Russell Kirk, who died this spring at his home in Mecosta, Michigan, at the age of seventy-five, has left behind an intellectual and literary achievement as huge as it is difficult to categorize. He was not exactly a political theorist, nor really a philosopher, certainly not a historian; and yet his work speaks profound truths about politics, philosophy, and history. An ardent enemy of Communism, he was barely more enthusiastic about the commercial civilization of America. An unrelenting critic of “King Numbers,” he championed a Goldwaterite conservatism that owed far more to the populism of Jefferson, Jackson, and Tom Paine than to the prescriptive politics of Edmund Burke and John Adams. A scourge of ideology and abstraction in politics, he determinedly refused to pay any attention to the circumstances and context in which the thinkers he studied had lived. He loved old cathedral towns and country fields, ancient mansions and Gothic universities; he hated cars, television, and shopping malls. For all his patriotism, one has to wonder how comfortable he ever really felt in late-twentieth-century America. “Against the lust for change,” Kirk wrote of his admired John Randolph, “[he] had fought with all his talents. And though he lost, he fell with a brilliancy that was almost consolation for disaster.” Of course, it wasn’t just Randolph he had in mind.

Russell Kirk came of one of the many small-town families hit hard by the Depression. His great-grandfather had founded the little town of Mecosta, and his mother’s father had owned a bank, but Kirk attended Michigan State on a scholarship and worked at Ford’s Rouge River plant after completing his M.A. at Duke in 1941. Kirk was then drafted and stationed in Utah; according to George Nash, author of The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America Since 1945, Kirk cast his first presidential ballot for Norman Thomas in 1944, to reward the veteran socialist for his steadfast opposition to the Second World War. Released from the army, Kirk resumed his studies and began to publish. In 1951 came John Randolph of Roanoke, an enlargement of his M.A. thesis, and in 1953, The Conservative Mind. The fame that second book won Kirk enabled him to return to Mecosta and settle in his family’s house.

A charming 1992 essay by Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, quotes Kirk’s description of the place: “over everything brooded an air of faded splendours, vanished lands, and baffled expectations.” The house soon sheltered armies of young conservative scholars, and other, more miscellaneous, guests: “unwed mothers, half-reformed burglars, … Vietnamese … families, waves of Ethiopians, Poles fled from martial law, freedom-seeking Croats, students disgusted with their colleges, and a diversity of waifs and strays from Progress.” (The sarcastic upper-case “P” on “Progress” is a characteristic Kirkean flourish.)

From Mecosta, for four decades, Kirk fired his observations upon the world: two more major scholarly works, Eliot and His Age and The Roots of American Order, books, essays, ghost stories, lectures, columns for magazines and newspapers. From Mecosta too he cast a sharp and often disapproving eye upon the conservative movement that had sprung up in the years since the publication of The Conservative Mind. He disliked libertarians, and apologists for big business, and neoconservatives. He did not mind making enemies: he separated himself from his old friends at National Review after 1980, and in a 1988 critique of neoconservatism he let loose the startling observation that “not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives”—that capital letter again! —“mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” By the end of his life, he had circled back to his Taftite origins, and joined the opposition to the war in the Persian Gulf.

Kirk’s voice echoed less powerfully in those later years than in the 1950s and 1960s. In part, of course, he was the victim of his own success: with conservatives in a position to exercise national political power after 1978, a political thinker who declined to preoccupy himself with the details of public policy—which he left to the “enlightened expediency” of statesmen—inevitably lost audiences to technical experts. Clad in out-of-fashion vested suits, immersed in his old books, smoking (as Feulner says) dark, thick Burmese cigars that looked and tasted like torpedoes, he looked oddly out of place among the sleek Republicans of Reagan-era Washington.

