Russell Kirk thought that because justice is rooted in nature and because in its perfection transcends all time and space, one can innately observe virtue in the actions of wise men. Such observation of those we admire might be the best teacher in our current day, serving as a reminder of what has always been true, but lost, forgotten, or mocked.

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Bradley J. Birzer, as he considers Russell Kirk’s treatment of justice over the course of his writing career. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

When Russell Amos Augustine Kirk passed away in April 1994, he had begun what would have become, most likely, a rather large book. While it might not have joined the ranks of The Conservative Mind or The Roots of American Order in size, it almost certainly would have joined them in stature and importance.[1] For years, Kirk had wrestled with the meanings, essences, and development (or perversion) of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. While he firmly believed in the objective truth of each, he knew all too well how current problems and democratic or totalitarian moods might manipulate and distort the original meanings. Just as Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and Academic Freedom were each “prolonged essays in definition,” so, too, would be his book on justice.[2]

If we, a people living in the midst of an ideological age, might find our way back to the origin of one of the most important words in our language and in civilization, we might very well be able to restore its original meaning and, equally important, begin to debate how best to implement it in this fallen world. Considering all the conservative writings over the fifty years after the end of World War II, Kirk’s project sounds very much in the vein of works by Eric Voegelin and, later, Don Lutz. How do we get back to our original symbols, our basic understanding, our first principles? Yet, we must give Kirk his due, especially in terms of originality. He had decided on the sheer importance of words and their origins long before he encountered the work of Voegelin. Voegelin’s theories and writings, to be sure, bolstered Kirk’s arguments and gave the Michigander deeper understanding of his own thought, but he had arrived there originally on his own.

Unfortunately, Kirk passed away before completing his work. Indeed, not even an outline of the book remains extant. Still, there are several important clues that can help us understand where Kirk would have gone with the book and what motivated him to write it.

First, as already noted, Kirk loved going back to the origins of words and then discovering where society had distorted them. He had, as already noted, done pioneering work on conservative and academic freedom, but he had also written extensively about the meanings of ideology and myth. That Kirk would want to explore the origins of justice should not be surprising given his own scholarship.

Second, Kirk had since the 1950s deeply admired the work of Joseph Pieper, but he had done little actual research into the man. In many ways, his book on justice would serve as a sequel of sorts of Pieper’s famous book on justice from the 1950s. Blessedly, Kirk’s widow has left the final book cart Kirk was using during the initial stages of writing intact. They reveal nearly everything one might need to know to imagine what Kirk was planning on doing with his own book, provided one is familiar with the sources.

Third, as with Nisbet and other conservatives weaned on Irving Babbitt, Kirk believed that the reigning book on justice, John Rawls’ 1971 book, The Theory of Justice, merely a rewrite of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s totalitarianism.[3] Rawls, however intelligent, had simply put Rousseau’s dated eighteenth-century prose into a more palatable—at least for academics—form.

In essence, Rawls’ argument had destroyed any real conception of justice by making it synonymous with equality, thus actually inverting the very meaning of justice itself. While Rawls might be innocent in his motives, the results of his Rousseauvian argument was nothing short of diabolic, remaking a word into what one wills it to be rather than in accepting it for what it is, as God had instructed Adam in naming things.

Fourth, though Kirk had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1964, he had become profoundly disillusioned by the clergy in that church who professed a Marxian form of Christianity with their concern for “social justice” and interest in “liberation theology.” Not only had these Catholics distorted justice—as had Rawls—by making it synonymous with equality, they had also, even more insidiously, made it synonymous with the virtue of charity. Kirk, as is well known, believed in and lived out his belief in charity as much as any person of the past century, doing so at the level of sainthood. But, to confuse charity with justice was not just inexcusable, but also outright dangerous, and always inhumane.

In several of his previously published works, Kirk had already written extensively on justice, but he had done so in the context of American constitutionalism and politics, affirming James Madison’s very Aristotelian notion that the end of all government is justice. Kirk had dealt with the issue most directly in his 1957 primer for military personnel, The American Cause.[4] In the early 1980s, he had also written on the meaning of the virtues as a whole, and he had, importantly, given several lectures to the Heritage Foundation on the nature of justice in particular. It would not be far-fetched to assume and presume that these speeches would serve as distinct chapters in Kirk’s final book on justice. This, after all, was how Kirk often wrote his books—first as pieces, then, masterfully, stitching them together as a whole.

In these lectures at the Heritage Foundation, Kirk even took a real-world example, offering a defense and justification—from Justice (as a Socratic ideal) and the Natural Law as found in the Old and New Testaments—for assassinating Adolf Hitler long before his crimes against humanity became public.

In our time, so cynical and devoid of respect for the ancients, modern Americans might very well scoff at citing Socrates or Plato or Cicero to establish a definition of justice. Yet, Kirk continued, because justice is rooted in nature and because in its perfection transcends all time and space, one can innately observe virtue in the actions of wise women and men. Such observation of our heroes and those we admire might be the best teacher in our current day, serving as a reminder of what has always been true, but lost, forgotten, or mocked.

For Kirk, not surprisingly to those who knew him, the greatest exemplar of living virtue was the figure of his beloved maternal grandfather, Frank Pierce, a man of unyielding stoic dignity. What Kirk learned from his grandfather: that “the just man defends vigorously whatever is entrusted to his charge, and sets his face against the lawless.” After years of talks with his grandfather, Kirk concluded, “Frank Pierce gave every man his due, without fear or favor.” Of course, Kirk’s words intentionally fit the Socratic definition of justice: “to give each person his due.”

As Kirk—and every conservative before and after—understood, “to give each person his due” is not to make all men one, but rather to acknowledge the unique gifts and talents bestowed upon every person by God. The only equality we share is equality of original sin. It is our excellence that makes us unique as humans, and, therefore, allows us to know what “to give each person.” For those we encourage in their gifts, we do so as justice, but with charity. For those who fail, we encourage with justice, but also in charity.

That Kirk died in the middle of his project does not make it less important. Perhaps quite the opposite is true. “Justice” should never be left in the demented minds and hands of Rousseau and Rawls. Rather, through imagination, we must understand a true justice, a Socratic justice, a Judeo-Christian justice, one that does give each person his due, but always in the name of charity. Charity does not replace or conquer justice; it fulfills it.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in February 2018.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind. Washington, D.C.: Gateway Editions, 2001; and Russell. The Roots of American Order. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003.

[2] Kirk, Russell. Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition. Washington, D.C.: Henry Regnery Company, 1955.

[3] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999.

[4] Kirk, Russell. The American Cause. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2002.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Justice and Peace” by Corrado Giaquinto (1703-1766), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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