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Pope St. John Paul II and Russell Kirk defended freedom within the limits of truth and its authentic or right use. They knew it was crucial to distinguish license and liberty. But they have different approaches to truth…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join John Hittinger as he explores the imaginative conservatism and similarities of thought between Russell Kirk and Pope St. John Paul II. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

As we discussed the work of Russell Kirk, written in 1954, revised in 1962 and 1988, I was very struck by similarities between the thought of Kirk and some keys themes in the thought of Pope St. John Paul II, who surely develops his own style of imaginative conservatism for the world at large through, of all things, the documents of Vatican II, his philosophical studies in Thomism and phenomenology, and Polish literary and religious culture. Kirk and Wojtyla both came of intellectual age in the 1950s, Wojtyla in his country oppressed by communism, and Kirk in the United States, triumphant in its military and economic power. Wojtyla struck his blow for freedom against the might of the Soviet; but Kirk, in the midst of an emerging and expansive economic superpower, is an early critic of the consumerist mentality that John Paul II would later identify as the chief mischief of the West. He struck a blow for integrity and humanity against the dumb Leviathan of liberalism. He begins to articulate the principles of a “civilization of love” also envisioned by the Archbishop of Krakow in the midst of the worker’s paradise. I can but draw a few similarities in this essay.

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was a social critic whose works best-defined conservatism in the United States for decades (not that his ideas were embraced or followed by any party or platform). But his case for an imaginative conservatism in books such as The Conservative Mind, Prospects for Conservatives, and the Conservative Reader received a wide readership and the comprehensiveness of his accounts and the diffuse range of what is “conservative” continue to attract readers and provoke discussion. A disciple of Edmund Burke, a lover of Scottish history and culture, a devoted family man, beloved teacher, and a Roman Catholic convertRussell Kirk cut an eccentric and often misunderstood figure in the world of contemporary politics and academia. My brother and I had the pleasure of meeting him at his home in Mecosta Michigan in 1973 or 74 during a seminar for college students. In Mecosta, there is now a Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal directed by his wife Annette Kirk. Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a seminar at the Center for the American Idea on Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives, a seminar run by Dr. Bradley Birzer, holder of the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History and Director of the American Studies Program at Hillsdale College, Michigan.

First and foremost Kirk and Wojtyla, like Dante, are disciples of love. We have written an essay or two on John Paul’s Redemptor Hominis in which he advocates for human self-discovery in love, in Christ. “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” §10. Christ reveals man to man himself through his love and his sacrifice on the cross.

Pope St. John Paul II and Russell Kirk defended freedom within the limits of truth and its authentic or right use. They knew it was crucial to distinguish license and liberty. But they have different approaches to truth.

An important passage in Redemptor Hominis is this one: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world §12.

John Paul is unabashed in reference to the sayings of Jesus Christ and he has a rich notion of revelation and magisterium standing behind his love of truth. This is appropriate of course for the supreme pontiff. But he also has a vigorous notion of reason as a spiritual capacity for natural knowledge of God and moral law. So in Fides et Ratio he says: “This is why I make this strong and insistent appeal—not, I trust, untimely—that faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. The parrhesia of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason” §48. The boldness of reason is not to be found in Kirk, nor is the parrhesia of faith as such.

So what do we find in Kirk, at this point in his writing, prior to his conversion to the Catholic faith? In Prospects for Conservatives he makes two references to “transcendent truth,” and many references to a permanent, and presumably knowable, order. He emphasizes the importance of myth and parable as the source of truth; myth is “susceptible of rational interpretation,” yes, but it is beyond calculative reason and science, or “utilitarianism” and “literalness” (18). Not a fan of “pure-bred” metaphysics, or an abstract thinker “devoid of humility and reverence,” Kirk nevertheless speaks about the duty (and need?) to examine general or first principles. But with the invocation of Coleridge and Burke, this task is best left to the literary critic it seems.

Again, in his discussion of tradition, Kirk speaks of tradition as “transcendent truth” to a religious man (233). He is a critic of private judgment and skeptics. But he does repeat the refrain this is truth “to a religious man,” to a “Christian.” And yet he even admits that traditions must not be superstitious, and they may need correction and change. Traditions are conflicting. Somehow, Kirk cannot really avoid the pressing if not paramount need for philosophy which he seems to fear as “defecated reason.” John Paul’s (which is Thomistic) account of the harmony of faith and reason should be welcome to Kirk or a Kirkean. For tradition seems to function as faith does in Thomas. The emphasis upon tradition is, of course, a proto-Catholic position already in early Kirk. And yet tradition has no ultimate authority without a magisterial office.

John Paul says that truth stands as a requirement and a warning for our love of freedom; the requirement we see brought out in tradition and myth. As for the warning against “illusory freedom” Kirk is at his splendid best, anticipating John Paul II in many respects. As mentioned previously, Kirk is a critic of consumerism and the atrophy of the heart. He devotes chapters to criticisms of sloth (boredom) and avarice. Kirk explores various “motives for integrity” that would round out and give substance to bare freedomlove of God, emulation of virtue, and care for family. Love of gain shows a reduced notion of human fulfillment and encourages selfishness.

John Paul said that “what is in question is the advancement of persons, not just the multiplying of things that people can use. It is a matter-as a contemporary philosopher has said and as the Council has stated-not so much of “having more” as of “being more.” Indeed there is already a real perceptible danger that, while man’s dominion over the world of things is making enormous advances, he should lose the essential threads of his dominion and in various ways let his humanity be subjected to the world and become himself something subject to manipulation in many wayseven if the manipulation is often not perceptible directly through the whole of the organization of community life, through the production system and through pressure from the means of social communication” §16.

It is something of a surprise that one of the great American conservatives is so critical of the engines of prosperity in the mid-fifties. But Pope St. John Paul II certainly develops and intensifies the “prospects for conservatives” laid out by Russell Kirk in light of the vision of man as destined for love: “With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars.”

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2010. Republished with gracious permission from the John Paul II ForumThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

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1 reply to this post
  1. Fantastic article. As a conservative in my 20s attempting to climb out of the realm of “crank”, I think reading Kirk and your book on him will be an exciting and fruitful step. I’m greatful this came across my newsfeed.

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