Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dr. Russell Kirk

Recently we have discussed some of the absurdities in American politics and American history, both of which leave Catholics cognizant of the Church's historic understanding of "Church and State" uneasy and wanting. One reader, Patrick, left a comment mentioning a name that has dwelt in the back of my mind for a great many years, a name which, to be honest, most formed my early political and social perspectives and which, for good or ill, most influenced my long-term views. I of course mean the distinguished Dr. Russell Kirk.
Russell Kirk was a short, stalky man from Michigan who served America in the Second World War and studied philosophy during the years after the War's conclusion. His studies took him to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he was the first American to earn the degree Doctor of Letters there. His dissertation, which initially focused on the thought of Edmund Burke, became a compendium of vignettes on then-forgotten political conservatives from the Anglophonic world, among them John Adams, John Q. Adams, Hamilton, James Fenimore Cooper, John Randolph, Benjamin Disraeli, John Henry Newman, Paul Elmer More, and James FitzJames Stephens. His two principle ideas were that "liberty"—that most American of ideas—is "ordered" by society and not properly a state of moral and political chaos; and that society has a "natural aristocracy" of people who occupy their given places within it. His dissertation was published in 1951 as The Conservative Mind. This was the first of Kirk's books I read in college. Later I found a copy of his Roots of American Order, which traced the intellectual and cultural origins of the United States' political system to ancient Rome, which, after the collapse of Rome, came to England through the missionary efforts of Ss. Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury, was rebuilt during the legal and theological highpoint that was the Middle Ages, solidified itself in an English expression after the 1688 Revolution, and came to North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. His books are nothing groundbreaking to the modern reader, who is well accustomed to the sight of piles upon piles of political buncombe for $15 in the nearest bookshop, department store, or newsstand. During his time though Kirk was the only writer who openly questioned the progressive system put in place by Roosevelt and the force of his words made his case particularly interesting. He eventually teamed up with National Review founders William Buckley and Brent Bozell to spearhead the modern conservative movement in the 1950s, a movement which died in 2001.
Kirk was a gifted writer and wordsmith, certainly formed by his intimidating grasp of his large library's contents. The work of his I found most engaging was not a political work, but Ancestral Shadows, an anthology of ghost stories he collected during his summers at St. Andrews and in his home state of Michigan (his mother was an occultist). Kirk converted to Catholicism later in life, around 1963 I believe. He housed a great many poor children in his family estate and had a reputation for his generosity and charity. Despite his religious interest he found very little time to go to Confession, saying something to the effect that he did not find thinking about himself that interesting.
Aside from his ghost stories my favorite Kirk work is this essay on libertarianism, a mad Anglophonic philosophy back in vogue in the United States, one which more or less encourages distrust of any moral or political order and offers an idolatrous view of the free market. Some of the phrases in this essay are outright hysterical:
"The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle-that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence. The libertarians are oldfangled folk, in the sense that they live by certain abstractions of the nineteenth century. They carry to absurdity the doctrines of John Stuart Mill (before Mill's wife converted him to socialism, that is)."
"Because genuine libertarians are mad-metaphysically mad. Lunacy repels, and political lunacy especially. I do not mean that they are dangerous; they are repellent merely, like certain unfortunate inmates of “mental homes.” They do not endanger our country and our civilization, because they are few, and seem likely to become fewer. (I refer here, of course, to our homegrown American libertarians, and not to those political sects, among them the Red Brigades of Italy, which have carried libertarian notions to grander and bolder lengths.) There exists no peril that American national policy, foreign or domestic, will be in the least affected by libertarian arguments; the good old causes of Bimetallism, Single Tax, or Prohibition enjoy a better prospect of success than do the programs of libertarianism. But one does not choose as a partner even a harmless political lunatic."
"The first Whig was the devil, Samuel Johnson informs us; it might be truer to say that the devil was the original libertarian. “Lo, I am proud!” The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority temporal or spiritual. He desires to be different, in morals as in politics. In a highly tolerant society like that ofAmerica today, such defiance of authority on principle may lead to perversity on principle, for lack of anything more startling to do; there is no great gulf fixed between libertarianism and libertinism."
The Rad Trad no longer identifies with Dr. Kirk's thesis that America, at heart, is the continuation of Roman and British culture, even a freer perfection of them. If that was ever true, it no longer is. That said, I still admire his erudition, his integrity, and the simple fact that, with his mind, he made a positive difference in this country.


  1. The Rad Trad is very young. Having lived a year longer than half a century, I remember Dr. Kirk well, and agree with him that at least at the root, still, America is a continuation of Roman and British culture.

    A Great Corruption has however occurred. It began in earnest in 1968, but accelerated dramatically in 1992 (undoing of the melting pot with the advent of Clintonian multi-culturalism) and exponentially in only 2008, with the election of The One, the quick and near universal acceptance of the ancient sin and crime of sodomy as a positive good.

    I'd be interested in hearing the Rad Trad's opinion of what, exactly, he sees the United States as being the inheritor and exemplar now.

    1. You are very right, Jon, I am a mere 24. America was a continuation of English culture in a rural setting in the South whereas the more materialistic North went in its own direction I think. In the late 19th century the strong centralization after the Civil War, the materialism and cultural leveling of industrialization, and the new waves of immigrants each bringing their own culture created the "melting pot" phenomenon and made America its own unique entity rather than a variation of what England once was. While certainly not Catholic in the least, America had enough religiosity and local social fabric to balance out its rapid material and economic growth. The revolt of the Baby Boomers and the cultural revolution of the 1960s destroyed those safeguards and replaced "liberty" within libertine-y, beginning a slow progression to our current state of affairs.

      Currently I would say that the United States is the successor and exemplar of Diocletian Rome in its morals and of post-WW1 Europe in its industriousness.

  2. Indeed the Rad Trad is young but having already read quite a bit of Russell Kirk you have done well.
    I did not begin to read him until I was fifty. I too have enjoyed Ancestral Shadows. A late work, perhaps
    his last work, The Politics of Prudence, makes a good case against our getting involved in foreign
    wars. His autobiography is worth reading too. As a result of reading it I discovered a Scottish author,
    G. Scott Moncrieff, who has written a small but very good book on the history of Catholicism in
    Scotland titled The Mirror and the Cross.