Kirk among the Ruins

The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk
by Gerald J. Russello
(University of Missouri Press, 264 pages, $44.95)

The conservative ideas of Russell Kirk are enjoying something of a revival. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute just published an impressive edition of his essays, and scholars are producing new interpretations of his work. Perhaps the best sign of Kirk’s continuing relevance is that The New Republic this summer featured a cranky review of his essays, thus enabling numerous conservatives to rally behind Kirk and testify to his influence on their careers.

The conservative ideas of Russell Kirk are enjoying something of a revival. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute just published an impressive edition of his essays, and scholars are producing new interpretations of his work. Perhaps the best sign of Kirk’s continuing relevance is that The New Republic this summer featured a cranky review of his essays, thus enabling numerous conservatives to rally behind Kirk and testify to his influence on their careers.

Kirk embodied an aesthetic conservative tradition that must seem strange to those who associate conservatism with unfettered markets and militarism. A tireless critic of modernity, he urged conservatives to eschew ideology and universalist thinking in favor of intuition and the preference for the particular.

 

Kirk advocated imaginative politics over ideological politics, keeping in mind the sovereign quality for political action should always be prudence. Conservative thought must be adaptive to its circumstances, not imprisoned by a slavish devotion to the past or by binding ideology. Like his hero Edmund Burke, he disliked abstractions and grand theories, those particular characteristics of the Enlightenment, and saw the French Revolution as the logical culmination of rationalism run amok.

When Kirk began his writing career in the early 1950s, liberal critics dismissed conservatives as embodying the “authoritarian personality” or the “paranoid style” of politics. The influential writings of Louis Hartz emphasized the American tradition as dominated by liberalism. But in Kirk’s most important book, The Conservative Mind, he successfully shaped and defined a living American conservative tradition that defied these stereotypes. This contribution to American thought helped break the liberal paradigm.

Typical of Kirk, he was to coin phrases like “mechanical Jacobin” for the automobile. Inventing a conservative image for himself, he dressed as a “Bohemian Tory,” lived in rural Michigan on “Piety Hill,” and wrote in an orotund style. Despite having no religious upbringing — unless one counts youthful séances — his writings were nevertheless infused with a strong Christian sensibility, and he embraced Catholicism in his middle years. All the more curious, then, that Gerald Russello, in his insightful new book, has chosen to describe Kirk as a postmodern thinker.

Russello interprets Kirk as hardly fitting the image of a nostalgic traditionalist. He was forward-looking, attempting to establish a new foundation for modern society based on respect for the past. Kirk certainly stressed respect for tradition, but warned that it must be guided by historical contingency.{mospagebreak}

Defining Kirk as a postmodernist appears a stretch. But Kirk’s emphasis on the subjectivity of history places him with postmodernists who likewise reject the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with objectivity. Kirk shared with postmodern thinkers like Hans-Georg Gadamer the need to respect living tradition, and he criticized the Enlightenment as overemphasizing utility and reason. Moreover, Kirk was in effect trying to solve the postmodern “crisis of narratives.” Unlike Camus, who despaired that the present age condemns us to be free, Kirk saw these unsettled times as an opportunity for conservatives to reassert themselves. The rationalism of the modern age had collapsed into incoherence. If truth is dead, and all is simply narrative, then conservatives are obliged to establish their own visions of order.

Russello argues that Kirk in essence worked to regenerate “the tools of the moral imagination.” A central idea for Kirk, the moral imagination draws man toward his ethical center and assists him in encountering the permanent verities in a foundationless world. Drawing upon Irving Babbitt and T. S. Eliot, Kirk contrasted this moral imagination with the idyllic or diabolical imaginations of 20th-century ideologues. The moral imagination stands as our best defense against abstractions and ideology.

Russello offers a strong exposition on the range of Kirk’s thought and the many influences on this exemplary conservative’s intellectual development. Prominent Catholic thinkers like the historian Christopher Dawson rounded out Kirk’s understanding of the role of religion in history. The Civil War-era philosopher Orestes Brownson influenced Kirk’s preference for territorial-based democracy, which, Kirk feared, was disappearing in the United States. Brownson was one of the many figures of America’s past whom Kirk rescued from obscurity.

Kirk’s rejection of ideology has been a controversial aspect of his thought. Some critics believe this an exquisite stance that relegates conservatives to the sidelines in modern politics. Yet during his lifetime, Kirk practically took a “big-tent” approach, finding admirable characteristics in politicians who in some areas might have strayed from the conservative ideal. For their part, contemporary office-seekers would profit from reflecting on Kirk’s politics of prudence.

By

Michael J. Ard is the author of "An Eternal Struggle: How the National Action Party Transformed Mexican Politics" (Praeger 2003).

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU