By Luke C. Sheahan.

These remarks were delivered on April 19, 2024, in response to Hiro Aida’s comments on “Russell Kirk and Japan” at an event hosted by the Japanese Consulate in Miami and the Russell Kirk Center at the 60th Anniversary of The Philadelphia Society in Tampa, Florida.

Thank you to Hiro for an excellent introduction to Kirk and his careful reflection on the meaning of Kirk’s life’s work. 

I am constantly disappointed that many in America currently fail to see what Hiro sees so clearly. I hear often that Kirk’s brand of traditionalist conservatism is “irrelevant” or “outdated,” two of the most unhelpful words in our current lexicon. But Kirk’s work and, more importantly, his approach remain eternally relevant, not just here in his home country, but as Hiro has shown, in countries and cultures very different from Kirk’s.

Hiro talks of Kirk’s ghost stories. Every year, I lead a discussion of Kirk’s gothic fiction for the Kirk Center’s Book Gallery webinar series. It is my favorite event of the year. Why? Because Kirk’s stories demonstrate his thought, sure, but more they demonstrate the nature of the imaginative depth undergirding his thought.

What Kirk saw in the Japanese authors Hiro discusses is this same imaginative depth. Kirk, I think, understood what Lafcadio Hearn understood. That ghost stories, tales of the uncanny, capture something deep in the human mind and imagination. As a genre, such tales are inherently, ineradicably moral, striking deep at the existential core of our humanity. Kirk’s use of the ghostly tale arose from this inherent morality. There is a moral order that mere humans ignore at our peril. Additionally, ghostly tales violate the greatest taboo of the modern age: they defy materialist rationality. But, Kirk writes

the stubborn fact remains that, although not one well-reputed person claims to have seen the men in the flying saucers, a great many well-reputed persons, over centuries, have claimed to have seen ghosts; or, more strictly speaking, to have perceived certain “psychic phenomena.” From Pliny onward, the literature of our civilization is full of such narrations. 

These tales consistently told in all places and all times of the dead who linger with us express, among other things, our wonder at whatever is beyond the surly bonds of earth. 

Whether these tales imply anything more than the metaphorical, I leave for you, dear reader, to decide.

Like Irving Babbitt, Kirk believed that those thinkers who most instantiate their culture’s excellence at its most profound level strike at a common human ground. One had to go where that culture was deepest, where it was at its best and its most culturally explicit and distinctive, where it was its most English, or most Greek, or most Roman—or most Japanese—to find it at its most fundamentally human. 

For a similar reason, Kirk’s conservatism emphasized the role of tradition, not just in politics but in the personal as well. Kirk spoke of the Anglo-American tradition, how generations of development in law and politics yielded much good fruit in American constitutionalism, politics, and society. The mistake often made is that Kirk’s insights and his thinking were then thought constrained to this particular tradition, one that is inapplicable in principle and practice elsewhere. But this has it precisely backwards. It’s Kirk’s thinking in the particular and the traditional that made him such an admirer of those traditions that performed the roles of the Anglo-American traditions for non-Anglo cultures in the same salutary way, cultivating a humane existence for people and peoples around the world. 

Transcending the political, Kirk’s traditionalism had a personal application. Like a culture, personal character is the product of generations shaped slowly through time. Stories of Kirk’s ancestral home, family ghosts, and his contentment in a small midwestern town all express this sort of personal traditionalism. It is no wonder that some of Kirk’s current admirers are African Americans, seeing in Kirk’s traditionalism not something limited to the Anglo-American experience and the experience of Anglo-Americans, but a way of thinking that sees rightly what is best in each person and each people and brings out the best in each person and each people, from Kirk to me, and from America to all of you. 

Luke C. Sheahan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duquesne University, Nonresident Senior Affiliate at the Penn Partnership for Innovation, Cross-Sector Collaboration, Leadership, and Organization (PICCLO) at the University of Pennsylvania, Visiting Fellow in the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center, and editor of The University Bookman. He is author of Why Associations Matter: The Case for First Amendment Pluralism (2020) and editor of International Comparative Approaches to Free Speech and Open Inquiry (2022).

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