The son of a locomotive engineer, Kirk was raised alongside the railroad tracks in Plymouth, Michigan, however he would come to see—and would see more deeply than most—many facets of America’s society. He would work in factories for Henry Ford, in the military for Uncle Sam, in academia for behemoth universities, and among the ivory towers of politics for publishers and Presidents. Stoically independent, from atop ‘Piety Hill’ his ancestral home in Mecosta, he enriched and reinforced a massive movement by writing some thirty books and hundreds of articles, lectures and columns.
One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite philosophers was a Michigander named Russell Kirk. Sadly, too few from the ranks of today’s conservative movement are familiar with the ‘Sage of Mecosta’ and how he nourished the intellectual roots of America’s philosophical heritage. This is the first in a series of short essays intended to reintroduce one of the brightest stars in the conservative constellation.*
Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind in 1953 landed like a bombshell on an intellectual scene that had come to believe that the only legitimate political argument was between the blurry lines of liberalism and new-age progressivism. Kirk excavated and recovered conservatism’s long, unbroken chain of steely and supple thinking from Edmund Burke and our Founding Fathers to Irving Babbitt and T.S. Eliot. The book reinvigorated and rearmed the Right with arguments that could not be dismissed by the fanatics for change and the servants of centralization. By defining just what it is that conservatives actually aim to conserve, Kirk reclaimed the term ‘conservative’ as the proper label for the movement. Making clear that conservatism is the negation of ideology rather than a narrow set of dogmata to be rigidly applied to revolutionary schemes for transforming society, Kirk put flesh on the body of opinion and first principles cherished by conservatives and then draped it in a fine wardrobe of sparkling prose. The breadth and depth of his life’s work is immense, but he winnowed down complex ideas into easily- understandable expositions of enduring truths.
Although Kirk believed in the dignity of man, he understood that human nature is fixed, a mix of good and evil, and requires prudent restraint according to permanent moral truths. He explained how high degrees of liberty could be continuously achieved only by justly-ordered societies comprised of communities of citizens who share a general consensus regarding moral customs and conventions. Rather than dull conformity –the product of the utilitarian’s standardization and consolidation– Kirk felt an affection for the “infinitely proliferating variety and mystery of life.” He prescribed cultivating genuine personality through self-mastery; inner-ordering of the soul by conforming to normative truths, and he warned against specialism and egotistical individualism that finds itself lonely in the crowd of fragmented mass men.
Although a fierce defender of man’s right to property, Kirk grasped that man had a higher calling than to be only a lowly producing-and-consuming animal. Possessions and enterprise provide powerful motives to achievement and honor, but also to avarice and envy. If government disrespects man’s right to the fruit of his labors, or provides for him what he should earn for himself, it robs him of his integrity and initiative. Kirk recognized that market enterprise is the great spring of society but that mere materialism makes men into little more than atomized appetites. He looked back through history and saw that a rise in the wealth of nations often led to a poverty of spirit and a dangerous expansion of desire that could be a civilization’s undoing. He knew that to be truly rich, a person needs ‘the unbought grace of life’ that can be acquired only from the store of wisdom after a sustained apprenticeship to the sublime.
Although Kirk saw that we must reform in order to conserve; he was champion of the Permanent Things–those venerated ideas, traditions, norms and moral standards which have been ratified by the entire human experience and which have converted the brute into civil social man. He realized all the luxuries and advantages that our society affords are the products of civilization’s long and intricate experiential development, and that to fool with the nature of our enduring order leads to folly. Kirk understood that our short time this side of eternity is charged with the duty to preserve and pay forward to posterity the wisdom of our ancestors. He drew his sword of moral imagination against the enemies of virtue, beauty, and the established order–against revolutionaries of all stripes–whose schemes promise heaven on earth but in reality would deliver only a new set of hells. Considering the arid wastelands of today’s political discourse, rediscovering Russell Kirk’s elegant wisdom can be as reviving as steady rains after a long drought.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
*’Project Kirk’ is a project of the Michigan Conservative Union to bring a better understanding of the Permanent Things to grassroots activists.