(Editor’s note: To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Russell Kirk’s seminal 1953 work, The Conservative Mind, the following essay is adapted from a talk given at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in September 2012. The
talk was preceded by a speech given by the eminent Kirk scholar Gleaves Whitney. Portions of this essay are reprinted with the permission of The Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)
Being asked to speak after a presentation from such an esteemed scholar as Gleaves Whitney is not unlike being Iron Butterfly playing the Fillmore East in 1968. The California band was milking their lone AM single and FM long-player staple “In a Gadda Da Vida,” only to find out their opening act was a hot young band from England named Led Zeppelin.
Ask anyone today about Iron Butterfly, and they’ll talk about that one song with barely a mention of one member of the band’s ever-changing lineup. Led Zeppelin? Well, they went on to boast fame and notoriety as one of music’s greatest and most influential rock groups.
In this dynamic, I’m Iron Butterfly and the always compelling Gleaves is Led Zeppelin. That said, I’m prepared to give you 16 minutes on Russell Kirk, sparing the audience here tonight from an obligatory drum solo, and offering my apologies in advance.
Let’s begin with a little about myself: I was born with extreme abscesses in both ears, rendering me deaf for all practical purposes. Surgery in infancy remedied the situation temporarily, but subsequent infections left me doing a fair share of lip reading until I had surgery performed in 1969. Voila! My hearing was restored.
The sounds that rushed in on me were deafening. Seven siblings; radios, television, and home hi-fi system; The Beatles; The Monkees; The Who; Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley; Laugh In; the Mod Squad; protests from the bra-burning of women’s liberation to the Molotov cocktails flung at the ROTC building at my hometown college.
The sacred and the profane, the good and the bad all entered unfiltered into ears unaccustomed to noise. It’s no wonder I spent the remainder of my youth seeking quiet streams on which to fish and tranquil woods in which to walk.
So it’s easy for me to imagine what it must be like for someone who recognizes that something’s happening but they don’t know what to make of it, how to change it or how to process it all. Where should a person even begin?
The same could be said for young men and women who wake up one day with the realization that there’s more to life than three squares, a job, a beautiful house and a beautiful spouse and children. So the search begins for deeper meaning, a higher caliber of living that isn’t reliant on owning the “this” and accumulating the “that,” the stuff that winds up on trash heaps or sold at garage sales.
At some point, many young people realize the world can and should be a better place. The many worldview options today result in a veritable cognitive dissonance. Which path to take? The utopian progressive vision? Ayn Rand’s path of “enlightened self-interest”? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? There’s lots of noise coming from all directions, which course to take?
I’ll spare you the details, but my path — quite fortunately — led me to the writings of Russell Kirk. Initially, it was through his regular “To the Point” newspaper column in my local newspaper, and then a brief, fleeting personal interaction with the man in my early teens. Alas, I was too young and politically immature to appreciate the tremendous resource immediately at my disposal; there were way too many distractions for a young man recently in possession of all five senses in those days.
But, the seed was planted. And the seed was a strong one, grown to a mighty oak with roots in Edmund Burke, John Adams, George Santayana, Orestes Brownson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Alexis de Tocqueville and T.S. Eliot. “I met this man, and he did a whole lot of heavy intellectual lifting,” I thought. This one man, this Bohemian Tory, this thinker of great thoughts, this distiller and aggregator of the best civilization could conjure for the betterment of humankind.
Phrases like “The Permanent Things” and “The Moral Imagination” struck a chord beyond the too-easy affiliations with the mere flag-waving or flag-burning sides prevalent over the past half century. I believe Kirk’s writings helped me navigate my worldview from disparate elements to a clearly defined non-ideologically hidebound perspective. Just as I believe it would behoove anyone finally willing to shout like William F. Buckley: “Enough!” as they sit astride history, wondering how to delineate the proper path to proceed.
Some would say it’s best to read up on economics before wading into the pool of public policy. Some say history, and others will assert their preference for the social sciences or the first principles of Judeo-Christian religion. For others, it’s classic literature. And there’s much to be said in the affirmative for all of these.
But who has time to read the five-foot shelf of yore to catch up on all of this? High schools and universities seldom offer a crash course in the understanding of all of these disparate subjects, much less approaching them holistically.
And yet, this is what Russell Kirk offered in his work — a distillation of the whole conservative canon. From Kirk’s 10 Conservative Principles we can glean a bit of what it takes to proceed on any given public policy issue.
I could speak to you endlessly about how adherence to Kirk’s “Principles” has led to positive outcomes, and as well how failure to adhere to them has led to less-desirable, if not outright disastrous, outcomes. If I did that, however, I’d deprive listeners of the opportunity to perform their own conservative check on the public policy issues we’ve faced in the past and continue to confront on a daily basis.
Seldom if ever is there anything new under the sun, so applying Kirk’s Principles to the topics of today should yield a healthy, vibrant tomorrow for as long as our Republic lasts.