The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays
Edited by George A. Panichas
(ISI Books, 640 pp., $20)
Duncan MacAskival is an iron magnate and "a self-made man, a gooddeal better than the average product of the bigbusinessadministration schools." Nearing the end of his life, hehas but one wish: to buy, lock, stock, and barrel, the island ofCarnglass, one of the most remote of the Hebrides, so that he candie in his family's ancestral homeland (and, by staying there onlyoccasionally, avoid paying British taxes). On the island is acastle, the Old House of Fear, occupied by a distant member of hisclan, Lady MacAskival. Go and buy it from her, Duncan instructs hislawyer, a fellow Scottish-American named Hugh Logan: "Even thoughshe's one of the richest old women in Britain, income tax andsurtax won't let her keep much more than five thousand pounds'income."
Somewhat dubiously, Logan sets off for Scotland. Carnglass, hediscovers, is nearly impossible to reach; diligent and wily, hefinds a way to row there in a dinghy, nearly losing his life in theprocess. Soon after landing he runs into an Irish ruffian who,mistaking Logan for a police inspector, tells him that the islandis dominated by an evil genius, a certain Dr. Jackman, thedoctorate granted by the University of Leningrad, or maybe Moscow.Jackman, it seems, is a communist who had been expelled from theparty as "a premature deviationist," and he has his eye on LadyMacAskival's money to get himself reinstated with his formercomrades. "And the party is all Jackman's life, he being apolitical through and through," the Irishman tells Hugh. Althoughhe does not carry a weapon, Logan learns, Jackman is a ruthless manwho will stop at nothing to get what he wants; others, the peoplein his employ, do all the killing for him.
Hugh Logan eventually reaches the castle and is greeted by abeautiful young woman, Mary MacAskival, with whom he soon falls inlove. Mary tells him that Dr. Jackman is a hypnotist as well as acommunist, and that he has obtained control over the dying LadyMacAskival by persuading her that only he can prevent the ghost ofher former husband from returning to haunt her. Logan knows that ifhe is to buy the castle, he will have to deal with Jackman, butJackman at first befriends Logan and, over a chess match, offers hima lecture in defense of Lysenko, the crackpot scientist muchbeloved by Stalin. Later, Mary fills Hugh in on Jackman's politicalcareer. Fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he most likely poisoneda number of hospital patients. Then he was sent to various EasternEuropean countries, where he became a terrorist, thereby losingfavor with the party. On Carnglass, Jackman had spent much timetrying to recruit Mary to the cause; getting nowhere, he then, andequally without success, instructed her in the mysteries of theoccult. Not for Mary the "systemic and humorless" minds of Jackmanand his fellow apparatchik Mr. Royall, who, "wholly devoted toJackman ? was forever talking of the sufferings of the workingclasses," even if he also referred to ordinary people as "thescum."
Reflecting on what Mary told him, Hugh realizes that Jackman and hishenchmen "might have commenced, like others, full of humanitariansentimentality. And then, perhaps, demon ideology, with itsimperatives and its inexorable dogmas, its sobersided caricature ofreligion, had swept them on to horrors." Not to be deterred byJackman's penchant for evil, however, Hugh and Mary, after manychases and close calls, find a way to confront the monster and arethen free to marry, although we never learn whether Hugh wasactually able to buy the castle for his boss back in the UnitedStates.
This is the story told in Old House of Fear, Russell Kirk's mostsuccessful book, which was published in 1961; it has sold morecopies than all his other books combined. There are those who donot find it as dreary as I did. John J. Miller, a writer forNational Review, compared Kirk's book to the writings of EdgarAllan Poe. The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who hated thefact that Michael Moore used a knock-off of Fahrenheit 451 as thetitle of his anti- Bush movie, greatly admired Kirk's ghoststories. Even T.S. Eliot got into the act. "How amazing andprolific you are!" he wrote to Kirk in 1958. "Now you have writtenwhat I least expected of you--ghost stories." It seems that Kirk,had he wished, could have devoted his life to writing fantasy. "Minewas not an Enlightened mind," Kirk wrote in 1963. "It was a Gothicmind, medieval in its temper and structure."
