Russell Kirk

“This present life here below, Kirk had perceived often in his mind’s eye, is an ephemeral existence, precarious, as in an arena rather than upon a stage: some men are meant to be gladiators or knights-errant, not mere strolling players,” Russell Kirk wrote, using the third person in reference to himself, just prior to his death in 1994. “Swords drawn, they stand on a darkling plain against all comers and all odds; how well they bear themselves in the mortal struggle will determine in what condition they shall put on incorruption. His sins of omission and commission notwithstanding, Kirk had blown his horn and drawn his sword of imagination, in the arena of the blighted twentieth century, that he might assail the follies of the time.”[1]

Kirk may be one of, if not, the most important American thinkers of the twentieth century. He was a historian, a literary biographer, a political biographer, a best-selling novelist, a social critic and essayist, a defender of academic freedom, an economist, an advisor to presidents and presidential candidates, a Roman Catholic, a Stoic, a Christian Humanist, a convinced believer in ghosts, a nationally-known debater and lecturer, a traditionalist, an environmental conservationist, a Justice of the Peace, the founder of the post-World War II conservative movement, and, perhaps above all, a truly charitable soul. In short, he was a “man of letters” and a natural aristocrat, both being rare to nearly extinct in the twentieth-century.

During his forty-three year writing career, he touched on numerous topics, and he received accolades from many famous persons: including Flannery O’Conner, T.S. Eliot, Ronald Reagan, and Ray Bradbury. He was labeled, among other things, “the American Cicero,” the “Sage of Mecosta,” (Mecosta is Kirk’s ancestral town in central Michigan) and the “Wizard of Mecosta.”[2] Kirk’s life and thoughts are too complex to deal with in the span of a brief essay, and much has already been written about various aspects of Kirk’s intellectual, artistic, and scholarly contributions to the western and American traditions. After a biographical sketch, this essay will explore three of his most important themes: the devastation of ideologies; a defense of the West; and the highest of the seven cardinal and theological virtues, love. As Kirk said of himself, he drew his sword, and he lived what he preached.

Biographical Sketch[3]

Though a natural aristocrat—that is, as defined by those most willing to give of their talents to the community—Kirk did not enter the world, however, with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Instead, he was born in 1918 on “the wrong side of the tracks” in Plymouth, Michigan; Kirk’s father was a railroad engineer. Most of his mother’s family were intellectuals and spiritualists, and Kirk grew up learning the importance of education as well as witnessing and participating in some rather bizarre paranormal activities, the essence of which Kirk would later reject theologically, but he never stopped to believe in the reality of the unreal.

 Kirk earned his B.A. at Michigan State University and his M.A. in history from Duke University. The University of Chicago published his M.A. thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke, one of the greatest of the first generation of American congressmen and Senators, as a book in 1951. Having one’s M.A. thesis published as a significant academic book was as rare then as it is now. During the second world war, Kirk did his duty as a clerk at an army base in salt flats of Utah which specialized in experimental weapons. At the end of the war, Kirk took a position at Michigan State as a professor of western civilization and began further graduate studies at St. Andrews in Scotland. Rather than earn a Ph.D., Kirk attained an even higher degree, the D.Litt, essentially a double Ph.D. (one had to prove expertise in at least two unrelated subjects and write a thesis obviously worthy of publication). Kirk remains the only American to have received the highly distinguished degree. His thesis, The Conservative Mind, was published to astounding acclaim—even being a part of the cover story of Time’s 1953 Fourth of July issue. It became the basis of the post-war conservative movement, though Kirk was quick to point out that his definition of conservatism was not strictly political. Instead, it meant preserving (conserving) the best of our traditions. He argued that six tenets formed the conservative mind:

1)   “Belief in the transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience”

2)   Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.”

3)   “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’”

4)   “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.”

5)   “Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.”

6)   “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress”[4]

In short, the conservative, or man or woman of tradition, understands that a world greater than this time and place and these senses exists. “Those men and women who fail to perceive timeless moments are prisoners of time and circumstance,” Kirk wrote toward the end of his life. “Only by transcending the ravenous ego, and sharing their joy with others, do mortals come to know their true enduring selves, and to put on immortality.” Hell, after all, is “imprisonment with the ego, in the winter of discontent.”[5]

With the phenomenal success of The Conservative Mind, Kirk became a full-time writer and free-lance lecturer. From 1953 to his death in 1994, Kirk lectured and debated throughout the country. And, thousands of students visited his home in unpopulated central Michigan. A naturalist and conservationist, Kirk planted over a 1,000 trees and would often tutor his pupils while gardening. As mentioned at the beginning, Kirk was well-rounded and eclectic, if not healthily eccentric. He served as a speech writer and advisor to politicians, refused to be ideological in his views, and even wrote best-selling horror and fantasy horror fiction, in the vein of his good friend, Ray Bradbury.

