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When Human Events asked Russell Kirk to define “conservatism” only months into Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term, the grandfather of American conservatism paused, pensively, and answered only with some reluctance.

I hesitate to call it a movement because it has never been asserted. There is no national conservative party. There are many conservative organizations but no central organization or plan of action. Thus, I think the word ‘tendency’ or ‘mood’ is more accurate than ‘movement.’ Nevertheless, there is now a proliferating, energetic and widely varied conservative tendency which becomes more and more coherent. It has taken us 30 years to explain this and to provide a common body of objectives.

Russell Kirk

This was not the first such time that Kirk had avoided a precise definition of conservative. Throughout the entirety of his career, the greatest mind American conservatives have yet produced hesitated when defining his own ideas. They were, after all, deeply complex, combining Ciceronian universals with Augustinian particulars. A conservative responded variously according to time, place, ethnicity, and language. A conservative in ancient Egypt might scream “produce, innovate, create,” while a conservative in New York City in the 1950s might shout, “Stop, pause, consider.” Certainly, the quasi Beatnik and mischievous l’enfant terrible, William F. Buckley, had come quite close to stating just this at the time of the founding of National Review. Kirk always preferred to talk of conservatism in terms of timeless moments, universal ethics, and hyper-immediate realities.

When pushed in print to define conservatism, he offered what he called “canons.” At one point in his career, he offered four. At another, five. At still another, six. Finally, toward the end of his life, while speaking to the Heritage Foundation, he offered ten. This is readily recognized by those in and out of conservatism as the great man’s refusal to make conservative some form of ideology. What is often ignored, however, is that Kirk used a specifically Catholic term, “canon,” to make his case. In Catholic history and theology, a canon is an argument, not an absolute certainty. One can make millions of arguments without reaching an absolute certainty.

Take, for example, the Council of Trent (1545-1563). In its documents, the Church listed hundreds of canons over its many counter-Reformation sessions. Each canon is an argument, singular and often without any context. While I have seen innumerable non-Catholic websites cite these canons from Trent as though they are Catholic teaching, they are most certainly not. Instead, only the Decrees matter. Only they amount to orthodox Catholic teaching. The canons are simply the assertions made by various members (more often than not, individuals, though sometimes by the representative of religious orders) of Trent. Only when the Council considered all known aspects of an argument did they then come to a consensus as to what the Decree is. Lost to a modern and post-modern whirligig of a world lusting after systems and ideologies, the traditional Catholic approach to truth is dogmatic (derived from the Greek for “little truth.”) It bases its understanding not only on what it does not know, but also on what it knows not to be true. That is, ignorance and humility count for much in dogmatic thinking. At its essence, dogmatic thinking admits that it knows more of what it does not know than what it knows. Never does dogmatic thinking presume to know all things. Only God can do this, certainly no man or men can.

Though Russell Kirk did not formally enter the Roman Catholic Church until 1964, he possessed a Roman Catholic, and specifically Augustinian, imagination as early as the 1940s. This Catholic imagination, however, is not immediately obvious, and even Kirk missed it early on in his adulthood. As he noted in a personal letter written during the anxious summer of 1942, the only Christian body that seems to approach the truth and rigors demanded of Christianity is the Catholic Church. “The closer it comes,” he continued, “the further I draw away from it.” He admired Christ as a person, he explained in the letter, but “I abhor his doctrines. Christianity is truly a religion for the expropriated.” When it came down to it for the younger Kirk, though, Irving Babbitt’s philosophy offered more rigor and discipline than Christianity, as it contained “a ruinous moral laxity, a sort of indiscriminate sentimentalism.” Christ and Christianity simply could not live up to Babbitt and the New Humanism. Yet, even in his objection to the Church, Kirk argues on the principles that it comes too close to a Romantic and holistic approach to life. In other words, following the teachings of Babbitt, Kirk thought the Church too systematic!

Coming back from this excursion into theology…. It matters greatly that Russell Kirk employed the term “canon” to explain conservatism. In a powerful sense, he defined it by not defining it. For many, this automatically makes Kirk unimportant and irrelevant. He speaks the language of Churches and poets, not political philosophers or statesmen.

Russell Kirk

And yet, Kirk would have it no other way. What gave him—one man, no matter how gifted, brilliant, or charitable—the right to define an entire way of thing, a thing that transcended culture, art, literature, religion, and, especially, politics? This is a man who never sought to make students or followers of his teachings, but who sought to introduce his students to the greatest minds who had ever lived, the greatest cultures that had ever existed, and the highest imaginations that had ever flourished. This is a man who realized that the future mattered as much as the past. This is a man who never wanted “Kirkians” or “mini-Kirks.” He wanted women and men who, through the gifts of personhood, reached for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Nearly twenty-six years after the end of the Cold War, the loss of Ronald Reagan in the White House, the rise of the neo-con/liberal alliance of imperialism, and the extreme commodification (through talk shows especially) of what was once so brilliantly called conservatism, Kirk’s use of canon and his engagement with dogmatic thinking rather than systematic thinking makes so much sense. It is better to preserve truth for future generations than gain power for the fleeting immediate. Kirk knew this, and we, humbly, should as well.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. His newest book, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, arrives on book shelves November 5 and is now available for pre-order. 

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2 replies to this post
  1. Whenever I attempt to “ideologize” Conservatism (as in the execrable Conservative’s Handbook) I know they get it.

    When any area of thought becomes an Ideology, it becomes a dead thing, and Party Theoreticians become Doctor Frankenstein trying to animate an incoherent assemblage of unrelated parts.

    Contra the confident assertions of the Cognitive Elite, “Conservatism” is less about specific political-social-economic dogma than it is an approach to understanding.

  2. A nice corrective and clarification, Brad; and something new about Kirk for those who have often pretended to know about him. I scold you only for use of the word, “personhood.”

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