Russell Kirk

Dafato Team | Feb 15, 2023

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Russell Amos Kirk (19 October 1918 - 29 April 1994) was an American political theorist, moral philosopher, historian, social critic and literary critic, known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His book The Conservative Mind (1953) gave shape to the post-World War II conservative movement. It describes the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, with particular attention to the thought of Edmund Burke. Burke was seen as a leading exponent of traditionalist conservatism. He was also a recognised author of gothic and ghost stories.

Russell Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan. His father was Russell Andrew Kirk, a railway engineer, and his mother was Marjorie Pierce Kirk. Kirk earned a bachelor's degree in history from Michigan State University and a master's degree from Duke University. During World War II, he served in the US Army and corresponded with the libertarian author Isabel Paterson, who helped shape his early political thinking. He had a similar correspondence with Albert Jay Nock after reading his book Our Enemy, the State. After the war, he moved to Scotland to study at the University of St Andrews. In 1953 he became the only American to be awarded a D.Litt (Doctor of Letters) degree from that university.

Kirk "set out a post-World War II agenda for conservatives by warning them, 'a few individuals, some of whom were quite unaccustomed to great moral responsibility, to take on the task of destroying the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Our task is to limit the possibility of such rash decisions.'"

After completing his studies, Kirk took a post at his former school, Michigan State University. He resigned in 1959, dissatisfied with the rapid growth in enrollment and the emphasis on university sports and technical education over the traditional humanities. Thereafter, he referred disparagingly to the University of Michigan as 'Cow College' or 'Behemoth University'. He later wrote that academic political scientists and sociologists were 'a race of dumb dogs'. In his later years, he taught for a year at Hillsdale College, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities.

Kirk was a frequent contributor to two American conservative magazines he had helped to found: the National Review, founded in 1955, and Modern Age, founded in 1957, of which he was the first editor from 1957-59. He later became a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where he gave several lectures.

After leaving the University of Michigan, Kirk returned to his family home in Mecosta, Michigan, where he wrote many books, academic articles, lectures and syndicated newspaper columns, influencing American politics and intellectual climate. In 1963 Kirk converted to Catholicism and married Annette Courtemanche. They had four daughters. The Kirks became known for their hospitality and in their Mecosta house (known as "Piety Hill") they hosted many political, philosophical and literary figures and provided shelter for political refugees, vagrants and others. Their home became a kind of seminar for conservative thought for university students. Piety Hill is now home to the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. A convert to Catholicism, Kirk became a founding member of Una Voce America.

Kirk did not always adhere to the stereotypical "conservative" voting behaviour. Instead of Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey, whom he considered poor presidential choices, Kirk voted against "empire" for the Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas in 1944. In the 1976 presidential election, he voted for Eugene McCarthy. In the 1992 Republican primaries, he supported Pat Buchanan against incumbent President George H.W. Bush, serving as chairman of Buchanan's campaign committee in Michigan.

Kirk contributed to the Chronicles magazine. In 1989, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal.

The Conservative Mind

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana The published version of Kirk's doctoral dissertation was instrumental in the resurgence of Burkean thought in the 20th century. The book also drew attention:

The Portable Conservative Reader (1982), edited by Kirk, contains a sample of most of the above writings.

Biographer Bradley J. Birzer argues that for all his importance as an inspiration to the modern conservative movement, few of his followers shared his unusual approach to the history of conservatism. As Drew Maciag summarizes:

Harry Jaffa (a student of Leo Strauss) wrote: "Kirk was a poor Burke scholar. Burke's attack on metaphysical reasoning was only about the tendency of modern philosophy to suppress doubt about its foundations and hence doubt about its conclusions."

Gerald J. Russello (2004) argues that Kirk applied what the 19th century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy" to a version of federalism based on assumptions that differed in part from those of the US Founding Fathers and other conservatives. Kirk also believed that regional democracy could resolve the tension between treating the states as centrally administered provinces and treating them as political entities independent of Washington. Regional democracy allowed Kirk to theorize individual rights based on specific historical circumstances in the United States, but rejected the universal notion of such rights.


Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, described by Russello (2004) as follows: 1. belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described as based on tradition, divine revelation or natural law; 2. an attachment to the 'multiplicity and mystery' of human existence; 3. a conviction that society requires an order and classes that emphasize "natural" differences; 4. the belief that property and freedom are intimately linked; 5. Belief in customs, practices and regulations; and 6. recognition that reform must be linked to existing traditions and customs, which requires respect for prudence as a political value. According to Kirk, Christianity and Western civilisation are "inconceivably separate" and that "all culture is born of religion. As religion crumbles, so does culture, even though it often seems to flourish in a state left over from the religion that nourished culture and sank into disbelief."

Kirk and libertarianism

Kirk based his Burkean conservatism on tradition, political philosophy, belles lettres and the strong religiosity of his later years, not on libertarianism, nor on the foundations of a free market economy. The Conservative Mind virtually ignores economics.

T. S. Eliot, Kirk polemically called libertarians "chirping sectarians". He saw conservatives and libertarians as opposed to "collectivism", "totalitarianism" and "bureaucracy", but otherwise they had "nothing" in common. He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique that forever splits into smaller and weirder sects, rarely allying themselves." According to him, the dividing line goes between those who believe in "some kind of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians who do not accept any transcendent consequences for behavior." He included libertarians in the latter group. Kirk thus questioned the "fusionism" between libertarians and traditionalist conservatives that characterised much of post-World War II conservatism in the United States.