The productivity and life changes Kirk experienced between 1953 and 1975 are nothing short of astounding, as Kirk led one of the most blessed of lives. 1964 served as the banner year for Kirk. Though his candidate lost the presidential election, his life changed dramatically. Kirk, formerly a pagan stoic—highly taken and comforted with the writings of Marcus Aurelius—married the beautiful and highly intelligent Annette Courtemanche, and he joined the Roman Catholic church. Together, they had four daughters, the last being born in 1975. During those years, Kirk published an impressive number of books, covering an array of topics: The Conservative Mind; St. Andrews; Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition; Prospects for Conservatives; The American Cause; Beyond the Dreams of Avarice; Confessions of a Bohemian Tory; The Political Principles of Robert Taft; Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered; Enemies of the Permanent ThingsT.S. Eliot and His Age; and The Roots of American Order.

Between 1976 and 1994, Kirk continued to lecture and publish. He published a comprehensive text on economics, Work and Prosperity; several more works of fictions; four collections of essays: Reclaiming a Patrimony; Wise Men Know What Wicked Things are Written on the Sky, The Politics of Prudence, and Redeeming the Time (published posthumously); an extended historical essay on the cultural affinities of Britain and America, America’s British Culture; and his own memoirs, The Sword of Imagination. He also edited thirty-one books. In 1989, President Reagan awarded Kirk the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for Distinguished Service, and in 1993, Hillsdale College named an academic chair in his honor, and he began the process of editing the complete works of Christopher Dawson.

In the last weeks of Kirk’s life in the spring of 1994, bedridden, he talked much with his four daughters, his wife, and some of his closest friends. Kirk’s last real advice to his daughters was to “read and reread four specific writings informed by the moral imagination: The Little Fur Tree, by Hans Christian Anderson; The Pilgrim’s Regress, by C.S. Lewis; “The Golden Key,” by George MacDonald; and Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien.”[6] On April 23, Kirk learned of the death of his close friend Richard Nixon, with whom much of his earlier career had been connected, though he felt great disappointment with Nixon over Watergate. Five days later, still bedridden, Kirk read Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well. The following morning, April 29, 1994, Kirk and his wife, Annette, talked of many things, but at around 10AM, Kirk became unresponsive. Annette and two of his daughters sang to him, and Dr. Kirk passed away, a gentle smile upon his face.[7]

The Devastation of the Ideologues

In Kirk’s twenty-nine books on politics, history, constitutional law, literature, social criticism, economics, and fiction, the shadow of the French Revolution and the loosening of the ideologues upon the world deeply haunted him. Tellingly, Kirk’s most important influence was Edmund Burke, the originator of conservatism in the post-medieval world and the most articulate spokesman against the French Revolution. As early as 1790, Burke had understood that the French Revolutionaries were something new (or, actually, something very old that had hidden from the sunlight of history for centuries—“ye too shall be as gods,” the serpent had promised) under the sun. They believed they could remake man and society in man’s image, rather than in God’s image; indeed, they either disbelieved in, or rejected, His design for His Creation. Instead, they desired to make Heaven on earth, whether or not they recognized this explicitly. The revolutionaries attacked religion, tradition, history, and family. They adopted the Rousseauvian view of society, in which each individual has a direct relationship with the national government, bypassing all forms of what Burke would have considered the natural authorities of subsidiarity—or, what he called the “Little Platoons”: family, school, church, voluntary associations, fraternities, and clubs, and local government.[8] And, rather than looking to the development of culture through history for their rights, such as the English had with the common law, the French revolutionaries declared abstractions as rights. The results of the French Revolution, Burke noted, were devastating:

“After the weighty and respectable part of the people had been murdered, or driven by the menaces of murder from their houses, or were dispersed in exile into every country in Europe; after the soldiery had been debauched from their officers; after property had lost its weight and consideration, along with its security; after voluntary clubs and associations of factious and unprincipled men were substituted in the places of all legal corporations of the kingdom arbitrarily dissolved; after freedom had been banished from those popular meetings, whose sole recommendation is freedom—After it had come to that pass, that no dissent dared to appear in any of them, but at the certain price of life; after even dissent had been anticipated, and assassination became as quick as suspicion; such pretended ratification by addresses could be no act of what any lover of the people would choose to call by their name.”[9]

No one remained safe: the clergy, the royalty, the average people, or the revolutionaries, as even the revolutionaries began to turn on each other as too impure in ideological dogma. As Kirk rightly claimed, revolutions have a way of eating their own children.

