A Russell Kirk Primer
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. Up first: A brief primer on the key ideas that inspired and motivated Dr. Kirk’s lifelong work.
This Thursday marks the centenary of the birth of Russell Kirk, one of the founders of modern American conservatism. His work remains a crucial touchstone for anyone wishing to understand conservatism, or America’s intellectual history more generally.
But be warned: Kirk’s is not the conservatism of the current Republican Party, the D.C. Beltway, or Wall Street, though he has admirers in all three places. Kirk’s conservatism is aesthetic and imaginative, less about politics and economics and more about how to live with a sense of the transcendent that infuses our civil social order.
Kirk was born in the Michigan railroad town of Plymouth. He served in the military during World War II, and his service, mostly in the far West, gave him time to read and reflect. It also confirmed in him a distaste of bigness in all its forms: governmental, bureaucratic, military, or economic. He saw in mass conscription and imperial ambitions a threat to community and tradition. In 1944, for example, he rejected both Roosevelt and the Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey, to vote for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate, seeing in both of the major parties simply a vote for the same American empire. Over the course of his life, there was hardly any war of aggression that he supported, and on this point his views remained fairly consistent. During his last years, he became well-know for strongly opposing the invasion of Iraq, which roused the anger of parts of the conservative establishment but which now has been vindicated.
Kirk was educated at Michigan State, Duke University, and then St. Andrews University in Scotland, where he wrote The Conservative Mind (1953) as his doctoral thesis. Kirk wrote more than two dozen other books, including Prospects for Conservatives (1954), The Roots of American Order (1974), Eliot and His Age (1971), Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969), and America’s British Culture (1993). He wrote hundreds of essays and reviews, and had a long running column in National Review, where he was one of its first writers. Kirk helped found the journals Modern Age and The University Bookman. Kirk was also a prize-winning ghost story writer, based on his wide travels and the wilds of his native rural Michigan and the old country houses of Scotland. His Michigan family were known spiritualists in the nineteenth century, hosting séances in their home, which they called Piety Hill. For much of his adult life, he lived in that home in a town called Mecosta, founded by his ancestors, until he died in 1994.
Kirk developed his canons of conservatism, which appeared first in The Conservative Mind, in opposition to thinkers like Lionel Trilling, who famously wrote in 1950 that conservatism did not have any ideas, just “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Although Kirk firmly rejected the idea that conservatism was an “ideology” that could be expressed in a set of dogmas or commandments, he did think conservatism displayed certain features, including a belief in a transcendent moral order, an affection for the variety of human existence, respect for tradition and custom rather than social engineering, a love of mystery, and a free economy, although Kirk was not fan of “capitalism” understood as an abstract system. Drawing on a range of thinkers, beginning with Edmund Burke and his reaction to the French Revolution, and expanding to Coleridge, John Adams, Irving Babbitt, George Santayana, and T.S. Eliot, Kirk described a genealogy of conservatism that has since formed the basis for how conservatives understand their tradition.
The End of Liberalism
Kirk thought that liberalism had an expiration date, “for lack of a higher imagination.” It was premised on the norms from Western culture. Once it had fully rejected those norms, liberalism would itself unravel, Kirk believed. He was preparing the postmodern age. By 1982, he was writing things like this: “The Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives.” With liberalism moribund, it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.” Robert Heineman sums up this conservative turn toward postmodernism as follows:
Like the traditionalist conservative, the postmodern thinker has serious doubts about the rationalist Anglo-American tradition that undergirds much of social science. However, in rejecting this tradition, the postmodernist consciously tries to avoid any kind of totalizing ordered explanations of society, while the conservative searches for a broader, deeper concept of rationality that encompasses the actual behavior and beliefs of real people.
A conservative imagination would allow us to throw off the liberal illusion of an autonomous self, and the postmodern pastiche of “identities” to recognize what we truly are: flawed creatures seeking the transcendent.
The Moral Imagination
Kirk tried to revive this broader concept of rationality through employment of the moral imagination, a term he derived from Burke. Kirk concentrated on the formation of images and the cultivation of imagination, for “whether to throw away yesterday’s nonsense to embrace tomorrow’s nonsense, or whether we find our way out of superficiality to real meaning, must depend upon the images we discover or shape.” We are tradition-making and storytelling creatures, and so our minds must be formed through affection and example, rather than through logic alone.
As David Bromwich has written, the moral imagination is as much about the kind of person I am to be, as it is a question of who shall we be together. The moral imagination creates a common space where we can work together. It is indeed, as Bromwich states, a “source of resistance”—“The person who sees himself as both doer and object, who asks what a given act is doing to himself and his neighbors, is less prey to an imagination heated by proselytism and war.”
Kirk contrasted a moral imagination with a Rousseavian “idyllic” imagination: “the imagination which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention. . . . The idyllic imagination ordinarily terminates in disillusion and boredom,” and may give way to a “diabolic” imagination, which replaces a search for the transcendent with a fantastical escape from reality, expressed in forms such as political fanaticism or letting loose impulses without restraint of morality or custom, as seen perhaps in the popular media.
TODAY, conservatism finds itself faced with something of an impasse. One the one side are the same old nostrums of politics, which, as Trump’s election has shown, seem to have less and less popular appeal. The other side is a resurgent nationalism and unthinking populism. Kirk’s conservatism provides the roots for a conservatism that avoids both problems. The rootless can be violent, he wrote, saying, “I have been endeavoring to steer clear of bigotry, intolerance, eccentricity, and preoccupation with the hour’s political controversies—the curses of American conservatives.” Through his work, Kirk provides a more fruitful and reflective conservative tradition.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman and author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.