Politics & Policy

The Moral Imagination of Russell Kirk

He was a master of the whole range of “humane letters.”

Russell Kirk (1918–1994) died 20 years ago, but apparently not before he had seen the handsome volume of tributes to him edited by James E. Person, The Unbought Grace of Life. (The title was taken from the great Edmund Burke, whom Kirk venerated and about whom he wrote frequently and influentially.) Coming from decent but simple origins — he described himself as a child of the Detroit-area railroad yards — Kirk became the most substantial American conservative man of letters of the last 75 years.

After taking degrees from Michigan State and Duke, he served stateside in the U.S. Army during World War II. Then, in 1948, he took his G.I. Bill money to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (the dollar went much further there than in the United States), finally taking that ancient university’s rarely given Doctor of Letters degree in 1952. His dissertation was subsequently published to great acclaim as The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (1953). It was updated the following year and has subsequently gone through many editions under the revised title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot; Kirk admired and was befriended by T. S. Eliot and was close to him for the last two decades of Eliot’s life, both in the U.K. and in the U.S., to which Kirk returned after his time at St. Andrews. In 1972, seven years after Eliot’s death — and after 18 years of work — Kirk published Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (a handsome new paperback edition was published in 2008 by ISI Books).

These two outstandingly judicious and well-written books established Kirk as the most important conservative man of letters in the United States, the conservative equivalent to the liberal critic and moralist Lionel Trilling, and in 1955 Kirk became a regular columnist and éminence grise for William F. Buckley Jr.’s new conservative magazine, National Review. Yet Kirk did not move to New York City. In fact, in 1959, he gave up his teaching position at his alma mater, Michigan State University, and moved to the remote north woods of Michigan from which his family had come. While in Great Britain he had begun a career as a writer of “spectral and Gothic literature,” originally in search of money, but his critical success was substantial. The obituary of Kirk published in the London Independent (June 30, 1994) dwelt on his early supernatural stories: “These tales are now recognized as modern classics”; the obituary went on to mention his later tales and novels in this genre. One of the tales won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1977.

Kirk’s life has been narrated in several biographical portraits and in his own The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Eerdmans, 1995). He wrote several other important books and managed to support himself, both before and after his marriage, as a working writer and public speaker. He was also an editor of distinction, collaborating with the sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz on a multi-volume “Library of Conservative Thought” (Transaction Books) and editing an excellent Portable Conservative Reader for Penguin Books, published in 1982. He and his wife, Annette, also mentored hundreds of young people through correspondence and conversations and seminars at their remote but beautiful Michigan home, where Annette Kirk remains active to this day.

In an era of hyper-specialization, Kirk’s range over “humane letters” — fiction, biography, history, political thought, sociology, literary criticism — was alternately or simultaneously respected, suspected, envied, and resented. His withdrawal from university teaching and criticism of current trends in the academy were courageous but risky in an era — from 1952 onwards — when the contemporary American research university was under construction. It was a brave or foolhardy man who would so thoroughly expose and harshly criticize academic nominalism and neophilia — the tendency “to know more and more about less and less,” to prefer exceptions to rules, to eschew all general views for specialized knowledge only, and to reject the great heritage of “metaphysical realism,” including hallowed “self-evident truths,” for nominalist and neoterist detail. As G. M. Young lamented in his excellent Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, “We . . . go out into the Waste Land of Experts, each knowing so much about so little that he can neither be contradicted nor is worth contradicting.” Only the consensus liberal-Left currency, which even the liberal Trilling thought threadbare and tarnished, seemed to be accepted as coin for general academic conversation: The liberal/utilitarian/Marxist spectrum of Left opinion had become, and has remained, an orthodoxy.

But despite Kirk’s long and fruitful collaboration with Buckley and National Review, he also had a problem with much of what had passed for American “conservatism” in the first five decades of the 20th century. While very sympathetic to states’ rights, he was no segregationist or neo-Confederate — although he did include a selection from John C. Calhoun in his vast Portable Conservative Reader. As was clear in a late address he gave to a symposium on Agrarians and Distributists sponsored by Louisiana State University in 1992, he was very sympathetic to the great Southern Agrarian writers — Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren — but not to racialism.

