Russell Kirk: American Conservative
Bradley J. Birzer
University Press of Kentucky, 2015
608 pp., $34.95
Gerald J. Russello
Imagination Rules the World
At a gathering of the conservative organization, The Philadelphia Society, a few years ago, Bradley Birzer gave a talk about Russell Kirk and Leo Strauss. It was, perhaps surprisingly, spellbinding. Those in the audience knew, or thought they knew, that the conservatism of Kirk and the esoteric philosophy of Strauss and his disciples were opposed and could not be reconciled. The wizard of Mecosta was famous for elaborating a conservatism of tradition and order traced to Edmund Burke and Christianity. Strauss and his school emphasized the thinkers of modernity—Machiavelli, Spinoza, Locke, Hobbes, et al.—in the light of unconventional readings of classical philosophy, with little space for traditional religion. In the judgment of Strauss's epigones, America was far removed from the concrete tradition Kirk wrote about in books like The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order.
In his talk, Birzer exploded these assumptions. Kirk and Strauss not only knew one another but were supportive of each other's work. Strauss even tried to get Kirk a position in Chicago, where Strauss was teaching. Kirk for his part respected Strauss's learning despite his disputes with subsequent Straussians such as Harry Jaffa. Kirk and Strauss met in the 1960s, and Kirk continued to praise him as late as 1990, though by that time Kirk has been subject to attack by several of Strauss's students. The talk was a tour de force.
The substance of this talk is included in Birzer's long-anticipated book on Kirk. Although he does not shy away from the clear differences between Kirk and Strauss, Birzer's account of the relationship between the two highlights a number of illuminating points about Kirk: his personal intellectual curiosity and generosity, his integrity, and also the efforts of others to brush away this history for their own ends in the name of a conservatism that Kirk would not recognize. And it suggests the indefatigable work Birzer did in compiling his deeply researched book. Also particularly valuable is Birzer's account of Kirk's split from Modern Age, a journal he himself founded, because of the influence of the "anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic ignoramus," David Collier. For such corrections to the historical record, this book is invaluable. But in addition Birzer's biography makes the case that Kirk remains indispensable for conservatives today.
Born in 1918, the son of a railroad engine-man in Plymouth, Michigan, Kirk grew up between the reality of industrial America and the more exotic life of his relations in Mecosta, who inhabited a grand residence called Piety Hill, named for the spiritualist séances conducted there. Kirk enjoyed recounting ghostly tales featuring the house and its spectral inhabitants, some of which made their way into his ghost stories. The greatest family influence on Kirk was his maternal grandfather, who modeled a Christian Stoicism that characterized Kirk all his life, even after his adult conversion to Catholicism. Kirk was drafted for service in World War II, where Birzer places Kirk's intellectual awakening. In the Utah desert where he had been stationed, Kirk wrestled with questions of his life's purpose and read widely. He also acquired a strong distaste for big government and the inhumanity of modern warfare, which he opposed for the rest of his life. Birzer in particular notes Kirk's rage at the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. After his military service, Kirk returned to Michigan but then entered graduate study (he had already received a master's from Duke) at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
Birzer, who holds the Russell Amos Kirk chair at Hillsdale College and is the author of a number of works on figures such as Christopher Dawson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other "Christian Humanists," places Kirk within this larger tradition. This is partly true, especially of his later life. As Birzer notes at the outset, Kirk's initial influences were not Christian Humanists: Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Albert Jay Nock, and the now almost-forgotten libertarian writer Isabel Paterson (of these, More might be the closest to the Christian Humanist outlook). Kirk's experience of the medieval Scottish university lessened these individualist influences, so that by the late 1950s they had all but disappeared. His Scottish experience also cemented in him an appreciation of the idea of place; as Birzer writes, "[f]or Kirk, St. Andrews represented a fixed point in Western civilization. Around it swirled various pagan, Protestant, and Catholic peoples over and across time. St. Andrews served as a living palimpsest, the past never completely disappearing as the various cultures evolved." When Kirk himself moved into Piety Hill and made it his home, it became such a place, filled with the past but also welcoming refugees from across the world. Beginning in this period, Kirk more strongly embraced a Christian Humanist tradition, and Birzer notes in particular Kirk's championing of writers like Dawson, whose Christian vision of history stood sharply at odds with secularizing "objective" history.
