Russell Kirk

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Russell Kirk (1918 – 29 April 1994) was an American political theorist, conservative, historian of ideas, social critic, and man of letters, best known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana,[1] gave shape to the amorphous post-World War II conservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving pride of place to the ideas of Edmund Burke.


Russell Kirk was born in a house his grandfather built. He was the son of Russell Andrew Kirk, a railroad engineer, and Marjorie Pierce Kirk.

Kirk obtained his B.A. at Michigan State University, thanks to a scholarship, then took an M.A. at Duke University. After serving in the Army during World War II, he attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1953, he became the first American to be awarded the degree of doctor of letters by that university.

Upon completing his studies, Kirk took up an academic position at his alma mater, Michigan State. He resigned in 1959, after having become disenchanted with that university's academic standards, rapid growth in student numbers, and emphasis on intercollegiate athletics and technical training at the expense of the traditional liberal arts. Thereafter he ridiculed Michigan State as "Cow College" or "Behemoth University." He later wrote that academic political scientists and sociologists were "as a breed--dull dogs."[2] Late in life, he taught one semester a year at Hillsdale College, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities.

Kirk frequently published in two American conservative journals he helped found, National Review in 1955 and Modern Age in 1957. He was the founding editor of the latter, 1957-59. Later he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where he gave a number of lectures.[3]

After leaving Michigan State, Kirk returned to his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, where he wrote the many books, academic articles, lectures, and the syndicated newspaper column (which ran for 13 years) by which he exerted his influence on American politics and intellectual life. In 1963, Kirk married Annette Courtemanche; they had four daughters. She and Kirk became known for their hospitality, welcoming many political, philosophical, and literary figures in their Mecosta house (known as "Piety Hill"), and giving shelter to political refugees, hoboes, and others. Their home became the site of a sort of seminar on conservative thought for university students. Piety Hill now houses the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

Kirk declined to drive, calling cars "mechanical Jacobins", and would have nothing to do with television and what he called "electronic computers."


The Conservative Mind

The Conservative Mind, the published version of Kirk's doctoral dissertation, contributed materially to the 20th century Edmund Burke revival. It also drew attention to:

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

Not everyone agreed with Kirk's reading of the conservative heritage and tradition. For example, Harry Jaffa (a student of Leo Strauss) wrote: "Kirk was a poor Burke scholar. Burke's attack on metaphysical reasoning related only to modern philosophy's attempt to eliminate skeptical doubt from its premises and hence from its conclusions."[4]

Russello (2004) argues that Kirk adapted what 19th century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy" to articulate a version of federalism that was based on premises that differ in part from those of the Founders and other conservatives. Kirk further believed that territorial democracy could reconcile the tension between treating the states as mere provinces of the central government, and as autonomous political units independent of Washington. Finally, territorial democracy allowed Kirk to set out a theory of individual rights grounded in the particular historical circumstances of the United States, while rejecting a universal conception of such rights.


Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Russello (2004) described as follows:

  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
  6. A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another."[5] and that "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." [6]

Kirk and Libertarianism

Kirk grounded his Burkean conservatism in tradition, political philosophy, belles lettres, and the strong religious faith of his later years; rather than libertarianism and free market economic reasoning. The Conservative Mind hardly mentions economics at all.

In a polemic essay,[7] Kirk (quoting T. S. Eliot) called libertarians "chirping sectaries", adding that they and conservatives have nothing in common. He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating." He said a line of division exists between believers in "some sort of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct." He included libertarians in the latter category.[8]

Kirk and Neoconservatism

Late in life, Kirk grew disenchanted with American neoconservatives as well. On December 15, 1988, he gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, titled "The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species."[9] As Chronicles editor Scott Richert describes it,

[One line] helped define the emerging struggle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. "Not seldom has it seemed," Kirk declared, "as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." A few years later, in another Heritage Foundation speech, Kirk repeated that line verbatim. In the wake of the Gulf War, which he had opposed, he clearly understood that those words carried even greater meaning.[10]

Midge Decter, director of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's line "a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives." She claimed that Kirk "said people like my husband and me put the interest of Israel before the interest of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty." She told The New Republic, "It's this notion of a Christian civilization. You have to be part of it or you're not really fit to conserve anything. That's an old line and it's very ignorant."[11]

Samuel Francis called Kirk's "Tel Aviv" remark "a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neoconservatives.[12] He called Decter's response untrue, "reckless" and "vitriolic." Furthermore, he argued that such a denunciation "always plays into the hands of the left, which is then able to repeat the charges and claim conservative endorsement of them."[13]

Man of letters

Kirk's more 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). As was the case with his hero Edmund Burke, Kirk became renowned for the prose style of his intellectual and polemical writings.[14]


He was also an accomplished teller and writer of fiction, especially ghost stories. His first novel, Old House of Fear, was a gothic. He followed that up with A Creature of the Twilight, a story of revolution and political intrigue in Africa with his continuing character Manfred Arcane, who would appear in many of his ghost stories, as well as the haunted house novel The Lord of the Hollow Dark.

His supernatural tales were originally collected in three volumes, The Surly Sullen Bell, The Princess of All Lands, and Watchers at the Strait Gate, the last two volumes from Arkham House. These stories (as well as one previously uncollected story) were gathered in two volumes published by Ash-Tree Press: Off the Sand Road (2002) and What Shadows We Pursue (2003). The story "There's A Long, Long Trail A-Winding" which appears in The Princess of All Lands, won the 1977 World Fantasy Award for best novella.

The science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle is a protégé of Kirk.[15]


  1. Which went into 7 editions, the later ones with the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot.
  2. Kirk, The Portable Conservative Reader. 1982. page xxxviii.
  3. Many published in his The Politics of Prudence (1993) and Redeeming the Time (1998).
  4. see [1]
  5. See [2]
  6. See [3]
  7. See [4]
  8. See [5]
  9. See [6]
  10. See [7]
  11. See [8]
  12. See [9]
  13. See [10]
  14. Nash (1998).
  15. See [11]