If popular readers know Kirk as a fiction writer, intellectuals knowhim as a conservative political philosopher, and a reputedlyimportant one. With Kirk, observed George H. Nash in TheConservative Intellectual Movement in America, "the newconservative or traditionalist segment of the renascent Americanright reached full bloom." Conservatism and Kirk seem to have beenmade for each other. A product of the heartland-- Kirk was born in1918 in Michigan, in a town appropriately named Plymouth, foundedby New Englanders who had flocked there during the Second GreatAwakening--Kirk grew up in simpler times and accepted the veritiesof his era enthusiastically: not for him any dramatic shift fromleft to right. Largely self-taught, he opted not to pursue aregular academic career, preferring the role of the independent manof letters. Celibate until his late forties, he was something of ahermit, preferring to live in the town of Mecosta in northwestMichigan, population today less than five hundred. (He died in1994.) If being conservative means resisting the temptations ofmodernity, it would be difficult to find a more traditional personthan Russell Kirk.
Kirk's decision to write both Gothic fiction and politicalphilosophy tells you something about modern conservatism. For onething, he was not alone; conservatives from J.R.R. Tolkien to AynRand were also attracted to fantasy, and, in more recent times, twostalwarts of the Bush administration--Lynne Cheney and I. LewisLibby--have written historical romances. (Should Newt Gingrich findhimself in the White House, God forbid, we would have afantasyfiction writer as president.) Fantasy fiction gave Kirk theroom to roam, to portray the world as an eternal struggle betweengood and evil in which the former's cause is not lost so long as itis faithful to everything that makes it good. Magical places suchas the Outer Hebrides convey some eternal truths about the humancondition that have been lost in the rush to modernity. "There werefairies in the last generation," Kirk wrote in a memoir of a trip tothe Hebrides.
A world in which people read fairy tales and take them seriously isa better world than the one in which we live. "One has but to lookat our half-ruined American cities, with their ghastly rates ofmurder and rape, to perceive that we moderns lack the moralimagination and the right reason required to maintain tolerablecommunity," Kirk wrote toward the end of his life. "PerhapsTolkien's blasted and servile land of Mordor may serve as a symbolof the human condition in the twenty-first century." Kirk would nodoubt be pleased to see children these days rushing out to see Lordof the Rings: "The fantastic and the fey, far from being unhealthyfor small children, are precisely what a healthy child needs; undersuch stimulus, a child's moral imagination quickens." Searching fora good example, Kirk came up with Little Black Sambo.
The first question to be asked about Russell Kirk is why he neededfiction. His explicitly political writings are just as fantastic asOld House of Fear. And his fiction is as didactic as anything hewrites about Plato or Coleridge.
Consider Hugh Logan's thoughts about "demon ideology." As improbableas it may be to find a Stalinist in the Outer Hebrides, Dr.Jackman's role in Old House of Fear is not to advance the story,but to give Kirk the opportunity to pronounce on ideology'sdangers. This is also something he frequently does in his politicalessays. "'Ideology' does not mean political theory or politicalprinciple," he wrote in one of them, "even though many journalistsand some professors commonly employ the term in that sense.Ideology really means political fanaticism." I can certainly goalong with that. Kirk was not the only modern thinker to warn ofideology; in fact, the great warnings were the work of modernliberals. There is something like a fanatic imagination. When itgrabs hold of politics, sectarianism, and sometimes violence,follows.
For Kirk, however, it is not fanaticism in general that gives causefor worry, but one kind of fanaticism in particular: "the beliefthat this world of ours may be converted into the TerrestrialParadise through the operation of positive law and positiveplanning." By this definition, Jeremy Bentham--Kirk's leastfavorite philosopher--was an ideologue, but Edmund Burke--his mostfavorite one--was not. Reading Kirk, it would seem that there areonly left- wing ideologues, and the term "conservative ideology" isan oxymoron that can make sense "only if, with Humpty Dumpty, weclaim the prerogative of forcing words to mean whatever we desirethem to signify."
