Russell Kirk, ‘American Cicero’

kirkTomorrow,  October 19, marks the centenary of the birth of Russell Amos Augustine Kirk (left), who died in 1994. Kirk’s name may not be familiar to many Australians, even to Australian conservatives, but he is uniformly regarded as being the father of modern philosophical American conservatism, revived almost miraculously after World War II at a time of liberal ascendancy.

Kirk stands as a public intellectual (a term often misapplied these days) alongside those two modern British giants of conservative thought, Sir Roger Scruton and Michael Oakeshott.  And he stands beside William F. Buckley Jr as the American most influential in steering conservatism towards modern America and modern America towards conservatism.

Kirk was an historian, a cultural critic, a literary critic, a classics scholar, a Burke scholar, a novelist, an academic, an essayist extraordinaire, a commentator, a fellow traveller with the Southern agrarians.  A small town American rural town dweller. A self described (as noted by Kirk’s biographer Bradley Birzer) “gothic romantic” and “Bohemian Tory”.  In Scruton’s words, a mind “turned away from the world.”  Wishing for an “aristocracy of scholars.”  Sounds promising.

But Kirk did not entirely turn his back on the world, including the world of politics.  He was a serious supporter of Barry Goldwater, for example.

According to Spencer Case:

Kirk was inter alia, a traveler, an activist (of sorts), an editor, a professor, a commentator, a journalist, a husband, a father of daughters (four to be exact), a Catholic convert, and a friend of such literati as T. S. Eliot and Ray Bradbury.

His productivity astonished even William F. Buckley.

Some praise.  Buckley, indeed, compared his professionalism to that of G K Chesterton and his gravitas to Samuel Johnson.  The speed with which he wrote astonished many, as did his near perfectly constructed letters to his many friends and colleagues.

kirk buckleyAmerican conservatism is often termed a “movement”.  It is not the Republican Party.  It has many voices, many organs, many political vehicles, all imperfect.  Indeed, the core idea is itself highly contested.  There are neocons (Irving Kristol, Leo Strauss).  There are paleocons (Pat Buchanan).  There are (God love us) compassionate conservatives (Bush 43).  There are even crunchycons (Rod Dreher).  And now there are deplorables, patriots, and so on. It was ever thus.

But, in the 1950s, a movement was, nevertheless, born.  The Coordinator in Chief was William F Buckley Jr (pictured at left with Kirk), and his vehicle was National Review.  Buckley announced himself, as a mere tyro, with his book God And Man at Yale.  But he knew he needed help.  So he recruited.  Wisely.  He was, essentially, a fusionist and a practitioner.  He found allies, and Kirk was the philosopher in chief.  (Indeed, Kirk acceded to Buckley’s nervous request for a regular column for NR, and then proceeded to produce that column From the Academy for 25 years).  There was also James Burnham, famed author of The Suicide of the West and of The Managerialist Revolution.  There was Brent Bozell, the troubled crusader who penned Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative and .  There was Frank Meyer, the perpetrator in chief of fusionist conservatism.  There was Whittaker Chambers, that anti-communist crusader hated by the Left for calling out American communist spying.

Buckley’s singular achievement was to unite a conservative collective, a coalition of the willing, if you will, in service of policy influence and of steering American Right debate and thought.  Its incomplete and faltering (alas) achievement is testimony to the debasement of the modern polity and the grim success of the left-liberal project.

Back to Russell Kirk.

kirk book IIHe was, above all, the author of the magisterial The Conservative Mind (published in May 1953).  A highly regarded Doctorate of Letters from St Andrews University in Scotland turned into a book.  But not just any old book.  It has been described as “… beyond question, the bible of the conservative intellectual movement.”  It was written when Kirk was only 34.

This was the story of post French Revolutionary conservatism.  The story of the pushback against the rationalist continental enlightenment that found its apotheosis in the French Revolution inspired by Rousseau and delivering the carnage of the Jacobin terror.  Then it delivered 1968, against which Scruton has since railed so eloquently.  Kirk’s story commenced, naturally, with Edmund Burke, who set the tone (with de Tocqueville) for most that followed.  Kirk proceeded to tell the evolving story – of John Adams, of the Southern (US) conservatives, of Cardinal Newman, of Disraeli, of Walter Bagehot, of Santayana.  Both sides of the Pond.

Kirk’s work was a tour de force, of synthesis and of academic rigour.  The story that emerges is one of a movement, a “disposition”, not an ideology: a tendency of thought, a respectful courtesy to tradition, to learning from experience, the democracy of the dead, the dreaded “past”, fearful of utopias created by elites and others.

Kirk’s many other books include The Roots of American OrderProspects for ConservativesEdmund Burke: A Genius ReconsideredThe Sword of Imagination, and Enemies of the Permanent Things. His Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning is a tome for these very non-Ramsayian times. Thirty-two books in all.

In 1957 he founded Modern Age, a giant among conservative journals and still going strong.  He also founded, and edited until his death, The University Bookman.

Kirk’s ten principles for conservatives were as follows:

  • The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order;
  • The conservative adheres to custom, convention and continuity;
  • Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription;
  • Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence;
  • Conservative  pay attention to the principle of variety;
  • Conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability;
  • Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked;
  • Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism;
  • The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions;
  • The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognised and reconciled in a vigorous society (kirkcenter.org).

Those principles are discussed at length in the video below.

One of the delightful snippets about Kirk’s career is that he ‘flipped the bird’, as the Americans say, to the university establishment, resigning his teaching position at Michigan State the very year he became an academic star.

How does Kirk fit into the American conservative tradition?  Kirk was a traditionalist, a Burkean, a Christian humanist, a disciple of de Tocqueville as well as of Burke, a man of letters and of learning, and a prolific writer – of novels (ghost stories!), of political theory, of newspaper columns, of books and journal articles.  He famously debated the classical liberal F A Hayek — the same Hayek who equally famously said he was NOT a conservative, despite his and Kirk’s shared Burkean, old Whig intellectual heritage.

The debate (literal and philosophical) between Kirk and Hayek is of considerable consequence for the ongoing gap (growing chasm?) between the old liberal (libertarian) and conservative strands of modern American (and indeed global) right-of-centre thought.  Think Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, for example.  The fusionism project was Buckley’s brainchild, and his able lieutenant, Frank Meyer, the ex-communist National Review contributor.  (Apparently Kirk “loathed” Meyer!)  Meyer’s effort and Buckley’s intent was not merely to render a moderately united right political coalition but actually to unite libertarianism and conservatism philosophically.

As I have written elsewhere, this quite serious 1950s and 60s project is seemingly now impossible, in view of the growing embrace by libertarians of social liberalism, the focus of libertarians on economic “conservatism” now, when the main game and the greater enemy of us all is cultural Marxism and post modernism, not the size of government, and the game breaking importance for conservatives of the issues that separate them from libertarians.  Namely marriage and family, nationalism, gender politics and Orwellian PC creep.  The evils of big government and regulation of markets, real though we all acknowledge these to be, recede before the cultural power of the Left.

kirk wideRussell Kirk at home, taken at some point during the Seventies.

So, what to make of the Kirk/Hayek relationship?

Conservatives, then, regularly “claim” classical liberals as their own, and (perhaps less often) vice versa.  Dictionaries of conservative thought generally contain Hayek, Von Mises, Charles Murray and even the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick and economist Murray Rothbard.  Roger Scruton even claims David Hume and Adam Smith!  Moreover, it is the case that many conservatives would support classical liberal positions, and vice versa.  On the other hand, the famous classical liberal J S Mill referred to conservatives as “the stupid party”.  Not always friends, then.

