The Wise Faith of Russell Kirk
by James E. Person, Jr.
“I have enjoyed from my earliest years the advantage of being a Fool,” wrote Russell Kirk, that most unfoolish of men, in 1987. In explanation of this odd remark, he cited his antithesis: the Wise Man—the ungrounded intellectual—in Yeats’s play The Hour-Glass, who is saved from spiritual destruction in the last moment of his life when he discovers one person who still believes in God and in the soul, Teigue the Fool.
The name of Russell Kirk and the word “fool” seldom appear in the same sentence. A distinguished conservative man of letters, author of the renowned history of ideas The Conservative Mind (1953), unofficial advisor to American presidents, practicing Roman Catholic, and self-styled “Bohemian Tory”—a writer of traditionalist outlook given to wandering in far lands and enjoying diverse cultures—Kirk nevertheless came to be considered something of a fool during his lifetime by a small number of social critics and political pundits. He could have occupied an honorary chair at any one of several universities, becoming ensconced in a lifelong position and accepting the accolades of numerous admirers and pilgrims to the great man’s school. Kirk could have set up shop in any of the myriad conservative think tanks that today dot the land. In any such scenario, he would have been financially well off, comfortably so. But instead, he chose to live out his life in simplicity at his ancestral home in Mecosta, an almost-forgotten village in the stump-country of north-central Michigan. Even so, at the end of his life, he stated in his memoir that by faith and prudent action he had realized his life’s purpose and could face the end of his earthly existence as a man blessed and fulfilled.
How so? The nature of the belief system Kirk found so fulfilling and how this faith was acted upon in his life are worth considering, if only to begin to understand how a man renowned for his wisdom found and lived out an abundant, good life.
Putting on Armor Young
Kirk had first come to believe in the existence of the immortal soul early in life, during his formative years living in his grandfather’s home beside the railroad tracks in Plymouth, Michigan, the town of his birth and upbringing. Later in life, he wrote that he came to this knowledge by the influence of his family, particularly his gentle mother and her own father, Russell’s grandfather, who by their example exempted him from the intellectual fads and follies of the early twentieth century. He spent his early years “reading good old books instead, and talking with good old people. From the moment I could form coherent sentiments, I was aware that I was a soul. During my teenage years I had my doubts about God, but I never questioned the existence of my own soul: I was not that much of a Fool.”
Interestingly, one of the authors whose works steered Kirk away from becoming a fool during his teenage years was one he seldom mentioned in his writings: Mark Twain. In an unpublished paper written in 1970, Kirk went so far as to say, “More than any other writer, Twain set me to thinking early on about ultimate questions. For me, Twain demolished the notions of Progress and Perfectibility.” He read both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Mysterious Stranger when he was 12 or 13 years old, and they moved him; he affected a precocious cynicism not uncommon among teenagers—“and yet, though I responded to Twain’s pathos, something within me protested against his nihilism.” In the long run, he claimed, he reacted energetically against Twain; but without Twain’s challenge, he might have made no sufficient response to modern disillusion—whether the disillusionment of the Great Depression (which enveloped the nation during Kirk’s teens) or the disillusionment of the postmodern era. “It is better,” he wrote, “to reject the idols of the crowd at the age of thirteen than at the age of thirty: One puts on armor young, and may go on pilgrimage, not in vain.”
Kirk underwent no religious instruction to speak of during his youth; his parents and grandparents were decent, hardworking people who, though embracing neither Christianity nor any other belief system, lived earnestly off the moral capital of their Puritan ancestors. (Kirk’s mother’s family was descended from the Separatist settlers of Plymouth Plantation, after which Plymouth, Michigan, was named.) As Kirk grew older, he gradually adopted a form of Stoicism not dissimilar to the Calvinist belief of his heritage: a belief that amid all our learning, planning, and striving, what happens to us in life is simply meant to be, and that a calm resignation to the workings of a distant, mysterious Providence is the way of wisdom. The hurts of life can be endured, he believed, by following the admonition of Marcus Aurelius: to “Live as upon a mountain,” detached and unbowed by life’s circumstances. A fuller account of Kirk’s spiritual development is given in this issue by Eric Scheske; for the purpose of this shorter account, it suffices to say that over time, Kirk sought something beyond Stoic resignation.