Kirk admits of two possible exceptions to his insistence thatideology is a monopoly of the left, although each of them is citedto confirm his point. Nazism, too, is an ideology--but we shouldnot forget that the Nazis, like all ideologues, held "that humannature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means." Ofall the crimes committed by the Nazis, the proclivity for humanperfectibility is an odd one to choose; but it is Kirk's choice. Andthen there is the "objectivist" ideology of Ayn Rand and herfollowers, for whom Kirk expresses deep contempt. Yet Rand, inKirk's view, is more a libertarian than a conservative, andlibertarians take their inspiration from that quintessentialliberal John Stuart Mill. Libertarians therefore have nothing incommon with conservatives (a point once made, in reverse, by F.A.Hayek in a famous essay called "Why I Am Not a Conservative"). "Therepresentative libertarian of this decade," Kirk wrote in an essaypublished in 1981, is, much like Dr. Jackman, "humorless,intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull." Libertariansare "mad--metaphysically mad.... I do not mean that they aredangerous; they are repellent merely, like certain unfortunateinmates of 'mental homes.'" You will not find many devotees ofRussell Kirk at the Cato Institute.
It seems odd for Kirk to vent his spleen against libertarians,since, to him, ideologues believe in "positive planning," which isthe one thing that libertarians detest. But liberals andlibertarians do share a trait, and for Kirk it is the definitiveone: they both substitute secular reasoning for the divine laws ofGod. Ideology, you see, is religion turned inside out. "Ideologyprovides sham religion and sham philosophy, comforting in its way tothose who have lost or never have known genuine religious faith,and to those not sufficiently intelligent to apprehend realphilosophy." (Mill once called conservatives the stupid party. Kirkis merely returning the compliment.) This is why conservatives cannever be ideologues; possessing faith, and deeply versed inphilosophy, they have no need of any replacements. "Becauseideology is by essence antireligious," Kirk once wrote, "Christianstend to be attracted to ideology's negation, conservatism."
The opposite of an ideological mind, for Kirk, is a prudential one,and conservatives by their very nature are prudential in a way thatliberals can never be. Liberals believe in abstract principles,conservatives believe in the lessons of experience. Liberals areextremist, conservatives are moderate. Liberals are universalists,conservatives are particularists. Liberals insist onperfectibility, conservatives insist on the limits of human nature.Unfortunately for conservatives, we live in an age of ideology.Fortunately for them, the United States is not an ideological land.Conservatives should go about their business firmly, but alsoquietly and cautiously: "Conservatism not being an ideology withpretensions to universality and infallibility, there can be noCapitalist Manifesto to set against the Communist Manifesto."
Kirk is right to cite Lewis Carroll's dictum that words can meananything we want them to mean, and if he wants to solve all thecomplexities of ideology in the modern world by defining theproblem away, that is his business. The problem is that from such arigging of the terms no serious political philosophy can follow.Industrial capitalism destroyed "old-style conservatism, " he saysat one point, but one does not find Kirk railing against darkSatanic mills. (After all, Duncan MacAskival owned one.)Conservatives cannot write manifestos, but Barry Goldwater wroteone and Milton Friedman wrote another. (Kirk would likely dismissFriedman as a libertarian, but Goldwater he would have to accept.)Conservatives believe "social institutions always must differconsiderably from nation to nation," but these days that belief isheld by anthropologists and multiculturalists, neither of whom areknown for their conservatism. Conservatives are pragmatic, but,Kirk hastens to add, they are not pragmatists. (Dewey occupiessecond place among Kirk's philosophers of horror.) The conservativedoes not believe in abstractions, but he does believe that theConstitution should be interpreted narrowly rather than broadly. Itshould be plain that when Russell Kirk writes, contradiction fliesoff the page. But how can this be surprising? Since ideology can befound on both sides of the political spectrum, to locate it on onlyone side means that reality will have to conform to a prioriassertions, to dogmatic definitions.
Liberalism contains a feature identified by the politicalphilosopher Mark Hulliung as "auto-critique." Rousseau's debt toliberalism, Hulliung believes, was to criticize the Enlightenmentin the spirit of the Enlightenment, thus starting a tradition inwhich those committed to open inquiry would also inquire openlyabout themselves. Kirk, of course, will have nothing to do withRousseau; he shares Burke's dismissal of him as "the insanesecretary of the National Assembly." But Kirk is just as immunefrom criticizing conservatism in the name of conservatism. For ifconservatism is all but synonymous with religion, then criticismbecomes heresy. Besides, conservatism does not need criticism fromwithin; its truths are both timeless and tested by experience, andtherefore in no need of logic-chopping by narrow-minded academics.
