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russell kirk

Charles Kesler

A week or so ago, I posted a critique of Russell Kirk from Murray Rothbard, dating back to the 1950s.

Today, I came across a different sort of critique of Kirk, written four years after Dr. Kirk passed away from this world of sorrows.

Frankly, there are so many errors in this critique that it’s hard to know where to start. I don’t know the author or much—or really anything—about him, but I would guess that he’s never actually read Russell Kirk.

In fact, as I type this, I realize that I do know something about this man, Kesler. He writes about things he simply doesn’t understand and hasn’t researched. Frankly, much of what he writes below is just dead wrong.

Regardless, I present this to you, the readers of The Imaginative Conservative, his assertions about Kirk, from 13 years ago.

The most striking feature of traditionalist conservatism has always been how alienated it is from the roots of its own—that is, the American—political tradition. Take Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, a founding document of the conservative movement and still the best expression of the traditionalist school. Kirk enshrined a few Americans in his conservative pantheon—John Adams and John C. Calhoun, most prominently—but he had little room for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (whose “a priori concepts” and “French egalitarian theories” Kirk distrusted), James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, or Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. None of these thoughtful American statesmen endorsed the quasi-Burkean love of prescription, inequality, and the Romantic-organic view of society that Kirk himself embraced. Kirk’s conservatism, therefore, was never peculiarly American. —Charles Kesler, “All American?”, National Review (December 7, 1998), pg. 52.

Kirk, of course, spent a considerable amount of writing space on Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln, especially in his works published in the 1970s and 1980s. With the notable exception of Madison, Kirk found much good to say about each of these men.

Where Kesler gets his evidence is beyond understanding. That he writes such a blatant untruth about Kirk four years after Kirk died (and could not defend himself) and in the very journal for which Kirk dedicated nearly 25 years of his writing career to, is a nothing short of scandalous.

And, Kirk unAmerican? Kirk who served in World War II, Kirk who purposefully wrote from small-town Michigan, Kirk who advised presidential candidates. . . UnAmerican? Ridiculous.

Now, back to mocking Harold Camping. . . .

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13 replies to this post
  1. That Charles Kesler, who is editor, of course, of the Straussian flagship journal The Claremont Review of Books, should not so much attack or argue with Kirk as dismiss him, is reflective of the state of the American Right in the 1990s. It imploded much as the Left had imploded in the 1970s. The snippet quoted here is maybe a full and accurate picture of the Straussian view of Kirk, maybe not. I do know that some in that esteemed school of political philosophy concurred with certain neo-cons that Kirk was anti-Semitic; maybe Kesler did, maybe not. Speaking of your suspicion that Mr. Kesler has not read much Kirk, Brad, what he says above reminds me of the book reviewers who look in the index and when not finding enough pages on their favorite characters, proceed to pan it without further taxing their reading abilities. This is the stuff of ideologues.

  2. Dear John, had I remembered who Kesler was, I probably–for a variety of reasons–would not have posted this. But, I did–so be it. Plus, the end of the world is tomorrow anyway. On a serious note, it's worth stating a few things. First, Kirk greatly admired Strauss. He not only read what he could of Strauss's work, he also praised it wherever possible. Additionally, he often took the train to Chicago to see Regnery and his best friend, Pongo. When in Chicago, Kirk sought frequently to see Strauss personally. The two hit it off well. Second, while I have immense respect for the students of the students of Strauss (some of them are close friends and certainly persons I respect very much) I have yet to be impressed–fully–by the students of Strauss. None of them–Bloom, etc.–ever seem quite whole. Third, when this debate was going on in the 1990s, I was reading LIBERTY and CHRONICLES when I had a free moment; otherwise, I was knee-deep in French-Indian-British-American relations on the frontier of 1776.

  3. One final thing–it's simply not possible that Kesler ever read much Kirk. if he did, he could not have made the arguments (such that they are) in this National Review article.

  4. Hmmm. I have to admit, as a huge fan of Dr. Kirk, one of the things I've always liked about him is that his conservatism "was never peculiarly American". It certainly was not un-American or anti-American (and Kessler is careful not to say this in the quoted passage), but Kirk was conscious of the fact that America is more the continuation of a tradition than a new tradition entirely. Which is why he famously called the War for Independence not a revolution, but "a revolution prevented", and playfully considered his own politics as that of a "bohemian Tory".

    Nevertheless, I think we have to admit that there is some tension in the Kirkian view of the USA. Kirk championed one strand of the Anglo-American patrimony, but I'm not personally convinced that the more radical, Jacobin elements were not dominant from the beginning and have not altogether succeeded, by now, in defining the American tradition. Maybe that's wrong, but it's not a slam-dunk of a question.

  5. Not to contradict Brad but the only time that I asked Dr Kirk about Strauss, he said (quoted in full), "He's a m-m-mountebank. Wants to be like the Beatles' g-g-guru!!" It didn't seem worth pursuing after that, as my Nehru jacket was at the dry-cleaners and my beads were being re-strung.

