Russell Kirk: American Conservative
by Bradley J. Birzer
The University Press of Kentucky
Russell Kirk (1918-94) was one of the greatest conservatives of the last century, very different from the likes of Mr Cameron or Mr Trump or just about any of the current crop of so-called conservatives. I remember first reading his superb The Conservative Mind some years ago and being surprised, pleasantly, by its lack of economic theory. He was a traditional disciple of Edmund Burke and was critical of libertarianism and neo-conservatism as much as movements for "change" as defined by Mr Obama and company.
This wonderful work is written by a professor of history who holds the Russell Kirk Chair at Hillsdale College. After reading this book, we are left in no doubt that Kirk's battles were not limited to mere politics but to all forms of ugliness and "spiritual discomforts" we find in contemporary society.
The author describes his early life in Michigan. During his time at Duke University, he wrote on John Randolph, the American Burke. While in the Army, an unhappy time, he read voraciously. His subsequent time at Michigan was not a happy one either. His period at Saint Andrew's University in Scotland was more to his liking and it was here that he wrote The Conservative Mind.
Conservatism, for Kirk, is a way of understanding, a way of living rather than following a set of principles. A conservative believes in the preservation of the permanent things, something that Mr Cameron clearly does not believe in. Conservatism for Kirk means valuing customs and institutions, including traditional marriage, and allowing people to flourish with minimal State interference. It means respecting the natural law and giving obedience to a transcendent moral order. T S Eliot was a huge influence and from Eliot he learned of timeless moments. How can this form of conservatism be anything but Christian? The author discusses Kirk's Christian humanism and his conversion to Catholicism. He was also a champion of the family, as witnessed by his own commitment to family life.
Like all true conservatives, the author shows how much he cared for the poor, including letting them stay at his family home, Piety Hill. He loathed anti-Semitism and was critical of the John Birch Society. There were disputes with many conservatives. His relations with William F. Buckley are detailed.
I found the last section of the book especially interesting. Like Maritain and Dawson, Kirk did not approve of the liberal direction taken by the Catholic Church in the sixties. It was fascinating to read about Kirk's conversation with Padre Pio before he died.
This is a fascinating account of a great catholic and conservative.
Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan