Alan Wolfe’s New Republic piece is not so much a book review as a thinly guised personal attack on one of the universally acknowledged sources for the modern American conservative movement, Russell Kirk (1918-1994). As Kirk himself was among the most perceptive conservative critics of higher education in the late 20th-century, he would not have been surprised by Wolfe’s conventional academic display of intellectual arrogance, intemperance, and, yes, irritability. Unsurprisingly, Wolfe’s lack of discipline prevents him from understanding the first thing about the mind of the man who’s his subject. The occasion for Wolfe’s polemic is the appearance of a collection mostly of Kirk’s essays and speeches edited by the literary critic George A. Panichas. The charge: Kirk is a “contemptuous conservative” (aren’t we all?), he exhibits a “smallness of person” (again, aren’t all conservatives small-minded?), his “political writings are fantastic” (not in the complimentary sense), he “can offer only cliché dressed up as conviction” (not a bad cliché in the making), he is “breathtakingly unoriginal,” (for doggedly citing his sources), and on and on it goes. Wolfe is clearly left scratching his head and asking, “What did William F. Buckley, Jr. and legions of others like him ever see in this guy?”
Wolfe displays his factual ignorance of his subject matter on more than one occasion: For instance, he scores Kirk for seeming to dabble with religion, asserting that Kirk “cannot find the answer” to the question of “which Christianity?” in the Catholic Church. Had Wolfe troubled to Google the words “Russell Kirk” and “Catholicism” he could have uncovered the fact that Kirk converted to Catholicism at age 45. Indeed, the fifth link turned up by such a search is an article on Kirk entitled “the Conservative Convert.” William F. Buckley Jr. in his book Nearer My God to Thee even asked Kirk to reply to WFB’s questions about the claims of Catholicism.
Not that this would have endeared Kirk to Wolfe, whose prose drips disdain for every variety of Christian faith he mentions. Wolfe treats Kirk rather straightforward presentation that Christianity was an advance on Judaism as something shocking. Christians have always and everywhere believed this to be true. What is shocking is the way that Wolfe draws a caricature of the Christian tradition. On the one side he presents us with an ideological and nearly totalitarian Catholicism, on the other he presents us with a mindless, obscurant, and anti-intellectual Evangelicalism. If such a crude analysis were applied to any other tradition the author of it would rightly be called a bigot.
Wolfe, however, can’t seem to help himself. He is audacious enough to imply that Kirk misunderstands Nazism because Kirk focused less on the particulars of Nazi social planning (such as the horrific extermination of Jews and other “life unworthy of life” such as the handicapped) than on the general principle these atrocities illustrate: That the hubris entailed in presuming to “plan” the fates of millions and bend their daily lives to the strictures of an ideology will usually lead to tyranny and murder — as it did for tens of millions more in Communist countries from Hungary to Cambodia.
If the last, and decidedly terrible century in many ways, taught us anything it was that using bayonets and bureaucracies to “remake” human nature leads to killing real men and women, when they fail to meet (or decline to cooperate with) the ideals of the men in power. This insight used to be common currency throughout not just the conservative movement, but also the anti-Communist Left — and has been reiterated by the likes of Milosz, Havel, and Sakharov, not to mention (to spare Wolfe’s sensibilities) Walesa and Wotyjla.
Wolfe seems puzzled that “of all the crimes committed by the Nazis, the proclivity of human perfectibility is an odd one to choose.” In fact, in citing this particular Nazi fantasy, Kirk cut straight to the heart of the matter, rebuking all politicians and ideologues who invoke the impossible ideal of transforming men into gods as a pretext to massacre their enemies. Cognitively, Kirk got the order precisely right: Actions follow from thoughts. If power tends to corrupt, then the power to transform human nature entails the ultimate corruption — as prophets from Zamyatin to Orwell and Huxley well understood.
Wolfe accuses Kirk of failing to see that ideology could be found on both sides of the political divide. In fact, Kirk excluded from his conservative pantheon anyone who displayed the pathological tendency to construct ideologies, and elevated those who resisted this temptation. For this is he to be condemned? Still Kirk was no simple defender of the status quo; he wrote early and often that conservatively disposed minds in one age might of necessity be radical in another. Radical, but not revolutionary. Establishing that difference was the burden of Kirk’s long work.
So impatient is Wolfe to push Kirk off the stage, that he cannot make up his mind how to attack him — for instance, he cannot decide whether to dismiss Kirk as an eccentric, or attack him for being unoriginal. When Kirk’s critiques of modern liberalism echo points made in the 1920s by Heidegger and in the 1960s by Adorno and Horkheimer, Wolfe cites this fact as if he had proven plagiarism — rather than simply stumbling on the fact that the flaws in liberal, secular modernity can be visible from a wide variety of perspectives. Like Kirk, a variety of other conservative thinkers (including Eric Voeglin, Gerhart Niemayer, and Robert Nisbet) viewed the modern project skeptically, from the deep perspective provided by Classical and Christian humanism.
