A Day to Celebrate the Father of Modern Conservatism

Today is the centennial of the birth of Russell Kirk, considered by many the father of modern conservatism.  It's a day we should celebrate because Russell Kirk was a courageous intellectual warrior in the defense of traditional conservatism.

Born on October 19, 1918, in Plymouth, Michigan, Kirk rose from humble beginnings to become an internationally recognized figure, the author of numerous books, countless articles and reviews, and a syndicated column that ran for thirteen years.  He was also the founding editor of Modern Age and a frequent contributor to National Review.  In 1953, he published his groundbreaking work, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana.  It was this book, more than any other, that launched the modern conservative movement in America.

Kirk's positions on particular issues were often idiosyncratic and hardly in line with conventional thinking on either the left or the right.  He strongly criticized the use of the atomic bomb in Japan, and in 1976, he voted for Eugene McCarthy over both Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.  He was a critic of globalism and imperialism of all sorts, and of the consequent mushrooming of state power not just in Marxist nations, but within Western democracies as well.  Deeply traditional in his lifestyle and thought, Kirk espoused a simple existence akin to what we now call "localism," and he was temperamentally opposed to nearly all forms of change, especially technological change (he disliked automobiles, televisions, computers, and the impersonal and regimented society that accompanied the rise of digital culture).  In other words, he fought to defend the humane civilization, with religion at its center, that had existed for thousands of years.

At the core of Western civilization, of course, was Christianity.  Kirk spoke eloquently against the mounting assault on Christian expression carried out in the name of "separation of church and state."  Unfortunately, for many, "separation" came to mean the complete suppression of religious expression in the public space.  On the left, any reference to religious practice or thought has come to be seen as deeply suspect if not criminal.  Kirk's position was exactly the opposite: he celebrated the practice of Christianity, in his case Catholicism, and he found it inconceivable that civilization in the West could exist without it.  In this way, Kirk continued and amplified the thinking of earlier writers such as Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Willa Cather, and C.S. Lewis.  More broadly in terms of his political ideas, Kirk was much indebted to Edmund Burke.

It is important to consider the historical setting within which Kirk wrote.  Kirk grew up in a time of revolutionary change.  The rapid adoption of the automobile as a near universal means of transportation, with its production at the time centered in nearby Detroit, made a powerful impression on the young author.  It was not just the noise and speed of the machine itself, but the effect on society that Kirk and others bemoaned.  Along with the automobile came the airplane, the telephone, radio, motion pictures, and eventually television and the computer – none of them in Kirk's view especially beneficial for civilized life.  Then there was the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia, and the horrific period of economic collapse followed by a decade of global war.  Accompanying these developments was the rise of the imperial state with its overwhelming power and intrusiveness into the lives of citizens.  Kirk's response was a call for return to civilization on a modest, human scale and to a personal life of self-restraint and self-responsibility with religious faith at its center.

This is not to say Kirk advocated the extreme form of individualism associated with the writings of Ayn Rand.  He understood that a truly meaningful life required engagement with others in society.  Religious communion, per Kirk, is intensely meaningful not for its "value" in terms of health or "social needs," but quite simply because it expresses what is true in nature.  God exists, He must be worshiped, and it was natural that a community of believers should band together.  Kirk also believed in the worth of private charity, and he practiced many acts of kindness and charity, some of them markedly unorthodox, throughout his life.

Set against the forces of evil that arose during his lifetime, Kirk advocated belief in the "permanent things," a term he borrowed from T.S. Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society.  The permanent things consist of the legacy of traditions, institutions, and ways of thinking that one inherits from the past.  Like Eliot, Kirk recognized the immense value of this treasure of inherited thought and belief.  He understood that a true basis for civilization must entail what has evolved over centuries – not the antagonistic and ephemeral doctrines such as Marxism that had come into existence over merely a few decades.

Belief in connection with the past was at the heart of Kirk's thinking.  It was undoubtedly the reason he returned to his ancestral Scotland to study at the University of St. Andrews, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees, and that he established a home in his family's ancestral village of Mecosta, Michigan, a home that he called Piety Hill and that after his death became the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. 

The hundredth anniversary of Russell Kirk's birth should be a time not just to honor Kirk as one of the founders of modern-day conservatism, but, hopefully, as a time to return to the reading and study of his work.  The Essential Russell Kirk is an excellent introduction, and Bradley J. Birzer's Russell Kirk: American Conservative is a useful biography and introduction to his ideas. 

If there is one word that I would apply to Russell Kirk's way of thinking, it is "sensible" (another would be "pious," and another "restrained").  He recognized that it is a difficult and dangerous world in which we live and that only effort and self-control, along with the support of a religious community, can get us through.  Kirk's life was heroic and courageous.  Writing at a time when progressives had dominated the political and intellectual discussion in America for more than fifty years, Kirk brought new life to a tradition of thought based on natural law and divine creation rather than merely on intellectual speculation.  Along with a small number of others, Kirk defended traditional conservatism at a time when it was most under attack.  For this, and for the substantial body of work he left behind, we should celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Jeffrey Folks taught at universities in the U.S., Europe, and Japan for over three decades.  He has published twelve books and over 300 articles and reviews.