A Divine Intent
Kirk grew into manhood, graduated from college, obtained his master’s degree, and served in uniform during World War II. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, he spent half of each year in Scotland, studying to achieve the highest degree possible in the study of history: the coveted D.Litt. offered by St. Andrews University. His thesis, harking to the reading of “good old books” from his grandfather’s library during his youth, was to be a history of ideas, which would trace and articulate the Anglo-American conservative tradition. As part of his studies, Kirk delved into the works of Edmund Burke, in which he saw articulated the politics of prescription and convention supported by long usage, wise prejudice, and sound tradition.
Kirk also read many other works, including essays and lengthier writings by and about Richard Hooker, Sir Thomas Browne, St. Gregory the Great, John Henry Newman, and other Christian divines. As he recorded in his memoir, he sensed a close affinity with the mind of each of these lights, especially Gregory and Newman. Beginning with his doctoral studies and lasting through the rest of his life, Kirk was drawn to Gregory’s doctrine of Purgatory. As for Newman, Kirk was later to write that he was “won over altogether by the wisdom and the style of Cardinal Newman,” learning from him “the meaning of Authority and how general convictions are formed.” He was struck by one essay in particular, Newman’s essay on John Keble, which contains a passage in which Kirk saw much wisdom:
Conscience is an authority; the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is Antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are hereditary lessons; such are ethical truths; such are historical memoirs; such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions.
At about the time he finished and submitted his thesis, Kirk began to realize that he had not been simply researching his dissertation, but searching for something else. As he wrote years later, in the third person:
What Kirk had been seeking was not so much consolation as understanding: knowledge of the source of authority in faith and morals. By what principles are we to live here below? And how are we to know that those principles, or norms, or doctrines, or dogmas, are true, and were true, and will be true?
The fruit of his research and writing was a dissertation that arguably helped change American history upon its publication in May 1953 under the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana. In this work, Kirk articulated what he called six canons of conservatism, canons that arose from his study of conservative thought in England and the United States from the era of Burke through the mid-twentieth century. He wrote the first of his two master works (the other being The Roots of American Order, published in 1974) to better delineate the essential causes, historical and philosophical, of humanity’s disillusionment with secularism and liberalism, as well as the positive principles of mature conservatism.
Interestingly, the first of Kirk’s “six canons” was this: Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. . . . Politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature. It was no accident that Kirk placed this item first in his short list of canons. (In later editions of The Conservative Mind, he changed the words “a divine intent” to “a transcendent order, or body of natural law,” recognizing that the truths of the Tao or the natural law remain true regardless of whether the people of a particular culture are theistic.)
A Pilgrimage of Faith
Kirk had reached a point in his spiritual development similar to that reached by C. S. Lewis in the late 1920s: an assent to the existence of a personal God, active in human affairs. Kirk sought further clarity in this belief and was aided in this search by a Catholic friend, Professor Peter J. Stanlis of the University of Detroit. On May 4, 1956, exactly three years after the publication of The Conservative Mind, Stanlis presented Kirk with a copy of the book Catholic Approaches to Modern Dilemmas and Eternal Truths, a collection of essays by 10 contributors and edited by Elizabeth Pakenham. Of these essays, Kirk’s attention must have been drawn especially to the first in the collection, a study called “The Mystery of Evil,” by Martin D’Arcy, with whose work Kirk was familiar.
Although Kirk left no record of his encounter with Pakenham’s book, it can be said with near certainty that he read D’Arcy’s essay, among all the others in the collection. Further, ever since his boyhood encounter with Mark Twain’s more cynical works, Kirk had long been fascinated by “the problem of evil”; and in “The Mystery of Evil” D’Arcy articulated a succinct introduction to the subject which, in effect, contributed to the “baptism” of Kirk’s essentially Stoical beliefs and granted him a clearer vision of the life of the spirit.