And these stylistic oddities hinted at an even bigger and deeper gulf between Kirk and his Reaganite audience. From the beginning, Kirk had denied key tenets of the American faith. He had openly defended class hierarchies; he doubted the value of technological progress; and, while disliking the growth of the central government, he cared very little for the danger to prosperity and economic growth posed by bigger government. In fact, Kirk regarded “growth,” in most cases, as a misnomer for “decay.”

During the late ’fifties and the early ’sixties, I watched in Long Island the devastation of what had been a charming countryside, as dismaying as what was being done to our cities. To make room for a spreading population was necessary: but to do it hideously and stupidly was not ineluctable. Much of the mischief was accomplished by the highways of Robert Moses, generally supposed to be one of the abler of American planners. Speed was everything, speed by automobile from Manhattan to Montauk.

Many thinkers have damned suburbia, but Kirk uniquely dared to reveal the anti-egalitarian implications of the aesthetic critique of American life. “This is my case: there ought to be inequality of condition in the world. For without inequality, there is no class; without class, no manners and no beauty; and then a people sink into public and private ugliness.” Ugliness was for him no light accusation. “With Santayana,” he said, “I believe that beauty is the index to civilization.” By this index, contemporary America scored low. We now live, he bitterly complained in The Conservative Mind, in “a world smudged by industrialism, standardized by the masses, consolidated by government.”

Nor was Kirk bashful about itemizing the differences between his conservatism and the enthusiastic Jacksonianism found on the right wing of the contemporary Republican Party. He openly disdained populism, denouncing “those who, in the belief that there exists a malign ‘elite,’ cry, with Carl Sandburg, ‘The people, yes!’” As for the Reagan-era project of identifying conservatism’s cause as the defense of “democratic capitalism,” an optimistic philosophy that commingled high-tech prosperity and ever-widening popular sovereignty … well, here’s what Kirk had to say about that:

Previously, even in America, the structure of society had consisted of a hierarchy of personal and local allegiances—man to master, apprentice to preceptor, householder to parish or town, constituent to representative, son to father, communicant to church… . This network of personal relationships and local decencies was brushed aside by steam, coal, the spinning jenny, the cotton gin, speedy transportation, and the other items in that catalogue of progress which school children memorize. The Industrial Revolution … turned the world inside out. Personal loyalties gave way to financial relationships… . Industrialism was a harder knock to conservatism than the books of the French equalitarians… .

That the sudden triumph of democracy should coincide with the rise of industrialism was in part the product of intertwined causes; but, however inescapable, it was a conjunction generally catastrophic. Jeffersonian democracy, designed for a simple agrarian people, was thrust upon an acquisitive, impatient, and often urbanized mass of men.

Instead, Kirk throughout his life insisted upon the six “canons” of conservative thought he first identified in The Conservative Mind:

  1. Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience… 
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life…  
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected…
  5. Faith in prescription… .Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse…
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress… 

Kirk expressed his major ideas in highly general terms, and so it is hard to know exactly what these six canons imply, especially the final two. When pressed for specifics, Kirk’s political advice tended to take the form of negative injunctions.

Conservative people in politics need to steer clear of the Scylla of abstraction and the Charybdis of opportunism. So it is that folk of conservative inclination ought to decline the embraces of such categories of American political zealots or charlatans as I list below:

Those who demand that the National Parks be sold to private developers. Those who declare that “the test of the market” is the whole of political economy and of morals. Those who fancy that foreign policy can be conducted with religious zeal on a basis of absolute rights and absolute wrongs… .

Etcetera. Even Kirk’s journalism bears only indirectly on the controversies of his day.

Then again, uncertainty about the implications of his ideas in practice may not matter very much: for Kirk was, at bottom, much more concerned with morals and education than with politics as politics is usually understood. He reserved his energies for other themes, themes sometimes absurdly small, but at other times profound and urgent, as in his remarkable essay “The Rarity of the God-Fearing Man.”

“We have to begin,” Kirk describes himself telling a group of clergymen, “with the dogma that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” “Oh no,” they replied, “not the fear of God. You mean the love of God, don’t you?”