The other malignant “conservative” ghost that Kirk’s whole body of literary and rhetorical work refused to serve, and tried to exorcise, was a self-interest that had often haunted, disfigured, and discredited conservatism from the French Revolution onward: Think of the disillusionment of William Cobbett (1763–1835) with the British Tory conservatism that he had courageously defended early in life. This veiled, hypocritical, or frank self-interest took particularly virulent and pervasive form after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 seemed to give it ideological legitimation in “Social Darwinism.” Kirk’s “conservative mind” eschewed altogether “economism” and the covertly or openly sneering Social Darwinism — the fit survive and deserve to survive — that had emerged all over the “advanced” West and in Japan by the 1870s, and was a contributory cause not only of imperialist and segregationist race-pride, but also of fascism, Nazism, and two vast world wars. Kirk intuitively knew the profound metaphysical truth that Reinhold Niebuhr (and Trilling, quoting him) had praised Kant for enunciating: that there is one radical evil that must be avoided at all costs: the use of the language of ethics as a screen or tool for self-interest or self-love. In this light, imperialism, nationalism, fascism, segregation, and smug “laissez-faire” capitalism were — are — shown to be incoherent, worthless, contemptible moral-political stances. A self-styled “Bohemian Tory,” Kirk even voted for the non-Marxist Socialist Norman Thomas in 1944 and the Democratic gadfly Eugene McCarthy in 1976.

In that year, Kirk reiterated his own fundamental loyalty, the quality and commitment that made him a traditionalist conservative, not a Social Darwinist or a libertarian: his loyalty to “our patrimony of great humane literature, which joins dead and living and those yet unborn,” as he put it in the essay “Perishing for Want of Imagery” in Modern Age, the fine quarterly that he founded in 1957. And from his wide interests and diverse body of writing it was clear that within that category of “literature” he considered the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the political, historical, and philosophical writings as well as the plays and poems of the Greeks and Romans, and the long, magnificent subsequent flowering of sapiential or “wisdom” literature and art all over the West, including works by Burke and the American Founding Fathers as well as belles lettres from Shakespeare to Flannery O’Connor. Because “we human beings are imaginative by nature, we cannot choose to live by the routine of the ant-heap. If deprived of the imagery of virtue” — imaginative depictions of the truly good life — “we will seek out the imagery of vice.” (Kirk was closer here to the subtle Trilling than he realized.) French literature from the mid-18th century onward was frequently a cautionary tale of the effects of “the diabolic imagination” (as Burke had pointed out in a letter to the Marquis de Rivarol), whereas, for complex reasons, much British and some American literature had kept alive and renewed the older sources of wisdom, inspiration, health, and the imagery of virtue. Praising Martin and Ruthe Battestin’s definitive biography of the novelist Henry Fielding in 1991, Kirk delighted in their discrediting the conception of Fielding as some kind of libertine by quoting their verdict: “Far from being the forward-looking prophet of libertarianism he sometimes is said to be, Fielding was profoundly conservative as a social thinker.”

Kirk’s Conservative Mind had attracted praise from a wide spectrum of political opinion when it was published in 1953. His Eliot and His Age, published in 1972, also attracted praise from many quarters, including leftish journals such as The Progressive. In fact one of the finest, deepest, and best-argued pieces of appreciation of the Eliot book came from Charles L. Markmann, writing in the left-wing, New York–based The Nation (March 27, 1972). What was apparent to Kirk’s perceptive readers from early on was that he had thought long, hard, and deeply about “the permanent things” that make a civilization as a moral order and distinguish it from a mere aggregation of competitive races, nations, classes, companies, institutions, or individuals. In the light of the ferocious French Revolution of 1789–1799 — utopianism gone bad and mad, moving from idyllic imagination to diabolic reality, and ending in Napoleonic despotism — Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (all reprinted in Kirk’s Conservative Reader) had reconsidered the logic of “Enlightenment” that had led to it. Kirk too, in his geographical, occupational, and academic wanderings, had learned that “order in the commonwealth” was dependent on “order in the soul,” that politics was a subset of ethics, and that the reliable pursuit of a just social order was rooted in a recognition of Divine Goodness. That amoral but shrewd statesman Talleyrand (1754–1838) said that the three greatest men of his age were Napoleon, the British Whig leader Charles James Fox, and Alexander Hamilton, and that if he had to choose the greatest it would be Hamilton. In his Conservative Reader, Kirk reprinted two of Hamilton’s essays: not his great Federalist essays but two that are less well known, one of them a 1798 analysis of the anti-Christian French Revolution, in which Hamilton argues that the true lover of liberty “knows that morality overthrown (and morality must fall with religion), the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man, and confine him within the bounds of social duty” (“The Stand,” April 7, 1798). Napoleon’s coup d’état took place on November 9–10, 1799. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) had been even more eerily prophetic than Hamilton’s essay. The observer of vastly worse 20th-century catastrophes in Russia and China, costing one hundred million lives, had been warned.