Kirk's 1953 landmark book The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana, drawn from his doctoral thesis, basically invented a tradition of Anglo-American thought and established him as the standard-bearer of what is now typically called traditionalist conservatism. Over the next four decades, through some two dozen books and a long-running column in National Review and elsewhere, Kirk defended a conservatism of limits, respect for tradition, and the need to preserve our fragile social order. At the same time, though, he was a self-described "Bohemian Tory" who had spent some years of his young adulthood tramping around Scotland and North Africa and making acquaintance with writers such as Robert Graves, various Scottish lairds, and, most important, T. S. Eliot, who brought out The Conservative Mind in the United Kingdom. Significantly, too, Kirk was an accomplished writer of ghost stories. Birzer rightly notes that "in some ways, his fiction offers the best window into his mind and soul." For Kirk, temporal reality was at times only a thin film over the eternal, and his fiction explored those boundaries in a way his non-fiction could not. Kirk spent his life seeking out authors whose work could make (as he phrased it) time and timelessness intersect, from Flannery O'Connor to Ray Bradbury.
This mystical side was not a pose, or an otherwise unexplainable addendum to a dry writer of learned articles. It was central to Kirk's view of reality, in which the imagination played a crucial role. In a passage Birzer quotes, Kirk writes that "The image, I repeat, can raise us on high[;] … also it can draw us down into the abyss." Whether a society presents images that lead us higher or lower is the central question that conservatives must address. Thus Kirk's writings can seem exasperating to scholars; they are discursive, often quasi-autobiographical, compressing much material along the lines of a great tale rather than a series of deductive propositions. That style was deliberate. Kirk was creating a series of images, a narrative for the West to set against what he believed was the desiccated and doomed narrative of liberalism. Birzer homes in on this very point, which is critical to understanding what Kirk was trying to accomplish: "Liberalism in its modern forms—whether what one might call eighteenth century classical liberalism or twentieth century progressive liberalism—had never created anything… . [L]iberalism had become nothing but a whirligig of confusion, Kirk believed." Moreover, because it had no stable defining principle, liberalism could not compel the imagination as a conservatism of tradition could. For if the defining principle of liberalism was liberation, what end did it serve but the individual will? If equality, where could that end but tyranny? Kirk believed that liberalism provided no coherent or compelling image. And indeed, seeing contemporary liberalism devolve, especially in the universities, to little more than the will to power and the assertion of an ever-changing "I" whose transient desires demand that the world moved to accommodate them, Kirk seems prescient.
But alas, as Birzer argues, conservatism too has lost its imaginative power. Since his death in 1994, Kirk has remained a respected but lesser-known figure in the conservative firmament. In part this is simply to be expected with the passage of time, but his relative neglect also speaks to the current state of conservative thought. Since September 9/11, conservative élites have promoted policies—including unrestricted immigration, free market ideology, and apparently unrestricted foreign intervention—that are deeply at odds with the localist conservatism of Kirk. Conservatism now speaks much of the same language as liberalism, and the evocative narrative Kirk tried to summon that links the generations has been all but lost. Kirk opposed most foreign intervention, initially from his experience in World War II, but also because he saw the dehumanizing effects of modern war on victim and victor alike. Nor was he an admirer of the unfettered free market if that market simply solemnizes a materialist philosophy closed to the transcendent. Birzer examines this through Kirk's use of the word boredom, a spiritual malaise that afflicts even (perhaps especially) affluent societies when they turn from religion, tradition, and social order. Imagination rules the word, Kirk liked to say; if there is little imagination at work in conservatism currently, its cultural influence will be low. And, since politics follows culture for Kirk, its political influence will fade as well, or become grotesquerie.
Kirk is perhaps better placed among writers like Wilson Carey McWilliams or Christopher Lasch as representing a "liberal" tradition less influenced by the Enlightenment and more by the small-town Protestantism that characterized much of this country until quite recently. This tradition favored liberty, including economic liberty, but mistrusted centralization, bigness, and uniformity. (Birzer even gently criticizes Kirk for his too-close association with National Review, against the advice even of Eliot. Birzer argues that the pressure of producing a regular column reduced Kirk's output of more lasting works and also tarnished his reputation as a serious thinker by association. The simple explanation is likely that Kirk, as a working writer, needed the money.) This book is itself a great achievement of the imagination, and should serve as a gateway to one of the last century's most important thinkers.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman and author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.
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