  6. And to echo Jeff, you might want to bear in mind that Willmoore Kendall who knew Kirk very well and certainly read all of his books until the mid-70's or so (when Kendall died) wrote a chapter of his unfinished book on conservatism on Kirk. The thesis was that Kirk's conservatism was essentially non- (not UN-) American.

    Remember as well that Kendall was at NR, which was by no means a monolithic Kirkian magazine even in the 50's.

    I've been a student of Kesler's in the past, and I see no reason for the bite in this criticism of him. He doesn't hate Kirk, and he's one of the most learned and imaginative conservatives in America. I'm not saying you're wrong to disagree with his assertions about Kirk, but to treat them as facially absurd is a bit too much. Referring to him as "this Kesler" as though he were so some ignorant upstart is way out of line. To boot, he's one of the kindest people I've ever met, and a great teacher of the great books, from Cicero to the Federalist. I'm sure he wasn't trying to be nasty about Kirk.

    I came to this site on the recommendation of 4W, and I like the idea and the setup – I just hope it doesn't turn out to be guns-blazing against many of those who are at least on your side, but who happen to differ in their reading of Kirk.

  7. Mr. Anon has a point. But first let me correct what might become unfortunate impressions. NR was never "Kirkian," much less monolithic. Kirk refused to have his name on the masthead because he was well aware of how marginal he was to its mission. It was Buckley's thing, and nobody else's. Second, Kendall's school of conservatism was quirky, indeed, although he wanted very much to establish his ideas as peculiarly "American." Kirk was a true and real patriot, but thought that the Tradition was Western, not merely nor triumphally American. Third, I know Charles Kesler and also consider him bright and a gentleman; but he is also a Straussian, with all that discipline's strengths and weaknesses.

    Mr. Anon does chide us properly. Kirk's own position on Burke and our British culture, and may I add (?), Brad Birzer's own previous books, should caution us to keep a larger perspective. However, Kesler's own word, "alienated," is at least provocative, don't you think? And I know that many, many Straussians whom I admire for other reasons dismiss Kirk as not central to the important discussions they covet.

  8. Anon, as I mentioned in the comments, I would have given more than a second thought to posting this had I made the connection with Kesler, Claremont, etc. I also very much appreciate your caution, but I consider Kirk not only an American original (to steal from another great thinker), but I also think his thought is deeply Western and American. I have a difficult time–which is most likely my limitation–seeing him in another light. I know Kendall thought very little of Kirk, but I'm glad to know he took Kirk's arguments seriously. Again, thanks for commenting.

  9. Etc. here. 🙂

    Just a guess, but there was a Lockean philosophical tradition established by the time of the founding fathers, to which some of them appealed, whereas Burke was an obscure contemporary.

    Also, as I alluded to earlier, many would argue that the Lockean-Madisonian wing has triumphed in America out of sheer ideological strength. That doesn't make it finally authoritative, of course, but it obscures our cultural roots in English Christendom and classical antiquity – roots which Kirk labored faithfully to revive.

  10. Brad, I regard the question of Locke vs Burke as a kind of a urine test.

    Americans who understand Dr Kirk's points in 'Roots of American Order,' who are educated broadly – or enough so to merely see the importance of being educated broadly – and who are somewhat humble at least in that they are willing to acknowledge potential value in tradition that is not always immediately apparent, value Burke above others. Ideologues who want a slick and simple formula; people who lack the subtlety of intellect and thus prefer 'defecated reason;' and the thrusting egoists who aspire to leave their mark on history as dogs mark trees, embrace Locke and wave away Burke.

    To answer you more directly, those who define being American as adherence to 'first principles' see Locke as one of theirs and Burke as not – even though neither were American, both were British and Burke was a defender of the (conservative, traditionalist) American rebels. Those true modern conservatives who prefer Burke nevertheless still admire Locke for his attempt to clarify (part of) the wisdom in our traditions, but regard him as perhaps a welcome side dish while by no means the main meal itself.

    Please tell me if I am being too crude or even off the mark before I submit this to the Nobel Committee: it may identify people prone to ideology while it has the advantages of being less messy and smelly than a conventional urine exam, and the inquiring mind need not carry around so many little plastic bottles.

  11. I have thought for many years that, despite Jefferson's borrowing from Locke to write the preface to a document that later became peculiarly esteemed, that the "Lockean" elements of the "founding" have been vastly over emphasized since about 1959. Wasn't that the year that Jaffa published "Crisis of the House Divided"? If you pay attention, the early Congress made into the Organic Law of the US not only the Declaration, but the Articles of Confederation and the Northwest Ordinance. Both of them are much fuller statements of liberty, and contain nowhere near the abstractions. They are therefore at least implicitly "Burkean", as most Americans were. It takes an ideologue to understand what was afoot if one insists that Locke=American while Burke doesn't. That Russell pointed out the latter before Jaffa pointed out the former is both significant and sad. It reflects the age of Lincoln and King, which is also sad.

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