This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russell Amos Kirk, the godfather of American conservatism.
Kirk authored a study titled The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (later changed to Eliot) in his early 30s. The book set off a storm of now-forgotten chatter: finally, there was an argument for a coherent American conservative tradition. The Old Right, consisting of Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, and John T. Flynn had been folded into something bigger. That starting point would bridge the years of WWII and grow in the 50s into a movement. And at the heart of it, even more than William F. Buckley, sat Russell Kirk.
Kirk is undoubtedly of the greatest conservative minds America has ever produced, and perhaps its greatest conservative writer. His books and essays covered countless topics. Conservative philosophy, history, literature, biography, economics, memoir and more were the province of his commanding prose.
Kirk’s prose reached me as well, and I have ever been changed by it.
Thoreau said, “Many a man has dated a new era in his life by the reading of a book.” In my mid-20s, I was poor, out of work, and living at the start of the Great Recession. Eventually, a question arose in my mind: I say I am a conservative…but what does that mean? I’d spent years reading Beck, Hannity, Savage, Shapiro, G. Gordon Liddy and Thomas Sowell. Apart from Sowell, however, I was seeking something greater. Surely, I had missed some set of thinkers, some group of men I didn’t know about.
So I ordered a book called The Conservative Mind, pulled out an unread copy of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and started in. During that cold, poverty-ridden winter, I discovered that between Kirk and Burke I had found my true intellectual home. Burke sparked a fire, and Kirk fed it with all the great logs of his learning. Kirk’s work was a guiding light to what conservatism really ought to be: a philosophical persuasion, a vision of reality, a numinous experience of the Good. Policy debates and position papers are but practical actions based on this philosophical vision.
Kirk showed me that a conservative has no Das Kapital, no dogmata. Conservatism enjoins certain principles as being the proper place from which to consider man, society, justice, and the state. That history is not a tale of us versus them, but of men seeking, in their fallen way, to make life tolerable for themselves and their descendants. From Kirk I learnt that a conservative, “is a person who believes there is something in our life worth saving.” What is worth saving, that “unbought grace of life” which makes our existence tolerable and blessed, is gossamer thin, ocean deep, and worthy of greatest sacrifice.
Kirk’s work brought countless men whom I’d never before read of heard of to my attention. Kirk introduced me to John Adams, Peter Viereck, Irving Babbitt, Benjamin Disraeli, Wilhelm Ropke, James Cooper, T.S. Eliot, and Roger Scruton. Eventually, I read Kirk’s intellectual opponents: Ayn Rand, Herbert Spencer, Murray Rothbard, and others. All contributed mightily to my understanding of where we are today. The writing I have done to this day owes a profound debt to Russell Kirk. Had I never found Kirk, my thought would be greatly impoverished, and I would not be the conservative that I am.
Raise a glass to Russell Kirk, for we shall not see his like again upon the earth.