Russell Kirk’s Legacy After 15 Years

When conservative man of letters Russell Kirk (1918–1994) died nearly 15 years ago, he had been honored by Presidents and friends great and small, quoted by the learned, and lauded as the author of one of the seminal works in modern cultural history, The Conservative Mind. And indeed, among some admirers, Kirk was “the conservative mind”; though there was often a haunting sense that in a world that saw conservative thought and action in the ascendant, he was more admired than minded, his words more quoted than attended. This sense remains about Kirk’s written legacy still today.

On the day of Kirk’s funeral, May 3, 1994, the Detroit News honored the conservative man of letters by reprinting one of his best-known essays, “Enlivening the Conservative Mind.” In this short piece, Kirk warned that every conservative gain, painfully won over many decades and perhaps reaching a zenith during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, could be swiftly undone by a fatal error he described in one blunt word: stupidity. Kirk wrote: “[Unless] conservatives show the rising generation what requires to be conserved, and how to go about the work of preservation with intelligence and imagination—why, the present wave of conservative opinion will break upon a stern and rockbound coast, perhaps with a savage behind every giant tree.”

Sobering words from a man who, looking back during his final hours, considered his life a success—in part because he had spent his life defending what his friend T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things”: a term used to describe those time-tested principles, mores, or norms which transcend the world’s cultures and which we ignore at our own risk. Things such as duty to one’s parents and courtesy toward guests, honor, courage, character, magnanimity, courtesy, chastity, mercy, order, humility, and prudence.

The truths articulated by Kirk in his writings on the ordering of the soul and of the commonwealth hold true today more than ever, at a time when conservatism is confounded in the public mind with the policies of muddleheaded “conservative” politicians who embrace a foreign policy of messianic crusading on behalf of one-size-fits-all democracy, and domestic policies of unabashed statism. At a time when much has been lost due to lack of imagination, short-sightedness, duplicitous opportunism, and—yes—outright stupidity, Kirk’s admonitions need to be revisited and embraced in order that the institution of the family, the traditional sense of community, the inherited ways of faith and wise culture, and the permanent things may be, in Eliot’s words, “preserved alive through the Dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.” As novelist John Dos Passos wrote in his foreword to Kirk’s The American Cause, in words as true now as they were when written over 40 years ago, the great challenge remains that of ignoring tired ideological shibboleths while seeking a judicious balance between the claims of freedom and the claims of order. He added, “For this task we need all the verve, all the refusal to accept things as they are, all the brains the new generation has to offer.”

James E. Person Jr. is the editor of The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk (1994) and the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999).