Russell Kirk understood that politics was determined by deep cultural and intellectual influences that included the arts, literature, philosophy, religion, and community life. In short, he believed that it was not by politics alone that American and Western civilization would be restored.
A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind by James E. Person, Jr.
Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley McDonald
The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk by Gerald J. Russello
The decades that follow the death of prominent intellectuals are filled with attempts by detractors and supporters to assess the importance of their work and life. This is more than a matter of making a legacy; it can determine the prejudice with which future generations read a thinker’s works or if they are read at all. Not long after his passing in 1994, books and articles appeared that purported to provide an estimation of Russell Kirk’s contribution to literature, letters, social criticism, political thought, and politics. In this early phase, critics have speculated about the influence of Kirk and his relevance to the coming generations. It is also part of the early assessment of Kirk to debate the record, that is, to get the record straight regarding what he claimed and believed.
A man of letters and liberal learning, Kirk was a prolific author whose writings are not confined to one or even two academic fields. Therefore, the evaluation of his work is far more difficult than it is for more specialized authors. Assessing Kirk’s contribution is also encumbered by his avowed conservatism. Liberals and progressives are inclined to dismiss Kirk’s work because it is an affront to their social and political beliefs. Conservatives, by contrast, are prone to overlook its weaknesses because they find in it validation of their social, religious, and political beliefs. While this is generally the case, some conservatives of Straussian or libertarian influence, like Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, Peter Viereck, and Frank Meyer, were contemptuous of Kirk. While Kirk did not relish the cultural and intellectual wars, he did not always shy away from them. Consequently, the evaluation of his contribution to American letters and life is likely to be part of the same conflicts that provided the context for much of his writings. In certain cases, the debate has more of the tone of a political campaign than of an emotionally detached discussion among scholars and critics.
Alan Wolfe, for example, published a review of George Panichas’s anthology of Kirk’s writings, The Essential Russell Kirk, in the July 2007 issue of the New Republic that portrays Kirk as a hypocritical conservative ideologue who repeated a few unoriginal ideas in his more than two dozen books and thousands of essays, articles, and reviews. If Wolfe is correct in his evaluation, Kirk’s influence will likely fade before too long or he will be cast as a right-wing intellectual charlatan who failed to counter the thesis of Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America. In 1953, Hartz argued that there is only one American tradition and it is of liberal pedigree. Conservatism has never been a major part of American intellectual or political life. The publication of four recent books including the Panichas anthology (Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays), suggests otherwise. These books call into question Wolfe’s assessment of Kirk’s contribution to American thought and his interpretation of Kirk’s work. They also, by implication, question the validity of the Hartz thesis. They consider Kirk a serious thinker who added intellectual weight to the conservative movement when it needed it most, as the welfare state and war state were on the rise and standards in education and culture generally were moving toward one or the other progressive ideology and away from the Great Tradition. Wolfe may not agree with Kirk’s intuitions about the American social and political order but his criticisms of Kirk go beyond professional and civil disagreement to vituperation. That Wolfe is so annoyed by Kirk’s ideas and that he feels compelled to attack him in such an uncivil manner may indicate that Kirk’s influence and the power of his ideas are far greater than Wolfe cares to admit. If Kirk is truly the mediocre thinker that Wolfe claims, then why not ignore him and allow the judgment of time to pass his works into obscurity? Or why not, at the very least, take his views at face value and provide counter-arguments that expose their weaknesses. Rather than rise to the challenge, Wolfe dismisses Kirk with arrogant contempt.
Russell Kirk is best known for his book The Conservative Mind (1953) and it is because of it that he is considered by many to be the father of American intellectual conservatism. As George Nash makes clear in his The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, American intellectual conservatism is by no means a monolithic movement. In fact, Kirk made great efforts to distance himself and his Burkean conservatism from its libertarian and neoconservative varieties. He was intent on articulating what he deemed to be authentic conservatism, yet he was no political ideologue. In fact, he deplored all attempts to replace the open search for truth with ideological dogma. For this reason, his books and essays do not contain political platforms or plans for how political power should be used to solve social problems. Nor do they promise a social, political, or existential reality that differs in structure from what history demonstrates.
Kirk cautioned that the devil we know is apt to be better than the one we bring to life by attempting to change the human condition. His canons of conservatism are less like dogmatic principles than they are reflections of a disposition of character and mind. They are not a blueprint for social or political action; they are guiding principles for those who wish to be liberally educated and possess a corresponding character. Kirk’s aim was intellectual insight and in its pursuit he spent most of his adult life living as an independent scholar. He wrote thirty books, including three novels and three volumes of short stories and thousands of essays, book reviews, articles, and newspaper columns. The Panichas anthology contains a wide array of Kirk’s writings and is a good starting point for readers who are curious about Kirk’s many topics, although it does not include selections from his novels or short stories. In addition to a preface, an overview of each section and a brief description of each entry are included as well as a bibliography of Kirk’s books, including those he edited and selected, secondary sources on Kirk from such authors as M.E. Bradford, Francis Canavan, Russell Hittinger, John Lukacs, Forrest McDonald, Gerhart Niemeyer, and Peter Stanlis.
