Russell Kirk (1918 – 29 April 1994) was an American political theorist, conservative intellectual, historian of ideas, social critic, and man of letters, who is best known for his role in the American conservative movement. Kirk's 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, attempted without complete success to lay claim to the history and direction of the modern conservative movement. His book traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving pride of place to the ideas of 18th century British writer and statesman Edmund Burke, an Irish Protestant who was sympathetic to independence for the American colonies.
Russell Amos Kirk was born in Mecosta, Michigan, in a house his grandfather built. He was the son of Russell Andrew Kirk, a railroad engineer, and Marjorie Pierce Kirk.
Kirk obtained his B.A. at Michigan State University, thanks to a scholarship, then took an M.A. at Duke University. After serving in the Army during World War II, he attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1953, he became the first American to be awarded the degree of doctor of letters by that university.
Kirk taught briefly at Michigan State. He resigned in 1959, after having become disenchanted with that university's academic standards, rapid growth in student numbers, and emphasis on intercollegiate athletics and technical training at the expense of the traditional liberal arts. Thereafter he ridiculed Michigan State as "Cow College" or "Behemoth University." He later wrote that academic political scientists and sociologists were "as a breed--dull dogs." Late in life, he taught one semester a year at Hillsdale College, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities.
Kirk frequently published in two American conservative journals he helped found, National Review in 1955 and Modern Age in 1957. He was the founding editor of the latter, 1957-59. Later he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where he gave a number of lectures.
After leaving Michigan State, Kirk returned to Mecosta where he wrote the many books, academic articles, lectures, and the syndicated newspaper column (which ran for 13 years) by which he exerted his influence on American politics and intellectual life. In 1963, Kirk married Annette Courtemanche; they had four daughters. She and Kirk became known for their hospitality, welcoming many political, philosophical, and literary figures in their Mecosta house (known as "Piety Hill"), and giving shelter to political refugees, hoboes, and others. Their home became the site of a sort of seminar on conservative thought for university students. Piety Hill now houses the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.
Kirk never learned to drive, calling cars "mechanical Jacobins", and would have nothing to do with television and what he called "electronic computers."
The Conservative Mind
The Conservative Mind, the published version of Kirk's doctoral dissertation, helped revive interest in Edmund Burke as well as:
- Conservative European and American statesmen such as John Adams, George Canning, John C. Calhoun, Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, and Arthur Balfour;
- The conservative side of such well-known authors as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, George Gissing, George Santayana, and T. S. Eliot;
- Onscure British and American authors such as Fisher Ames, John Randolph of Roanoke, Orestes Brownson, John Henry Newman, Walter Bagehot, Henry Maine, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, Leslie Stephen, Albert Venn Dicey, Paul Elmer More, and Irving Babbitt. The Portable Conservative Reader (1982), which Kirk edited, contains sample writings by most of the authors he favored.
Conservative attacks on Kirk
Some conservatives have strongly rejected Kirk's reading of the conservative tradition. Notably Claremeon scholar Harry Jaffa (a student of Leo Strauss) thought Kirk misread Burke because Burke's attack on metaphysical reasoning related only to modern philosophy's attempt to eliminate skeptical doubt from its premises and hence from its conclusions. Jaffa said:
- Like T.S. Eliot, Kirk wanted Christianity established in America. Like Eliot, he thought that "free thinking Jews" were a corrosive element within Christian civilization. For Kirk, the Enlightenment, as the moving cause of Jewish emancipation, as well as of the French Revolution, was the source of virtually all evil in the modern world.... Kirk and Kristol have been as one in their fanatical opposition to the doctrines embodied in the Declaration of Independence....their influence has been exerted to ignore or ridicule anyone who—like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Pope John Paul—believes that the truths held to be self-evident really are so, and can be proved to be so....[Kirk wrote]: "the Declaration is not conspicuously American in its ideas or its phrases, and not even characteristically Jeffersonian."
Kirk and Orestes Brownson
Russello (2004) argues that Kirk adapted what 19th century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy" to articulate a version of federalism that was based on premises that differ in part from those of the Founders and other conservatives. Kirk further believed that territorial democracy could reconcile the tension between treating the states as mere provinces of the central government, and as autonomous political units independent of Washington. Finally, territorial democracy allowed Kirk to set out a theory of individual rights grounded in the particular historical circumstances of the United States, while rejecting a universal conception of such rights.
see Conservative principles
Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Russello (2004) described as follows:
- A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
- An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
- A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
- A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
- A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
- A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.
Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another." and that "all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief." 
Kirk and Libertarianism
Kirk grounded his "Burkean conservatism" in tradition, political philosophy, belles lettres, and the strong religious faith of his later years; rather than libertarianism and free market economic reasoning. The Conservative Mind hardly mentions economics at all.
In a polemic essay, Kirk (quoting T. S. Eliot) called libertarians "chirping sectaries", adding that they and conservatives have nothing in common. He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating." He said a line of division exists between believers in "some sort of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct." He included libertarians in the latter category.