D’Arcy, a thoughtful old-school Jesuit, whose Christian-Humanist mindset and rigorous thought processes predated more politically focused left/liberal Jesuits of the succeeding generations, used his essay “The Mystery of Evil” to present to the reading public a God of Chestertonian paradoxes, one whose words and actions seem foolishness to the world, who achieves victory through surrender, who defeats human suffering through suffering. At the center of D’Arcy’s essay is the Son of God, who is beloved of God but made a despised sin-bearer for mankind. Of the Crucifixion, D’Arcy writes: “The Son of God is not only repulsed; he is made an enemy and put to death—and it is as if all evil erupted and canalized itself in the hatred and brutality of the murder. But by a complete reversal of the expected, this evil unresisted and in full flood is dammed and transformed into life-giving love.” Further:
The evil that man does is not defeated by force, but in the silence of God dead and hidden away from the sight of man. In this story then, God does the opposite of what we expect; he does not quell evil; he loses his life in a more bitter way of suffering than is the lot of most other men, and yet he prevails. Moreover we have here the supreme manifestation of what God is like; so far from indifferent he makes the worst abuse of liberty a form of love and marriage. It is not surprising, therefore, if suffering is often the lot of the good and is recognized by the saints as the covenanted way of true happiness. God has more than justified himself; he has mysteriously made naught of death and sin.
Philosophically, this is a logical step beyond Stoicism—and entirely in line with Kirk’s own growing understanding of Christian doctrine, especially that of Kirk’s friend T. S. Eliot, who had written much poetry and drama that presented the essence of the Christian experience as a pilgrimage of faith along the Way of Suffering. D’Arcy’s conclusion to his discourse on suffering and the ways of God must have rung true to the Stoical Kirk:
It is only, I think, in the light of the suffering of the Son of God that we can look without dismay at the wounded man in his “private world of pain.” . . . The world in which “all things are hard: man cannot explain them by word,” where “all is vanity and vexation of spirit, and the perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite”; this same world in which hopes are stillborn and good causes are brought to nothing, so full of wastelands and crosses, is, if the Christian revelation be true, a cross on which God has stretched his arms, making of it a tree of life.
As he later stated in his memoir, then, Kirk’s conversion experience became not so much a “Road to Damascus” event, but a gradual coming around to a sound understanding of Roman Catholic doctrine and an assent to the claims of Jesus Christ. In the course of this transformation, the Stoicism Kirk had acquired during his earlier years was not effaced, “but it was transmuted very gradually.” In the same way Stoic thought had blended with Christian revelation in the early years of the Church, especially in the West, so did Kirk’s own meditations on Stoicism and Christianity blend. “Quite as there subsists Christian humanism, there endures Christian Stoicism,” he declared. As he later wrote in a letter to William F. Buckley, Jr., published in the latter’s book Nearer, My God, “I was not ‘converted’ to the Church, but made my way into it through what Newman calls illation—fragments of truth collecting in my mind through personal experience, conversations, knowledge of exemplars, and much reading and meditating.”
A Catholic Romance
And romance, of all things. By the end of the 1950s, Kirk’s head was definitely inclined toward Christianity and Rome. In 1960, his heart followed. That year he met a young woman named Annette Courtemanche, a 19-year-old college student who had invited him to speak at a meeting of conservatives at Molloy College for Women in New York. Annette herself was a “cradle Catholic” who had been educated by exacting old-school nuns throughout her life. She was a thoroughgoing Thomist, possessing both intellectual agility and great physical beauty. Kirk, then in his forties and a bachelor, was bowled over by this knowledgeable and attractive young woman, who used the forum of this conservative meeting to speak on the subject of Kirk’s book The American Cause.
In the months that followed this speaking engagement, Russell and Annette began exchanging letters and phone calls, and in time they realized that what had begun as merely a respectful exchange of polite and learned discussion had turned into heartfelt romance. Kirk began to court Annette, who came to visit him at his ancestral home in Mecosta. During the days, they would course about the nearby lakes in a canoe (named by Kirk “The Annette”), and as Kirk paddled, he would ask his beloved various questions about Catholic doctrine. For her part, Annette would answer his questions by formulating answers drawn from her own reasoning power, as well as by reading aloud from one of the pre-Vatican II catechisms of the day. This written work explicitly answered the questions Kirk asked, including: What is the purpose of life? Who is God? How might the mystery of the Trinity be explained? What is Man? What are the roots of sin? What are the sacraments and their significance? For whom shall I pray? Should laymen read the Bible?
What features of the Catholic Church, distinguishing it from other Christian sects, drew Kirk to her side? Kirk’s reply to this question is also found in Buckley’s book:
What I found in the Church was Authority. Catholicism is governed by Authority; Protestants, by private judgment. I had become painfully aware of the insufficiency of Private Judgment in the twentieth century—every man creating his own morals. In my search, over the years, for a sound apprehension of the human condition, I came at last to recognize in the Roman Church the elements of Truth, as sustained by two thousand years of continuity; by the wealth of wisdom in the Church’s pronouncements; by the lives and words of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Gregory the Great, particularly, among the Church Fathers; by Acton’s observation, if you will, that no institution purely human could have survived, over the centuries, so many blunders.
