A Kirkian Renaissance

No other major figure in 20th century American social and political life has deserved study more than Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994). The existing studies of Kirk are excellent, but the latest effort, by Professor Brad Birzer, surpasses all previous attempts to appreciate the magnitude of Kirk’s personal mission and scholarly opus. Birzer has a command of the primary sources that is truly amazing, and his archival labors evince the work of a superior scholar and world-class historian. In other words, a significant advance in scholarly knowledge is upon us, as well as an advance in evaluating Kirk as a political thinker.[1]

Before I turn to Birzer’s 2015 book (which was reviewed for Law and Liberty by Mark Pulliam), let me discuss the previous works, both their virtues and their limitations.

The first sustained study of Kirk to appear was James E. Person, Jr.’s highly accessible and readable introduction to the life and works of the Duke of Mecosta, Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind. Person provides a coherent and convincing analysis of Kirk’s enduring significance to American politics and humane learning. Originally published in 1999, and reprinted in 2016, the volume has not been revised, although it remains an excellent contribution to scholarship. Person’s mission is to introduce a new generation of readers to “one of the greatest minds this nation has produced during the twentieth century.”

The book is organized in four sections that outline Kirk’s achievement. The first section is devoted to interpreting Kirk’s background, use of historical consciousness, views on education, and constitutionalism. The second section critiques Kirk’s devotion to the importance of literature and social criticism. The last two sections survey Kirk’s economic thought and his lasting importance as a political thinker. The greatest contribution of this worthwhile volume can be found in the author’s review of Kirk’s defense of a social order grounded in justice and the diffusion of political power.

Person’s biography is written for the general reader, with the intent to elucidate the life and work of Kirk, while avoiding the arcane scholarly controversies and personages that often dominate such academic efforts. In a similar vein, John M. Pafford’s Russell Kirk, a volume in Bloomsbury’s “Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers” series, published in 2013, provides a clear and sympathetic account of Kirk’s continued importance as a political thinker.

As the first purely academic treatise on Kirk to appear in this revival, my late friend Wesley McDonald’s 2004 book on Kirk’s political thought, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, initially faces the challenge of his imposed, direct framework of transference of ideas—from Burke to Babbitt to Kirk.[2] The influence of Babbitt is significant and should not be minimized, although the propensity to incorporate the insights of Irving Babbitt when Kirk’s own critique would be preferable has manifested itself on occasion among Kirk scholars. Secondly, the role of literature and humane letters was even more of an overwhelming influence upon Kirk than McDonald initially suggested.

Contrary to the claim that the role of literature became important to Kirk in midlife, it was actually central to his thought as early as the 1940s: witness, for example, Kirk’s early writings on tragedy (1940), George Gissing (1950), and Sir Walter Scott (1952). To his great credit, McDonald provides a close reading and explication of the very extensive corpus of Kirk’s writings. McDonald’s exegesis of Kirk’s Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969) should encourage interest anew in a work that outlines many of the most important themes of the Kirkian enterprise.

McDonald brilliantly articulates Kirk’s use of history as a tool of analysis for his political thought. His depiction of the errors of Leo Strauss’s view of Burke, especially in Natural Right and History (1950), as compared to Kirk’s own critique, are groundbreaking as well. Kirk often noted that Strauss had reconsidered his original assessment of Burke. According to Kirk, Strauss offered these comments to him while Kirk was a guest lecturer under the auspices of Strauss at the University of Chicago. Kirk noted that Strauss moderated his earlier criticism of Burke, suggesting he was more receptive to Kirk’s own analysis.[3]

The more precise contours of this dialogue and related issues remain opaque in nature, but continue to receive great attention from the epigones of Strauss, as well as from Burke scholars.[4] Finally, McDonald’s discussion of technology in relation to Kirk’s thought is a seminal contribution to our knowledge of Kirk as a critic of contemporary culture.[5]

Gerald J. Russello’s The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (2007) attempts to revise Kirk’s insights for the 21st century by examining five aspects of his thought: overall mission; interpretation of history; political life; jurisprudence; and his criticism of modern life (Kirk’s “counternarrative”). Kirk’s active engagement with society and politics is detailed, and those who have neglected his work—viewing Kirk as either an advocate of “nostalgia” or a “static version of some ideal past”—are introduced to the more engaging potentialities of his achievement. The vital role of tradition and history for Kirk are explored with great clarity and sensitivity, along with Kirk’s views of politics and statesmanship. The treatment of the interconnection between natural law and American constitutionalism in Kirk’s writings also deserves commendation. Most importantly, Russello provides a sagacious refutation of the often unreflective criticisms of Kirk, while affirming the vitality of his thought for contemporary politics.

