Russell Amos Kirk 1918-1994
American author and philosopher
Russell Kirk was born on October 19, 1918 in a prefabricated Sears house in Plymouth, Michigan. His father, Russell Andrew Kirk, was a railroad engineman who dropped out of school after fifth grade. His mother, Marjorie Rachel Pierce Kirk, had worked as a waitress in her father's restaurant.
A rather sickly child, he spent his formative years reading classic English literature provided by his mother and maternal relatives. He also made many trips to his maternal grandmother's house in Mecosta, Michigan, a home that would later be his own. This house was said to be haunted, and had been a center for seances in the 1880s and 1890s. Kirk attended public schools in Plymouth from 1922 until 1936. He said of the faculty, "...some of the teachers were very good indeed, and nearly all were competent." He excelled at writing and won many literary awards including a gold medal from the Detroit Times in 1932 and first prize from the publication Scholastic in 1936. He entered the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (later Michigan State University), and received his bachelors degree in 1940.
A thesis on the politics of John Randolph earned him a master's degree from Duke University in 1941, this thesis would later be published in book form. He spent four years in the Army, and eventually ended up at St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1952 he became the only American to ever earn
the title of doctor of letters from St. Andrews.
Kirk rarely held "normal" jobs during his life. He mostly supported his family by writing, living the life of a scholar. Although he occassionally taught as a visiting professor at various universities, he was never a permanent member of any faculty. He traveled extensively, but spent much of his time at "Piety Hill", his home in Mecosta, Michigan, once described as "The Last Homely House" by a visitor. The doors were never locked, and even when money was tight, the Kirks never turned away their visitors, including refugees from around the world, college students, and authors, many staying for extended periods of time. Kirk died there on April 29, 1994.
Kirk is considered to be one of the most influential modern conservatives, largely due to his book The Conservative Mind published in 1953. This status also seems to be in part because he is one of the few self-described conservatives with impressive academic credentials. He really wouldn't have much in common with most Republicans today, and as one person put it, "...during the 1990s Kirk has more often than not been paid empty homage by the influential think tanks and magazines within the conservative movement." He was a conservative in the truist sense, wanting to preserve the traditions and knowledge of the past, and refusing to equate technological advances with true progress. He was very critical of capitalism as a political ideology, although he felt that a free market economy could be reined in such that it wouldn't destroy social stability and moral order as he felt it often did when industrial nations exported their theories of democratic capitalism to the third world. He had little love for big business, his thought had a kind of antimodernism to it, he believed it was essential to protect the interests of small farmers and businessmen, and he believed that sound environmental policy was essential.
Kirk was long a contributor to the conservative publication National Review, but in 1980 as it became more and more apparent that he had little in common with those calling themselves conservative, he broke all ties with the publication.
Although he continued to write until the end of his life, Kirk slowly fell into obscurity following the height of his influence in the 1950s and 1960's. Some believe this was because he was a political thinker, but did not bother with the details of public policy. By the 1980s, the Republicans were returning to power in the United States, and the Reaganites
had little use for him and his musty old philosophical ideas.
Kirk summarized those musty ideas in his book The Politics of Prudence. In that book he described ten conservative principles:
- The belief in an enduring moral order
- Adherence to custom, convention and continuity
- The principle of prescription (the idea that in most cases we cannot come up with better ideas those already described by the intellectual giants of the past)
- The principle of prudence (don't reform anything until you've assured yourself that the new way is indeed better)
- The principle of variety (Kirk believed any attempt to do away with social and economic differences would lead to stagnation of civilization)
- The principle of imperfectibility (it is useless to seek Utopia)
- The belief that freedom and property are closely linked
- Voluntary community is important, involuntary collectivism must be opposed
- Prudent restraints are needed on power and human passions
- Permanence and change must be reconciled in a vigorous society (I'm not up to trying to explain that one)
Although he is most remembered for his political and philosophical works, Kirk was most proud of his accomplishments as a writer of ghost stories. He was especially proud to have been awarded the Ann Radcliffe Award of the Count
Dracula Society for his gothic fiction.
The Sword of the Imagination by Russell Kirk
The Politics of Prudence by Russell Kirk