Nor are public intellectuals anything but academic logic-choppers,or of much use. At the time Kirk was writing, American intellectuallife was dominated by Partisan Review, and one of the manyremarkable features of that enterprise was that the writers forthat magazine spent more time criticizing the liberalism theyshared than the conservatism they opposed. "I do not like to seethe American scholar and bookman and intelligent man of actionforced into the mold cast, say, by Partisan Review," was Kirk'sresponse. His ideal is not the intellectual--intellectuals areinevitably seduced by ideology. His ideal is the gentleman scholar,who understands the eternal verities and can express them inelevated and edifying language.
Kirk devoted his life to praising what he called "the permanentthings," those pillars of order put in place by people who livedlong before us to which we, if we know what is best for us, willpay homage. Two such pillars--religion and the Constitution--playan especially prominent role in his writing. When he addressesthem, Kirk, unable to escape from the dungeon of ideology in whichhe confined himself, can offer only cliche dressed up asconviction.
As one who sides with order over license, Kirk, not unexpectedly,views religion as the foundation of the former. "Until human beingsare tied together by some common faith, and share certain moralprinciples, they prey upon one another," he wrote. Civilizationwithout religion is therefore impossible. We should pay moreattention to the "venerable theory" that "history is the record ofhuman existence under God, meaningful only so far as it reflectsand explains and illustrates the order in the soul and in societywhich emanates from divine purpose." It is true that good religionputs the fear of God into people, but--lover of the ghostly that heis--Kirk sees this as faith's great advantage: "Without a knowledgeof fear, we cannot know order in personality or in society. Fearforms an ineluctable part of the human condition. To demand formankind 'freedom from fear,' as politically attainable, was a sillypiece of demagogic sophistry." But alas, "the God-fearing man issufficiently rare among us." We have become too modern to be tooreligious. "Faith no longer works wonders among us: one has but toglance at the typical church built nowadays, ugly and shoddy, todiscern how architecture no longer is nurtured by the religiousimagination." Great civilizations before us have ended in "slime, "and perhaps ours will as well.
Everything that Kirk says about religion and the social order isbreathtakingly unoriginal, expect for the remark that withoutreligion we would be in a constant state of war. Given the factthat so many wars have been fought over religion, there is nodisputing the creativity of that observation. To his credit, Kirkseems to realize his lack of originality, since he so frequentlycites other thinkers who make the same points. Leo Strauss is notone of them: he makes only one appearance in the essays collected inThe Essential Russell Kirk, and it is a marginal one. Kirk'sfavorite contemporary political philosopher is Eric Voegelin,another German-born thinker who made his mark in America. If youthink Strauss is too conservative, try Voegelin. A refugee fromNazi Germany, Voegelin, according to Kirk, understood that theabsence of God leads directly to genocide. "In our time," Voegelinwrote in a passage that Kirk cites approvingly, "we can observe ?that people are shocked by the horrors of war and by Naziatrocities but are unable to see that these horrors are no morethan a translation, to the physical level, of the spiritual andintellectual horrors which characterize progressive civilization inits most 'peaceful' phase." This, too, is anything but astartlingly new insight: Heidegger said the same thing from theright and Adorno and Horkheimer said it from the left. It is aboutas true as the idea that Nazism's biggest crime was socialplanning.