Kirk’s great theme was thus “the moral imagination,” and his devotion to it made him skeptical of Left-liberal claims for political and social “science.” Kirk’s own writing was an Arnoldian attempt to see life steadily and see it whole, ultimately the birthright and duty of every reflective person. But, like Eliot, he reversed Matthew Arnold’s movement from liberal Christianity to conservative humanism, moving instead from conservative humanism to orthodox, Catholic Christianity. Having been born and raised in the United States and then residing in Scotland for crucial years of study, thought, and writing, Kirk remained enamored of the great American writers James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the great Scottish writers Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, but he increasingly widened his scope to include the whole Anglosphere, publishing late in life a short but lucid defense of the Anglo-American traditions of law, politics, civic order, and literature, America’s British Culture (Transaction, 1993). Yet it was a book without the ethnic or class snobbery of the conscious Anglophile, and Kirk also wrote appreciatively of modern European writers such as C.-F. Ramuz, Simone Weil, Gustave Thibon, and Miguel de Unamuno.

But Kirk did not remain on the Olympian heights of historical and philosophical generalization. One of the most moving and admirable features of his career was his concern with the precise history and even the “nitty-gritty” of American educational policy, from elementary and high school through college and university. In his work for National Review and his syndicated columns, and in his curriculum reviews for America’s Future Inc. of New Rochelle in the mid-1980s, he did the kind of detailed spade work on American educational theory, practice, and policy that is indispensable for reform and renewal. It is fair to say that he foreshadowed and would have been sympathetic to the noble subsequent efforts of E. D. Hirsch Jr. in shaping the K–8 Core Knowledge Curriculum for elementary schools, whose flowering in a thousand American school districts Kirk did not live to see, but which is arguably the most beneficial educational development at any level of American education over the last 50 years. Regarding university-level education, Kirk wrote the admirably detailed Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning: An Episodic History of American University and College since 1953 (Gateway, 1978). Having sadly watched the empire-building “cult of the colossal” of President John Hannah at Michigan State University, dissented from it, and resigned his position there, Kirk knew how powerful was the dynamic drive of “the reign of quantity” in education, and he remained for the rest of his life an advocate and practical patron of new initiatives and “small is beautiful” liberal-arts colleges wherever possible.

Like Ruskin, Eliot, the Southern Agrarians, and the English Distributists Chesterton and Belloc, Kirk had a truly conservative piety toward nature and criticized the cult of “growth at all costs.” A longtime, thoughtful reader of National Review wrote to the magazine in 1990 deploring the widespread conservative neglect of environmental issues and pointing out that Russell Kirk was one of the few prominent, honorable exceptions who did not “excuse or belittle the destruction of nature.” Kirk published the poetry of the noble agrarian Wendell Berry in his University Bookman and hated the wastefulness and ugliness of modern industrial-commercial civilization and the ambiguous eclipse of space, time, and intimacy by technologies such as television. He also drew attention to the profoundly important revisionist work on the history, philosophy, and significance of natural science done by the physicist Stanley L. Jaki (see “The Rediscovery of Creation,” National Review, May 27, 1983).

In an impressively penetrating essay, “The Architecture of Servitude and Boredom” (in Reclaiming a Patrimony: The Heritage Lectures, 13; 1982), Kirk showed a truly imaginative apprehension of the importance of architecture for human flourishing, putting himself in the company of David Watkin (Morality and Architecture), Christopher Booker (the BBC documentary City of Towers), Tom Wolfe (From Bauhaus to Our House), John Silber (Architecture of the Absurd), and the reforming school of neo-classical architects and urban planners roughly gathered around the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture (U.S.) and the school of the Prince of Wales (U.K.): Léon Krier, David T. Mayernik, Quinlan Terry, John Simpson, Allan Greenberg, and Demetri Porphyrios. Kirk once described himself poignantly as “a child of the decline and fall of a great American city, Detroit.”

In all of these efforts, Kirk tried to preserve and exert the high tradition of rhetoric, with its fundamental assumption that human persons are endowed with free will, rationality, language, and a disposition to the good, and that even the satisfaction of decent utilitarian aims is dependent on verbal formulation and argument if such aims are to be assimilated and contained within a humane and sustainable scheme of values, virtues, and ends. Writing in National Review (December 31, 1985), Forrest McDonald was right to identify Russell Kirk as “the American Cicero.” Inasmuch as a person could, in his age, he served — and conserved — the soul and the commonwealth.

— M. D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism (Eerdmans), and editor of a recent critical edition of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius).


M. D. Aeschliman’s The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism has been recently published in an updated edition in the U.S. (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press) and in France (Paris: Pierre Téqui). Professor emeritus of education at Boston University, he holds degrees, including a doctorate, from Columbia and taught there, at Boston University, and in other universities in the U.S., Italy, and Switzerland until his recent retirement.


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