Looking upon their mild and diffident faces, I wondered how much trust I might put in such love as they knew. Their meekness was not that of Moses. Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear of Pharaoh; but these doctors of the schools, much at ease in Zion, were timid in the presence of a traffic policeman. Although convinced that God is too indulgent to punish much of anything, they were given to trembling before Caesar. . . . Gauleiters and commissars? Why, their fellowship and charity was not proof against a dean or a divisional head… .

Every age portrays God in the image of its poetry and its politics. In one century, God is an absolute monarch, exacting his due; in another century, still an absolute sovereign, but a benevolent despot; again, perhaps a grand gentleman among aristocrats; at a different time, a democratic president, with an eye to the ballot box. It has been said that to many of our generation, God is a Republican and works in a bank; but this image is giving way, I think, to God as Chum—at worst, God as a playground supervisor. …

In a Michigan college town stands an immense quasi-Gothic church building, and the sign upon the porch informs the world that this is “The People’s Church, Nondenominational and Nonsectarian.” Sometimes, passing by, a friend of mine murmurs, “The People’s Church—formerly God’s” … From the People’s Church, the fear of God, with its allied wisdom, has been swept away. So have I.

Kirk’s literary productivity commands awe. He took particular pride in his ghost stories: His spare curriculum vitae modestly omits mention of nearly all his innumerable awards and honorary degrees, except for three that especially pleased him—one of them being the Ann Radcliffe Award of the Count Dracula Society. (“A child’s fearful joy in stories of goblins, witches, and ghosts is a natural yearning after the challenge of the dreadful: raw head and bloody bones, in one form or another, the imagination demands.”) In all the millions of words he set in print, however, he never amended or retracted any of the thoughts and formulations of the masterpiece he published at age thirty-two, The Conservative Mind.

“Professor J. W. Williams kindly read the manuscript of this book; and in his library at the Roundel, looking upon the wreck of St. Andrews cathedral, we talked of the inundation which only here and there has spared an island of humane learning like St. Andrews town.” Those words, the opening sentence of the acknowledgments to The Conservative Mind, and the first of Russell Kirk’s that most of his readers will encounter, demonstrate what a fine literary artist he could be. You might close the book right there, and Kirk would already have stabbed you with a pang of loss and regret. An old cliché has it that a great actor can wring tears out of audience by reading a laundry list. Kirk could summon up nostalgia with a list of place-names. “These chapters have been written in a variety of places: in a but-and-ben snuggled under the cliffs of Eigg; in one of the ancient towers of Kellie Castle, looking out to the Forth; in my great-grandfather’s house in the stump-country of Michigan; among the bogs of Sligo in the west of Ireland; upon the steps of Ara Coeli, in Rome; at Balcarres House, where what Burke calls ‘the unbought grace of life’ still abides.”

Kirk was writing in the aftermath of the forty most catastrophic years in the history of Western civilization, and at the beginning of another forty of the most tense and terrifying. It must have seemed to him that everything he treasured had either been pulverized by war or would soon be bulldozed by one form of socialism or another. He strained all his powers to summon up a vision of the Anglo-American past that would stir the imagination, and entice us to preserve as much of the vanished aristocratic age he loved as we possibly could. In form, The Conservative Mind appears to be intellectual history. Each of its chapters closely studies the writing of a conservative thinker or group of thinkers: Edmund Burke; John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Fisher Ames; Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Benjamin Disraeli and Cardinal Newman; Irving Babbitt and George Santayana; and many others. In fact, history is the one thing The Conservative Mind is not. Kirk repeatedly declares his lack of interest in the tangle of facts and events from which his subjects’ ideas emerged. He takes his ideas as he finds them, the way an anthropologist might examine an artifact or a New Critic, a poem. Was John C. Calhoun’s dramatic midlife switch from nationalism to sectionalism motivated by his commitment to slavery? Kirk does not inquire.

