having a plot, tell me the metanarrative of Seinfeld.  Shandy’s lack of plot does make for difficult reading, but there are a few ways to approach it.  C. S. Lewis said to treat it as breakfast reading–a few chapters here and there.  That could work.  For a while I read ten pages at a time.  Another approach is to find a good audio version, especially one that does accents.  That brings out the real humor and goodness of men like Trim.

The postmodern university professor says there is no meaning, as each sign is simply a deferral from yet another sign, and on to infinity.  Tristram Shandy, although somewhat guilty of infinite tangents, parts company with the university professor.  There is meaning (and goodness).  The difficulty is that a conversation can’t be locked into place.

If it is hard to locate the actual narrative, one might better focus on the spontaneity of words and “free associations in the mind” (cf. lecture on Tristram Shandy by Leo Damrosch in the Great Courses).

Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, is an amateur philosopher. Toby, Tristram’s uncle, likes to play war games.  As a result, and one chief line of comedy in this book, is they are always talking past each other.

Shandy tells of his Uncle Toby and Toby’s accident, being wounded in the groin.  From there Toby develops an interest in fortification theory.

Idea: Tristram begins with his own conception, suggesting that the bizarre nature of it (e.g., his mother asking about a clock) determines his destiny.

Faerie Queene Book V

Spenser, Edmund. Faerie Queene Book V.

This book is the allegory of Justice. It ends with a very concrete commentary on Elizabeth’s actions in Belgium and Ireland.

As Artegall embodies justice, so he fights the Giant, Equality.  Forced equality always makes people unequal.  

The “Florimell arc” is finally wrapped up.  She is to marry Marinell.  The Britomart/Artegall narrative is also furthered. This raises another problem.  Britomart embodies the virtue Chastity.  And Spenser makes it even more provocative as Britomart best embodies chastity by seeking conjugal wedlock.  Well and good.  Except every time Britomart and Artegall conclude a story arc, they avoid marriage by going on another adventure.  This is doubly complicated with Artegall as he goes on to Ireland (or Irena), which was both unnecessary for Elizabeth and for Artegall.

As is the case with Spenser’s other books, this has a temple featuring prominently at the end. Britomart goes to the Temple of Isis, which is odd since she is a Christian.


Spenser almost waited too long to complete the Florimell arc. That character arc had been pursued several times and the flow of Marinell’s story is moving towards the climax of the wedding.  False Florimell downplays the tension without actually releasing it. I understand that it allowed Artegall to expose Braggadocio, but Spenser almost did it too late in the narrative.

There is a fun chiasm in Canto 10.26:

“The Castle was the strength of all that state,
Until that state by strength was pulled downe.”

A. Strength
B. State
B’ State
A’ Strength

War and Peace

The book isn’t difficult to read, but you have to get the characters straight.  The following is a brief guide to the first 100 pages.  After that it is really easy.

A good portion of this book is in French (translations are in footnotes).  France was the intellectual capital of the world.  The Russian aristocracy often spoke French better than Russian.  This points to a deeper divide in Russian society: the depraved Petersburg elite vs. the common Russian.

Anna Pavlovna: hostess of high class soirees. Basically a conversation machine.  

Anna Mikhailovna: Boris’s mother

Pierre: a good natured bumpkin.

Prince Andrei: Pierre’s friend.  Somewhat cynical.  Very similar to Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Good guy, but has the potential to be a complete boor.

Helene: Prince Vassily’s daughter and Anatole’s sister.  She is the archetypal pretty yet stupid individual. 

Anatole Kuragin: Vassily’s son.  Wastrel.  Needs to be shot.

Boris is initially attached to Natasha, whose sister is Vera.

Nikolai and Sonya are in a relationship.

Can we identify the most important event in the book?  No, not in a book that is 1200 pages long and covers 7 years among five different families.  There are key moments from which there is no return, though.  There are several: when Pierre learns to live for others, when Andrei meets Natasha, etc. Another moment is when Nikolai learns true valor instead of mere bluster.