Kirk once referred to libertarians as “chirping sectaries.”  His takedown of JS Mill in the essay so named is memorable.  Discussing Mill’s On Liberty, he claims that “arguments that were flimsy in 1859 have become farcical today.”  He, too, takes no prisoners in these right-of-centre internecine debates.  (Kirk particularly was not a big fan of Mill’s wife, Harriet Taylor Mill).

Kirk ceded Hayek the right to call himself a true descendant of Burke – who, incidentally, was himself a good friend of Adam Smith’s and very much a philosophical fellow traveller.  Burke was indeed an economic conservative and a classical liberal.  Perhaps the idea of ordered liberty also marks an important shared tenet of Kirk and Hayek.  Hayek was big on the rule of law, for example, as an underpinning of economic freedom.  Markets do not just emerge, fully formed, with no need of cultural and social supports.

kirk bookThe actual debate took place on September 8, 1957.  Birzer has called it “one of the most important and most telling exchanges in twentieth century non-leftist thought.”  It is clear that Hayek’s Why I am not a Conservative piece was prompted by Kirk’s book.  There is no agreement on who “won” the debate, and the question itself is perhaps irrelevant.  At one level, given their many beliefs, sources and values in common, it is surprising that Hayek’s piece became a thing.  Was it mere intellectual posturing and sparring? Or, indeed, a simple matter of differing priorities?  Of fighting the main enemy, the one that confronts us right now?

At another level, however, their differences were real enough, revolving around the idea of rational human agency, the capacity for fallen man to create truly liberal institutions and the notion of “progress”.  A “fatal conceit” of the Left and of rationalist liberals, you might say.  Kirk remained of the view that fallen man is incapable of constructing a perfect, even perhaps a functioning, liberal order. The differences remain today, of course, and render the fusionist project extremely problematic.

So much for Kirk’s oeuvre, his contributions, his place in the right-of-centre scheme of things, and his differences with classical liberals.  What of Kirk the man?  Whether his self-descriptions of bohemian tory and so on work is a matter for others.  His contributions to scholarship, not only in the academy but in broader society, merit consideration.  The breadth and depth of his learning mark him as a scholar of repute and as shaper of thinking and of thought.  John Lukacs refers to “an exceptional mind, an exceptional friend.”

One outstanding encomium is worthy of note in this connection, from former Bush 43 staffer Timothy Goeglein.

Russell changed my life by seeding my intellectual curiosity. I came to see that his external life was much smaller than his internal world, which was large, deep, and wide. He taught me to be wary of ideologues because they got in the way of a good life. He famously said “ideology is anathema.”

He was an influencer, then — an influencer of minds, young and not so young. He was not an ideologue, and, as Goeglein points out, saw conservatism as not so much an ideology as a “way of life”. He was old school, a gentleman with a gift for friendship who wrote pitch-perfect letters to friends and collaborators over a lifetime.  (His letters are captured in Imaginative Conservatism, edited by James Person). He was not of the conservative warrior class most completely represented this century by Donald Trump.  He would rather be at home with a good book or key-stroking (well, tapping) than on the hustings engaged in battle.  He was, indeed, bookish.

What was Kirk’s understanding of the conservative’s task? From The Conservative Mind

… the 20th-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character – with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.”

American conservatism has been, and remains, a land of many, many voices.  Many tribes.  Many strands of thought.  Numerous vehicles, publications, think tanks.  A crowded field.  They, like all ideas, have political consequences, to paraphrase that other great American traditionalist, Richard Weaver.

The man from Mecosta, Michigan, was not merely one of these voices.  He was pre-eminent, and massively consequential.  His work bears re-reading, and deserves recognition, this October. Lionel Trilling, he of the liberal imagination, wrote in 1950:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition… [T]he conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas …

He could not have penned these lines even a decade later.  For by then the conservatives had come back, having regrouped, to forge a real movement that would eventually bring Ronald Reagan to the White House.  Bill Buckley, of course, led the charge.  But he didn’t do it on his own.  Lest we forget the historian, thinker, scholar and philosopher of that movement.  It was Russell Kirk.