The whole grim slavery-problem, to which no satisfactory answer was possible, warped and discolored the American political mind, on either side of the debate, for the earlier two-thirds of the nineteenth century. So far as it is possible, we shall try to keep clear here of that partisan controversy over slavery and to penetrate, instead, beneath the froth of abolitionist harangues and Southern fire-eating to those conservative ideas which Randolph and Calhoun enunciated.

Are we really to take Benjamin Disraeli’s flights of political fancy seriously as expressing a distinctive Tory philosophy? It doesn’t matter whether we do.

In truth, Disraeli’s positive legislation sometimes was inconsistent with his theory, and in any case inferior to it. His really important achievement, as a political leader, was implanting in the public imagination an ideal of Toryism which has been immeasurably valuable in keeping Britain faithful to her constitutional and spiritual traditions.

No, The Conservative Mind isn’t history; it is a work of literature meant to achieve political ends.

This isn’t to deny that Kirk could produce acute analysis of earlier times when it suited his purposes. Kirk’s erasure of Alexander Hamilton—the hero of an earlier generation of conservative Republicans—from the conservative canon shows his historical intelligence at its best.

It hardly seems to have occurred to Hamilton’s mind that a consolidated nation might also be a levelling and innovating nation, though he had the example of Jacobin France right before him; and he does not appear to have reflected on the possibility that force in government may be applied to other purposes than the maintenance of a conservative order… . All his revolutionary ardour notwithstanding, Hamilton loved English society as an English colonial adores it. His vision of the coming America was of another, stronger, richer, eighteenth-century England… .

[T]hat industrialization of America which Hamilton successfully promoted was burdened with consequences the haughty and forceful new aristocrat did not perceive. Commerce and manufactures, he believed, would produce a body of wealthy men whose interests would coincide with those of the national commonwealth. Probably he conceived of these pillars of society as being very like great English merchants—purchasing country estates, forming presently a stable class possessed of leisure, talent, and means, providing moral and political and intellectual leadership for the nation. The actual American businessman, generally speaking, has turned out to be a different sort of person: it is difficult to reproduce social classes from a model three thousand miles over the water. Modern captains of industry might surprise Hamilton, modern cities shock him, and the power of industrial labor frighten him: for Hamilton never quite understood the transmuting power of social change, which in its operation is more miraculous than scientific. Like Dr. Faustus’ manservant, Hamilton could evoke elementals; but once materialized, that new industrialism swept away from the control of eighteenth-century virtuosos like the masterful Secretary of the Treasury… .

Hamilton was a straggler behind his age, rather than the prophet of a new day. By a very curious coincidence, this old-fangled grand gentleman died from the bullet of Aaron Burr, friend and disciple of Bentham.

Thinkers whom Kirk sought to include, rather than exclude, from his canon sometimes met, however, more procrustean fates. It’s fascinating to compare, for instance, the exegesis of a single sentence of Edmund Burke’s both by Kirk and by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his recent study, The Great Melody. First, Kirk:

“I heaved the lead every inch of the way I made,” Burke observed of his career, in the Letter to a Noble Lord. Heaving the lead is not a practice for which Irish orators are renowned; Burke’s flights of eloquent fancy everyone knows; and surely Burke did not seem at Hasting’s trial, to frightened Tory spectators, a man sworn to cautious plumbing of the depths. Yet Burke spoke accurately of his general policy as a statesman, for he based his every important decision upon a close examination of particulars. He detested “abstraction”—by which he meant not principle, but rather vainglorious generalization without respect for human frailty and the particular circumstances of an age and nation. Thus it was that while he believed in the rights of Englishmen and in certain human rights of universal application, he despised the “Rights of Man” which Paine and the French doctrinaires were soon to proclaim inviolable.

Now O’Brien.

The occasion for the composition of Letter to a Noble Lord was an attack by two Whig peers, the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, in the Lords on 13 November 1795 on the pension which had been granted to Burke in the previous year, on his retirement from Parliament… . It enabled Edmund to pay his debts and to be assured, during his last illness, that his widow would not have to face a life of poverty… .