Do great men move history?  This is the idea Tolstoy wants to attack in volume 3.  His argument, and it is fascinating if somewhat wrong, is that the real movers of history were the thousands of nobodies who actually did the fighting.  In fact, the higher in rank and class one is, the less freedom he has to act.  This article nicely summarizes the problem.

You can’t pin it all on one cause. If you do that, you risk missing the thousands of smaller causes that actually got it done.   Here is where Tolstoy’s argumentation gets sloppy.  He says, “And consequently, none of them was the exclusive cause of the event, but the event had to take place because it had to take place.”  In other words, it just is, man.  If that’s the case, then Tolstoy doesn’t need to bother with explaining the causes made by the common people.

Further, Tolstoy’s argumentation comes very close to saying “Because Napoleon wasn’t the exclusive cause, he didn’t play a causal role.”  That’s just erroneous.  I agree with Tolstoy that the higher in class you are, the less free your actions are.  That is an important point.  That doesn’t mean, though, that you don’t have any freedom. Take Napoleon completely out of the picture and the other causes are irrelevant.

That’s not to say all of Tolstoy’s analysis is wrong. He’s often quite insightful.  Take the question after the Battle of Borodino: should Kutuzov defend Moscow or abandon it?  Normally, a man would make that decision based on a calm evaluation of the evidence.  Tolstoy points out that in battle, you have a dozen plans of action.  Which one do you take? How do you know?  The key point: knowledge is always moving. 

Perhaps Tolstoy’s real point is not a criticism of the Great Man view of history.  He might just be saying that men cannot get a grasp of the whole at the expense of the parts.  He correctly notes that causes always function within a larger causal nexus.  Apply that to human freedom.  We normally ask, “Am I free, or are my actions caused?”  The question is a wrong one.  It’s not that my actions are caused, but that my actions are already within a causal framework.  Have you ever felt that one of your actions was inevitable?  That might be because it was embedded in about 30 different causes.  Even if you could change those causes, you won’t be able to in the heat of battle.

In other words, you can’t take one major person and from that person deduce a set of logical causes that explain the whole.  

Great literature evokes.  Reading Tolstoy I was reminded of moments when I drove along cotton fields.  I had mental images of the antebellum South. The battles surrounding Moscow (and its subsequent burning) aren’t that different from various Civil War Battles.  Countess Rostov’s inanity is no different from the Southern Belle who “gets the vapors” (also, remember that scene from the Patriot when Mel Gibson blows up the ship and the British woman starts clapping, “Fireworks! Lovely!”?).

Tolstoy, at least in his early work, is soul-work.  We see how the soul manifests the pure spirit of human feeling.  This cannot be done if there are wars in the soul. What really matter is not finding some architectonic theory of the universe, or rallying to the latest political fad, but tending to your own farm (or business or whatever).

Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson


Clingham, Greg. The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Samuel Johnson wasn’t just a writer.  He was a force of nature.  You have to reckon with him, as is perhaps evident in that many writers in this volume have a “feminist” or “post-colonialist” bent to them.  Despite (or because of) that, they are largely appreciative of Johnson. Johnson was honest.  He was a Tory of the most manly sort.  He was a monarchist who stood for a high church, yet he was also realistic about injustices in society.

We have noted that Johnson was a force of nature.  In another sense, nature, or a nexus of universal constants, is the theme of his work.  This is most evident in the chapters on Shakespeare and the Lives of the Poets.

Of particular interest is the chapter on Johnson’s Rambler essays, providing a unifying framework for reading them.


Johnson’s poetic practice requires an intimate connection between the general and the particular (Weinbrot 35). Johnson uses the ancient concept of “concordia discord,” or a juxtaposing of contraries, to illustrate the passions in human nature.

