“If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.” —Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind
How should we say it? Russell Kirk was ahead of his times? Or Russell Kirk was behind his times? Or Russell Kirk was out of step with his times? Or Russell Kirk was beyond his times? Or Russell Kirk is a man of all times?
Maybe Russell Kirk is largely forgotten. I never know because people that live in my mind and thoughts are usually don’t exist for most people. That is not said to sound smug. But, seriously, who all are seriously concerned about the ideas of Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Gordon Clark, Cleanth Brooks, and Richard Weaver? Most of those men’s lives correspond with mine, although in most cases they died before I had ever heard of them.
Pick an earlier century and the names become even less well known and more obscure. Let’s begin by placing the blame on abundance. There is simply too much to learn and too many people from the past to know. In my Ancient World Humanities class, I always feel that we can get a good amount of at least representative examples. Students can read Hesiod, Homer, parts of Herodotus, The Republic by Plato, Rhetoric by Aristotle, a few Greek tragedies, along with a few Romans like Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero. Then if they work on Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a high school student has a good jump on the extant writings of the ancient world.
But the river reaches flood stage during the subsequent early church era. There are excellent choices for the Middle Ages, and one can gain some traction with a reading of as few as ten books. Of course, any list of ten books is excluding 10 more that equal or excell them.
“Flood stage” doesn’t begin to provide an apt metaphor for the modern period of history (meaning from the Protestant Reformation to the present). The works growing out of the American experience once again become overwhelming, as witnessed by the Library of America publications.
So, how are we expected to remember even the most basic things about most people and books? My official answer–based on over 45 years of working on these matters–is this: I don’t know. In the meantime, those who love learning, books, ideas, the past, people, and how all those things mix and mesh will keep reading and learning.
All of this mental wandering about books might just sound like the ever day musings of those people (of whom I have heard) whose lives are measured out with bookshelves (sorry, Tom). But books, ideas, and thinkers of the past are not just the province of bookish teachers, writers, and bibliophiles (which has a slightly evil sound to it).
Instead, what really matters is finding a way of preserving the best from the past. As a philosophy, that is often called Conservatism. By the way, political conservatism is only one aspect of the broader concept. Conservatism is in deep trouble today, in part because Conservatism is always in deep trouble. There is always a pressure for change and the world is always in flux. You cannot step in the same river twice and you cannot vote in the same election twice. (Okay, the last part of that sentence is not exactly true.)
For a decade or two now, we have been hearing and hearing about conservative talk radio. It is good that the older media monopoly has been broken and that a host of other outlets are available. To paraphase Andy Warhol, in the future everyone will be a political commentator for 15 minutes. But some are political commentators for 2 to 3 hours–daily. And they proclaim themselves conservatives, and they wage relentless attacks on liberals, big guv’mint, the welfare state, and various opponents in the culture war.
2016 revealed lots of things about Americans, both good and bad. (Don’t worry if it takes a while to think up the good things.) One thing that is certain is that conservative talk radio and many who call themselves conservatives really are not conservatives at all. They are more nationalists, protectionists, isolationists, and opponents of everything they lump together as the Washington establishment.
That is not to say that I disagree with the main body of folk and spokespeople who rally under the name of conservatism and who invoke Ronald Reagan’s name often. Nor am I living in denial or absolute angst over the election and now early adminstration of President Trump. But Conservatism is in trouble and largely because we don’t know what Conservatism is nor what we should be trying to conserve.
Hence the urgency of Russell Kirk. Hence the importance of Bradley Birzer’s biography of Russell Kirk. Hence the necessity of plodding through some of the many books written by Kirk and his intellectual colleagues and fellow travelers.
I started reading Russell Kirk: American Conservative, published by the University of Kentucky Press, on November 3, 2016–the night that the Chicago Cubs won the world series. (I only paid attention to the final score of that game.) I finished the book early in March 2017. During December, there was a long gap where I was not reading the book, due to the final illness and death of my father and then the flurry of Christmas celebrations.
