The Best of Russell Kirk - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Best of Russell Kirk

October 19, 2018, will mark one hundred years since the birth of one of America’s greatest men of letters, Russell Kirk. In honor of his life and work, we hand-selected some of the best examples of his thought from a variety of his books and essays.

Freedom and Virtue, “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians”

“The American Republic, and the American industrial and commercial system, require the highest degree of cooperation that any civilization has ever known. We prosper because most of the time we work together—and are restrained from our appetites and passions, to some extent, by laws enforced by the state. We need to limit the state’s powers, of course, and our national Constitution does that—if not perfectly, at least more effectively than does any other national constitution.”

“The great line of division in modern politics, as Eric Voegelin reminds us, is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other: instead, it lies between all those who believe in a transcendent moral order, on the one side, and on the other side all those who mistake our ephemeral existence as individuals for the be-all and end-all.”

What Is Conservatism?, “Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom” 

“Human nature being irremediably flawed, so that all of us in some degree rebel against the people and the institutions to which we owe most, there is in every man a certain impulse to make himself God: that is, to cast off all authority but his own lust and whim. From this vice comes the corrupting influence of total power upon even the best of natures.”

“Liberalism had begun, defying authority and prescription, by breaking all sorts of ancient ties and obligations, but the latter-day Liberal, in Santayana’s phrase, relaxes no bond except the marriage knot. Increasingly, though implicitly, Liberals came to accept a new authority, that of the omnicompetent welfare state; they continued to repudiate authority only in the sphere of private life.”

“The great classical philosophers of politics argued that justice resides in this: to each his own. Every man, ideally, ought to receive the things that best suit his own nature. Men’s talents and appetites vary greatly from individual to individual; therefore a society is unjust which treats all men as if they were uniform, or which allots to one sort of nature rights and duties that properly belong to other sorts of human beings.”

“Theory divorced from experience is infinitely dangerous, the plaything of the ideologue, the darling dagger of the energumen. Though their social functions may be similar, the justice of the peace cannot supplant the cadi; and no James Mill, however learned, can rightfully make laws for India.”

Redeeming the Time

“The university is meant to assist in life’s struggle for survival, by extracting order from disorder. Studies in seventeenth-century literature and ancient history and quantum mechanics all are paths to order. And also they are paths to freedom: for the unexamined life is a servile existence, not worth living. The university is not intended to be a staging-ground for the destruction of order in personality and order in society; on the contrary, the university’s mission (to paraphrase John Henry Newman) is to impart a philosophical habit of mind.”

“Let us leave historical determinism to the Marxists and other ideologues. The courses of nations depend upon the energy and talents of particular individuals—and upon Providence, always inscrutable. It remains true even in this mass-age of ours that individual genius and courage—or, at least, the imagination and boldness of a handful of men and women—may leaven the lump of dullness and apathy, all across the land. In practical politics, something of that sort has begun to occur among us.”

“In the modern age we have known no Thucydides, no Polybius, no Livy, no Plutarch. Obsessed by the Fact, a nineteenth-century idol, most modern historians have forgotten that facts, too, are constructions—and meaningful only in association. It is the event, rather than the isolated fact, which is the proper concern of historians. In the commendable sense, the genuine historian must be at home with fiction.”

The Conservative Mind

“In a revolutionary epoch, sometimes men taste every novelty, sicken of them all, and return to ancient principles so long disused that they seem refreshingly hearty when they are rediscovered.”

“The conservative is concerned with resistance to the armed doctrine, the clutch of ideology. He endeavors to restore the right reason of true political philosophy; he insists that although we cannot create the Terrestrial Paradise, we can make our own Terrestrial Hell through infatuation with ideology. And he declares that while this recovery of political normality is in process, we must hold the line—often by hard diplomatic and military decisions—against the adversaries of order and justice and freedom.”

The Roots of American Order

“In America, order and justice and freedom have developed together; but they can decay in parallel fashion. In every generation, some human beings bitterly defy the moral order and the social order. Although the hatred of order is suicidal, it must be reckoned with: ignore a fact, and that fact will be your master.”

“From medieval times, one inheritance comes down to us uninterrupted: the universities. The work of a university is the ordering and the integrating of knowledge. That work began systematically in the twelfth century, and without it modern civilization would founder.”

“To live within a just order is to live within a pattern that has beauty. The individual finds purpose within an order, and security—whether it is the order of the soul or the order of the community. Without order, indeed the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. No order is perfect, but any tolerable order may be improved. Although in recent years the American order may have been deficient in imagination—in dealing with its problems of urban life, technology, shifts of population, and education, for instances—nevertheless this American order has maintained a high degree of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. The conscientious citizen works to improve that order: for the alternative to a tolerable order is not Utopia, but an intolerable disorder.”

The Politics of Prudence

“It is my argument that the elaborate culture we have known stands in grave peril; that our civilization may expire of lethargy, or be destroyed by violence, or perish from a combination of both evils. Cultural conservatives, believing that life remains worth living, begin to address themselves urgently to means by which a restoration of our inherited culture may be achieved. They, far more than the other factions sometimes called conservative, require the moral imagination. The restoration of learning, humane and scientific; the reform of many public policies; the brightening of the corners where we loiter—such approaches are open to those among the rising generation who look for a purpose in life.”