The Essays and the Rambler

Johnson begins (or close to) his foray into essay writing with his famous “No. 4,” discussing whether an author had to be a good man to have good writing.  Johnson backs off from this in his essays on Milton and in Ramblers 36 and 37.

Johnson instructs us in practical literary criticism in Ramblers 86, 88, 90, 92, and 94 (and 139-140). 86, 88, and 90 deal with Milton’s methods. The theme here is the dialectic of imitation and originality.

Johnson is indeed in favor of education for women (Korshin 62).

Johnson’s Politics

While he may have been England’s most famous Tory, nevertheless, one may not necessarily deduce positions from his Toryism (Folkenflik 102). The common ground of his Toryism is the relationship of religion to the state.  While landed gentlemen, the Tories saw themselves as uniquely positioned to protect the poor and middle class from predatory interest.  And on Folkenflik’s reading, it was the Tories, not the Whigs, who opposed both colonialism and slavery (105).

In light of all of this, his Toryism could overlap with gentlemen such as Edmund Burke on revolution.


Johnson sees in Shakespeare a necessary link (yet distance) between “manners” and nature (Smallwood 147).  It is a distinction between surface and depths, between how things appear (manners) and how they are (nature); yet, they can sometimes overlap. Manners reveal the nature.

Lives of the Poets

Nota bene: “It is impossible for any thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its foundation in the nature of things” (quoting Addison, 166). Johnson’s criticism is governed by three themes: beauty (Shakespeare), pathos (Milton), and sublime (Pope).

Writing like Johnson, a small tip: when delivering a forceful reply, Johnson not only used parallel terms but ends each parallel with a sharp monosyllable.  Consider

The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours…has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.”

This volume suffers some repetition but it is full of useful guides for reading Samuel Johnson.


Henry VIII (Shakespeare)

Even though this isn’t Shakespeare’s best work, it is by no means a poor work. Indeed, in some areas it exceeds his more notable works.  The language is stately and pleasing.  The plot doesn’t suffer from having 16 different subplots. Moreover, several of the characters, notably Katherine (spelled thus), exhibit true heroism.

The faults, however, are noticeable.  There isn’t any action, and the scenes with Cranmer in Act V were introduced too late in the play to have their full impact.

Some notes:

“My drops of tears I will turn into sparks of fire.”

This might be an inferior play, but I’ll put that quote up with anything you will find in Hamlet or Macbeth.

Politically Incorrect Guide to English Literature

Kantor, Elizabeth. The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2006.

While Kantor provides good analyses of Shakespeare and others, the book’s key strengths, like all the books in the P.I.G. series, lie in its structure: books you should read, concepts “they” (e.g., Deep State Marxists) don’t want you to know, etc.

On Shakespeare

“Shakespeare celebrates the limits that define us” (77). Shakespeare, unlike postmoderns, believes in “nature.”

Sonnets.  If we can wax ironic and use postmodern categories, the Sonnets are the dark “Other” to the comedies. Sex is very dangerous when handled outside of its proper boundaries. Some notes on the structure: In Italian sonnets there is a “turn” between the octave and sestet.

The Seventeenth Century

John Donne.  

John Milton. “Temptation is the theme of Milton’s poetry” (93).  “Milton’s heroic ideal” is patient obedience

2oth Century, including American Literature

Good section on Oscar Wilde and his decadent friends.  “Aestheticism” meant art for art’s sake; there is no outside meaning.  If we apply this to ourselves, and see our life as art, then we don’t have meaning, either.  

Kantor captured the essence of the South perfectly.  You can’t escape original sin by programs and agendas and trying to be Woke.  Similarly, a flawed culture like the South is superior to no culture at all. With that said, I normally dislike stories by O’Connor and Faulkner.  I just can’t take Steam-of-Consciousness seriously. 

Do it Yourself

Reed’s Rule.  When reading a poem, sometimes ask yourself, “Why is this word, and no other, in this place, and no other place” (218)? 