Anyone who believes that religion is essential to social order needsto answer the question of which religion it should be, since thetruths taught by one are rarely the same as those taught by others.Perhaps Judaism is a good conservative answer, since it offersrespect for law, and surely law is an important bulwark of order.But when it comes to Judaism, Kirk has some exceedingly odd ideas.Without the legacy of ancient Israel, he wrote in a book publishedin 1974, "the American moral order could not have come intoexistence at all." But we should not conclude from Kirk's commentthat he believes Judaism to have made an important contribution toAmerican life. Quite the contrary: following Voegelin, Kirkbelieves that Judaism's role in history was simply to prepare theway for Christianity. The idea of a Chosen People, Kirk writes, wasa necessary prelude to a time in which "God becomes knownsuccessively as Creator, as Lord and Judge of history, and asRedeemer." In this role the Jews were not alone; Platonism isanother ancient religion that anticipated the coming of Jesus."Neither the leap of Israel nor the leap of Hellas brought fullknowledge of the transcendent order; it required the fusing ofJewish and Greek genius in Christianity for a leap still higher."(And for all his appreciation of ancient Israel, Kirk did not likethe Israel of today, Zionism having been in his day a left-wing,and therefore an ideological, cause. )
Now that we have a religion that is "higher" than Judaism--and, forthat matter, Hellenism--surely we ought to be able to turn toChristianity as the source of the permanent things. But whichChristianity? The religion of Jesus comes in a profusion of forms.Roman Catholicism seems an obvious candidate, since, of allChristianity's varieties, it has thought longest and hardest aboutthe relationship between God's world and our own; but Kirk cannotfind the answer there because, for him, Catholicism is not aconservative religion. True, the popes of the nineteenth centurywere wont to denounce liberalism, so this may sound like an oddposition for Kirk to take, but it follows directly from histhoughts about ideology. Recall his argument that conservativesbelieve in neither universality nor infallibility, and note that theVatican believes in both. Indeed, Catholicism fits just about everycharacteristic that Kirk characterizes as ideological: its tastefor manifestos can be seen in its encyclicals; its attraction toabstraction can be found in the vigorous style of argumentationthat they contain; and in its sympathy for social justice, theChurch is not at all against "positive planning." (European welfarestates were as much the product of Catholic political parties asthey were of socialist ones.) Kirk, not one to be bothered bycontradiction, admires Catholicism nonetheless, but the two majorCatholic figures he discusses were both converts- - OrestesBrownson from Protestantism and Max Picard from Judaism--andneither is a major figure in the history of Catholic theology.
Perhaps, then, Kirk's best bet would be evangelical Protestantism.This form of Christianity has grown by leaps and bounds, and itclaims to speak on behalf of a moral majority. Evangelicalism,however, is too tacky for Kirk's taste. Those bland churches thathe denounces are most likely evangelical ones. And no matter howold-fashioned its message, evangelicalism, committed to spreadingthe Word, is strikingly modern in its use of technology, therapy,and music, and none of that would satisfy Kirk's preference for theGothic. Even evangelicalism's most pronounced feature--itsinsistence on the literal truth of the Bible--is not something thatKirk can accept. To him, such a way of practicing religion is nomore credible that "some self-proclaimed mystic from the gorgeousEast, whose teachings are patently absurd." Kirk is too much theromantic to be a literalist: "To maintain that all normative truthmay be found in the Bible, or in any other sacred book, is to fallinto the error of what Coleridge called 'bibliolatry.'"
One final example of faith that fails to serve Kirk's purposes isthe notion of a "civil religion," a term originally coined by"well-meaning folk" to call attention to the tendency of Americansto make something sacred out of the special providence of theircountry. "Such experiments of a secular character never havefunctioned satisfactorily," Kirk dourly points out. MimickingVoegelin, Kirk jumps, without pause, from Robert Bellah to AdolfHitler: "It is scarcely necessary for me to point out the perils ofsuch an artificial creed, bound up with nationalism: the example ofthe ideology of the National Socialist Party in Germany, half acentury ago, may suffice." If fascism can be found in an idea asharmless as that of civil religion, surely it can be foundanywhere.
With four religions unable to be called upon to gird the socialorder, one might think that Kirk's next step would be to identifythe one that, to him, is best suited for the task. But this Kirknever does. He defends religion, but not any particular religion.One looks in vain for apologetics in Kirk's work, for some serioustheological demonstration that the ideas associated with aparticular tradition, because they are true, are the best ideas forholding society together. Lacking any such thing, Kirk's call for a"sacred patrimony" amounts to little more than Dwight Eisenhower'sinjunction on the importance of believing in something, whateverthat something happens to be. It is really an uplifting form ofphilosophical indifference.