Kirk and Neoconservatism
Late in life, Kirk grew disenchanted with American neoconservatives as well. On December 15, 1988, he gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, titled "The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species." As Chronicles editor Scott Richert describes it,
[One line] helped define the emerging struggle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. "Not seldom has it seemed," Kirk declared, "as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." A few years later, in another Heritage Foundation speech, Kirk repeated that line verbatim. In the wake of the Gulf War, which he had opposed, he clearly understood that those words carried even greater meaning.
Neoconservative Midge Decter attacked Kirk's line as "a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives." She claimed that Kirk "said people like my husband and me put the interest of Israel before the interest of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty." She told The New Republic, "It's this notion of a Christian civilization. You have to be part of it or you're not really fit to conserve anything. That's an old line and it's very ignorant."
Paleoconservative Samuel Francis called Kirk's "Tel Aviv" remark "a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neoconservatives. He called Decter's response untrue, "reckless" and "vitriolic." Furthermore, he argued that such a denunciation "always plays into the hands of the left, which is then able to repeat the charges and claim conservative endorsement of them."
Man of letters
Kirk's other books include Eliot and his Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1972), The Roots of American Order (1974), and the autobiographical Sword of the Imagination: Memoirs of a Half Century of Literary Conflict (1995). Kirk was renowned for the fine prose style of his polemical writings.
Kirk was an accomplished teller and writer of fiction, especially ghost stories. His first novel, Old House of Fear, was a gothic; A Creature of the Twilight told of revolution and political intrigue in Africa with his continuing character Manfred Arcane, who would appear in many of his ghost stories.
His supernatural tales were collected in three volumes, The Surly Sullen Bell, The Princess of All Lands, and Watchers at the Strait Gate, and in Off the Sand Road (2002) and What Shadows We Pursue (2003). Kirk's "There's A Long, Long Trail A-Winding" won the 1977 World Fantasy Award for best novella.
Modern Age articles are available online free at atchive
- Attarian, John. "Russell Kirk's Political Economy," Modern Age 1998, 40: 87-97. Issn: 0026-7457.
- East, John P. "Russell Kirk as a Political Theorist: Perceiving the Need for Order in the Soul and in Society," Modern Age 1984, 28: 33-44. Issn: 0026-7457 .
- Jaffa, Harry. "The False Prophets of American Conservatism" (1998), a stinging attack on Kirk by a leading conservative
- McDonald, William Wesley. "Reason, Natural Law, and Moral Imagination in the Thought of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 1983, 27: 15-24. Issn: 0026-7457.
- McDonald, William Wesley. "Russell Kirk and The Age of Ideology." (2004); excerpt and text search; also complete online edition
- McDonald, William Wesley. "Russell Kirk and the Prospects for Conservatism," Humanitas 1999 XII: 56-76.
- McDonald, William Wesley. "Kirk, Russell (1918-94)," in "American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia". (2006). ISI Books: 471-474. Biographical entry.
- Nash, George H., The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. (2006) excerpt and text search
- Person, Jr., James E., 1999. Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind. excerpt and text search
- Russello, Gerald J. "The Jurisprudence of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 1996, 38: 354-63. Issn: 0026-7457. Reviews Kirk's writings on law, 1976-93, exploring his notion of natural law, his emphasis on the importance of the English common law tradition, and his theories of change and continuity in legal history.
- Russello, Gerald J. The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk. (2007) University of Missouri Press. excerpt and text search
- Russello, Gerald J. "Time and Timeless: the Historical Imagination of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 1999, 41: 209-19. Issn: 0026-7457.
- Russello, Gerald J. "Russell Kirk and Territorial Democracy," Publius 34: 2004, 109-24. Issn: 0048-5950.
- Schoenwald, Jonathan M. A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism. (2001). online edition
- Whitney, Gleaves. "The Swords of Imagination: Russell Kirk's Battle with Modernity," Modern Age 2001, 43: 311-20. Issn: 0026-7457. Argues that Kirk used five "swords of imagination": historical, political, moral, poetic, and prophetic. online edition
- Kirk, Russell. The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict. (1995( Kirk's memoirs.
- Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (1953) online edition
- Kirk, Russell. Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought, (1951) online edition
- Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, (1997) online edition
- Miller, John L., "His Conservative Mind," Traverse (January 2007).
- "From The Academy."
- "Life with Russell Kirk" by Annette Kirk.
- "Russell Kirk on the Draft."
- Biography, at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. With links to a very incomplete bibliography.
- "Russell Kirk Web Site" .
- Kirk, Russell, "Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries."
- Heritage Foundation lectures by Kirk:
- Kirk Center
- It went into 7 editions, the later ones with the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot.
- Kirk, The Portable Conservative Reader. 1982. page xxxviii.
- Many published in his The Politics of Prudence (1993) and Redeeming the Time (1998).
- Harry Jaffa, "The False Prophets of American Conservatism" (1998)
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- Nash (1998).
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