“No religious creed supplies satisfactorily a plan of politics and economics: the purpose of religious faith is the ordering of the soul, not the ordering of the state. But religious dogmata do offer answers to ultimate questions; while ideology cannot convincingly answer such questions.”

“What true education transmits is not values, but instead a body of truth: that is, a pattern of meanings, perceived through certain disciplines of the intellect. The sort of education that prevailed in Europe and America until about 1930, say, was an endeavor to instruct the rising generation in the nature of reality. It traced a pattern of order: order in the soul, order in the commonwealth. That old system of education began with information; it passed from information to knowledge; it moved from knowledge to wisdom. Its aim, I repeat, was not value, but truth.”

“You will not need to be rich or famous to take your part in redeeming the time: what you require for that task is moral imagination joined to right reason. It is not by wealth or fame that you will be rewarded, probably, but by eternal moments: those occurrences in one’s existence during which, as T. S. Eliot puts it, time and the timeless intersect. In such moments, you may discover the answer to that immemorial question that now and again enters the head of any reflective person, “What is all this? What is this world that surrounds us, and why are we here?”

Eliot and His Age

“Standing still while men were arming, Eliot lived secure, full of years and honors, amidst the crash of empires. He might have said, with Don Quixote, “I know who I am,” a rare discovery—teaching resignation to any man who makes it—that Eliot had achieved painfully. Not attracted by power of wealth, Eliot was content to be poet and critic. He had no passionate desire for the fame that settled upon him, and was not easily wounded by hostility among reviewers and ideologues.”

“For human presumption tempts the man of intellect—especially if he is a shy man of intellect, as Eliot was—to assume that only the self can be known, or perhaps that only the self exists. Men tend to mistake their private immediate experience for certain knowledge; thus they stumble into a prison of spirit, shut off from the painfully acquired wisdom of the species.”

“In Eliot, that forlorn and dispossessed orthodoxy had found a voice which might be understood by some men of the twentieth century. Although the voice might startle their ears, they would listen.”

The American Cause

“Justice, and order, and freedom: the true polity, the really successful commonwealth, emphasizes equally all three of these. Now and then, in the history of the United States, we have erred by neglecting one of these principles, at some particular moment, or by over-emphasizing another, on a different occasion. Yet, taken all in all, the concepts of the founders of the Republic have endured with a strength and consistency most rare in the course of national destinies.”

“At the heart of the theory of the free economy lies the idea of competition. Something in human nature seems to call for the possibility of a real victory in life—and the possibility of a real defeat. Life is enjoyable because hope exists: hope for success of one sort or another. And hope for success cannot exist without a corresponding dread of failure. In a very real sense, life is a battle; we could never be happy if it were otherwise. The strong enjoy struggling against obstacles; life without obstacles is boredom, just as life without purposeful work is infinitely dreary.”

“Many revolutionary radicals seek to divert attention from their dismal caricature of Utopia by incessantly attacking, through elaborate propaganda, the alleged failings of free countries. The United States being the present chief check upon the radical ideologues’ ambition, the accusations of their propaganda are directed with special intensity against America.”

Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered

“Paradoxically, the resurrection of Burke is a product of modern discontents. Uncertain of the dogmas of liberalism (which Santayana knew for a mere transitory phrase), disillusioned with Giant Ideology, the modern serious public is willing to give Burke a hearing. Burke’s ideas interest nearly anyone nowadays, including men bitterly dissenting from his conclusions. If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke. Having done this, some conservatives may find that their previous footing was insecure; while some radicals may acknowledge that the opposition of traditionalists is tenable, or that Burke, too, was a liberal—if liberalism be in any degree associated with ordered freedom.”

“Burke the reformer was also Burke the conservator. In this era of total revolution, thinking men turn almost by instinct to a man of intellect and political practicality who was at once a sagacious improver and an unyielding opponent of revolution.”

“In 1790, it appeared that the ancient states of Europe were dissolving into the dust and powder of an atomic age; generation would not link with generation, men would be as the flies of a summer, and whole classes would be proscribed and hunted down like beasts. ‘What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!’ Burke had said, ten years before, on declining the poll at Bristol. What one man might do to resist this disintegration, Burke would undertake.”

The Essential Russell Kirk, “The Dissolution of Liberalism”

“All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendancy over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided. We live by myth.”

The Essential Russell Kirk, “Why I Am a Conservative”

“It appears to me that our more advanced ‘liberals’ have now quite given up any concern for freedom of the person, and are endeavoring to persuade us, instead, to submit to a regime of life in death, a colorless mediocrity and monotony in the world, an emptiness of heart, a penury of the imagination.”

The Essential Russell Kirk, “Eric Voegelin’s Normative Labor”

“By definition, human nature is a constant; knowing this, the statesman is aware that human longing never can be satisfied upon this earth. For him, politics indeed is the art of the possible, and he remains content with patching and improving society here and there; he feels he has done well if he has preserved a tolerable measure of justice and order and freedom.”

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