Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture

8 Russell Kirk Quotes On History

Editor’s Note: In recognition of the centenary of Russell Kirk’s birth, we present Russell Kirk Week here at FORMA. All of this week’s content will be free.


Trained as a historian, Russell Kirk’s understanding of the past informed the entirety of his thinking. Although his approach to history was philosophical, he eschewed a “philosophy of history.” For Kirk, the benefit of historical study came from looking at particulars. Those particulars, however, could not be isolated from their larger historical narrative. History as particular narrative would then reveal a shadowy glimpse of the Logos, the fabric of reality that must inform both a personal and political present. Here is a sampling of his musings on the nature of historical consciousness:

The truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and misery of our condition.
— Redeeming the Time

So history is a reality, but a veiled reality, of which our knowledge always is imperfect and upon which our mundane designs can operate only slightly. History is our tool only in the sense that we employ our knowledge of history to bring ourselves to an understanding and realization, so far as we may, of the principles of private and public order.
— Behind the Veil

Obsessed by the Fact, a nineteenth century idol, most modern historians have forgotten that facts, too, are constructions – and meaningful only in association. It is the event, rather than the isolated fact, which is the proper concern of historians. In the commendable sense, the genuine historian must be at home with fiction.
— Introduction to John Lukacs’ Historical Consciousness

The Present, [T.S.] Eliot knew, is only a thin film upon the deep well of the Past; the Present was ceasing to exist even as he wrote at Margate or at Lausanne; the Present evaporates swiftly into the cloud of the Future; and that Future, too, soon will be the Past. The ideological cult of Modernism is philosophically ridiculous, for the modernity of 1971, say, is very different from the modernity of 1921
— Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century

Yet [Edmund] Burke has been invoked in all honor, because he is one of those giants who (in the phrase of the medieval Schoolmen) support us upon their shoulders, one of those dead who walk. Burke endures as a part of a great continuity and essence. He offers an alternative to the dreary doctrines of ideology in the mass age.
— Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered

Our religion, our culture, and our political rights all are maintained by continuity: by the respect for the accomplishments of our forefathers, and by our concern for our posterity’s well-being.
— The Roots of American Order

If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, of their own contemporaries, and indeed their very own capital.
— The Conservative Mind

Washington and Hamilton, Adams and Morris, Jefferson and Madison, knew history thoroughly. They were aware of the intricate process by which people had learned to live together in justice and order and freedom. They knew of the many mistakes that states had made, and of old political institutions which had proved themselves beneficial. They were acquainted with the growth of common law and constitutional government in England, and with the experience of colonial Americans in free institutions. Even the more radical among the founders of American government, like Thomas Jefferson, looked steadily to the past for guidance. Realizing that politics is the art of the possible, they settled for sound security in social institutions.
— The American Cause

Further Reading:
“Time and Timeless: The Historical Imagination of Russell Kirk” by Gerald Russello

Snapdragon: An Introduction to the Ghost Stories of Russell Kirk

Snapdragon: An Introduction to the Ghost Stories of Russell Kirk

The Permanent Things: An Interview with Andrea Kirk Assaf

The Permanent Things: An Interview with Andrea Kirk Assaf