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From the Notebooks

To understand how liberalism's ejection of God contributes to aimlessness, it helps to understand the “genealogy” of the institutional permanent things as found in the Christian tradition. First, there is the Triune God, the very first Permanent Thing. From God comes what I call the “first generation” of permanent things, those two key things that God implemented through Christ's ministry: The Sacraments and the Church. (The Bible could also be included within this “first generation,” since it is revealed by God.) Then there are the “second generation” permanent things: those things emanating from the Sacraments and the Church. There are various items in this second generation, like the liturgy, but the most important is the family, an institution that starts in the Church through the sacramant of marriage.

From the family, comes the successive generations of “permanent things.” Initially, the family gives birth to neighborhood, friends, and the importance of private property and work, those things that protect individual families and allow them to exist (fn1). That generation, in turn, gives birth to the necessity of a good economy and the importance of government to protect and nourish the family. It also gives birth to a variety of institutions or practices that are often imbued with religious roots, even though they are hardly recognized as religious things. I would argue that service clubs, social lodges, county fairs, family or high school class reunions, even bowling leagues are (or at least can be, depending on their tilt) distant descendants of the first levels of permanent things. G.K. Chesterton, a conservative thinker par excellence by my reckoning, often defended little things, like drinking in an English pub, that ideologues disdained. He saw that they emanated at some level from deeper and more important things.

It is, admittedly, potentially misleading to refer to things like a county fair as “permanent things.” (fn2) Permanent things are things that retain their form despite cultural or societal surroundings. As the generations of the permanent things move downward, they become further and further removed from the first permanent thing (God) and begin to take on more and more the ephemeral characteristics of society. But the important point is: All such things proceed from permanent things and hence are endowed with certain permanent traits that should not be effaced. And, most importantly, because such things often proceed from the highest permanent things, they give humans stability.


(fn1) “If one believes in the Christian principle of the family, one can easily believe that property is a natural adjunct to the moral function of the family.” Francis Graham Wilson. See Patrick Allitt, Catholic Intellectuals & Conservative Politics in America (Cornell University Press, 1993), 58.

(fn2) Moreover, I am aware that I have used “permanent things” here in a manner different than Russell Kirk's use of the term. The permanent things as defined by Kirk are the “mores and norms that transcend the world's culture.” In Kirk's usage, the permanent things are in large part the virtues, like courage and prudence and charity. In my usage, the term refers more to institutional permanent things. In any event, the two usages are consistent: In the Christian tradition, they are the fruits of the genealogy of institutional permanent things sketched here. At each level of institutional permanent things, the virtuous permanent things are strengthened.