Ironically, therefore, Kirk winds up in the very camp of the civilreligion that he has denounced. For if our moral order is to beundergirded not by any one faith, but by a generic form ofChristianity, it will be an "artificial creed," lacking historicaland theological specificity. At the same time, it will not be ableto carry out the tasks that Kirk assigns it. How are you going tofear God if you do not know which God to fear? "We who think thatlife remains worth living ought to address ourselves to means bywhich a restoration of our culture may be achieved," Kirkconcluded. "A prime necessity for us is to restore an apprehensionof religious insights in our clumsy apparatus of publicinstruction, which--bullied by militant secular humanists andpresumptuous federal courts--has been left with only ruinous answersto the ultimate questions." Against this vapidity, give me FatherNeuhaus anytime: when he defends the need for religion in thepublic square, you are not left in doubt about which religion itis.
Everything wrong with Kirk's conservatism can be found in histreatment of religion. When the moment comes that triteanimadversions will no longer suffice and he must deal with anactual intellectual problem, Kirk runs away. The result is adenunciation of everything that we modern people do without anyconvincing account of how anything could be done differently. Oneknows this immediately, because as soon as Kirk arrives at hisconundrum he does what all conservatives do when they findthemselves in an impossible situation: he quotes Yeats's "TheSecond Coming," the most abused poem in the English language.However passionate everyone else may be and however blood-dimmedthe world has become, Kirk assures his fellow conservatives, he isone of the best, full of conviction, holding to a center thateveryone else has abandoned.
Religion, remember, is not Kirk's only source of permanent things.There is also the American Constitution. The men who wrote thatesteemed document, Kirk believes, were "pillars of order." Not onlywere they conservative, they were also men of faith. "With onlythree or four exceptions, they were Christians of one profession oranother: that is, they took their primary assumptions about thehuman condition, consciously or unconsciously, from the Bible and(many of them) from the Book of Common Prayer." They were naturalaristocrats--gentlemen, not philosophers. That is why theysucceeded. "Their aristocratic realism made possible the survivalof American democracy." Not for Kirk any of Louis Hartz'sinsistence on the importance of Lockean liberalism in the foundingof the United States. Kirk's views on the Framers are oddly closerto those of Charles Beard, although Beard denounces the upper-classbackgrounds of the Framers while Kirk celebrates them.
One would think that, given his views on religion, Kirk would bemore likely to attack the Framers than to adulate them. After all,Article VI of the hallowed document forbade religious tests foroffice, and its very first amendment separated church and state. IfAmerican decadence can be blamed on the absence of a common faith,surely its decline began in Philadelphia. And then there is thematter of one of the American presidents signing the Treaty ofTripoli in 1797, which stated that "As the Government of the UnitedStates of America is not in any sense founded on the Christianreligion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against thelaws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the saidStates never entered into any war or act of hostility against anyMahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretextarising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruptionof the harmony existing between the two countries."
Kirk's hero Burke insisted that order required an establishedchurch. Everything we know about Kirk suggests that he would agree.And yet he does not agree. The problem is that Kirk could notpromote the need for an established religion without admitting thatthe Framers were wrong, and you do not say of the permanent thingsthat they were established on the basis of false claims. Here,then, is another of those conundrums that requires some seriousthinking, and here again Kirk flees the field. He deals with theTreaty of Tripoli easily: he simply assigns it to Thomas Jefferson,the one founder he can dismiss as a Rousseauian. Never mind, Isuppose, that the treaty was actually signed by John Adams, one ofthe conservatives Kirk otherwise admires.
And then he engages in reasoning so torturous that it can only becalled, well, ideological. True, he acknowledges, the Framers didnot spend much time debating theology when they wrote theConstitution, but "this does not signify that the delegates aspiredto establish some civil religion as an alternative to Judaism andChristianity." Besides, their failure to assign an important rolefor faith in their country's founding text means "simply that theirconstitution was to be a practical instrument of government, not awork of politico-religious dogma." This is dishonest thinking atits most repellent. First Kirk moves the goalposts by arguing thatthe Framers must have been religious because they were notirreligious; and then, despite having praised the Framers asengaged in securing "an enduring social order," he turns around andcharacterizes their accomplishment as mere political tinkering. Thisis a thinker for whom concepts such as irony or paradox do notexist.