At some point–in either January or February–I was flustered at my incredibly slow pace of working through the 500 plus pages of text in the book. This was a review book that I am duty bound to read and comment on. The author, Bradley Birzer, is one I had already formed a high opinion of because of his biographies of J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Dawson. I began with extremely high interest, but found myself slowly working through the book. Part of the slow pace was due to my reading the book late at night, propped up in bed, after a strenous day of teaching school, and near the time when sleepiness overwhelms love of reading.
Then–maybe after reaching page 400–I realized something. This is not a book to hurry through. This is not a page-turner, a who-done-it, an escape reading, and I like all those types of books. Instead, this book is a primer on Conservatism through the lens of a key Conservative thinker. This is a book filled with homework assignments, with lessons to be completed. This book is Conservatism 101; no, more a graduate level 501 course. The reader is expected to master the lectures–the book–and then begin his/her journey through the assigned/suggested/formative works mentioned throughout this book.
One could write a very short biography of Russell Kirk. This short: “Russell Kirk was born in 1918. He read lots of books and thought deeply and then wrote lots of books. He died in 1994. He was a major figure in the Conservative movement.” Mr. Kirk was–by most standards, but not mine–a very dull, ordinary-looking, overly bookish fellow. How does a life parked at the typewriter merit 500 pages?
Well, first of all, Kirk was a scholar, writer, thinker, but he was far from being simply desk-bound. He traveled, entertained a host of friends, sparred intellectually with friends and foes, participated in political battles, enjoyed ghost stories, and fathered four daughters after a marriage late in life.
But the book is mainly the odyssey through Conservative thought of the past as remolded and fitted to the American experience. Hence the reading assignments that are necessities after this book. Edmund Burke is high on the list. Kirk wrote a biography of Burke, but one absolutely must go to the source.
Kirk was also deeply devoted to the writings of Christopher Dawson (whose praises I have often sung), T. S. Eliot (both his poems and essays), Albert J. Nock (older libertarian), Irving Babbit, the Southern Agrarians, and key Greek and Roman thinkers. As Kirk slowly moved from being Christian-and Catholic-oriented to actually joining the Catholic Church, Christian doctrines and theology also impacted his thinking. His intellectual life is itself a course in intellectual history–from a conservative angle.
Add to that his friends and colleagues. Kirk was a peer with and a complement to William F. Buckley, Jr. They were contrasts in many ways, but they worked together for years with Kirk being a major contributor to National Review, founded by Buckley and still the flagship of serious conservative thought.
Kirk’s range of friends also included Flannery O’Connor (Southern author of incredible fiction), Ray Bradbury (with whom Kirk shared a love of writing fiction, particularly ghost stories), T. S. Eliot (of whose thought Kirk wrote a book), Wilhelm Ropke (Christian and economist), Donald Davidson (one of the Agrarians), and Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose campaign for the Presidency represented a high point for Conservatism.
He had intellectual enemies and sparring partners as well. Some of these bouts were “iron sharpening iron,” but some were quite hostile. Libertarians, ranging all the way back to John Stuart Mill, often received Kirk’s scorn. That is not to say that Kirk did not sometimes find comaraderie with Libertarians. Writing as someone well acquainted with intramural doctrinal battles within Presbyterian and Reformed Christian circles, I was not surprised to see Conservatives squaring off and battling one another with incredibly ferocity.
After my November start of this book, I found myself beginning my list of “must reads.” Happily, I already own many of Kirk’s books, but I have either only read small portions or read the books long ago. And I have begun to search out and gather the books and works of authors who Kirk approves of.
Conservatism as a word offers no hope. There is much in the present and more in the past that needs to be swept into the dustbin of history. One has to know what one is conserving and why. We have to know the best of the traditions, the enduring aspects of the culture, the truths that are most in danger in order to begin the work of conservation of a good, godly Christian, and Conservative world order.
This book–read slowly and deliberately–is a good beginning.