December 27, 2015
In Dublin, Russell Kirk once wrote, there stands a “roofless wreck of an eighteenth-century house.” Since 1729 this crumbling place has served as many things, including a shop and a government office “of the meaner sort.” But these ruins have a forgotten significance: they are what remains of the birthplace of Edmund Burke, who Kirk saw as the epitome of “conservatism, justice, and prudence.”
Kirk’s use of this image to describe the modern world as one that “damns tradition, exalts equality, and welcomes change” is the opening of his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, in which Kirk compiled and examined the thought of conservative thinkers since the 18th century, from Burke through T.S. Eliot. The author of the latest biography on Kirk, Bradley J. Birzer (appropriately, the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College) writes that in placing these great thinkers side-by-side, The Conservative Mind brings “unity to nearly ten years of disparately articulated thought offered by a number of Anglo-American conservative, Christian humanist, and libertarian voices after World War II.”
Russell Kirk has long been a polarizing figure. Many hold him to be a great American writer, fundamental to establishing conservatism “as a valid intellectual enterprise,” while others believe him to be an anti-Semite, a wannabe aristocrat, or a phony. Birzer’s 400-page biography shows a different Kirk—a Kirk that is sometimes whiny, sometimes a curmudgeon, and always eccentric, but also genuine, a family man, and brilliant. Though confusingly organized—important details of Kirk’s personal life are kept from the reader until the end of the book—and at times displaying curious judgment about what receives careful analysis (Kirk’s fiction) and what gets only cursory attention (the concept of the moral imagination), Birzer nonetheless ably traces Kirk’s thought and professional history, from his youth as a “Stoic Prophet” to his old age as a “Married Bohemian.”
Kirk was born in Michigan in 1918. He attended Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) as an undergraduate and went on to Duke for graduate school. There, he wrote his thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke, a man he dubbed “the American Burke.” Randolph, he believed, “promoted a republic of excellence” and mourned “the lack of aristocratic leisure” and the resulting mediocrity.
Kirk would spend his career writing on such themes. His time at Duke also solidified his intense dislike of modern social sciences, which he believed mistook “fact accumulation for wisdom” and did not appreciate the mysterious complexity of human life. In a letter to one undergraduate professor he recalled a particularly irritating incident during his oral thesis defense:
“The chief battle was with a political science man. […]“Your title is deceptive and false. ‘Political thought’ has a special technical meaning. To be political thought, it has to be unique. What contribution did Randolph make that was unique?”“None,” said I. “Nothing has been unique since Aristotle.”
After graduate school Kirk spent four years in the army, which he loathed because he believed the institution bred “indolence” and “servitude.” He was first stationed in the Great Salt Desert in Utah, a desolate place that reminded him at first only of “death and futility and eternal emptiness.” Kirk’s hatred of his surroundings drove him further into his books, and (somewhat understandably) into Stoicism.
He began teaching at Michigan State University in 1946, but did not feel any more at home in academia than in the army. Birzer writes that Kirk mourned the “drastic decline in the meaning of the liberal arts and academic standards.” It seems Kirk had quite a bit to say about the idea of a liberal arts education; he later founded a journal titled University Bookman that was meant to “restore and improve the standards of high education in America.”
Dissatisfied at Michigan State, Kirk went on leave to pursue his D. Litt. at St. Andrews University in Scotland, a somewhat mystical setting he described as “the apotheosis of coziness.” Here Kirk wrote the first edition of The Conservative Mind, a book that proved (wrote publisher Henry Regnery) “that conservatism was an honorable and intellectually respectable position,” as well as “an integral part of the American tradition.” He saw the book as offering a poetic history of conservatism that saw “timeless” truths “uniquely manifested” in each profiled thinker. Kirk published numerous editions of the book throughout his life, making The Conservative Mind reflective of his own “living, growing view of conservatism.”
For Kirk, conservatism was not an ideology but an understanding. The conservative believes not in revolution but in the careful preservation of the ‘permanent things’—the traditions and institutions left behind by one’s ancestors, as well as the prudent (in other words, possible, rather than idealistic), gradual reform of imperfect things. Kirk saw conservatism more in terms of “the poetic, literary, and theological” than the political; “religion, ethics, and beauty” took precedence over the ephemerality of politics. He believed in “orders and classes,” “a transcendent moral order,” “affection for” the diversity of ways of life, and “a divine intent” that “rule[d] society,” linking “living and dead.”
Kirk objected to everything that contributed to the spiritual decay of modern society, including television, New York City, and, at times, politics, an activity that he often said was for the “quarter-educated.” Still, he engaged in politics, most notably backing Barry Goldwater against Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. Birzer elaborates upon the intimate connection between the two, writing that Kirk “offered the ideas” and Goldwater “provided the public vision and figure.” Those who saw Kirk’s political work noted that he did not get “caught up in the superficial hoopla of a political campaign.” Rather, Birzer writes, Kirk “represented an older and idealized notion of politics as an arena for gentlemanly debate.”
Still, Kirk fought most of his battles in the intellectual arena. He formed a republic of letters, or a network of scholars, philosophers, and “bookmen,” in order to preserve excellence and nobility in modernity. Such a network, Kirk hoped, would promote the pursuit of leisure and curb the unqualified pursuit of equality. To this end, Kirk made many friends, including political philosophers Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin and author Ray Bradbury. He founded a journal, Modern Age, penned articles for National Review, and wrote dozens of other works of fiction and political theory with his apparently super-human efficiency.
Kirk felt a deep admiration and respect for T.S. Eliot, so much so that “Eliot’s view of the universe became Kirk’s view.” Their friendship originated, wrote Kirk, because “a conscience spoke to a conscience.” From Eliot, Kirk inherited the ideas of “permanent things,” “a spiritual inheritance from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London,” and “the mystical notions of “timeless moments” (to name a few).
Kirk’s personal life is not the focus of this biography, and Birzer leaves revealing details for his final chapter, such as Kirk’s relationship with his wife Annette and his embrace of Catholicism. It also seems that in the last 50 pages of the biography, an optimistic, charitable, weird side of Kirk more clearly emerges. Kirk was aware of the flavor of his intellect. “Mine was not an Enlightened mind,” he wrote in his 1963 autobiography. “I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity … what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, and the awful.” One sees that Kirk “lived what he wrote”—his gothic-style, self-designed home, Piety Hill, served the entirety of Kirk’s community—not only him, his wife, and his four daughters. It was a shelter for the needy, the abandoned, or just the strange. It also served as a classroom where he hosted seminars. He often wore a cape and carried a sword cane, and his fervent belief in ghosts and mysterious forces earned him nicknames like “the Wizard of Mecosta” and “the Last of the Romantics.”
“Burke failed,” Kirk wrote in the introduction to The Conservative Mind. “From the day of his death onward, history was to record the trampling of Burke’s society beneath the feet of our epoch.” But Burkean conservatism survives in modernity due to the work of men like Kirk, who believed that restoring the ideas of our ancestors could restore America to greatness.