Keeping the Faith

JAMES E PERSON, JR.

Looming over the fireplace in the late Russell Kirk’s library in Mecosta, Mich., are three small stone images, statues given to Kirk by the renowned Scots sculptor Hew Lorimer during the 1950s.

Lorimer’s images represent history, law, and theology — and they now appropriately adorn the cover of this fat book. History, law, and theology are roughly analogous to the central concerns of Kirk’s thought: order, justice, and freedom. Through the study of history we learn the primacy of order. Through law, we maintain justice. And through theology — through faith in God — we find freedom that transcends circumstance.

George Panichas, longtime editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, undertook a daunting task in compiling the present volume. How does one set about delving into Kirk’s many hundreds of published works of a half-century, to select those passages that are essential? Kirk was not just an essayist but a novelist, reviewer, historian, biographer (his Eliot and His Age is underappreciated), and teller of ghostly tales. He contributed a regular column to National Review for half his career, during the magazine’s rough-and-tumble early years. He is best known for the 1953 book The Conservative Mind, a landmark history of ideas tracing the lineage of Anglo-American conservatism from the time of Burke.

Kirk’s works in every genre have some highly memorable recurring themes: the permanent things, the moral imagination, the timeless moment, the little platoons, the contract of eternal society. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk wrote that the conservative “is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character — with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded.”

Kirk considered himself a traditionalist conservative — not a movement conservative, a neoconservative, a libertarian, or a fusionist. He was an advocate of small-town and agrarian culture, rather than urban culture. A world traveler, he was never happier than when at home in Mecosta, one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it villages that dot the farm country of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, well north of Detroit. He was a conservationist who loved green spaces and planted trees throughout Mecosta County all his life.

In international matters, Kirk clung to the old vision of America as a national republic, not a wide-ranging presence for Making Things Right all over the world. (He once declared that “a soundly conservative foreign policy, in the age which is dawning, should be neither ‘interventionist’ nor ‘isolationist’: It should be prudent. Its object should not be to secure the triumph everywhere of America’s name and manners, under the slogan of ‘democratic capitalism,’ but instead the preservation of the true national interest, and acceptance of the diversity of economic and political institutions.”) With regard to American influence abroad, Kirk had little faith in the success of culture “poured in from the top,” in John Crowe Ransom’s memorable phrase.

As a scholar, Kirk was an exhaustively well-read source of wisdom on America’s traditional ideals (lengthy excerpts from his lively 1974 history The Roots of American Order are included in this collection, notably a chapter highlighting the signal contribution of the ancient Hebrews toward elevating our understanding of God and His ways) — yet he enjoyed nothing better than sitting down with friends, and especially young people, and telling ghost stories. In a world of buckram masks and literary phantasms, here was a man — to use Kirk’s own assessment of Wyndham Lewis, included in this volume.

Kirk’s key concepts of order, justice, and freedom permeate the book. In the introduction to his Portable Conservative Reader (1982), Kirk articulates the fact that conservatism is not an ideology, designed to change human nature for the better as we march toward a glowing new tomorrow, but rather a way of looking at life. Or, as Panichas summarizes it, “It is a way ‘of looking at the civic social order,’ and centers around basic beliefs in a transcendent order, in social continuity, in ‘things established by immemorial usage,’ in the virtue of prudence, in human variety, and in human imperfectability.” In counterpoint to Kirk’s ruminations on conservative thought, the editor has included two scathing essays on what Kirk called “Demon Ideology.”


“Whether or not virtue can be taught, we have not troubled our heads with it, nor our hearts. When the Rough Beast slouches upon us, what Theseus or Perseus, incandescent with the energy of virtue, will draw his sword?”


Panichas has also selected essays by Kirk on his literary and scholarly heroes, notably Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, the economist Wilhelm Roepke, and a good man largely forgotten today: Max Picard, author of The Flight from God (1934), a work that argued that in fleeing from faith in God toward secularization, modern man has placed himself in a precarious state here below, leaving himself naked before his enemies — who work relentlessly to undermine the edifice of civilization through appeals to men’s passions.