It is more important to know terms like “Iambic pentameter,” “epic simile,” and Spenserian stanza, not “binaries,” “reception history,” and “imaginary” (as a noun) (222).

Books They Don’t Want You To Read

Lewis, C. S. Allegory of Love.
Stark, Rodney. Victory of Reason.
Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde.
Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals.
Horowitz, David. The Professors.

At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education , by R. V. Young, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999.
Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities , by John M. Ellis, Yale University Press, 1999.
The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, Harper SanFrancisco, 2001.
A Student’s Guide to Literature , by R. V. Young, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000.
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric: Understanding the Nature and Function of Language by Miriam Joseph Rauh, Paul Dry, 2002.

Books You Shouldn’t Miss

Medieval Literature

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales.

Langland, Piers Plowman

Gawain and the Green Knight

Malory, Morte d’Arthur

Renaissance Literature

Spenser, Edmund. Faerie Queene.

Sidney, Philip. Defense of Poesy.

Shakespeare, everything.

Seventeenth Century

John Donne, Songs and Sonnets, Holy Sonnets

Herbert, George. The Temple

Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost.

Restoration and Eighteenth Century

Dryden, John.  Absalom and Achitophel

Pope, Alexander. Rape of the Lock

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s travels.

Johnson, Samuel. Preface to Shakespeare

A Mini Course in American Literature

While American literature can never compete with English literature, she does offer a good course in it.  Read the following:

O’Connor: “Everything that Rises Must Converge”

Faulkner: “Barn Burning”
Poe: “Cask of Amontillado”
Hemingway: “Big Two-Hearted River”
Hawthorne: “Young Goodman Brown”
Dickinson: “The Soul Selects Her Own Society”
Whitman: “A Noiseless Patient Spider”
Frost: “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
Pound: “In Station of the Metro”

A Student’s Guide to Literature

Young, R. V. A Student’s Guide to Literature. Wilmington, DE: InterCollegiate Studies Institute, 2000.

The first part of the book(let) is mediocre.  The second part of the book(let) borders on outstanding.  It only borders, though. The author will tell us that X believed Y, but never demonstrates it from X’s work.The first part is a collection of one paragraph bios on major literary figures.  It attempts (but does not succeed) in connecting them with key literary devices.  

His argument is that the essence of literature is mimesis or representation. From this he begins with Homer, showing the key techne of each major writer.  That’s what he tries to do. I don’t think he is successful.  He does explain each writer and some key literary concepts, but we never really see how that writer used those concepts.

For example, he has a good paragraph explaining Cervantes and then moves directly to the Iliad (although he had already dealt with Homer).  The reader is left confused.

The Good

* I do give him credit for noting Neoplatonic elements in Milton’s Comus (and his corpus). 

* There is a decent annotated bibliography at the end.

* It ends with a section on literary criticism, noting its beginning in English with Sir Philip Sidney. Assuming he is correct, the following literary criticism breaks down accordingly:

Sidney: rethinks Aristotelian tradition through Italian humanism.

T.S. Eliot: influenced the American New Criticism/Southern Agrarian criticism.


Richard Hooker (W. Bradford Littlejohn)

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Littlejohn, W. Bradford. Richard Hooker. Wipf & Stock.

I wish I had something like this in 2008 when I was wrestling with claims of “what is the true church?” The conservative Protestant publishing world had lost giants like Hooker and Chemnitz. Turretin had been recently translated and published, but he still stayed on the periphery.

Richard Hooker gives us a cosmopolitan vision that is Protestant, yet unashamedly Anglican. I cannot go with him on some points (as I am Presbyterian), yet to interact with his thoughts improves the architecture of the mind. We thank Brad Littlejohn for this little text and for streamlining Richard Hooker for a new generation.

The Mythical Hooker

Myth 1: he was a serene philosopher who floated above controversy.
Myth 2: He is anti-Calvinist.
Myth 3: He retrieved Thomas Aquinas who had been rejected by the Reformation.