Inevitably, Burke’s many enemies, among the Whigs and the radicals, triumphed… . It was the thirty pieces of silver… . Burke had received an enormous amount of abuse and innuendo—more than any other politician—in his long political career. In Letter to a Noble Lord he called it “the hunt of obloquy, which ever has pursued me with full cry through life.” Most of those attacks came from anonymous writers in the corrupt press of the time, faceless and unaccountable tormenters. Burke did not answer those ever. The Duke of Bedford, on the other hand, was a marvelous target… .

He was also vulnerable. The Bedford family, since the days of Henry VIII, had been beneficiaries of Crown patronage on a colossal scale. Thus, by attacking Burke’s modest pension, the Duke had unwittingly laid himself open to the most devastating argumentum ad hominem in the history of English controversy… . It contains [in the “heaving the lead” passage], with much else, Burke’s grave and succinct rebuttal to the charge of venality that dogged him throughout his life, and has clung to his reputation ever since.

In some respects, obviously, Kirk’s reading of the sentence is better. Kirk never even acknowledged, much less succumbed to, the contemporary urge to psychologize and personalize every human utterance. His Burke is a public man, and a public man’s public statements are given public meanings by Kirk. Too, Kirk relies only on what he can see in the documentary record; O’Brien’s conviction that he possesses some special intuition into Burke’s Irish soul that justifies leaps beyond the available facts would have irritated Kirk no end. Even so, and for all that, O’Brien’s Burke is a man—maybe a badly misunderstood man, but a man all the same. Kirk’s Burke is a repository of political wisdom, the author of a series of preternatural insights on which, two hundred years later, a political movement can be grounded.

Russell Kirk has always reminded me of those nineteenth-century Central European historians who promoted national consciousness by writing passionate histories of “nations” that had not existed until those same historians invented them. And just as the nationalist historians manufactured “Croatia” or “Czechoslovakia” out of half-forgotten medieval and baroque fragments, Russell Kirk inspired the postwar conservative movement by pulling together a series of only partially related ideas and events into a coherent narrative—even, although Kirk objected to the word, into an ideology. Kirk did not record the past; he created it. He gathered the words of his political exemplars to answer his burning question:

What is the essence of British and American conservatism? What system of ideas, common to England and the United States, has sustained men of conservative instincts in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation since the beginning of the French revolution?

As a question, of course, Kirk’s query takes far too much for granted. Can one in fact fuse the English and American political traditions together in this way? Was the dilemma of the English Tories—how to maintain aristocratic deference in a democratizing society?—truly identical to that of American conservatives in the North—how to maintain the virtues of the founders’ way of life in the face of colossal, unexpected wealth and exploding, non-Anglo-Saxon, populations?—and South—how to preserve white supremacy in the face of Northern criticism and an agricultural way of life in an industrial age? But Kirk’s question is not a question. It is a prelude to a romantic reading of the past for the purposes of the present. No wonder, then, that The Conservative Mind found little favor with professional historians. Writers of the Left may be able to get away with devising “usable pasts”: Certainly Michel Foucault and the writers of women’s history distort the past for their own polemical purposes on a scale and with a brazen falsity that would have made Kirk gasp. But in the hostile purlieus of the academy, writers of the Right must be more careful.

Yet if Kirk’s great work cannot be counted as history, exactly, it ought to be esteemed as something in some ways more important: a profound critique of contemporary mass society, and a vivid and poetic image—not a program, an image—of how that society might better itself. It is, in important respects, the twentieth century’s own version of the Reflections on the Revolution in France. If Kirk was not a historian, he was an artist, a visionary, almost a prophet. As long as he lived, by word and example he cautioned conservatives against over-indulging their fascination with economics. He taught that conservativism was above all a moral cause: one devoted to the preservation of the priceless heritage of Western civilization.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 4, on page 10
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