The aristocratic gentleman whom Kirk most admired lived a generationafter the Framers. He was John Randolph of Roanoke, born in 1773and died in 1833, a representative and then a senator fromVirginia. A farmer, Randolph defended the agricultural way of life,which means that he defended a conservative way of life. Kirk'sdescription of him is as romantic as anything in his Gothic tales:"He lived like a preRevolutionary Virginia gentleman, bumping overthe wretched roads in his old-fashioned English coach, and hisslaves rode blooded horses; but he inhabited a simple cabin andspent the greater part of each year in the oppressive routines ofgrowing tobacco and grains." Randolph spoke on behalf of the oldways: a natural governing class, a suspicion toward federal power,a strict constitution, the planter way of life. All of it wasdoomed once industrialism and westward expansion became staples ofAmerican life, but Randolph's ideas, and those of the social classfor whom he spoke, ought to be admired nonetheless: "They askedonly to be left unmolested, allowed to buy and sell in a freemarket, not to be taxed for the benefit of other interests, not tobe forced into another mode of life."
It all sounds so pure and Thoreauvian--until one remembers that thethings Randolph wanted to buy and sell included those slaves whosehorses were pulling his fine coach, and that the mode of life thathe was fighting to retain was one that denied the fundamentalequality of all human beings. Kirk's few references to slavery areas tortured as every other point of difficulty in the simple-mindedghost story he calls history. One finds no mention at all of theinfamous three-fifths clause in the excerpt in this book dealingwith those natural aristocrats who wrote the Constitution. And whenKirk does discuss the South's peculiar institution, he is asapologetic as George Fitzhugh or Samuel Seabury. One reason the OldRepublicans failed, he wrote, is "because they could not ridthemselves of the burden of negro slavery." In Kirk's upside-downuniverse, virtuous men such as John Randolph of Roanoke were doingeverything in their power to end slavery, but forces beyond theircontrol made it impossible. One can appreciate why Kirk is led tosuch a fictitious romanticism. Any acknowledgment that slaveryexisted because it was profitable for the planter class would allbut eliminate the planter class as a moral ideal that Americansought to emulate.
It gets worse. Kirk admires John C. Calhoun, whom he calls adisciple of Burke, because Calhoun defended the conservative ideaof an organic constitution. In reality, however, Calhoun waswilling to tear up the Constitution written in Philadelphia if thedefense of slavery required it. "It is for us who see and feel itto do what the Framers of the Constitution would have done had theypossessed the knowledge in this respect which experience has givento us, that is, provide against the dangers which the system haspractically developed; and which, had they been foreseen at the timeand left without guard, would undoubtedly have prevented theStates, forming the southern section of the Confederacy, from everagreeing to the Constitution," Calhoun wrote in his Discourse onthe Constitution and Government of the United States. This is whatwe might call judicial activism run wild. It is certainly not aneternal conservatism. Make an agreement one year, see how it worksover time, and if you do not like the outcomes, go back and changeit: this was Calhoun's approach to the permanent things. Calhounwas a Southern nationalist, not a conservative, and he was willingto jettison the one to protect the other. I am referring to theactual John C. Calhoun.
Liberals have no problem talking about slavery. Believers in humanrights, they view slavery as the institution most destructive ofthose rights ever invented by the mind of man. But not Kirk. "On nopoint of political theory in America does greater confusion existthan upon this question of 'human rights' as set against the needfor restraints upon will and appetite," he remarks. All thatconfusion could be eliminated if we simply understood that when theexistence of the social order is at stake, human rights have to giveway. But there is nothing at all confusing about believing thathowever much restraint society requires, no restraint that shackleshuman beings in chains and renders their lives dependent upon amaster who owns them can be morally justified.