Recognition of the transcendent and the claims of God upon humanity is woven throughout these essays. In one, “Can Virtue Be Taught?” Kirk notes that the very word virtue, today bearing connotations of sexual purity, at one time carried with it the strong suggestion of public leadership: “By the ‘virtuous man,’ . . . the classical writers meant a leader in statecraft and in war, one who towered above his fellow citizens, a person in whom courage, wisdom, self-restraint, and just dealing were conspicuous.” Can these qualities be taught? Kirk replies that virtue can be taught by example, not through a formal program of study; and he adds, ominously: “We Americans have grown very well fed, very much starved for virtue. Nowhere is this more amply illustrated than in Washington. Whether or not virtue can be taught, we have not troubled our heads with it, nor our hearts. When the Rough Beast slouches upon us, what Theseus or Perseus, incandescent with the energy of virtue, will draw his sword?” Only, it would seem, men and women not deceived by the siren appeals of ideology.

An extraordinary essay from Kirk’s last years is included here: “Criminal Character and Mercy,” a discussion of capital punishment leavened by anecdotes from his reading and personal experience. In the editor’s annotations — which are, throughout the book, both precise and helpfully descriptive — Panichas says Kirk demonstrates that “the subject of criminal character and mercy must be separated from abstract humanitarian presuppositions and theories that easily, if conveniently, crumble into a sentimentalism ruled by emotion and not reason.” In the essay itself, Kirk writes: “Why do some people retain so extreme an aversion to capital punishment that they would deny the death penalty even to condemned murderers who desire to be executed? Because of the fear of death — the dread of the void, of annihilation. . . . It is an illogical dread, this terror of the inevitable: for we all die, just the same. . . . For all of us, in the end, death is the ultimate mercy. I do not understand why we should deny that mercy to slayers whose earthly existence is a grave; nor why we should deny a merciful protection to the guiltless whose purpose in this world may be undone by those guilty slayers.”

Reading The Essential Russell Kirk, one is struck by how quotable Kirk can be. On revolution: “Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills.” The 100 million people who died under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao during the past century would agree, as would their grieving survivors. On the question of social change, which conservatives are alleged to despise: “Prudent social change is the means for renewing society’s vitality, much as the human body is perpetually renewing itself, and yet retains its vitality. Without judicious change, we perish.” On the modern connotation of the word liberal: “The modern ‘liberal’ world, as I have come to understand it, is making its way straight toward what C. S. Lewis calls ‘the abolition of man’ — toward a society devoid of reverence, variety, and the higher imagination; toward a society in which ‘everybody belongs to everybody else,’ in which there exists collectivism without community, equality without love.”

Panichas has been faithful in reproducing the exact text of the writings, up to and including one of the few errors of fact — and it’s small — found among Kirk’s works. In defending his belief that truth is not crafted out of thin air by coffee-house philosophers, Kirk was fond of paraphrasing an ancient saying to the effect that “if we moderns have seen farther, it is because we are as dwarfs mounted on the shoulders of giants,” and attributing this to Fulbert of Chartres. In fact, this striking imagery is more likely to have originated with the 12th-century philosopher and teacher Bernard of Chartres.

A helpful “Selective List” of books and articles about Kirk concludes Panichas’s volume, which will well serve readers interested in learning about the remarkable man who brought a much-needed prospect of the permanent things to the conservative movement as it arose in the mid-20th century. Long respected as an authority on D. H. Lawrence, Simone Weil, and Joseph Conrad, Panichas cements his reputation as a preeminent authority on Russell Kirk with this well-chosen selection.
  

order The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays here.

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

James E. Person, Jr. "Keeping the Faith." National Review (January 29, 2007):53-54.

This article reprinted with permission from National Review, Inc., 215 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016.

THE AUTHOR

James E. Person, Jr., is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999) and Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow (2005), a critical biography of novelist/screenwriter Earl Hamner.

Copyright © 2007 National Review


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