Russell Kirk: A Tribute
by Jonathan Hamilton
I recently published a short piece introducing Russell Kirk to the modest readership of this blog. I have continued reading his masterpiece, The Conservative Mind, over the past few weeks, and have also started into a Fall 1994 publication in which a dozen or so conservative writers gave tribute to Dr. Kirk soon after his passing. This little journal has proven to be a fascinating read as several thoughtful conservatives, well-established thinkers in their own right, give various perspectives on Dr. Kirk and the best kind of conservatism. If you’d like access to pdf versions of the articles in this issue, you can find them here. I highly commend their reading to you.
But I can’t resist going a bit further, and whetting your appetite by including a few snippets here. Enjoy!
When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem. – Irving Babbitt, as quoted by George Panichas in the article “Russell Kirk as Man of Letters”
Panichas, speaking of Kirk, later commented on Kirk’s outstanding writing abilities: Anyone who studies the elements of style in Kirk’s writings will quickly recognize a concrete, stable temper and tone – solidity, balance, composure, robustness. He is, undeniably, a master of English language and style, as these paragraphs on “John Randolph of Roanoke” (1773-1833), American statesman and orator, vividly remind us in their simplicity, clarity, economy, and poignancy:
Randolph of Roanoke died in a Philadelphia inn, strange and wonderful to the last. There is no statue in his memory. The fierce lover of permanence was buried in the woods of Roanoke. But in 1879, his body was exhumed and taken to Hollywood Cemetery, in Richmond. The roots of a great tree, penetrating through his coffin, had twined through the dead man’s long black hair and filled his skull. So, doubtless, he would have wished to lie forever. Yet modern America, ill at ease in the presence of things immutable, will not permit even the bones of genius to rest secure.
Against the lust for change, Randolph had fought with all his talents. And though he lost, he fell with a brilliancy that was almost consolation for disaster.
Again, Panichas quoting Kirk: Only through prescription and tradition, only by habitual acceptance of just and sound authority, only by conformity to norms, can men acquire knowledge of the permanent things.
Vigen Guroian, in an especially helpful article in terms of definitions, says of Kirk: Reflecting anew on ‘The Conservative Mind,’ I find that the single resounding lesson Russell Kirk taught in this great work is that the crisis of our time is religious and moral. He exposed the cruel hoax of every modern ideology, whether of the right or of the left: the claim that it is really capable of filling up the emptiness of our moral and religious bankruptcy.
Conservatism is the negation of ideology. – Guroian, quoting H. Stewart Hughes
…Russell Kirk argued that conservatism is not a plan, but rather that it is a disposition and way of looking at the world; and, yes, out of this…a variety of political and economic visions that might be called conservative have arisen. It was Russell Kirk’s utter conviction, a conviction lived by, that ‘pietas‘ and humility are the fountainhead of conservatism’s moral disposition and political craft. We as individuals stand within the immense complexity of historical existence governed by the transcendent purposes of God. Our finite minds cannot wholly grasp the workings of this providential order. We stand humbly within this order as participants, not lords. Humility engenders social realism in the realm of politics – a deep and abiding respect for the variety of human life and community. Magnanimity is the political reflection of humility. And prudence, guided by right reason, is the first rule and principle of political governance. – Vigen Guroian, from his article: “The Conservative Mind Forty Years Later”
And Guroian, quoting T.S. Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Society”:
By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of ‘getting on’ to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism prepares the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.
I’d love to go on, but if you want more you’ll have to read the articles for yourselves. I think you will find it well worth the time and effort required.