Today Bill Buckley, Annette Kirk, and I are giving lectures at the White House about one of the preeminent philosophers of the twentieth century: Annette’s husband, the late Russell Kirk.
Fifty years ago—the same year I graduated from
When I read The Conservative Mind, I began to realize that someone else believed all of those things I had argued for during my undergraduate years. The book gave me great intellectual support in the early days of my political life. When I was at the White House, Kirk came to meet with President Nixon, and his thinking energized President Reagan in the 1980s and continues to guide the principles of George W. Bush.
Kirk was convinced that “a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral.”
Societies, Kirk asserted, should acknowledge their origin and their responsibility to God. This tenet of faith grounds our law in God’s will and character.
And those rights and responsibilities come to us as a gift from previous generations. Tradition is vital, because in it we respect our ancestors’ ongoing right to participate in our contemporary culture.
Most of all, Russell Kirk argued, neutrality on moral issues is impossible. Law and policy cannot escape moral judgments. Whether banning smoking in hospitals, setting speed limits, or legalizing abortion, public policy teaches citizens a worldview and a moral code. Kirk sought to derive policies from the moral and religious wisdom of Western civilization—as opposed to the utopian schemes of coffee-house dreamers.
Kirk’s social vision, like that of our founders, depends on a critical mass of virtuous citizens who govern themselves. Instead of a policeman on every corner, a society must imbue each citizen with law-abiding inner disciplines.
But government, you see, can’t do that. What can are other institutions: families, churches, synagogues, schools, and community organizations—what Kirk, quoting Edmund Burke, liked to call the “little platoons” of society.
Russell Kirk identified three pillars of conservatism: order, tradition, and religion, the moral regulator of a society. These pillars are the things we most need to strengthen today.
Ideologues on both the left and the right tell us that they can come up with great utopian schemes for poverty, terrorism, and a host of other problems. Russell Kirk, however, helps us put such foolishness in perspective.
We stand on the shoulders of men like Kirk. He went before us. He fought well in the battle of ideas. And most marvelously of all, he sustained the faith.
For further reading and information:
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953).
Russell Kirk, “ Freud and the Educationists ,” National Review,
You can read more about Russell Kirk and his writings at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal website.
Listen to a
Learn more about Russell Kirk and read his lectures at Townhall.com.
John Attarian, “ Russell Kirk’s Economics of the Permanent Things ,” The Freeman 46, no. 4 (April 1996).
For the past four years Young America’s Foundation has hosted a select group of student leaders to a seminar in
John J. Miller, “ The Ghosts of Kirk ,” National Review Online,
J. Budziszewski, “ ‘Little Platoons’: God’s Design for Our Relationships ,” BreakPoint WorldView, March 2003.
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