The Idea of Kirk
Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley McDonald
University of Missouri Press, 2004
reviewed by Jeremy Beer
Most readers today, if they have heard of Russell Kirk at all, know him simply as a conservative icon. This is unfortunate, for the actual intentions and thought and life of the real Russell Kirk, who articulated a humane, traditionalist, localist, and deeply religious conservatism, is paradoxically in danger of being permanently sidelined among movement conservatives, and therefore never met at all by anyone else.
Russell Kirk the icon is referred to in official parlance as one of the “principal architects of the postwar conservative intellectual movement” and is an officially revered figure in movement circles. But he was a much more interesting thinker than one might infer from that fact; indeed, his eccentricities and dissenting opinions are what make him so fascinating, and so useful.
Thus, he made it a point to criticize neoconservatives’ ideologically inspired globalist ambitions. (“I had thought that the Neoconservatives might become the champions of diversity in the world,” Kirk lamented in a Heritage Foundation lecture in 1988. “Instead, they aspire to bring about a world of uniformity and dull standardization, Americanized, industrialized, democratized, logicalized, boring.”) He co-chaired Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign in Michigan and bitterly opposed the first President Bush’s Gulf War. (There is little doubt where he would have stood on George W.’s sequel.)
A loyal supporter of Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan, Kirk nonetheless befriended the socialist Norman Thomas and thought highly of Democratic senator and presidential contender Eugene McCarthy. He was a passionate historical preservationist, a quasi-green who unstintingly praised Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, a reactionary who hated the automobile, a mystic who was captivated by the spiritual implications of quantum physics.
For all of this and more, Kirk was dismissed as a crank by many, and even today he draws fire from certain conservative pundits. But many of his positions are beginning to look more sensible, even prophetic, with the passage of time. Kirk was not perfect in his moral and political judgments, but how much more interesting and honest he was than are so many of our current conservative intellectuals! (“Intellectuals” was for Kirk a pejorative term, along with “capitalist” and “individualist.”)
Despite his iconic status, Kirk, who died in 1994, has until now been the subject of but one monograph. The sparse secondary literature would therefore make Wesley McDonald’s Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology a welcome addition even if its only function was to draw renewed attention to its subject.
But the value of the book, which focuses on the concordance of Kirk’s thought with the principles of the “New Humanist” writers of the first half of the twentieth century, especially Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, is greater than that. It is greater than that, first, because McDonald, who teaches political science at Elizabethtown College and served on a couple of occasions as Kirk’s assistant, possesses a broad knowledge of and sympathy for Kirk’s intellectual project and political principles; and second, because his scholarly exposition of Kirk’s thought can be seen as, in part, an effort to rescue Kirk from the conservative movement he inspired by situating him in continuity with an alternative tradition.
The Humanist Kirk
A popular lecturer, Babbitt (1865–1933) taught the romance languages and Sanskrit at Harvard University and attracted a number of pupils who would go on to brilliant careers, including More, Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippmann, and T. S. Eliot. More (1864–1937) also taught languages for a few years, before becoming a newspaper publisher, editor of The Nation, and then an authority on ancient Greek philosophy.
The essential teaching of their “humanism” was that human nature was “dualistic,” comprising two basic and opposing forces. The first, which had become culturally ascendant since Rousseau and was not entirely unlike the “instinctual” Freudian id, seeks the expansion and emancipation of the self from all constraints. The second, which was not entirely unlike the Freudian superego and which Babbitt and his followers wished to rejuvenate, makes possible the discipline and control of the self, its will and imagination; it acts as an “inner check” against complete self-gratification and therefore makes possible human civilization and community.
For both Babbitt and More, this second force was nourished by great, and especially classical, literature, immersion in which nurtured the growth of a particular cognitive faculty they called, after Edmund Burke, the “moral imagination.” It was usually through this faculty that transcendent ethical norms were apprehended. McDonald argues that Kirk inherited from this New Humanism of Babbitt and More his respect for, and emphasis on, the moral imagination as the indispensable support of the ethical life.
Indeed, Kirk gave the almost forgotten humanism of Babbitt and More a prominent place in his classic work, The Conservative Mind, and repaired to them often throughout the rest of his life. Although McDonald’s primary goal is to present a general (and critical) survey of Kirk’s thinking on such issues as the moral imagination, the natural law, reason, order, tradition, community, technology, and education, he also sets for himself the task of showing that the New Humanists, and especially Babbitt, were decisive influences on Kirk’s thought. Indeed, McDonald claims that Babbitt had an “arguably even greater formative influence on Kirk” than did Edmund Burke.