Having sought formal instruction from Father John McDuffie of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, Kirk entered the Church in mid-1964, not long before he and Annette were married.
The Kirk Mission
In time, the Kirks created a most unusual household; for at Annette’s behest (with Russell’s encouragement), their home in Mecosta came to serve as a magnet and safe-house for homeless immigrants in need of job and language skills, unwed mothers in need of acceptance and help, and half-reformed burglars in need of shelter and work. Indeed, the Kirks transformed the old, ancestral house, called Piety Hill, into what some admirers called “the Mecosta Mission.” As late as 1984, they were still providing such help to a great number and variety of displaced persons, with Kirk writing to his friend Peter Stanlis, “We have with us at Mecosta four Croats, four Poles, one Italian, one Swiss, one Scot; we had two Ethiopians recently; also a congeries of Americans: A summer household of twenty-four, in all, ranging from eight years of age to ninety-three.”
Throughout the many years of this activity, room was somehow found to accommodate all who came. And in the midst of it all, Kirk continued to find the time to write well-received books, departing from Mecosta periodically to serve as a guest lecturer at numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States and Europe. During his times at home, the Kirk home resembled something out of the play You Can’t Take It With You, with lively conversations to be enjoyed, disputes to be settled, games to be played, books to be read, hobbies to be engaged in, and all manner of comings and goings. Life was not always full of lightness and gaiety, but to the Kirks it was invigorating and fulfilling.
The “Mecosta Mission” was largely Annette’s doing, though Russell cheerfully acquiesced and was a gracious and helpful host to his houseguests. As Annette explained to a writer for the Detroit Free Press Sunday magazine supplement in 1987, “Russell allows me the freedom to do these things.” Further, “We didn’t plan it. People just came to us needing help,” and to provide help to them “was part of our religious commitment.”
The Kirks’ generosity can only be described, in the old sense of the word, as hilarious—meaning open-handed, with wild abandon. On more than one occasion, Russell Kirk solemnly adjured advice seekers, “Never save any money”—he having firsthand knowledge of the spiritual rewards of generosity. In part because of the many hungry mouths to be fed at Piety Hill, the meeting of everyday expenses was sometimes in doubt, but though the wolf could sometimes be heard sniffing at the door, he never entered the Kirks’ homely house. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is more powerful than men,” the Apostle Paul had written—and the Kirks demonstrated this truth by their living faith.
The Final Chapter
The years passed, and Kirk continued to spend long hours each day researching and writing his books and lectures while finding time to entertain a large number of guests who came to visit. But in 1993 his health took a severe turn for the worse. He grew weak and tired, and lost a great deal of weight. On Ash Wednesday, 1994, Kirk was informed that he had congestive heart failure and just a short while to live. Upon learning this at his doctor’s office, he returned home and composed the final chapter of his long-awaited memoir, The Sword of Imagination. That chapter, “Is Life Worth Living?” was answered with a resounding yes. “At the age of seventy-five,” he wrote,
Kirk had come to understand that he had sought, during his lifetime, three ends or objects.
One had been to defend the Permanent Things. . . . He had sought to conserve a patrimony of order, justice, and freedom: a tolerable moral order; and an inheritance of culture. Although rowing against a strong tide, in this aspiration he had succeeded somewhat, certainly beyond his early expectation, in reminding people that truth was not born yesterday.
A second had been to lead a life of decent independence, living much as his ancestors had lived, on their land, in circumstances that would enable him to utter the truth and make his voice heard: a life uncluttered and unpolluted, not devoted to getting and spending. In his antique vocation of man of letters, he had achieved that aspiration at Piety Hill.
A third end had been to marry for love and to rear children who would come to know that the service of God is perfect freedom. In his middle years, the splendid Annette had given herself to him and then given him four children, presently endowed with the unbought grace of life. Annette and he helped to sustain the institution of the family by creating a vigorous example.
Thus his three wishes had been granted; he was grateful. Power over others, and much money, he never had desired; he had been spared those responsibilities.
