Rediscovering Russell Kirk

At a time when some self-described American conservatives seem to have lost their minds, it is good to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with Russell Kirk, the author of "The Conservative Mind".

Mention the name “Russell Kirk” to someone who describes himself as “conservative” and you are likely to get a blank look or, at best, be told, “I’ve heard the name.” (Readers of CWR may be an exception.) Granted, Kirk (1918-1994) has been dead for over 20 years and is has been over 60 years since the publication in 1953 of his masterpiece, The Conservative Mind, which made him something of a media celebrity. Still, his writings, ideas, and the intellectual tradition he represents have deep roots in the Catholic faith and address many of the unique features and challenges of being American, and so are worth studying. 

Dr.  Bradley Birzer, the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and professor at Hillsdale College, is the author of a new biography, titled Russell Kirk: American Conservative. (University of Kentucky Press, 2015). It is a very good and timely introduction to Kirk, drawing on Birzer’s access to hundreds of unpublished letters and articles by Kirk.  To give readers unfamiliar with Kirk a bit of an introduction, I asked Dr. Birzer to comment on a few passages from The Conservative Mind (Seventh Edition) during our interview.

CWR: “Any informed conservative,” wrote Kirk, “is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases; he prefers to leave that technique to the enthusiasm of radicals. Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata; conservatives inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.” Conservatism is difficult to define and the word seems to be used in a variety of ways. 1) A synonym for the Republican party; 2) a brand of news/information programs, 3) desire to hold on to old habits without thinking, and 4) as it is used in sports, the avoidance of risk so that if something goes wrong the blame can be directed at someone else. Are there other ways in which the word is used? In particular, when I see the phrase “preservation of the ancient moral traditions” isn’t that Catholicism? It seems that Kirk’s definition of conservatism shadows Catholicism. 

Birzer: There’s no doubt that Kirk did everything possible to promote conservatism without politicizing it. He thought that i deologies, whether of the left or the right, limited our vision, our understanding, and our imagination. In essence, they, by necessity, dehumanize us. They make us less than human, something subhuman. Conservatism, however, should leaven us. And, because each individual is unique, each talent of each individual is unique and unpredictable. No system, no machine, and no equation can account for the human person and, especially, his free will. Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
For Kirk, conservatism meant a way of accepting what is unknown and to celebrate mystery. Though he himself strayed from his own advice at times, he did believe that the highest forms of conservatism were not political. That is, they embraced and conserved the best of the past and the best of human dignity.

CWR: Kirk said, “A world that damns tradition, exalts equality, and welcomes change; a world that has clutched at Rousseau, swallowed him whole, and demanded prophets yet more radical; a world smudged by individualism, standardized by the masses, consolidated by government; a world crippled by war, trembling between the colossi of East and West, and peering over a smashed barricade into the gulf of dissolution: this our era, is the society Burke foretold, with all the burning energy of his rhetoric, in 1790. By and large, radical thinkers have won the day.”  This statement was true in 1953, and it is true today. Can you talk about Kirk’s education? What were some of the things that enabled him to grasp history the way he did?

Birzer: Kirk possessed a photographic memory, the ability to speed read, and a typing rate of 120 words/minute. When it came to the brain and the intellect, he was outstanding and, frankly, a bit bizarrely exceptional. He could even carry on an unrelated conversation or two while typing a book or article. From the moment he could read, he did. As a young boy, he devoured the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott (as well as every children’s classic imaginable). By the time he was entering his teens, he was reading the collected works of Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx. He never stopped reading or writing. 

When he began Michigan State in the fall of 1936, he rather fortunately (or providentially) fell in with a group of faculty and community scholars who had studied under the great humanists and anti-progressives of the early twentieth century, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Not only did Kirk fully embrace these two thinkers, but he felt that they expressed what he had believed all of his life but was unable to articulate. Though Kirk never had a great faculty for foreign languages, he read all of the ancient and medieval classics in translation and knew them—from Homer to Sir Thomas More—intimately. If academics remember Kirk justly, they would remember him as one of the two or three greatest proponents of the liberal arts, along with to Mortimer Adler and Jacques Barzun.