This is a startling assertion. If boldly argued and extensively documented, it would go a long way towards clearing away the clouds of standard narratives and hagiographical encomia that make Kirk so hard to see.
Babbitt & Burke
McDonald, unfortunately, does not press his thesis. In fact, he does little to prove his assertion other than to quote Kirk himself on the subject. (At a 1983 conference, Kirk claimed that Babbitt had influenced him “more strongly than . . . any other writer of the twentieth century” and that “Babbitt, as much as Burke, animates my book, The Conservative Mind”). That is not nearly enough.
I think that Kirk himself may well have admitted that his claim was too strong. If any twentieth-century writer shaped his mature thought as much as did Burke, it was Babbitt’s student T. S. Eliot (the subject of Kirk’s lone Touchstone essay), who, unlike his New Humanist mentor, subscribed to an explicitly Christian—and explicitly dogmatic, ecclesial, and communal—approach to moral and religious matters, which Kirk, too, finally endorsed over the New Humanists’ arguably still-too-individualistic philosophy of the “inner check.”
Nor should we forget that, beginning with the second edition, Kirk changed The Conservative Mind’s subtitle to “From Burke to Eliot”; nor that Kirk wrote an entire monograph on Eliot, not Babbitt; nor that one of Kirk’s favorite Eliot quotations graces his tombstone (“The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”). The index of Kirk’s autobiography, The Sword of Imagination, reveals that Babbitt is mentioned on six pages, Eliot on forty-five. All of which is to say that, although McDonald may be right, there is ample reason to be doubtful of his thesis.
This is an important point, for McDonald’s elevation of Babbitt and concordant de-emphasis of Eliot has the effect of underplaying the Christian, especially Catholic Christian, quality of Kirk’s thought. McDonald even argues that Kirk was not primarily, or even essentially, a Catholic thinker. There is a good deal of truth to this: As a mid-life convert (he became a Catholic at the age of 45), Kirk’s mind was not formed in the church, after all, and he never entirely left behind his early Stoicism or the mystical Swedenborgian spiritualism of his ancestors.
And McDonald is right that his masters were not “St. Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, or John Courtney Murray,” the natural lawyers who have so influenced contemporary Catholic reflection; that he doubted the sufficiency of reason alone to grasp the most fundamental truths; and that he saw in some schools of natural-law thinking (McDonald makes no distinctions whatever between these schools) an excessive rationalism. But then, John Henry Newman was one of Kirk’s masters, as were a number of other churchmen, including St. Augustine and Kirk’s contemporaries Martin D’Arcy, S.J., and the Episcopalian Bernard Iddings Bell.
In other words, that Kirk was no Neo-Scholastic does not mean that his Catholic Christianity was extrinsic to his basic commitments.
But perhaps we should say that this question concerning the formative importance of Christianity to Kirk’s thought is indicative of a larger problem, which is that Kirk is a slippery fish to haul in over the gunwales.
If treated in the conventional scholarly way, his prose—evocative, aphoristic, self-consciously literary and arcane—is too maddeningly imprecise for analysis. “Yes, but what did Kirk really mean by that nice turn of phrase?” is a question that recurs often to the reader of McDonald’s monograph. McDonald, for example, uses the phrase “permanent things” on more than a dozen occasions—how can one not?—but without ever really successfully defining it, much less enlightening us as to why Kirk chose to employ an idiom in which such terminology played a substantial role.
So, although McDonald’s attempt to view Kirk against a larger intellectual horizon than that provided by the conservative movement is laudable, at the same time his book demonstrates that fresh studies of Kirk’s thought will have to transcend the limitations posed when one approaches Kirk on (literally) his own terms. The very nature of Kirk’s enterprise—not his particular principles and ideas, as important as these are—requires prior explication. Future Kirk scholars must attempt to exhume his meanings and illuminate his rhetorical strategies.
Mark Henrie has recently provided a brilliant example of such a reading in an Intercollegiate Review essay titled “Russell Kirk and the Conservative Heart.” He argues, provocatively, that Kirk chose to employ his distinctive writing style not (or not only) because he was by temperament somewhat eccentric, but because it is so well suited to challenging the reductionist, utilitarian spirit of liberal modernity.
Henrie’s essay shows, I think, that the way to truly see Kirk afresh is not only, like McDonald, to have the courage and good sense to step outside the conventional historiography by looking at Kirk against a background of something other than the conservative political tradition, but also to step outside of Kirk’s own idiom so that one doesn’t get bogged down in the vagaries of terms like “permanent things” and even the “moral imagination.” That, perhaps, is the analytical tool that will allow us to destroy Kirk the icon and recover Kirk the man.
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“The Idea of Kirk” first appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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