Kirk is invariably included in “the top three” progenitors of American conservatism.  The historian of conservatism, Lee Edwards, names as his three Kirk, Buckley and Goldwater.

Reagan’s tribute included the following words:

We look to the future with anticipation that his work will continue to exert a profound influence in the defense of our values and our cherished civilization.

Who knows whether there is an authentic or derived Australasian conservatism and where it is heading?  It behooves us to remember our dead, even the distant (American and European) contributors to our belief systems and core values.  There is much to learn, and much to reflect upon.

A nice little primer from a youngish Sir Roger Scruton might be one way we could all celebrate the centenary.  Perhaps all members of parliament calling themselves Liberals or Nationals might be encouraged to take a peek.  So too the multiple dills who inhabit the twittershpere, not to mention our intellectually enfeebled young, much schooled but little educated.  (Scruton’s thoughts are not entirely uncritical, by the way).


Plan B might be to listen to Scruton’s 2015 Kirk lecture.

Plan C for the under-exposed (to Kirk) might be to purchase, borrow or steal a copy of the 1994 Festschrift edited by James Person, who much more recently edited Kirk’s letters.  The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honour of Russell Kirk is highly recommended.

Plan D is to read some of the tributes at the Kirk Center website, in praise of Kirk’s life and work and in testimony to their significance.  These include Mike Pence and Antonin Scalia.  For Scalia’s conservatism, we can thank Russell Kirk directly.  Another historian of conservatism, George Nash, has this tribute at the Kirk Center website saying that:

… What Kirk did was to demonstrate that intelligent conservatism was not a mere smokescreen for selfishness.  It was an attitude toward life with substance and moral force of its own … After the appearance of The Conservative Mind, the American intellectual landscape assumed a different shape.  Kirk’s tour de force breached the wall of liberal condescension.  He made it respectable for sophisticated people to identify themselves as men and women of the Right.

Let us allow Kirk himself the final word:

A friend of mine, whom we shall call Miss Worth, fell into a conversation with a neighbour — Mrs. Williams, let us say — who, the day before, had sold a fine old building, long in her family, to be demolished that a lot for used-automobile sales might take its place. Mrs. Williams had certain regrets; but, said she with finality, “You can’t stop progress.” She was startled at Miss Worth’s reply, which was this: “No, often not; but you can try.”

Miss Worth did not believe that Progress, with a Roman P, is a good thing in itself. Progress may be either good or bad, depending on what one is progressing toward. It is quite possible, and not infrequently occurs, that one progresses toward the brink of a precipice. The thinking conservative, young or old, believes that we must all obey the universal law of change; yet often it is in our power to choose what changes we will accept and what changes we will reject. The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time. “To conserve” means “to save.” . . .

Such was the truly remarkable Russell Kirk, “the American Cicero”, who embodied the “unbought grace of life”.  He was that important.

2 thoughts on “Russell Kirk, ‘American Cicero’

  • Salome says:

    ‘To conserve’ means ‘to save’, which is why I regard the opposite of conservative not as progressive but as destructive.

  • en passant says:

    As with all ‘laws’ and ‘social principles’, the devil is in both the detail and the application. Take the following two principles from his list:

    “The conservative adheres to custom, convention and continuity;

    Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence;”

    Custom, convention and continuity have their place, but if hardening of the cultural arteries sets in, then the nation or empire dies because it cannot change fast enough. Spain & France were both destroyed when the rules around the Court became inflexible. This lead to violent revolution, during which time everything became much worse. Same with China and Russia. In fact, 35 years ago a wrote an essay that said “Why every revolution makes things worse – and why we must have revolutions”

    Prudence can also cause a culture to decline as they are surpassed by more vigorous cultures.

    Just look at Europe and Oz as examples where the current course of political direction is disastrous, yet the coming revolutionary juggernaut will be far worse.

Leave a Reply