Richard Hooker: The Book

In terms of skill and strategy, Littlejohn notes that “the Puritan position had been rendered desperate by the great flanking movements in Books I and II” (Littlejohn). Hooker was unique in that he renounced the standard process of polemics. Earlier polemicists, much like discernment bloggers today, stated the opponent’s position paragraph by paragraph and then refuted each line. This turned small pamphlets into unmanageable tomes. Hooker blessedly repudiated this method. By contrast he offered a text that logically flowed from its prior structural argument.

I do wish Littlejohn had developed exactly how Hooker outflanked his opponents. He asserted it and pointed to relevant passages (which the reader may or may not have). A fuller discussion would have been appreciated. I do plan, however, to read through the Davenant Series on Hooker.

The Challenges to Be Answered

Do the sign of the cross and the wearing of vestments constitute an erasure of the Reformation? To what degree does our appeal to Scripture determine worship? The next question is related to the first one: does anything beyond this jeopardize Christian liberty?

The presbyterians’ argument was thus: no bishop (or elder) is to have spiritual authority over the others; and royal supremacy was to be challenged. This meant that Good Queen Bess would actually be under clerics’ authority in some spheres.

Hooker, therefore, had to respond to a (a) strict biblicism, (b) presbyterian government, and (c) the challenge to civil unity.

A Tour of the Laws

Preface: people are quick to impute all the problems of a society to the established order, with the result that whatever then claims the strongest sanction receives the victor. Elsewhere Hooker makes a very perceptive point on subordinate, yet legitimate human laws. Human laws can teach (albeit, limited) wisdom. Or rather, these human laws are grounded in Wisdom, which participates in the Eternal Law of God. Therefore, we should honor these “manifold forms” in which Wisdom is revealed.

Book II: Considering Scripture as the only law. Scriptural warrant is good, but we must be honest, so Hooker argues, in how it is (and perhaps can be) applied.


Hooker as Polemicist

His famous Preface begins with a subtle attack on the discipline in Calvin’s Geneva, and it is the way in which Hooker crafts his argument that makes him so formidable. He knows that his opponents, the “precisianists,” are acting out of conscience. His concern is that they identify their own probably inferences as infallible truth.

Hooker as Philosopher

Nature and Grace. All created things strive towards a comprehensive final good (Laws 1.11.1). And since God is the highest good, all things seek participation in him. Grace hath need of Nature. Even though faith is a gift from God, it takes root in our natural faculties.

Hooker as Pastor



Hooker drew upon a distinction made by Thomas Aquinas between the object of our knowledge and the nature of our knowledge.

Key Themes: Law

Hooker will criticize the hyper-Puritans for not understanding the different kinds of laws. These kinds of laws do not bind the conscience. Rather, they have an intrinsic rationality “that elicits the morally attuned heart’s free response.”

While this sounds like an open attack on the liberty of conscience (and it probably is), it is little different from Samuel Rutherford’s attack on the Antinomians. One can only act in liberty if the conscience is in conformity to right reason.

Key Themes: Church

Initial premise–the church is perfectly righteous by virtue of its union with Christ, yet it is often hidden in history.

The problem: how false did a church’s preaching have to be before it was no longer a true church? This was initially applied to Rome, then to the Church of England, and then the separatists applied it to each other.

Visible and Invisible. This isn’t just the pure body of the elect vs. you sinners. It is also two planes on which even believers experienced their union with Christ. On one hand we rest entirely on Christ alone, yet on the other we commune with the visible body of the saints. According to Littlejohn, Hooker’s goal is more on how the church participates in the life of heaven than what is and isn’t a true church.

Key Themes: Liturgy and Sacraments

Doctrine of participation: First, we avoid saying the church is an extension of the Incarnation because this blurs the Creator/creature distinction (see Hooker V.56.4-5).