Today is the centennial of the birth of Russell Kirk, considered by many the father of modern conservatism.  It's a day we should celebrate because Russell Kirk was a courageous intellectual warrior in the defense of traditional conservatism.

Born on October 19, 1918, in Plymouth, Michigan, Kirk rose from humble beginnings to become an internationally recognized figure, the author of numerous books, countless articles and reviews, and a syndicated column that ran for thirteen years.  He was also the founding editor of Modern Age and a frequent contributor to National Review.  In 1953, he published his groundbreaking work, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana.  It was this book, more than any other, that launched the modern conservative movement in America.

Kirk's positions on particular issues were often idiosyncratic and hardly in line with conventional thinking on either the left or the right.  He strongly criticized the use of the atomic bomb in Japan, and in 1976, he voted for Eugene McCarthy over both Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.  He was a critic of globalism and imperialism of all sorts, and of the consequent mushrooming of state power not just in Marxist nations, but within Western democracies as well.  Deeply traditional in his lifestyle and thought, Kirk espoused a simple existence akin to what we now call "localism," and he was temperamentally opposed to nearly all forms of change, especially technological change (he disliked automobiles, televisions, computers, and the impersonal and regimented society that accompanied the rise of digital culture).  In other words, he fought to defend the humane civilization, with religion at its center, that had existed for thousands of years.

At the core of Western civilization, of course, was Christianity.  Kirk spoke eloquently against the mounting assault on Christian expression carried out in the name of "separation of church and state."  Unfortunately, for many, "separation" came to mean the complete suppression of religious expression in the public space.  On the left, any reference to religious practice or thought has come to be seen as deeply suspect if not criminal.  Kirk's position was exactly the opposite: he celebrated the practice of Christianity, in his case Catholicism, and he found it inconceivable that civilization in the West could exist without it.  In this way, Kirk continued and amplified the thinking of earlier writers such as Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Willa Cather, and C.S. Lewis.  More broadly in terms of his political ideas, Kirk was much indebted to Edmund Burke.

It is important to consider the historical setting within which Kirk wrote.  Kirk grew up in a time of revolutionary change.  The rapid adoption of the automobile as a near universal means of transportation, with its production at the time centered in nearby Detroit, made a powerful impression on the young author.  It was not just the noise and speed of the machine itself, but the effect on society that Kirk and others bemoaned.  Along with the automobile came the airplane, the telephone, radio, motion pictures, and eventually television and the computer – none of them in Kirk's view especially beneficial for civilized life.  Then there was the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia, and the horrific period of economic collapse followed by a decade of global war.  Accompanying these developments was the rise of the imperial state with its overwhelming power and intrusiveness into the lives of citizens.  Kirk's response was a call for return to civilization on a modest, human scale and to a personal life of self-restraint and self-responsibility with religious faith at its center.

This is not to say Kirk advocated the extreme form of individualism associated with the writings of Ayn Rand.  He understood that a truly meaningful life required engagement with others in society.  Religious communion, per Kirk, is intensely meaningful not for its "value" in terms of health or "social needs," but quite simply because it expresses what is true in nature.  God exists, He must be worshiped, and it was natural that a community of believers should band together.  Kirk also believed in the worth of private charity, and he practiced many acts of kindness and charity, some of them markedly unorthodox, throughout his life.

Set against the forces of evil that arose during his lifetime, Kirk advocated belief in the "permanent things," a term he borrowed from T.S. Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society.  The permanent things consist of the legacy of traditions, institutions, and ways of thinking that one inherits from the past.  Like Eliot, Kirk recognized the immense value of this treasure of inherited thought and belief.  He understood that a true basis for civilization must entail what has evolved over centuries – not the antagonistic and ephemeral doctrines such as Marxism that had come into existence over merely a few decades.

Belief in connection with the past was at the heart of Kirk's thinking.  It was undoubtedly the reason he returned to his ancestral Scotland to study at the University of St. Andrews, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees, and that he established a home in his family's ancestral village of Mecosta, Michigan, a home that he called Piety Hill and that after his death became the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. 

The hundredth anniversary of Russell Kirk's birth should be a time not just to honor Kirk as one of the founders of modern-day conservatism, but, hopefully, as a time to return to the reading and study of his work.  The Essential Russell Kirk is an excellent introduction, and Bradley J. Birzer's Russell Kirk: American Conservative is a useful biography and introduction to his ideas. 

If there is one word that I would apply to Russell Kirk's way of thinking, it is "sensible" (another would be "pious," and another "restrained").  He recognized that it is a difficult and dangerous world in which we live and that only effort and self-control, along with the support of a religious community, can get us through.  Kirk's life was heroic and courageous.  Writing at a time when progressives had dominated the political and intellectual discussion in America for more than fifty years, Kirk brought new life to a tradition of thought based on natural law and divine creation rather than merely on intellectual speculation.  Along with a small number of others, Kirk defended traditional conservatism at a time when it was most under attack.  For this, and for the substantial body of work he left behind, we should celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Jeffrey Folks taught at universities in the U.S., Europe, and Japan for over three decades.  He has published twelve books and over 300 articles and reviews.