Like Burke witnessing the destruction of France in the eighteenth century, Kirk surveyed the vast killing fields of the twentieth century and the polarization of the world into ideological camps. The scenes of the French Revolution repeated themselves throughout Kirk’s lifetime as ideologues arose and patrimonies built over thousands of years were destroyed within months of the beginnings of revolutionary upheavals. Kirk witnessed the results in Russia, Italy, Germany, Mexico, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia, to name only a few. During his own lifetime, nearly 169 million citizens were murdered by their own governments—through forced famine, the gulag, and the holocaust camps.[10] Ideology, the foundation of all modern tyrannies, whether on the so-called left or right, “is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise,” Kirk wrote, but instead “has created a series of terrestrial hells.”[11] It has justified “every atrocity. Ignorant armies, supplied with the weapons of annihilation, clash by night on our darkling plain.”[12] Men were being subordinated to the crushing will of the machine, man made, but no longer accepting man’s control.

Following the careful scholarship of Raymond Aron, Eric Voegelin, Christopher Dawson, and Gerhart Niemeyer as well as the social criticism of T.S. Eliot, Kirk argued that one could define ideologies through three of its “vices.” First, ideologies are political and secularized religions. They take with them the symbols and energy of religions, but they focus almost exclusively on the material and man rather than the spiritual and the Judeo-Christian God. Second, by polarizing political and social thought, ideologies render the virtue of prudence impossible. False absolutes dominate, nuance withers, and compromise—the essence of prudence—becomes impossible. As man naturally desires something greater than himself, ideology assumes the dogma of established religions.[13] And, third, being puritans, the ideologues quickly attack ideologues representing other ideologies and especially the deviants from their own ranks.[14] Usually, Kirk, contended, the half-educated (or even quarter-educated, as Kirk called them) and the bored in the West were the most susceptible to the lure of ideologies.[15] But, as modernity, and now post-modernity, continues to make inroads, ravenously destroying history, tradition, and religion, more and more persons become prey for the seductiveness of absolutes and easy answers. They crave something greater than themselves, but have missed the opportunity to embrace true religion and right reason. They latch onto the first thing that presents absolutes.

Ideologies though do not politely contain themselves within revolutionary tyrannies; they slowly have infected all of the West, especially its literature and politics. Some Americans during the twentieth-century have embraced democratic egalitarianism as a somewhat benign (though not innocent, Kirk warned) ideology. Others, especially those on the political right, or so they believe, have embraced a form of consumerism or libertarianism as an ideology. And, to the horror of Kirk, some on the right even claimed conservatism as an ideology. For Kirk, conservatism is the antithesis of ideology, for it upholds tradition, religion, and history, or what G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead.” Kirk described his own mind in no uncertain unideological and unregimented terms:

“Mine was not an Enlightened mind, I now was aware: it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle. The men of the Enlightenment had cold hearts and smug heads; now their successors were in the process of imposing a dreary conformity upon all the world, with Efficiency and Progress and Equality for their watchwords-abstractions preferred to all those fascinating and lovable peculiarities of human nature and human society which are products of prescription and tradition. This desert of salt would be a cheerful place by comparison with the desolation of the human heart, if the remains of Gothic faith and Gothic variety should be crushed out of civilization.” [16]

Such a conservatism as Kirk’s could never succumb to a system, a machine, or any creation of finite men. Men can only discover and uncover truth, not invent it. Yet, since the unleashing of ideological forces in 1789, too few men recognize the necessity of real truth and right reason.

To most observers, T.S. Eliot among them, it has seemed far more probable that we are stumbling into a new Dark Age, inhumane, merciless, a totalist political domination in which the life of the spirit and the inquiring intellect will be denounced, harassed, and propagandized against: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, rather than Huxley’s Brave New World of cloying sensuality. Or perhaps Tolkien’s blasted and servile land of Mordor may serve as symbol of the human condition in the twenty-first century.[17]

The western world, as Kirk saw it, was crumbling and doing so quickly. The Sophisters and Calculators were taking the life out of life, dehumanizing men, and breaking culture apart. Most tragic, few existed to know to pick up the pieces, having failed even to recognize the decay around them.

