October 19, 2018
Russell Kirk never liked the word individualism, believing it both an incorrect way to understand the human person as well as aesthetically unattractive. Having read much of the great German and French Christian humanists in the 1940s and 1950s, Kirk accepted only the language of “personhood” and “personalism,” even in his long, pre-Catholic days. Indeed, he wrote of personalism nearly twenty years before Vatican II enshrined the concept for the modern age.
“Individualism, the ideology called of grave questions according to the impudent and fallible dictates of one’s own petty personal understanding was an act of flagrant impiety, approaching diabolic possession, the sin of spiritual pride,” he wrote in 1953. Two years later, when attacking the ideas of William F. Buckley, he continued: “Individualism, the ideology called individualism, ‘was born in hell; and look to it, for some of you shall be the father.’ It is a denial that life has any meaning except gratification of the ego; in politics it must end in anarchy; its philosophers are Godwin, Hodgskin, and Spencer. It is not possible for one man to be both Christian and Individualist.”
Kirk was, he hoped, a person, not an individualist. The individualist separated himself from all aspects of society, including all loyalties to the past and to one’s ancestors. The person, though, found his own uniqueness and beauty within the complex and intertwined web of relationships—past, present, and future—that defined, delimited, and set him free. One’s biological parents, for example, gave us a context, whether we wished that context or not. Even our own possible rejection of our parents only reveals how important they are to our own self-understanding.
With Aristotle and Moses, Kirk believed that man could only live truly and freely in community, and, only through community can one pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful. Community sharpens our best selves, while attenuating our selfish impulses. It gives order and context to our existence.
Though one of the most individual and eccentric of all human persons of the twentieth century, Kirk also proved himself to be a master builder of community. His widow, Annette Kirk, once remarked in conversation that “everything Russell touched turned magical.” While I, as a historian, cannot assess or judge the magical element from any rational standpoint, it does seem empirically true that Kirk leavened everyone and everything around him, seeing and promoting only what was best in the person. Even his master work, The Conservative Mind, is really a series of 29 biographies, each person tied to each other by his recognition and illumination and emanation of certain timeless truths. Kirk, fascinatingly enough, never sought perfection in another, only dedication. Deep within 1974’s Roots of American Order, Kirk wrote penetratingly, “In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.” Elsewhere, Kirk had argued that all history is really the history of the revelation of the Logos, universally in the divine and particularly in the dignity of the human person.
In other words, without community, there really is no personhood, and without personhood, there really is no community.
Kirk’s first real community came from his beloved mother and from his mother’s father. His mother he loved dearly, but he could never tell her just how much she meant to him. His love for her, though, revealed itself in his admiration for his mother’s father, Frank Pierce. Pierce became the model—as a man, as a reader, as a thinker—for Kirk throughout his life.
As soon as Kirk arrived at Michigan State in 1936, he joined a second community, a group of scholars dedicated to the works and ideas of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. He devoured everything he could of the two conservative scholars and genuinely admired the members of the group, all of whom saw Kirk as the continuation of Babbitt and More.
An inveterate reader throughout childhood, Kirk also became one with a community of men of letters, a vague republic in and of itself, dating back to the ancient world. When drafted to search in the Second World War, Kirk, not surprisingly, carried with him the collected works of Plato as well as of the Stoics as he went into war. The Stoics, especially, became Kirk’s closest friends between 1942 and 1946.
During the same years, Kirk also began what would be a life-time of correspondence with those he deemed most interesting in the world. During the war, he corresponded with Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson.
Deeply taken with communities of the spirit and the intellect, the 30-year-old Kirk, in October 1948, resolved to write his dissertation on the community of thinkers who had followed in the footsteps of Edmund Burke, from John Adams through T.S. Eliot. Implied in this idea, of course, was that Burke himself had been a member of a larger community of letters, and that he had represented the best of all of those who had come before him. That dissertation became Kirk’s second best-selling book, selling well more than 1,000,000 copies in seven (almost eight) different editions, creating at least three generations of conservatives in post-war America.
Not content to watch the community of conservatives grow in any topsy-turvy way, Kirk formed journals and engaged in arguments with anyone and everyone, professing his conservatism to be, first and foremost, a conservation of human dignity and nurtured community. Tellingly, its heroes and patrons were Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville.
In 1953, Kirk also began to flirt with joining a religious community. After a year of instruction with a deeply-learned Jesuit, Kirk put the idea aside in 1954, not revisiting it until a decade later, when he joined the Roman Catholic Church in August 1964, taking the name, Augustine.
As Kirk joined the Church, he also created another community—his own family, marrying Annette Yvonne Courtemanche, 22 years younger than he. By 1975, they had four daughters.
Kirk’s ancestral home, Mecosta, Michigan, the tiny town in the middle of nowhere, became a vital community, in and of itself. There, students, writers, artists, the wounded, and the abused from from every part of the world found sanctuary, sometimes for years on end.
In 1994, Kirk joined his final community. In the weeks prior to his death, knowing it was inevitable, Kirk read, prayed, dreamed, talked, watched classic movies, and ate his favorite chocolate chip cookies. During those last days, Kirk believed he had conversations—often involved and intense—with Padre Pio. His wife and daughters sang for him, held his hands, listened to his unending stream of new ideas, and prayed. When Kirk died on April 29, 1994, he entered the final community, the eighth day in which there is never a dusk, never an evening, and never a twilight.
“The greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.”—Russell Amos Augustine Kirk (October 19, 1918 – April 29, 1994)