Over the last decade and a half, as many readers of TIC have probably noted, I’ve had the blessed opportunity of researching and writing about Russell Kirk (1918-1994), generally agreed upon as the founder of post-war American conservatism.
At first, I did this mostly as a hobby, having become intensely interested in Christian Humanism through discussions with Winston Elliott, Donald Nesti, and Gleaves Whitney. Through a series of conferences over seven or eight years in and around Houston, Winston sponsored a number of speakers (but, especially important to me were Gleaves and Ben Lockerd) who spoke on the significance of Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Jacques Maritain, Romano Guardini, Etienne Gilson, Russell Kirk, Wilhelm Roepke, Eric Voegelin, C.S. Lewis, E.F. Schumacher, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Other speakers at these events, including John Willson and Bruce Frohnen, shaped me profoundly as well.
I had already been enamored (or, perhaps, obsessed) with Tolkien since 1977. Seeing him in the context of a number of critical intellectuals in the twentieth century opened my own mind and soul to an entirely new world, one of great depths and heights rather than rather flattened history I’d been taught in much of my graduate school experience.
In the arguments, speeches, and ideas of Winston, Gleaves, Ben, and others, the Christian Humanists truly became incarnate for me, sacramental realities, each a timeless being sojourning through time itself.
It struck me at the time (the mid to late 1990s) that the best way to approach Christian Humanism, then, would be through the medium of biography. I actually desired to get into the mind and, if possible, the very soul of the person. Pretentious? Maybe. But, it definitely (and still does) seemed like the most effective way to understand the movement and the ideas. After teaching history professionally for almost two decades, I’m increasingly convinced that all real history comes down to biography.
Certainly, no one influenced my love of biography more than did Catholic convert Joseph Pearce. I have argued before and continue to argue that Pearce is our foremost biographer and one of the greatest minds and writers in all of what’s left of Christendom. Not only do I admire Pearce for the life he’s embraced and the chances he’s taken with his literary output, but I especially appreciate his ability to get into the life of his subject, and to do so in a way that overflows with depth and meaning.
After completing my dissertation (often with the encouragement of Winston, especially), I decided to write on what I really loved. First, came Tolkien. While working on that biography, I started reading Christopher Dawson, one of Tolkien’s fellow parishioners and an authority the Oxford fabulist cited frequently in his own scholarly work. I had encountered Dawson’s name and ideas a number of times while an undergraduate at Notre Dame, but I did not get to know the man until I heard a lecture about him by Gleaves.
That lecture led to my renewed interest in Dawson, and I happened to come across a first edition of what I now regard his best book, The Judgment of the Nations, while perusing my favorite used bookstore, Hyde Brothers in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In fact, I read that book exactly 10 years and 51 weeks ago. Starting it on Thanksgiving, 2001, I devoured every word. By the time I’d finished, I knew with certainty that a biography of Dawson would be my next project. Never had I encountered a mind as subtle as Dawson’s. He’d seemingly read everything, digested everything, and understood everything. Only later did I not only find this to be true from his private writings, but I also came to realize how critical the role Frank Sheed played in Dawson’s own intellectual life. Without Sheed, Dawson would have probably remained a relatively obscure man of letters, content with writing for a small audience.
Here’s an example of the power of Dawson’s thought, prose, verve, and purpose:
And today we face Antichrist in a new form–the totalitarian Antichrist, or the total organization of human society on anti-Christian principles. This the enemy which it should be the common cause of all who confess the name of Christ to combat. Here, without any compromise or principles or any narrow exclusiveness, there is a clear case for co-operation on the deepest and most spiritual grounds. However this appeal is not confined to the christians to whom it is primarily address. For the new Antichrist is also the enemy of God and man, and every man who is in any degree conscious of a higher law than that of force and national or individual interest, has the right and duty to join in this crusade.
As Dawson saw it–rather beautifully–a firm reliance on the Natural Law could unify all persons of good will: Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Catholics, and virtuous pagans. Such an alliance, he feared, would prove essential to a world sinking into the ideological abyss of various forms of socialism (fascism, national socialism, and communism).
Even in 1941, when he wrote the book, he did not fear Britain would lose. He feared, instead, that the ideas of the ideologies would become soft and subtle, working their way into the culture and the politics of the western world.
As Dawson perceptively noted, a hard tyranny would be much easier to reject than a soft tyranny that sold itself with free milk and free birth control.
After completing the Dawson project, I accepted an invitation from General Bunting to write on the one identifiable Christian Humanist of the American War for Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, finding him to be an American version of the Roman republican, Marcus T. Cicero. The headline that went out across America at the time of his death in November 1832 reveals the essence of Carroll: “A great prophet in Israel hath fallen; the Last of the Romans has passed.”
I’d been interested in writing about Kirk for quite a while, but Mrs. Kirk wasn’t ready to open the extensive (indeed, somewhat beyond comprehension) private correspondence and papers. Additionally, the editor at ISI Books (then Jeremy Beer) had declined my requests to write on Kirk numerous times.
None of this lessened my interest, however. Every time I drove to Notre Dame for research (once a month for several years), I photocopied Kirk’s articles from relatively obscure or difficult to find journals and periodicals, even if for only an hour or two.
I also started digging into Kirk’s letters which had found their way into the depositories of other institutions, such as those at the Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa.
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve gathered quite a collection of personal and public writings of Kirk and other Christian humanist. Indeed, the hard drive on my Mac might actually be something special.
Through the good graces of my excellent friend and department chair, Mark Kalthoff, I also started to teach a course on the Christian Humanist vision of history. This course really began with Dawson, spent almost the entire middle period on T.S. Eliot (especially the Four Quartets, ending with roughly a third of the semester on Russell Kirk. I also throw in some Berdyaev, Guardini, Maritain, Gilson, Barfield, Voegelin, Kolnai, and Strauss. I’ve taught this class over the years, and I’ve never once not enjoyed it. It’s a joy every time. I will be teaching it again a year from now (Fall 2013).
About two and 1/2 years ago, I received a beautiful call from Annette. “Brad, I amopening the archives to you, if you’re still interested.’
Am I interested? I dropped everything else in my academic life, and I’ve been immersed in the world of Kirk ever since.
Kirk, I see now, really connects all other figures that I’ve found exciting and enlivening. And, he always does it with style, integrity, and wit. He really was the transmitter of Christian humanism for all of his adult life, bringing into focus not only what needed to be conserved, and what needed to be reformed, but, perhaps, with more difficulty, what could never be baptized.
The events of recent months have been quite depressing. The re-election of the most abusive and arrogant man in the White House since FDR, the prolonged murder of U.S. citizens on foreign soil, and, as of today, the onslaught of missiles in Gaza. What a world.
Yet, it has always been so.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. Dr. Birzer is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). He teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.