The four books considered in this essay were written or compiled by authors who are sympathetic to Kirk’s general worldview. Person’s Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, is the most effusive in its praise for Kirk. Its virtue is that it covers the wide spectrum of Kirk’s work in an expository and systematic way. For readers who are new to Kirk’s work, it provides a clear overview of the many aspects of his intellectual life and a biographical description of Kirk’s life. Person traces the familial and intellectual influences on Kirk and he draws insightful parallels between Kirk and thinkers such as G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. His book includes an extensive biographical chapter and separate chapters on Kirk’s short stories and novels. Of the three books, this one devotes the most attention to describing Kirk’s fiction and placing it within his larger corpus. Person argues that Kirk’s fiction has been unjustifiably overlooked compared to his other works. He uses secondary literature and reviews of Kirk’s fiction to illustrate the high regard in which it was held by such literary figures as Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Connor, and T. S. Eliot.
What Person’s book does not do is search for the philosophical shortcomings or underdeveloped aspects of Kirk’s theories. It also classifies Kirk as a “strict constructionist” and an opponent of historicism. The first case is a misreading of Kirk’s constitutionalism and the second is a partial truth in need of careful analysis and theoretical distinction. Kirk was not a strict constructionist in the sense of individuals who literally and narrowly read and interpret the Constitution. Kirk favored “liberal construction” of the Constitution in a way that was informed by original intent. He argued for “reasonable attachment” to the text of the Constitution and he considered John Marshall as an exemplar of this approach to jurisprudence. Kirk was no legal fundamentalist. He understood the need for judges to exercise prudential judgment but he also cautioned against giving judges too much room to reconstruct the Constitution in accordance with their particular ideological preferences. Adherence to the Burkean dictum that change must maintain continuity with the past animates Kirk’s search for prudent judgment in law and politics.
McDonald’s book, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, and Russello’s book, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, provide a deeper understanding and criticism of Kirk’s view of history, economics, literature, education, and more highly specialized topics like historicism. Kirk opposed abstract and ahistorical conceptions of history including those that selectively mined the historical record in order to support a priori, ideologically- constructed conceptions of life. But Kirk did accept the idea of historical meaning and he insisted that without the concrete experience of historical life, insights into the human condition would give way to reified ideological dogmas like the inevitability of class warfare and revolution of Marxism. Meaning could be found in history but not the logic of its development. History will someday end but its course and completion are a mystery. Progress is evident in history but not inevitable. Likewise, human beings are susceptible to both losing insights once gained and failing to live by the wisdom of the ages.
Person’s analysis incorporates much of the secondary literature on Kirk including several book reviews. He does not hesitate to come to Kirk’s defense if he feels a critic has unfairly characterized Kirk’s work. From this analysis one gets a sense for how Kirk’s books were received both within and outside the conservative movement. The final chapter on Kirk’s significance and influence is somewhat skimpy, in part because the author’s intention is to provide “a clear, insightful reading of [Kirk’s] life and works through revisiting his own writings and those of his critics” rather than to “plumb Kirk’s innermost being [or] venture a greatly ambitious interpretation of his works” (215). For this reason, Person’s book is not the place to find a rigorous examination of Kirk’s contribution to political, economic, and social thought.
Person, McDonald, and Russello agree that Kirk’s chief virtue may be that he introduced his readers to thinkers who had been forgotten, were misinterpreted, or who were in need of reconsideration given the cultural developments of the twentieth century. Kirk, for example, was part of a growing number of scholars who recognized the relevance and insight of the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. He also inspired renewed interest in Orestes Brownson and, most of all, Edmund Burke. He wrote not only about such thinkers in his books but he was instrumental in seeing that their works were brought back into print. Person also makes clear that Kirk, whatever one may think of his decision to live in his ancestral home of rural Michigan, was not an intellectual recluse or an antiquarian. Kirk widely traveled, was a voracious reader of a variety of books, and a prolific correspondent. He exchanged thoughtful letters on historical, theoretical, and economic theories as well as current affairs with the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., John Lukacs, Eric Voegelin, T. S. Eliot, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Connor, and many others. He also incorporated the works of contemporary writers like Wendell Berry, Robert Nisbet, David Riesman, and Wilhelm Röpke into his writings.
