Samuel Johnson remarked once that we need to be reminded more often than we need to be instructed. It is a wise observation. The greatness of Russell Kirk’s achievement consisted in his surpassing ability to remind us of those permanent truths of the human condition; truths which, if distorted or abandoned,must lead to the brutalization of life and the eventual collapse of civilization.
During the course of his own lifetime he had witnessed the crash of empires and the disintegration of the old order at the hands of demonic ideologues or humanitarian improvers. A lesser man might have despaired; but Russell Kirk hewed mightily with his sword of imagination, and through some thirty books and numberless articles sought to rescue us from a sea of troubles. He conceived it his duty, to paraphrase him, to turn tailor and stitch anew that old “serviceable suit,” Western civilization.
In his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk performed a pious act for his age by breathing vitality into, and renewing our understanding of, true conservatism which had long been languishing in a moribund obscurity. Practically overnight the intellectual landscape of the mid-twentieth century, until then dominated by doctrinaire liberalism, was profoundly altered.
Russell Kirk’s signal achievement in his seminal study in the history of ideas was to remind us that at the heart of modern conservatism stands the immensely impressive figure of Edmund Burke. The great eighteenth-century Irish statesman’s most important book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, was born in reaction to the cataclysmic events that were occurring on the opposite side of the English Channel. Edmund Burke, Kirk’s principal intellectual mentor, recognized, with prophetic insight, the true nature of the forces at work in the French Revolution, one of the formative events of modernity. Burke discerned at once the Jacobins’ real purpose which aimed, not at reforming society, but at remaking man in their image. Here, indeed, was a recrudescence of the ancient gnostic heresy which held out the promise that men might be as gods. This heresy, to be discovered at the core of all the great ideological movements that have plagued the world, is founded upon a fundamental misreading of human nature and man’s place in the order of creation. The revolution was a product, not of France’s discontented masses or its rural peasantry, but of the philosophes—Burke’s “abstract metaphysicians”—whose error lay in the belief that human nature could be reduced to a matter of geometry and thus made conformable to a new pattern. But human nature, as Russell Kirk reminded us frequently, is a constant. Man is not, despite Rousseau’s asseverations, inherently good; his nature is flawed by the effects of Original Sin, and throughout his life he must constantly strive to overcome its limitations. The attempt to refashion human nature, the perennial dream of the ideologue, is fraught with the greatest peril and exposes man to the risk of submerging his humanity entirely. In short he becomes a brute.
A true understanding of human nature is one of the most significant themes in Russell Kirk’s voluminous writings. It is the key to political wisdom. To apprehend its meaning is to accept, necessarily, a religious view of life. All of which leads on to the work of Christopher Dawson, the historian of Christian culture, whom Russell Kirk regarded with great admiration. Dawson reminded his generation that culture springs from the cult; that Western civilization cannot be understood apart from its Christian roots. The shared religious faith of a people is the formative influence in civilization and is the “dynamic element in culture.” Dawson maintained that if a civilization abandons its religious faith, it is a dying civilization, no matter how outwardly prosperous it may be in a material sense.
It was because of Dawson, or rather his achievement, that Russell Kirk crossed the Atlantic in 1993 in what was to be his last trip to Britain. He wished to visit a number of places that were closely associated with Dawson. I met him and his wife, Annette, at the airport in Manchester and had the privilege of driving them over a sizable portion of England and Wales. Somewhat failed in strength, he nevertheless led us, afoot, on a circuit of the old city wall of Chester, and we poked into many curious corners of that onetime Roman town which he knew so well. Later in Wales we stayed at the splendid Gladstone Library, searching among the periodical collections for essays and articles by Dawson. Our next stop was the lovely town of Ludlow, dominated by its huge medieval castle. We explored every alley of the old town and from the curtain towers of the castle admired the extensive view of the Marches, the land between England and Wales. In nearby Hay-on-Wye we visited Hay Castle where Christopher Dawson was born, now a secondhand bookshop.
Our route took us next to Yorkshire, to the town of Skipton, gateway to the Dales. Here we visited the ancient little church in the village of Burnsall in whose quiet graveyard Dawson lies buried. On the hillside, not far away, stands Hartlington Hall, Dawson’s boyhood home. Lastly we traveled to the city of York, a town much loved by Russell Kirk. Here again we traversed the city walls and walked everywhere within their circuit. We dined in good restaurants, drank fine wines, and enjoyed stimulating conversation.
Russell Kirk justly takes his place among a number of great writers—Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, to name but a few—in whose work may be discovered a defense of those norms which underpin and sustain civilized societies. We owe to them more than we can possibly guess.
Andrew Shaughnessy is a former assistant editor of The University Bookman.
Another essay from our 1994 memorial issue. Human nature, as Kirk reminded us, is a constant.