Defender of the West

With the ideological assault in full force in the twentieth century, and the blood of the killing fields spreading darkly across the once varied landscapes, Kirk argued that only a return to the best of the western tradition could save the West. “Ideology cannot be rebuffed by a massive advertising campaign about the virtues of the market economy,” Kirk warned. “Only a grasp of sound moral and political principles, widely diffused, can resist the menaces and promises of fanatic ideology.”[18] Writing in the late 1940s, T.S. Eliot had argued that westerners should “try to save something of those goods of which we are common trustees: the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout the last 2,000 years.”[19] In his four-volume history of the western world, Order and History, Eric Voegelin followed a similar scheme, and Kirk did as well in his brilliant 1974 work, The Roots of American Order.

Kirk began Roots with an attack on ideology and historical ignorance, rightly noting that for any soul or commonwealth to be ordered properly, an understanding of history and tradition must be prevalent. Kirk compared the situation of America and the West to that of Cicero at the very end of the Roman Republic.

Long before our time, the customs of our ancestors molded admirable men, and in turn these eminent men upheld the ways and institutions of their forbearers. Our age, however, inherited the Republic like some beautiful painting of bygone days, its colors already fading through great age; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colors of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its forms and outlines.[20]

We, like the Romans of 43B.C., have forgotten our past, our traditions, and, hence, may not have a future. And like Cicero, Kirk is serving us warning. Our order, Kirk argued, is organic. That is, it is cultivated over long periods of time. It is fragile, and it requires frequent nurturing. If one generation breaks the continuity of generations, by believing itself uniquely superior to other generations, culture decays rapidly. In essence, by breaking the continuity of generations, we abstract ourselves from reality and life, if we can even call it life. We will drown in our subjectivity and arrogant and hedonistic individualism. “The American order of our day was not founded upon ideology,” he wrote. “It was not manufactured: rather, it grew.”[21] Hence, we must honor and reform (not revolutionize) what men and women left us, discerning through prudence which traditions are good and which need to be changed or forgotten.

Like Eliot and Voegelin, Kirk roots the American order in the symbolic cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. The patrimony of each of the iconographic cities culminates in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. From Jerusalem, the West learned “the order of the soul.” The Hebrew patriarchs and prophets gave to the West the concept of, and belief in, a Transcendent. This “is the high contribution of Israel to modern social order,” Kirk wrote, “the understanding that true law comes from God and that God is the source of order and justice.”[22] Hence, man can understand that nothing he creates can last. Only those things that man discovers in the created order have permanent meaning. The Greek Sophists were wrong, as man is not, nor should he be, “the measure of all things.” In terms of politics, though, Kirk warns, the ancient Hebrews have little to teach us, with the exception of the importance of the covenant.[23] The covenant, an agreement between God and His people, forms the basis of political order, as it will later become the compact as well as the contract.

The Greek city-states also have little to offer the West in terms of political order, except examples of what not to do. For the Greeks never learned the virtues of peace and justice. Politically, one can learn from them only “a cautionary tale of class conflict, disunity, internecine violence, private and public arrogance and selfishness, imperial vainglory, and civic collapse.”[24]

But, where the Greeks failed as a whole in politics, several Greek persons succeeded in philosophy. Hellas, therefore, gave the West the “order of the mind.” Plato understood the need for the order of the mind and soul, as best represented in The Republic, an allegory of one’s soul.[25] Aristotle, though, understood the fundamental and necessary relationship of the individual within the community. As a social animal, Aristotle noted, a man is only a man in community. To leave the community, one becomes either a beast or a god, but no longer can he remain a man. “It is in community that human beings realize their aim in existence,” Kirk explained.[26] Only there, can one discover his gifts and use them for the common good. Ultimately, though, Kirk wrote, Hellas—despite the glories of Plato and Aristotle—failed because they never really understood the concept of a Transcendent, and they worshipped their individual city-states above all things.[27]

From ancient Rome, the West gained an understanding of the highest form of government, the Republic, with its many checks and balances. Though the Roman republic fell in 43B.C., it did so only after teaching the world, and even the future empire, the necessity of virtue in its people. Kirk defined virtue as “energetic manliness” as well as piety to one’s ancestors and immediate family. One can find energetic manliness in the best of the Romans—of both the republic and the empire.[28] Too much expansion, though, destroyed the virtue of the average Roman, and he become dependent upon an ancient welfare state, “the bread and circuses.”[29] Still, those men who practiced the virtues serve as exemplars for all of world history: men such as Cato the elder, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius. The Romans also gave the West an understanding of the “rule of law” which attempted to restrain the passions of men. Ultimately, though the Romans were engineers rather than artists, as is evident by the ruins of roads, bridges, and buildings to be found throughout the three large parts of three continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia) they conquered.

