the imaginative conservative logo

Russell Kirk

Not Chesterbelloc, but Bur-Kirk.

[Dedicated to the genius and patience of Winston Elliott]

In the fall of 1950, Russell Kirk turned the ripe old age of 32. He had been publishing articles and reviews (and soon his M.A. thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke through the University of Chicago) since 1936. Even during college, academic journals had accepted his undergraduate work, assuming him to be a tenure-track professor.

Throughout his earliest publications, Kirk full explored the ideas of tradition and liberty, attempting to balance the sometimes tension-filled influences of Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Albert Jay Nock, and Isabel Patterson. Indeed, he immersed himself in any and every work imaginable, but he kept returning to these four.

When Kirk had written his M.A. thesis on John Randolph a decade earlier at Duke, he had encountered Burke as an intellectual inspiration. Almost certainly, Kirk had encountered Burke even earlier through his beloved New Humanist undergraduate literature professor, John Abbott Clark. From his first encounter with the Anglo-Irish statesman, Kirk probably had liked Burke. Certainly, there’s no evidence to indicate the opposite. While an undergraduate at Michigan State, he also encountered the works of T.S. Eliot, but he’d dismissed his Anglo-American contemporary as a “fraud.”

In 1950, though, Kirk seems to have embraced fully (and to have really met) both Burke and Eliot, seeing a continuity of one to the other. While this blog post won’t go into details about Eliot and Kirk, as they didn’t meet for another three years, it is worth noting that they appeared next to each other in a 1950 issue of the academic journal Measure. More than anything else, Eliot’s article regarding the necessity of liberal education probably convinced Kirk to give the poet a second reading.

In late 1948, Kirk had decided to write his dissertation at the University of St. Andrews on the lineage of recent (relatively speaking of course) conservative thought. During 1949 and 1950, he decided that Randolph’s inspiration, Edmund Burke, also served as the touchstone for all modern conservatism. Even Burke’s own tensions between embracing tradition as seen in his writings on revolutionary France on one hand and a market and spontaneous order (his 1795 essay on scarcity) on the other find their expression in the early Kirk as well.

Kirk’s first published essay on Burke appeared in 1950 (Queen’s Quarterly, volume 57). Two years before he and Regnery reached an agreement to publish the dissertation, Kirk still called his thesis “The Conservative Rout.” After all, he began his essay with this bleak assessment: “Burke failed.”

Despite the failure, Kirk continued, modern anti-government types needed to rally around his vision, win or lose. Interestingly enough, Kirk believed there to exist at least four disparate strands of conservatism: 1) the religiously orthodox; 2) the “descendants of the Utilitarians”; 3) those who followed Herbert Spencer; and 4) Americans who “retain a trace of Federalist or Old Republican ideas.” (p. 165)

Yet, very few would likely find Burke on their own, though the 18th century statesman might very well answer their deepest questions and satisfy their deepest longings.

Many of them are looking for a conservative’s decalogue–groping in this twilight hour. If ever they find it, it may be in the pages of Burke. Spend some hours in a bookshop frequented by young men, and you observe that some of them are after The Book–the book which holds the clue to life with principle, particularly social principle. Many have ceased to search, having found Freud or Marx or some other mighty name. But some go on browsing, turning over Spengler and Berdyaev, Ortega and Belloc, dissatisfied. (Pg. 162)

Equally telling, even if women and men did find answers in Burke, they would probably be persons of intellect rather than action, and their newfound love would fade away before the maturation of any future generations.

Somehow, Kirk believed, intellect and action needed to become one. In a desire to bring unity to conservative thought–to overcome the four strains of conservatism mentioned above–he created (identified, discovered–chose your verb here) five tenets: a belief in divine intent; a faith in prescription; a conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes; a persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably linked; a recognition that change and reform are not identical.

Three years later, Kirk identified six tenets. Thirty years later, he claimed ten.

Again, the 32-year old returned to his thesis toward the end of the article. The Age of Rousseau, rather than the Age of Burke had triumphed.

Burke fought. He failed; but as Burke himself tells us, the past is not truly dead. If ever we are to learn from it, we had better now descend, Ulysses-like, to query the shades; otherwise we may be numbered among them. Burke can be our Tiresias (pg. 168).

Reading this last sentence, the reader of Kirk must wonder if Eliot’s influence was already becoming obvious. Perhaps, though, he and Eliot simply drew upon common mythological references. Kirk seems to think more highly of Tiresias (fully man and fully woman) than did Eliot in The Waste Land.

Kirk offered a stirring conclusion, revealing a sensitivity and grasp of history (right or wrong) at age 32, most historians never attain, mostly because they’ve attempted to become social scientists rather than humanists.

Young truth lies just under the wrinkled skin of myth, and a trumpet-blast, or one of those flaming clouds which we deny to the Deity but arrogate to our own purposes, still can efface our elaborate constructions. . . . We may hear another; there is a great deal in the old Greek concept of cycles. History, instead of being a kaleidoscope, may resemble a roulette-wheel; round again may come the number which signifies a conservative order. (pg. 171)

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. All quotes taken from Russell Kirk, “How Dead is Edmund Burke?” Queen’s Quarterly 57 (1950): 160-171.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. I love your site. Would you mind explaining prescription? I have read a lot of your articles on Burke, but I still don't understand what this term fully means.

  2. conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.-Russell Kirk

Leave a Reply