As noted, all of these Kirk studies are outstanding efforts, but Birzer’s encyclopedic critique of the Duke of Mecosta is a masterwork. When approaching a study of the greatest figure in modern conservatism, it should be noted that Russell Kirk was a political thinker, historian, political theorist, journalist, and one who served in many other capacities. Kirk’s significance is also not limited to the conservative movement, and while he identified himself as a conservative, he was a man of humane learning who engaged the major political movements he encountered and all personages who crossed his path.

In Birzer’s first chapter, entitled “Desert Humanist,” the reader will discover a very useful survey of Kirk’s early life, and a critique of Kirk’s emerging plea for the return to traditional concepts of political order and power. Kirk’s early academic experiences, especially at Duke University as a graduate student under the influence of his two mentors, Jay Hubbell (English) and Charles Sydnor (history), are also important to the narrative Birzer constructs. Unfortunately, Hubbell does not receive mention in the text, but was a major influence upon the young Kirk in all matters literary.

Birzer appropriately spends a great deal of time on Kirk’s developmental defense of the moral basis of social and political life. Two problems arise, though: the overdependence on Catholicism to explain Kirk’s emerging worldview; and the unintentional effort to make Kirk more libertarian than he was, even in his earlier writings. Kirk was essentially a Christian ecumenist, although he did make his way to Rome. Of Kirk’s four greatest clerical friends, Canon Basil Alec Smith, Rev. Dr. Lynn Harold Hough, Canon Bernard Iddings Bell, and Father Martin D’Arcy, S.J., only one was Roman Catholic—and all four were major advocates of ecumenism, properly understood—Smith as a man of letters and leading Anglican clergyman, Hough as the Dean of Drew Divinity School, Bell as a leading cleric and President of what is now Bard College, and D’Arcy as an internationally respected intellectual.[6] Additionally, Kirk’s view of natural law is closer to the classical, consensual Christian tradition than to other schools of interpretation.

Perhaps of greatest enduring importance to scholarship is Birzer’s very convincing and accurate depiction Kirk’s abiding humanism and the centrality of community to Kirk’s thought. Kirk believed that humankind’s primary obligation lies in his or her community. Self-discipline and love of neighbor began with the individual, and spread to the community, and then to society as a whole. In other words, Kirk’s concept of community serves to define the limitations of society and politics for on one hand, while on the other it presupposes and defends the necessity of a properly constituted community for securing the moral and ethical results concomitant to society’s perpetuation.

With Birzer’s Russell Kirk, the academic community has the definitive assessment of Kirk as a social, historical, and political thinker. The work also encourages a much-needed reaffirmation of the vitality of the conservative intellectual tradition. With great clarity and erudition, this new study allows readers to appreciate Kirk as a defender of community and genuine diversity.

[1] Another exception to the inadequacy of thoughtful and scholarly engaged recent scholarship on Kirk is James McClellan’s “Russell Kirk’s Anglo-American Conservatism,” in History of American Political Thought, edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga (Lexington Books, 2003).

[2] See http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/09/remembering-w-wesley-mcdonald-marylander.html.

[3] Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (Sherwood Sugden and Company, 1988), p. 185.

[4] See Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), p. 190.

[5] Consider Kirk’s “Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer,” in Wise Men (republished in the posthumously published collection of essays, Redeeming the Time {1996}). Kirk’s response to the critical reviews of Wise Men may provide some additional commentary as well.

[6] Birzer neglects to integrate Father D’Arcy into his larger Kirkian narrative, but he is appreciative of his contribution to scholarship and Catholic social and political life. See Bradley J. Birzer, “‘Order’: The Brief and Extraordinary Life of a Catholic Movement,” Catholic World Report, September 13, 2015.