However, Kirk's view of "classical liberals" is a positive one. He agrees with them on the "government of liberty" that will bring "ordinary conservatives into concerted action against the threat of democratic despotism and economic collectivism".

Tibor R. Machan defended libertarianism in his response to Kirk's original Heritage lecture. Machan argued that individual self-determination is perhaps the most worthy of preservation in the American political tradition, and that while conservatives themselves talk about preserving a tradition, they cannot simultaneously claim a disrespectful distrust of the individual human mind and rationalism itself. Jacob G. Hornberger responded to Kirk.

Kirk and neoconservatism

In his later years, Kirk's eyes were also opened to American neoconservatives. As Chronicle editor Scott Richert describes it:

helped define the struggle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. Kirk declared, "It has often seemed that some prominent neoconservatives have mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." A few years later in another Heritage Foundation speech, Kirk paraphrased the phrase. After his opposition to the Gulf War, he clearly understood that there was an even greater meaning in these words.

He also said that neoconservatives are "often intelligent, but never wise". Midge Decter, head of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's remark "a terrible insult and an anti-Semitism by Kirk that calls into question the loyalty of neoconservatives." He told The New Republic, "This is about the concept of Christian civilization. You either have to be part of it or you can't be fit to protect anything at all. It's a hackneyed phrase and very silly."

Samuel T. Francis considered Kirk's Tel Aviv remark "a barb to the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies of neoconservatives." He described Decter's response as disingenuous, "ill-considered" and "hostile". Moreover, he claimed that such "dismissal" always benefits the left, which can then repeat the accusations and claim that conservatives accept them."

Kirk and the Gulf War

Russell Kirk was highly critical of Republican militarism towards the end of his life. According to Kirk, President Bush had launched a "radical intervention in the Gulf region". Excerpts from Russell Kirk's lectures at the Heritage Foundation (1992):

Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiastic supporters of American world power. Now George Bush seems to be emulating these famous democrats. At one time, Republicans were trounced in elections because they had nominated "One World" candidate Wendell Willkie as their presidential candidate. In general, Republicans throughout the 20th century have favoured caution and restraint in foreign affairs.

Kirk's other important 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). Like his hero Edmund Burke, Kirk became known for the prosaic style of his witty and polemical writings.

In addition to his scientific achievements, Kirk was gifted in oral storytelling and especially as a writer of masterful ghost stories, advancing the classic tradition of Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Oliver Onions and H. Russell Wakefield. He also wrote other admired and much-collected works, variously classified as horror, fantasy, science fiction and political satire. These earned him praise from his creative and respected fellow writers, including T. S. Eliot, Robert Aickman, Madeleine L'Engle and Ray Bradbury.

Although modest in number, comprising three novels and 22 short stories, Kirk's fiction was written in the midst of a busy career as a prolific non-fiction writer, journalist and speaker. Like the speculative fiction writers G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (who also wrote non-fiction only in their "day jobs"), Kirk's fiction has conservative undercurrents-social, cultural, religious and political.

Like many of his short stories, he wrote his first novel Old House of Fear (1961, 1965) in a self-consciously Gothic style. The plot of the story involves an American who is assigned by his employer to a bleak place in the Scottish countryside - the same country where Kirk had done his postgraduate studies. This was Kirk's most commercially successful and acclaimed work of fiction, which greatly helped him financially in the years that followed.

Later novels included the black comedy A Creature of the Twilight (1979, 1989), set in Scotland, and Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979, 1989), which searches for the great evil that lives in a haunted house. During his lifetime, Kirk also oversaw the publication of three collections which together covered all his short stories (three other similar collections have been published posthumously, but are merely reprints of earlier works).

Certain characters recur in his novels and stories, enriching the already remarkable coherence and resonance of his fictional canon. Although Kirk's fiction and non-fiction are complementary in theme and prose style, many readers are unaware of his other works.

Having started writing fiction quite early in his career, Kirk seems to have stopped writing fiction after the early 1980s, while continuing to write non-fiction and research until the last years of his life.


  1. Russell Kirk
  2. Russell Kirk
  3. ^ "Kirk, Russell Amos -". Archived from the original on February 23, 2019. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
  4. ^ Kirk, Russell, ed., 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. Viking: xxxviii.
  5. ^ Many published in his The Politics of Prudence (1993) and Redeeming the Time (1998).
  6. ^ "THE MARRIAGE THAT SHAPED AMERICAN CONSERVATISM". Lee Edwards. Archived from the original on January 28, 2020. Retrieved January 28, 2020.
  7. ^ Kirk, Russell (November 28, 1962). "The Mechanical Jacobin". General Features. Archived from the original on March 8, 2019. Retrieved March 7, 2019. As republished in The University Bookman, November 10, 2017.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  8. Kirk, Russell, toim., 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. Viking: xxxviii.
  9. Many published in his The Politics of Prudence (1993) and Redeeming the Time (1998).
  11. Which went into 7 editions, the later ones with the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Regnery Publishing. 7. painos (2001).  ISBN 0-89526-171-5
  12. ^
  13. ^ Polner, Murray (March 1, 2010) Left Behind, The American Conservative
  14. cité dans Russell Kirk and territorial democracy. Gerald J. Rusello. Publius. 22 septembre 2004
  15. (« unimaginable apart from one another. »)
  16. « 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. »
  17. « an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating »
  18. « some sort of transcendent moral order »

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