The fourth iconographic city, London, represents the best of the Middle Ages, which Kirk called an age of light, dismissing the “Enlightenment” notion of a Dark Ages between the Fall of Rome and the so-called Renaissance. It was in England that the best of Christian and classical culture was preserved during the centuries after the fall of Rome. Perhaps the most important development, Kirk argued, was the creation of the common law, an organic understanding of community and authority, based on tradition and precedent. Arising from the needs of the Anglo-Saxon communities, it holds a people together across time and space.[30] Ultimately, common law served as the “foundation of order” as well as “the foundation of freedom,” as laws, rather than the passions of men, became the basis of society.[31] Rooted in the common law, the English constitution began to develop over time. In theory, representative government began with the Magna Carta, though a real parliament would not develop until the fifteenth century. Equally important for Kirk, though, is the scholastic and Thomistic unification of faith and reason, to which the English greatly contributed.

The patrimony of these four cities culminated in a fifth iconographic city, Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. In the Declaration of Independence and at the writing of the Constitution, Americans successfully melded the orders of the soul, the mind, the polity, and the medieval commonwealth, though with Protestant sensibilities. Another vital factor in the American makeup for Kirk, was the existence of a wilderness and a frontier.

It was America’s moral order, then, that sustained America’s social order. Even though class, family, and community were enfeebled west of the Alleghenies; even though the institutional Church might be reduced to circuit-riding preachers there; even though the common man of the West seemed interested chiefly in his own material aggrandizement—still he read his Bible, accepted as good the political framework which he inherited from the Atlantic seaboard and from Britain, and took for granted a moral order that was his custom and his habit. That is why the American frontiersmen and backwoodsmen and entrepreneurs of the vast newly-opened country were not men ‘in a state of nature.’[32]

With its formal creation, America served as the anamnesis—that is, an event or person that brings culture and society back to right reason and first principles—for the West.[33]

Kirk did not remain uncritical of the American achievement. Rampant commercialism and egalitarianism after the War of 1812 greatly attenuated the American achievements of 1776 and 1789, as did the ideological attacks of the twentieth century.[34] Still, the temper of the people as well as our written constitution have given Americans an enduring form of conservatism and acceptance of an enduring American order.

Americans stand politically strongly attached to old ways of managing public affairs, rejecting all proposals for thoroughgoing constitutional revision, holding inviolate documentary and even architectural symbols of the national experience. Probably the majority of Americans today assume that our national constitutions will endure for time out of mind, that the political order, at least, which the present generation knows will be known also by their grandchildren and great grandchildren, that in time past other nations may have fallen low even as Nineveh and Tyre, but that the United States of America, as a system of order and justice and freedom, is immutable.[35]

Ironically, Kirk noted in 1989, only the most old-fashioned of Americans still believed in incessant progress based on man’s unlimited reason.[36]

Kirk was ultimately a patriot, though, not a knee-jerk nationalist (that is, carrying an attitude of “my country, right or wrong”). As long as America and Americans upheld tradition, truth, history, and our patrimony from the West, as embodied in a true understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the promise of the American Constitution, America could be praised. The American cause, he wrote in the 1950s, “is the cause of true human nature, of enlightened order, regular justice, and liberty under law.”[37] If it strayed from these principles, though, Kirk was the first to play the Jeremiah. And, according to Kirk, by the 1980s and 1990s, it had strayed, severely.[38] Simply put, American culture was breaking apart, and it needed aid, desperately.

A nation’s traditional culture can endure only if the several elements that compose it admit an underlying fidelity to a common cause. The high culture and the common culture, of necessity, are interdependent; so are the national culture and the regional culture. What American culture urgently requires just now is solidarity: that is, a common front against the operations of Chaos and Old Night.[39]

The solution was actually quite simply and could found in the greatest of the seven Pagan and theological virtues.