Wolfe dismisses Kirk because he was not a deep religious thinker, not a theological or philosophical metaphysician. That is about as helpful as rebuking a farmer for not being an auto mechanic; or a literary critic for not being an economist. Kirk never pretended that he was a dialectician or political philosopher, but intentionally retained the stance of a man of letters in the tradition of Thomas More, Erasmus, Schiller, and others who drew from the same streams of thought which nourished him; indeed, Kirk looked askance at those who derived politics from pure philosophy, reminding his readers that beyond discursive reason there were other modes of knowledge — and that it is in these we frequently find the antidotes to ideology. When Kirk discussed religion — and this is a point a liberal like Wolfe should appreciate — he did so like Burke (who Wolfe also gets factually wrong as an across the board defender of established churches), at a level of generality that contributed to an appreciation of religion’s role in Western and American civilization without descending into sectarian squabbles that tend to alienate and divide, where issues can be hashed out peacefully. Kirk believed in the richness of real diversity (it was one of his six conservative canons) as a manifestation of something true, good, and beautiful. He attempted and mostly succeeded at what many intellectuals find difficult: reconciling the claims of the universal with the claims of the particular. Balance. Prudence. Humaneness. Piety. Gratitude. These are Kirk’s intellectual virtues. No wonder he seems so unsavory to a paint-by-numbers leftist like Wolfe.
Wolfe scathes Kirk for favorably citing the writings of John Randolph, a southerner who only freed his slaves in his last will and testament. In that case, the works of Randolph’s fellow Southerners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (to name just a few) should also go into the memory hole, since they did precisely the same.
Wolfe embarrasses himself by his dismissive references to Orestes Brownson, one of Kirk’s important influences. Had Wolfe spent five minutes investigating Brownson he would have found that this pivotal Transcendentalist and Catholic convert was the subject of Kirk’s mirror opposite, Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s, first book. Wolfe smugly assumes that such a thinker must be unimportant — perhaps because he has never heard of him or because he is simply unimportant to Wolfe. It’s a testament to Kirk’s achievement that he brought so many such figures to life for thousands of ordinary readers — so that they might once again instruct conservatives like us, and irritate liberals like Wolfe.
One could write a thesis on Wolfe’s misreading of Kirk’s understanding of American constitutionalism, but it would make dull reading, since Wolfe is a minor figure and his errors are so obvious.
Silliest of all, Wolfe suggests that a Kirk aside about the pornographic quality of late-night movies offered in hotels can only mean that Kirk secretly must have watched them. Apparently Wolfe does not believe that titles displayed on screen or written up in guides are informative enough for a perceptive reader like Kirk. One does not have to look into a sewer to know what is in it.
Kirk had the courage not to join the safe ranks of those loyal modern company men of our time, the professors. He was an independent man of letters. He was, in his way, an entrepreneur; a liberty loving individual. Of course, the hazard of being a man of letters outside the academy is that one’s occasional pieces are repetitive, as Wolfe points out. But the difference between a man of letters and the professor as company man appear beyond Wolfe’s ability to grasp. The man of letters is not, like Wolfe and his like, an intellectual worker, someone trained and paid to give us rote reproduction of truth or, worse, an innovator who earns honors by turning truth and tradition on its head. But here, for Wolfe, was Kirk’s greatest sin. He was not (like Mussolini and Mao) an innovator. He is what a man of letters ought to be: a guardian, a custodian, not so much conservative as conservator. In The Conservative Mind and Program for Conservatives he weaves together an original reconstitution, a fresh synthesis of ancient ideas and modern experience for the contemporary age. Such an effort of high imagination must appear to the likes of Professor Wolfe at once befuddling and futile. It serves no power center in society, attracts few grants or prestigious appointments, and never lands one on Sunday morning talk shows. So it must be a waste of time.
As Wolfe reminds us, Kirk has a literary following as one of the first to revive the once-great (cf. Shelley’s Frankenstein) genre of Gothic fiction. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and just about every anthology of this genre credit Kirk as a forerunner to a now popular field and include his stories in compilations. Literature and literary criticism was by far the largest section in Kirk’s personal library. His conservatism is fundamentally literary, secondarily historical. He makes no pretense to being a theorist of the modern kind. His capacious world view points through the rational to the mysterious, and draws on the inscapes of poetry, to express them in prose. Kirk’s style itself is carefully crafted to lift his reader out of the apathy, boredom, and consequent despair that pervade our popular culture. He opens before us common human ground across cultures, and reminds us of the centrality of the particular place where we live and breathe. He is not beyond criticism, to be sure. However, what Wolfe has offered the readers of The New Republic is little more than a type of hatred distilled into prose — a petty attempt at literary assassination, by a lone gunman shooting wide of the mark.
Kirk’s may not be everyone’s preferred point of entry into the wholeness of conservative humanism; but it is a road he laid down himself, when the whole of conservative thought had been dismissed and seemed discredited, and it has led two generations already on sound and sure paths of study. It remains to serve many more. In many important ways, Kirk is an exemplar of the American mind at its finest, a kind of conservative Emerson, an Edwardian man of letters, or perhaps most aptly, the last member of Coleridge’s clerisy. One hundred years from now Kirk will be widely read — as will the thinkers he rescued from undeserved oblivion. Wolfe knows this — and that’s precisely what infuriates him.
For a man who so loved what is good in our shared past, Kirk was ever hopeful for the future. He endeared himself to youthful minds by his impish, childlike enthusiasm. Fresh minds will always be attracted to Kirk for his hope, his eagerness for projects that might renew in little ways (and big) our battered civilization, and his good cheer in the face of hostility. Even as he pointed to cultural turbulence, deadening positivism, and atheistic materialism as the gods of marketplace, Kirk did so with a smile that said, “This too shall pass.” He knew, with T. S. Eliot, that no cause is ever wholly lost, because none is ever wholly won. Our compass is not earthly triumph but vindication under eternity. Therein lies liberation — and the spirit which brought down the Eastern Bloc and will level every Leviathan. No wonder he drives Leviathan’s servants to distraction.
— Jeffrey O. Nelson is president of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, co-editor of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, and, full disclosure, a former Kirk assistant who married the boss’s second daughter.