CWR: “Only Britain and America, among the great nations,” wrote Kirk, “have escaped revolution since 1790, which seems attestation that their conservatism is a sturdy growth and that investigation of it may be rewarding.” Kirk also said, “The conservatives’ rout has been most injurious where the principle of leadership—the idea of order and class—is concerned, and also in the problem of combining reverence with the spirit of self-reliance, moral and social. Conservatism’s most conspicuous difficulty in our time is that conservative leaders confront a people who have come to look upon society, vaguely, as a homogenous mass of identical individuals whose happiness may be obtained by direction from above, through legislation or some scheme of public instruction. Conservatives endeavor to teach humanity once more that the germ of public affections (in Burke’s words) is “to learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” 

These quotes are interesting because they show Kirk’s sense of hope but also his acknowledgement of the “rout.” Do you see in these quotes a foreshadowing of Vatican II and the Council’s emphasis on a universal call to holiness?

Birzer: Though a Pagan stoic until the early 1950s and a self-proclaimed Protestant Christian until his full conversion to Catholicism in 1964 (taking the name Augustine), Kirk read the Christian humanists of the twentieth century with great interest. He had always loved More and Erasmus, but he came to read Gabriel Marcel, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, C.S. Lewis, and, especially, T.S. Eliot, in the late 40s and early 50s. He would come to embrace Romano Guardini and Josef Pieper as well. 

He found in all of these writers a personalism that answered many of his own longings. For example, after finishing his masterpiece, The Conservative Mind in 1952, Kirk came to believe that conservatism might only offer a critique of the present world, not an answer to our greatest problems and desires. Around the summer of 1953, he fully embraced the Christian humanism that would help shape Vatican II. Two of his mid-1950s works—Beyond The Dreams Of Avarice and The Intelligent Women’s Guide To Conservatism—were probably more Catholic than that written by actual Catholics at the same time. In almost every way, Kirk the non-Catholic anticipated the strongest arguments promulgated at the Second Vatican Council.

Ultimately, Kirk’s conservatism is John Paul II’s Christian humanism and Benedict’s communion.

CWR: Kirk said, “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls ‘Logicalism’ in society. This prejudice has been called ‘the conservatism of enjoyment’—a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot ‘the proper source of an animated Conservatism.’” Do you think this part of conservatism has been overlooked? What are some ways that this could be emphasized?

Birzer: Well, I think this question is intimately related to the previous one. Kirk held the individual human person as a unique creation loved by God. Each person, then, born in a certain place and time not of his own choosing, would never be repeated. And, yet, despite the predestined time and place of our birth (beyond our understanding), we make choices of will every single moment of our waking lives. This intersection of time and eternity in each one of us thrilled and delighted Kirk. His own understanding of history and his fiction reveal the pure joy he felt in the glory of each person. Of course, being a good Augustinian (even when he was a Pagan), Kirk also fully understood the weight of sin. Through God’s grace, we honed our excellences, encouraged the beauties in others, and did what we could to censor sin.

CWR: What do you think Russell Kirk might have thought of the political situation today, in particular with regard to the two presumptive presidential candidates?

Birzer: I think Kirk would have been appalled but not surprised by the current political climate. We’ve not had over a generation of society weened on reality shows and glittering prizes. This election is, pure and simple, about power and stuff and glitz. We are merely reaping what we have sown over the last quarter century.  Who would Kirk support in this election?  Hard to say, but most likely he would write a candidate in, or he might have tried to create a third party movement.


• “Russell Kirk: Catholic, Christian humanist, and old-school, American conservative” (Jan. 29, 2016) by Carl E. Olson

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About Mark Sullivan 0 Articles
Mark Sullivan is a songwriter and guitarist living in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the co-author, with Mike Aquilina, of St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013).