A Scottish Remembrance of Russell Kirk, by Alvino-Mario Fantini

The Conservative Mind‘s author taught generations to re-enchant the world.

As an undergraduate, my first encounters with Professor Jeff Hart and The Dartmouth Review eventually led to my discovery of the works of Russell Kirk. Like William F. Buckley Jr., Kirk wrote about the need to raise, as historian George Nash put it, a “full-scale challenge to modernity”—in the arts, literature, religion, and politics. While both Buckley and Kirk enchanted me with their obvious love of language and mastery of words, it was Kirk who also managed to stir my spirit with an affection, kindness, and warmth that I did not find elsewhere. Here was a gentle, conservative aesthete.

But I’m not the only one who was affected in such a way by Kirk. And last year, to mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, The Conservative Mind, there were several tributes. Last summer, The University Bookman, which Kirk founded in 1960, published an on-line symposium discussing the book. In July, the Liberty Fund also published a tribute, along with three excellent rejoinders. In September, two more events took place: Lee Edwards at the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel with Matthew Spalding, Yuval Levin, and Peter Wehner to discuss the book’s impact; and a few days later, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The Imaginative Conservative, and the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal co-sponsored a one-day seminar at Houston Baptist University.

Scottish Celebrations

One of the more interesting commemorations took place October 18-20 in Scotland, where a distinguished group of students and academics joined members of the Kirk family and their close friends at the University of St. Andrews to discuss The Conservative Mind—and to remember, in Willmoore Kendall’s words, the “benevolent sage of Mecosta”.

Some people aren’t aware that Kirk was a doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews; in fact, he remains the only American to have received a Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) from that esteemed university. His dissertation, titled “The Conservative’s Rout”—later re-named The Conservative Mind in discussions with publisher Henry Regnery—is still on file at the university, and the anniversary celebrations in Scotland began, appropriately enough, with a viewing of the original dissertation on Friday afternoon.

Attending the weekend’s events were a dozen or so promising young Americans, all current or former Wilbur Fellows who, after working for Russell and Annette Kirk, went on to study at St. Andrews. It was impressive to hear the deep affection with which each of them spoke about the Kirks—and about the time they spent at his ancestral home at Piety Hill.

Various Europeans also joined the celebrations—for, despite his focus on an ‘Anglo-American’ political tradition, many of Kirk’s published works are known across Continental Europe. Some have even been translated into Spanish, German, and Italian, and his ideas have influenced a range of European scholars. In Germany, Kirk’s contributions as a ‘conservative man of letters’ were recognized as so important, that he merited a lengthy entry (and photograph) in the Lexikon des Konservatismus (Dictionary of Conservatism), a 1996 work edited by the German noble, Caspar von Schrenck-Notzing. Today even young members of Sweden’sKonservativt Forum are wont to quote Kirk approvingly.

The always charming and energetic Annette Kirk was also present in Scotland, along with two of her daughters and their families. On Friday evening, she hosted a private reception and dinner at the cliff-side Russell Hotel, where guests were treated to a talk by André Gushurst-Moore, currently Director of Pastoral Care at Downside School, an institution attached to the Benedictine Downside Abbey in Somerset, England.

Gushurst-Moore elaborated on some of the principal themes in Kirk’s works, speaking of Kirk’s defense of humane learning, the moral imagination, and “the permanent things.” Not coincidentally, these are precisely the themes closest to Gushurst-Moore’s own work. In his recent The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk (published in 2013 by Angelico Press), he profiles 12 great ‘Christian Humanists’ through the centuries, including Thomas More, Dr. Johnson, Edmund Burke, Orestes Brownson, and Russell Kirk, among others.

His was an eloquent and respectful tribute, which many found quite moving. It was a testament of sorts to the impact that Kirk’s writings—and his gentle character—had on people. And nearly two decades after his death, Kirk continues to touch people with the evocative power of his words (the late Frederick Wilhelmsen said “Kirk was essentially a poet who wrote in prose”). What a reminder of those T.S. Eliot lines from Four Quartets which Kirk was so fond of quoting: “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

Towards the Good Society: A Conservative View, by Alvino-Mario Fantini.

In an interesting reply to an earlier post, “Mario” presented an insightful overview of the conservative landscape and summarized what he takes to be the foundational commitments of conservatives. I then asked him a question: How could they be applied to considering deliberately the events of the day in a way that might convince people who are not conservative? Alvino-Mario Fantini presents his response in this post. -Jeff

I think that a meaningful principle of the conservative tradition is that local customs and experiences most often do a far better job at responding to people’s needs than do centralized national systems. I think this is of special importance, even though it does divide the “conservative community.” While, the neo-conservatives seem to believe that there is a formula or pattern or idea that can be applied everywhere regardless of cultural or anthropological or historical context, the paleo-conservatives tend to be more respectful of the local or native traditions of people around the world. (Of course, certain things — female genital mutilation and honor killings, for example — raise other ancillary questions about the need for modernization and whether or not we outsiders should attempt to change such things, but that is another discussion.)

In short, I think that by knowing more about how and why the state has so often and so frequently failed in other contexts, and how political leaders have so often become enamored of power and state influence (leading to horrible atrocities in many countries), we will understand that government is too often — though not always — the main problem or obstacle in the development of people and the flourishing of human societies. Furthermore, I think we’ll see that ideological or utopian visions are almost always the source of policies and state actions that end up being inhumane, unjust and violent in the name of a great progressive leap forward.

Keep reading here: Deliberately Considered

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