The Corner

How Important Is Kirk?

From a reader:

Dear Jonah,

For some time now I’ve wondered who, exactly, declared that Russell Kirk was a “founder” of modern American conservatism and put him in the pantheon of people who must be read by conservatives. Now, I realize he wrote for NR, that his book actually was reviewed in serious places when it was published, and that you can find a bust of Kirk on the 7th floor of the Heritage Foundation.

But, to quote Willmoore Kendall, I’ve never had any idea what Kirk had to with America or conservatism as it might exist in the modern world. I know of no policy prescription that could rightfully be considered Kirkian, mainly because he never offered any. And, most importantly, I know of no student (informal or otherwise) of his that even is marginally important in conservative intellectual circles. For good reason, you find far fewer, and not widely read, studies of Kirk than you do Hayek and Strauss (to take Berkowitz’s two other examples). His long term impact has been quite minimal.

As far as I can tell, the only reason Kirk gets much play is because ISI has a few devoted traditionalists there who like to fancy themselves devotees of an arcane conservatism that rejects modernity wholesale (a few, truth be told, are probably Catholic monarchists, or at least sympathetic to such ideas). In short, who gets passed on as a “founder” seems to be connected to whether an institution exists that can be captured by devotees of a particular thinker. For instance, the aforementioned Willmoore Kendall, who wrote serious essays in political philosophy and American politics (including all the major journals such as APSR, etc.) gets absolutely no attention nowadays for just this reason.

I realize I’ve partly answered my initial question. But, I’ve been in conservative circles long enough to hear these things passed on like holy writ, without explanation or justification. Or, rather, I’ve never understood why we should, today, pay attention to Kirk and not, say, Kendall and James Burnham for their work on Congress and the progressive nature of presidential power (something that one would assume to be of interest given the issues of the day).

Please don’t publish my name! I’ve gotten money from some of the above organizations.

[Name withheld] 

Me: I’m tempted to just lateral this off to John Miller, NR’s most devoted Kirkian (Kirkite? Kirk-o-phile?). Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Kirk’s but I think this reader’s being unfair to him nonetheless.  Also, I think this is a good example of a figure who represents a view as much as he advances it. Kirk is the figurehead for a significant strand of traditionalism within conservatism. The fact that there are few public policies one could lay at his feet misses the point (and other than some deranged lefties, I don’t know that many people who can point to Straussian public policies either).  The Conservative Mind had an enormous influence on a generation of conservatives, giving them a certain intellectual self-confidence that they weren’t crazy for standing athwart the Progressive tide.  

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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