McDonald’s book, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, can be described as an intellectual biography. It divides Kirk’s work into categories (e.g., conservatism, moral imagination, the permanent things, community, freedom, leadership) that allow for an examination of the full range of Kirk’s work with particular attention to his political theory. It also maintains a level of critical distance missing from Person’s book. McDonald, for example, calls into question Kirk’s rejection of modern technology. To McDonald’s thinking, Kirk understands that technology and industrialization can contribute to the uprooting of communities, but he fails to search for ways that might allow technology and economic development to contribute to community life. It is not that Kirk was unrealistic about technology. McDonald explains that, “even in his most nostalgic moments, he realized that the pastoral world of sturdy yeoman farmers and the landed gentry of Jane Austen’s England or the antebellum South had vanished forever” (135). But McDonald adds that Kirk’s “recommendations for controlling the alarming rapid progress of the modern forces of urbanization and industrialization were neither precise nor extensive” (135). Yet McDonald does not disguise his respect for Kirk. He believes that Kirk is a seminal thinker who deserves the attention of scholars who want to understand American history, American culture, and the conservative intellectual movement in America. McDonald identifies the primary influences on Kirk including Burke, Brownson, and Babbitt. But he also has a good sense for Kirk’s indebtedness to John Lukacs, Christopher Dawson, John Henry Newman, Eric Voegelin, Wilhelm Röpke, Robert Nisbet, and T. S. Eliot. Although McDonald emphasizes Kirk’s rejection of ideology, Herbert Butterfield is missing from McDonald’s analysis of Kirk’s historical conservatism. Butterfield’s little book, A Whig Interpretation of History, is one that Kirk cited and one that crystallizes many of Kirk’s central points regarding ideology and history. McDonald does emphasize the importance of the New Humanists on the development of Kirk’s literary and social criticism. He explains Kirk’s place in the conservative movement and his significant differences with Straussianism and neoconservatism. For readers interested in understanding the deep intellectual and political divide between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism, McDonald’s final chapter is a good starting point.
McDonald also does an excellent job explaining Kirk’s hostility to libertarianism. The differences between Ludwig von Mises, for example, and Kirk are significant. The former subordinates community to economic freedom while the latter insisted that economic production and wealth are means to a higher end: life in community and the development of the soul. McDonald also explains Kirk’s depreciation of reason and his emphasis on intuition. McDonald states Kirk’s view that “man is aided by intuitive knowledge supplied by the moral imagination” (77). This view is difficult to reconcile with Kirk’s affirmation of the natural law tradition and as a consequence McDonald considers Kirk’s understanding of reason “intellectually confusing” (80). McDonald suggests that Kirk has undervalued the role of reason in the search for truth because he overreacts to the Enlightenment tendency to divorce rationality from transcendence and tradition.
Gerald J. Russello’s The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk is unlike both the Person and McDonald books. It is less interested in expository analysis and more focused on Kirk’s imagination and its commonality with a certain kind of postmodernism. Readers who are familiar with Kirk may find this thesis strange, but Russello is careful to qualify his argument by defining postmodern imagination in a way that separates the more radical brand of postmodernism from Kirk’s work. Kirk was opposed to modernity and the modern imagination shaped by the Enlightenment and romantic naturalism. He took from Voegelin the notion that the very essence of modernity is gnosticism, a desire to change the order of being through progressive or revolutionary politics. Kirk’s work is an effort to get beyond modernity and to restore an older way of conceiving of life that has its roots in the classical and Judeo-Christian tradition.
Kirk is first and foremost a Burkean. Like Burke, he believes that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Consequently, Kirk does not advocate a return to a golden age in the past. Rather he argues that the past provides the historical experience that is necessary to know the boundaries of what is possible in human affairs. Politics, he never tired of reminding his readers, is the art of the possible. At the same time, there is a universal moral order that is the standard for justice and happiness. The historical record, as well as literary representations of the human search for knowledge of this order, are invaluable parts of contemporary efforts to know what is prudent in political and social life. In short, historical context matters because it creates inescapable contingencies that modern thinkers tended to overlook due to their faith in science and the perfectibility of human nature. Where Kirk tends to separate from most postmodernists is that he argued for the existence of a normative reality that was known from historical experience and tradition. If Kirk’s imagination is postmodern, it is so because it attempts to reconstitute the older classical and Judeo-Christian tradition in a way that will carry the West beyond modernity to an age of moral realism. Kirk was engaged in an act of recovering order that creatively integrated the past with the specific challenges of order in the contemporary world. The Burkean tension of change and continuity was at the root of his efforts to make the past a living force on the present.
