Russell Amos Augustine Kirk is one of America’s foremost and most important thinkers, especially in the desiccated and mutilated 20th century, an era of horrific inhumanities and incessant blood-letting. Kirk stood for a more humane age that valued the dignity and uniqueness of each human person and that unabashedly sought the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Alan Cornett has proclaimed October to be “Russell Kirk Month.” I’m not sure that Kirk would approve, but I do. Other special interests get special months. Why shouldn’t the Kirkites and Kirkians get one? After all, imagine (yes, “imagine” is the right word when writing about Kirk) how much good a month of studying Russell Kirk could do with America’s school children. October 1, The Conservative Mind. October 4, Prospects for Conservatives. October 12, Roots of American Order. October 18, The Conservative Constitution. October 24, Old House of Fear. The month would conclude with everyone’s favorite Feast of St. Wolfgang, October 31, and a public reading of “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.” I can just hear the dinner table conversations now. “Daddy, we learned about Clinton Wallace today.” “Well, Sally, that’s just fine. Fine, indeed.” And all of America’s public educators would rejoice.
Silliness aside, I’m hugely in favor of Mr. Cornett’s proposal. October is Kirk’s birth month, and Halloween was the highest holy day in his personal life. What better month exists for Kirk’s twilight struggle against the darkness?
Russell Amos Augustine Kirk (1918-1994) is one of America’s foremost and most important thinkers, especially in the desiccated and mutilated 20th century, an era and an age of horrific inhumanities and incessant blood-letting. Kirk stood for a more humane age, an age that valued the dignity and uniqueness of each human person, an age that unabashedly sought the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Kirk should not only be remembered; he should have also never have been forgotten.
Several things make Kirk worthy of memory.
First, he was a serious wordsmith, a lover not just of the Word, but of its poorer relations, words. In every letter, in every review, in every article, and in every book, Kirk honed his writing skills, accompanied by an immense vocabulary, a photographic memory, and radically wide streak of perfectionism. Kirk did nothing in this world halfway (after all, if one is doing something, one might as well do it with excellence), and this was equally true of his writing. I have personally had the great privilege of reading through all of Kirk’s published works and through thousands upon thousands of pieces of individual correspondence. Maybe—and, I stress, maybe—one could find a typo every few hundred letters or so. The typewriter to Kirk was what the piano was to Mozart. In his capable hands, it became a thing of art and of artistry.
Second, Kirk, though never a nationalist, was a consistent and loyal citizen of the American Republic and of Christendom. Fortified by the teachings of the Stoics, Kirk believed in loyalty to persons and to communities. In particular—through such books as The Conservative Constitution and Roots of American Order—Kirk demonstrated again and again how essential a fine mind could contribute to one’s country. While a country needed physical resources, it also needed intellectual and spiritual ones. In other words, the body needs the soul. Throughout his writing career, Kirk did what he could to enliven American minds and souls. The American Republic, a fundamental country within Christendom, especially fascinated Kirk:
The word ‘republic’ means public concerns—the general welfare as expressed in political forms. Although a republic may choose a powerful executive head, it has no hereditary monarchy. A republic may be either aristocratic or democratic. What took form in America was a democratic republic, but not a ‘totalitarian democracy,’ or government directly and absolutely controlled by the masses. The American Republic was a government on a national scale, but with the powers of the general government limited, also the powers of that Republic’s component states were restricted. The most remarkable features of this Republic would be its independent national judiciary, endowed with power to rule upon the constitutionality of the acts of national and state legislatures; and its successful ‘federal’ character, ‘out of many, one,’ reconciling national needs and self-government in its member states. It would be a democracy of elevation, not of mediocrity, with strong guarantees for the security of life, liberty, proper, and other private rights.
Within, without, the republic should be a coalescence of will rather than of force.
Third, as well as anyone in the twentieth century, Kirk espoused imagination as the greatest faculty of the human person.
The image, I repeat, can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream: also it can draw us down to the abyss. It is a matter of the truth or falsity of images. If we study good images in religion, in literature, in music, in the visual arts—why, the spirit is uplifted, and in some sense liberated from the trammels of the flesh. But if we submit ourselves (which is easy to do nowadays) to evil images in religion, in music, in visual arts, in much else—why, we become what we admire. Within limits, the will is free.
This imagery came from without but throve within.
It is imagery, rather than some narrowly deductive and inductive process, which gives us great poetry—and great scientific insights. When I write fiction, I do not commence with a well-concerted formal plot. Rather, there occur to my imagination certain images, little scenes, snatches of conversation, strong lines of prose. I patch together these fragments, retaining and embellishing the sound images, discarding the unsound, finding a continuity to join them. Presently I have a coherent narration, with some point to it. Unless one has this sort of pictorial imagery—Walter Scott had it in a high degree—he never will become a writer of good fiction, whatever may be said for expository prose. And it is true of great philosophy, before Plato and since him, that the enduring philosopher sees things in images initially.
Fourth, we should remember Kirk for his immense and saintlike generosity. Though raised in dire poverty, Kirk never hoarded the money he earned from his many writings. Rather, he gave everything away… perhaps, to the point of recklessness, but in charity, nonetheless. Kirk gave of his time, his talents, and his treasures to all who needed it: refugees from tyrannical regimes; eager students, hungry for the sage’s wisdom; the homeless and the unwanted.
Fifth, and finally, Kirk was always his own man, in every time, place, and situation.
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.
Kirk, it seems, could be none other than Russell Amos Augustine Kirk. If anything, October isn’t big enough to contain his memory.
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The featured image is a photograph of Russell Kirk (1962) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.