WASHINGTON, D.C. March 23, 2018: – This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russell Kirk. Kirk is the person who may be most responsible for the emergence of an intellectually vigorous and politically viable conservative movement in the latter part of the last century. It would be interesting to hear his thoughts on the strange formulations which call themselves “conservative” at the present time.
Bradley Birzer on Russell Kirk
Historian Bradley Birzer, the author of the recent biography, “Russell Kirk: American Conservative,” notes that,
“Amidst today’s whirligig of populist conservatism, crass conservatism, consumerist conservatism, we conservatives and libertarians have almost completely forgotten our roots.”
Writing in The American Conservative, Birzer declares that,
“These roots can be found in Kirk’s thought, an eccentric but effective and potent mixture of stoicism, Burkeanism, anarchism, romanticism and humanism. It is also important, critically so, to remember that Kirk’s vision of conservatism was never primarily a political one. Politics should play a role in the lives of Americans, but a role limited to its own sphere that stays out of rival areas of life. Family, business, education and religion should each remain sovereign, devoid of politics and politicization. Kirk wanted a conservatism of imagination, of liberal education, and of human dignity. Vitally, he wanted a conservatism that found all persons, regardless of their accidents of birth, as individual manifestations of the external and universal Logos. One hundred years after the birth of Russell Amos Kirk, those are ideas well worth remembering.”
For all of those who knew him, Kirk was a gentleman and scholar of the old school. He always sought to understand how men, women, and societies work and interact. Kirk carefully delineated between what should be permanent and preserved, and the temporal that often must be altered.
The author of more than 30 books, his best-known work, “The Conservative Mind,” was published in 1953 and presented the intellectual and historical framework for contemporary American conservatism. It was a best-seller when it appeared and has never been out of print in subsequent years. Speaking at a testimonial dinner in Kirk’s honor in Washington in 1981,
President Ronald Reagan said,
“Dr. Kirk helped renew a generation’s interest and knowledge of ‘permanent things,’ which are the underpinnings and the intellectual infrastructure of the conservative revival of our nation.”
Edmund Burke, John Adams, James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne and more
To those who argue that it was liberal ideas that defined the American experience, Kirk, through an extensive discussion of Edmund Burke, John Adams, James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Benjamin Disraeli, Herman Melville, T.S. Eliot, and George Santayana presented readers with a different intellectual and moral tradition, one with deep roots in the past, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the experience of Greece and Rome, the tradition of democratic self-government as it evolved in England from the time of Magna Carta.
It was Kirk’s view that if our nation were to grow and thrive, it must remember and understand the historical roots from which it grew.
In “The Roots Of American Order,” he wrote that,
“Lacking a knowledge of how we arrived where we stand today, lacking the deep love of country which is nurtured by knowledge of the past, lacking the apprehension that we all take part in a great historical continuity —why, a people so deprived will not dare much, or take long views. With them, creature comforts will be everything; yet historical consciousness wanting, in the long run they must lose their creature comforts too.”
The roots of the American order, Kirk showed, went back to the ancient worlds and to the,
- Jews and their understanding of a purposeful universe under God’s dominion,
- Greeks, with their high regard for the uses of reason, to the stern virtues of Romans such as Cicero,
- Christianity, which taught the duties and limitations of man, and the importance of the transcendent in our lives.
The roots of our order, in addition, include the traditions and universities of the medieval world, the Reformation and the response to it, the development of English common law, the debates of the 18th century, and the written words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The Founding Fathers and Russell Kirk
The beliefs which motivated the Founding Fathers, Kirk pointed out, were ancient in origin:
“From Israel…America inherited an understanding of the sanctity of law. Certain root principles of justice exist, arising from the nature which God has conferred upon man; law is a means for realizing those principles, so far as we can. That assumption was in the minds of the men who wrote the Declaration…and the Constitution…A conviction of man’s sinfulness, and the need for laws to restrain every man’s will and appetite influenced the legislators of the colonies and of the Republic…Thomas Jefferson, rationalist though he was, declared that in matters of political power, one must not trust in the alleged goodness of man, ‘but bind him down with chains of the Constitution.'”
It was Kirk’s hope to persuade the rising generation to set their faces against “political…fanaticism…and utopian schemes…
“Politics is the art of the possible,’ the conservative says; he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice and freedom. The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.”
The ideologies which have been so costly, Nazism, Communism, Fascism, are, Kirk pointed out, really “inverted religion.” But, he noted,
“The Prudential politician knows that ‘Utopia’ means ‘Nowhere,’ and that true religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state…In the 20th century, it has been the body of opinion generally called ‘conservative’ that has defended the Permanent Things from ideological assault.”
Conservatism, to Kirk,
“is not a bundle of theories got up to by some closet philosopher. On the contrary, the conservative conviction grows out of experience, the experience of the species, of the nation, of the person…It is the practical statesman rather than the visionary recluse, who has maintained a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of freedom.”
Not long before his death in 1994, this writer, who knew Kirk for more than three decades, spent a leisurely lunch with him and his wife Annette, at which we discussed many of the problems facing our society.
He lamented the fact that the evidence of decadence is all around us. Crime, disintegration of nuclear families, schools teaching revised history, breakdown of cultural traditions, and wasteful government all weighed on him.
Days of Societal Decline
He saw this as not dissimilar to Greece and Rome in their days of decline. Still, he was not a pessimist, for he took history’s long view, as he did in the epilogue of “The Politics of Prudence,” which had recently been published. He wrote:
“We may remind ourselves that ages of decadence sometimes have been followed by ages of renewal.”
He urged the young to explore the past, discover the roots of our civilization and work to restore its sensibility.
“Time is not a devourer only,” he concluded.
Both Time and Newsweek describe Kirk as one of the nation’s most influential thinkers. He often quoted the 1843 speech of Orestes Brownson, given at Dartmouth College:
“Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs, not what it will reward, but what, without which it cannot be saved, and that go and do.”
For 75 years, Russell Kirk did just that.
It would be interesting to know what Russell Kirk would think of the politics of 2018. What would he think of those who now call themselves “conservative” proclaim?
He would certainly be unhappy with our lack of civility, and believing those with disagree are the enemy. He wouldn’t recognize the current coarseness and vulgarization of our political life. But he would not be surprised. He knew that human nature never changes.
He would surely lament that the conservative movement he helped to launch after World War II, evolved into something different. But this, he might say, will not last either. Something better, he might predict, is just over the horizon.
If that would indeed be his prediction, let’s hope he’s right.