Russello struggles to explain Kirk’s individualism and to reconcile it with the central role of community in his social and political theory. Kirk’s individualism is informed by Aristotle, Burke, and especially Babbitt. It is a reaction to the atomistic individualism of utilitarians like Bentham and J. S. Mill, collectivists like Marx, and the romantic individualism of Rousseau. It finds its defining characteristic in a quality of will that Babbitt called the “inner check” and a quality of imagination that Burke called the “moral imagination.” Abiding by the inner check and moral imagination, the individual is drawn into community, where the social and political nature of humans can be actualized and happiness can be experienced. Kirk maintains this understanding of community while rejecting modern collectivism in all its manifestations. The latter is not community but, rather, its ideological parody; Kirk was sensitive to the difference. In this sense he shared much with the sociologist Robert Nisbet in arguing for traditional forms of community that were receptive to diversity and sectional associations and suspicious of a conforming uniformity that destroyed genuine individuality.
Russello, like Person, includes a biographical chapter but the bulk of his book is analytical. It has a knack for finding aspects of Kirk’s work that are less well-known and explaining their importance. For example, Brownson’s idea of territorial democracy influenced Kirk’s understanding of community and place and their relationship to American constitutionalism. Politics by legislation seemed to Kirk to follow the tradition of Enlightenment rationalism. Territorial democracy, by contrast, has a more organic element to it. Traditions develop within the context of real legal and political disputes that are worked out in accordance with common- law principles rather than by the confrontation of competing ideologies in legislative politics. This allows for regional and sectional differences that avoid an artificial uniformity that crushes local difference and is blind to community circumstances.
The same is true for Kirk’s view of economics. He was not an ardent advocate of capitalism, a term he reminded his readers that came from Marx. He stood with Röpke in advocating a “humane economy” that put community before the utilitarian ends of the marketplace. Kirk found much of modern life to be vulgar, and he sought to reorient the imagination to the beautiful. This meant a reordering of the goods that constitute the good society. What mattered most for Kirk was the order of the soul from which emanated the order of communities and nations. The economy, in this sense, was an abstraction unless it included the full range of human life, especially those aspects that gave to it its meaning, purpose, and human texture.
Kirk was not an advocate of state-imposed uniformity, and he held the American preference for decentralized political power and local autonomy as sound prejudice. He rejected the notion of an “American way of life” as an empty abstraction that could be filled, at a given time, with the content of this or that ideology. Kirk was a patriot but he was not a nationalist. He opposed an activist foreign policy that would destroy the traditions of other nations in order to replace them with American consumerism and populist democracy. Kirk was content living in a diverse world, and he was skeptical that American values and traditions could be transplanted to foreign lands. After all, American values were not themselves one monolithic set of beliefs; they were multiple sets of local and regional customs and traditions that may only be appropriate in certain parts of the U.S., not across national boundaries. This was one instance in which Kirk had profound disagreements with neoconservatives.
What becomes clear from Russello’s book, whether he intends it or not, is that the conservative movement has splintered into intellectual and political factions. As the movement has grown, Kirk’s place in it has become more ambivalent in recent years. Russello, along with Person and McDonald, suggests that Kirk’s canons of conservatism “have become hallmarks of most forms of conservatism since the 1950s” (5). Yet, all three books illustrate that Kirkian conservatism is at odds with the kind of contemporary political conservatism found in the Republican Party or conservative media outlets. It also tends to contrast to the kind of intellectual conservatism found in the academy. The appropriate question seems to be whether Kirk’s canons can be identified in conservative political and intellectual life today. This does not mean that the absence of Kirk’s influence on contemporary American politics is evidence that his ideas lack salience. Rather, Kirk was not primarily interested in electoral politics nor did he hold much faith in academia to restore sound thinking. He understood that politics was itself determined by deeper cultural and intellectual influences that included the arts, literature, philosophy, religion, and community life. In short, it was not by politics alone that American and Western civilization would be restored. Kirk took the long-term approach. He chose to make the cultural ground fertile so that in generations to come the fruits of his intellectual labor would be a force in the struggle to improve the quality of civilization. It may be that his influence will be greater in this century than the last. Like the conservative ideas he spent a lifetime explaining, Kirk’s conservatism requires time to germinate. Political trends will come and go. Shortsighted individuals will overreact to the ruptures of politics. Kirk took the longer view and thus he recognized with T.S. Eliot that there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. His many books and essays have fertilized the minds and imaginations of three generations of Americans. What such sowings yield may not be known for three more generations.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2008).
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Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind by James E. Person, Jr. (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1999). 249 pp.
Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley McDonald. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004). 243 pp.
The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk by Gerald J. Russello. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007). 248 pp.
The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, ed. George A. Panichas. (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007). 642 pp.