By eschewing power and wealth, Kirk had taken a path that many people, during the prosperous 1980s and 1990s, considered the path of a fool. But Kirk had discovered in the pursuit of these three ends life’s greatest treasures—as well as their capstone: “Aristotle instructs us that life is for action; Irving Babbitt, that we must find our happiness in work or not at all. What sort of action, and work for what purpose? The answer is catechetical: to know God, and enjoy Him forever.”
During the last weeks of Kirk’s life, his daughters were just down the hall from his bedroom to help Annette attend to his few needs. Bedridden now, Kirk summoned to his side his four daughters. He spoke with them of many things, telling them that if they would be wise, they ought to read and reread four specific writings informed by the moral imagination: The Little Fir Tree, by Hans Christian Andersen; The Pilgrim’s Regress, by C. S. Lewis; The Golden Key, by George MacDonald; and Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Each of these works, upon reflection, focuses on the imperative to take long views, to survey one’s present circumstances through the lens of eternity, to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not upon your own understanding.” The story of the twentieth century writ large, Kirk knew, was of “wise men” in positions of great power who had trusted entirely in their own understanding—and by doing so had turned much of the good earth into a thistle-patch and a slaughter-pen.
Made for Eternity
Kirk slept poorly during those final weeks and ate little, but he kept busy indexing a forthcoming book and reading. Interestingly, during the final week of his life, a physically weak Kirk reread Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, “defying the Foul Fiend” one last time by wrestling with Twain’s statement of rejection of God. Although this may seem an odd choice of reading for a dying Catholic, it seemed to Annette Kirk that her husband wanted to face once more that last challenge to his own faith—the mysteries of suffering, both by the dying and the living who were left behind—and to triumph. In mid-April, a small, private ceremony was held at Piety Hill on the occasion of Kirk’s being presented with a festschrift titled The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk. He was deeply touched, even moved to tears, by the presentation of this volume, to which many friends had contributed essays.
Several weeks passed. On the morning of April 29, after spending much of the previous evening reading one of Shakespeare’s plays, he awoke and enjoyed a hearty breakfast in his room with Annette, then conversed with her for better than two hours. After a time, Annette excused herself to go downstairs and take care of some housekeeping concerns in the kitchen. But before she left the bedroom, she felt compelled to turn back one last time to look at Russell, who gazed at her and said quietly, “I have assigned my will to the will of God.”
Interestingly, the word he used was assigned, not resigned, indicating affirmation, not resignation. Here, at the end, Christian hope subsumed Aurelian quietude. “I have assigned my will to the will of God.” They were Russell Kirk’s last words. A few minutes after uttering them, he died peacefully.
Is life worth living? Yes, for as he had written in his memoir,
At an early age Kirk had learned from the discourse and the examples of his mother and his grandfather that life is well worth living. He had learned also that life ought to be lived with honor, charity, and prudence. Those and other enduring principles he had accepted on authority: “Believe what all men, everywhere, always have believed.” Somewhat to his surprise, his adherence to those precepts brought strength and happiness into his life.
Beyond that, “Kirk had come to understand that there exists a realm of being beyond this temporal world and that a mysterious providence works in human affairs—that man is made for eternity. Such knowledge had been consolation and compensation for sorrow.”
Satisfied that he had fulfilled his vocation faithfully, though not without occasional failings, he was prepared at the end to assign his will to the will of God. Kirk had come a long way from his grandfather’s house beside the railroad tracks in Plymouth. He had traveled over much of the world—much of it on foot—and had come full circle to the ancestral home he had always loved, living out his final days among the people he loved most.
Laying hold of the fact that man is made for eternity, he eschewed power, wealth, and position; he had focused his powers on redeeming the time among his family, his community, his state, and the nation at large, recognizing that man (contrary to the claims of fools on the political left as well as the political right) is not an economic creature alone, but rather a being made for eternity; and he faced his own eternity with humble confidence. It is significant, then, that the final word in his memoir, written at a time when he knew he was not long for this world, was not “Farewell,” but “Forward!” “I have enjoyed from my earliest years the advantage of being a Fool,” he had written, a few years before his death. Perhaps he was not so foolish after all.
James E. Person, Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books), as well as Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow (Cumberland House Publishing), and is a longtime book reviewer. He has written on Kirk and on Evelyn Waugh for Touchstone.
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