The confusion on this point lies all on Kirk's side. "Theconservative impulse is a man's desire to walk in the paths thathis father followed; it is a woman's desire for the sureties ofhearth and home," he says at one point. Any writer serious aboutpolitical philosophy who believed this would move immediately tothe harder question: what if the father's path is a path to evil,or the sureties of hearth and home are degrading to most of thosewho live there? Conservatism cannot simply be a defense ofeverything that exists. Edmund Burke, who supported the AmericanRevolution and denounced the French one, never did that. Yet hisdisciple Russell Kirk is unable to distinguish between restraintsthat violate the most basic attributes of human decency and thosethat do not.
Russell Kirk does not anthologize well. By bringing excerpts fromhis books and articles together in one place, George A. Panichashas inadvertently demonstrated Kirk's gross limitations as apolitical thinker. There are the citations of the same authors overand over, the same ideas repeated again and again, the interminablenamedropping, even the same bon mots when Kirk is particularlypleased with himself. Kirk was prolific without being profound.Despite the thirty or so books he wrote, his range was remarkablynarrow. True, he wrote both fiction and non-fiction, but everythinghe wrote in all the genres was the same homily, all devoted tomaking the same few points over and over again. There just are notthat many interesting ways to defend lost causes, especially whenthey are bad ones.
For repeating himself, Kirk can be forgiven; many thinkers andwriters repeat themselves. But the repetitiveness here begins tolook like a human shortcoming. The real problem with The EssentialRussell Kirk is that it leaves you with a vivid sense of the man'ssmallness as a person. "When I was seven," Kirk writes boastfullyabout his childhood, "my mother gave me a set of James FennimoreCooper's novels; and about the same time I inherited from a great-uncle my set of Hawthorne. That launched me upon novel-reading, sothat by the time I was ten I had read all of Hugo, Dickens, andTwain." He wishes to be regarded as a prodigy, which is in keepingwith his vanity as a writer. And his larger point, the admonitionthat he extracts from his own precociousness, is that if childrenare not introduced to great literature at a young age, they "willfind the nearest and newest Grub Street pornographers."
Yet in spite of being raised on so much Hawthorne and Dickens, Kirkfinds pornography everywhere. Here he is recounting one suchdiscovery: "The other night I lodged into a fashionable new hotel;my single room cost about eighty dollars. One could tune the room'stelevision set to certain movies, for an extra five dollars. Afterten o'clock, all the films offered were nastily pornographic." Thisis less believable than the claim to have read Dombey and Sonbefore puberty. You would have to go to a very special hotel indeedto find only pornography for your viewing pleasure. And to knowjust how nasty the movies in his hotel were, he would have had towatch them just a bit. So Kirk all but tells us something about hislate-night taste in film. And what does he do when he suddenlyrealizes what he has revealed? He quotes Yeats.
George W. Bush once called himself a compassionate conservative.Russell Kirk is a contemptuous conservative. Kirk is contemptuousof people, or at least those whose very existence preventsgentlemen aristocrats from sitting in front of the fire readingAristotle while their slaves, or their wives, prepared theirdinner. He is contemptuous of ideas, or of those ideas with whichhe disagrees, and prefers caricaturing them to arguing with them. Heis contemptuous of the world in which he lived, always exaggeratingthe bad and having nary a word to say about the good. He iscontemptuous of the truth, mangling his facts and distorting thehistory of the country he claims to love. His is not theconservatism of the country club; Kirk is no northeasternaristocrat determined to protect the exclusivity of his turf. His isthe conservatism of George Babbitt, not Irving Babbitt: provincial,resentful, bigoted. If you collected all the grumblings in asmall-town drugstore by men convinced that somehow the world hadpassed them by, and then added a few literary and historicalreferences, you would have The Essential Russell Kirk.
One final example of vintage Kirk says it all: "Lionel Trilling,more than thirty years ago, found the liberal imagination nearlybankrupt." Oh, really? What Trilling actually wrote was that"liberalism is not only the dominant but the sole intellectualtradition" in the United States. Trilling's campaign to fortify theliberal imagination must not be mistaken for a repudiation of itsexistence, a mistake that Kirk, whose every word reflects the biasesof his ideology, readily makes. And it was the conservativeimagination that Trilling found bankrupt. It expressed itself, hedeclared, not in ideas, but in "irritable mental gestures whichseek to resemble ideas." A better description of Russell Kirk andhis view of the world could not have been written.
By Alan Wolfe