Love: The First Virtue

In his 1989 Prospects for Conservatives, perhaps his most polemical and, simultaneously, his most brilliant work, Kirk argued that one separated the economic from the legal from the political from the cultural only with forced artificiality. The “economic problem blends into the political problem, and the political problem into the ethical problem, and the ethical problem into the religious problem.”[40] Coming from one Creator, all of creation is of a unified whole. The solution to everything, Kirk rightly noted, was a true understanding of the virtues, as developed and handed down through the western tradition: prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and charity. Only a cultivation and habituation of these, through the acceptance of grace, will order the soul and the commonwealth. If these are lost, if grace is rejected, the soul and the commonwealth are also lost.[41]

While all of the virtues work together, it is love, the greatest of the virtues, that holds the rest together. In one of the most beautiful paragraphs composed in the entirety twentieth century, driven by blood, ideologies, and technology, Kirk wrote:

“At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.”[42]

Man was not made to follow the arbitrary reason of tyrants or captains of industry. Men are put in a certain time and a certain place, armed with unique gifts, by the Creator “to live like men, and to die like men.”[43] They are to fight the good fight on the darkling plain, knowing that the battle is their’s, but the war is not.

Kirk lived like a man, according to his own strictures. In addition to writing twenty-nine books and numerous articles attacking the follies of our day, he and his wife Annette raised a family of four daughters. Together, they took care of their parents and extended family. To a fault, as Kirk admitted in his short stories and in his autobiography, he and Annette helped anyone in need, sometimes putting their own lives in mortal danger. They took in hobos and refugees, many of them living with the Kirks for years.[44] No one could rightly accuse them of having lived in an unloving manner.

Today, the knight-errant against the ideologues rests in the cemetery of St. Michael’s Parish in Mecosta, Michigan. One cannot imagine a better protector, the Knight-Errant of the Heavenly Host, to stand watch over the “American Cicero” who believed in love above all things.

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[A version of this appeared in SECOND SPRING, no. 10 (2008), 50-59.]


1. Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 475-76.

2. For excellent assessments of Kirk’s place in twentieth-century intellectual thought, see James E. Person, Jr., Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1999; Henry Regnery, Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979); and Gleaves Whitney, “Seven Things You Should Know about Russell Kirk: The Origins of the Modern Conservative Movement in the U.S.,” Vital Speeches of the Day 63 (June 1997): 507-11.

3. The following section is taken from either Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdman’s); or Person, Russell Kirk.

4. Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Seventh Ed. (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1986), 8-9.

5. Kirk, Sword, 368.

6. Person, Russell Kirk, 18.

7. Person, Russell Kirk, 18-19.

8. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1999), 136.

9. Burke, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” 178, 123.

10. R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press, 1994).

11. Kirk, The Politics of Prudence (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1993), 5.

12. Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1989), 273-74.

13. St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (RSV; 1:18-24; 2:15)

14. Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 5-6.

15. Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 7.

16. Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (New York: Fleet, 1963), 23.

17. Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1996), 4.

18. Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives, 129.

19. T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1976), 202.

20. Quoted in Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives, frontispiece.

21. Kirk, The Roots of American Order 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1991) 9.

22. Kirk, The Roots, 20.

23. Kirk, The Roots, 24.

24. Kirk, The Roots, 51.

25. Kirk, The Roots, 82.

26. Kirk, The Roots, 89.

27. Kirk, The Roots, 94.

28. Kirk, The Roots, 99.

29. Kirk, The Roots, 104.

30. Kirk, The Roots, 184.

31. Kirk, The Roots, 190.

32. Kirk, The Roots, 448.

33. See, especially, Kirk, America’s British Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press, 1993).

34. See Kirk’s final chapter in The Roots, “Contending Against American Disorder.”

35. Kirk, Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution (Dallas, Tex.: Spence, 1997), 250-51.

36. Kirk, Prospects, 9.

37. Kirk, The American Cause (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1957), 165.

38. See, for example, any number of essays in The Politics of Prudence and Redeeming the Time.

39. Kirk, America’s British Culture, 6.

40. Kirk, Prospects, 7.

41. Kirk, Wise Men Know What Wicked Things are Written on the Sky (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1988), 66ff.

42. Kirk, Prospects, 21.

43. Kirk, Prospects, 21.

44. Louis Filer, “’The Wizard of Mecosta’: Russell Kirk of Michigan,” Michigan History (September/October 1979): 12-18; and Person, Russell Kirk, 13-15. Kirk’s widow, Annette, continues the numerous charitable activities from Mecosta.

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