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Does Russell Kirk still matter in today’s America?

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Many might not even recognize the name “Russell Kirk,” and those who do often do not know the true impact of his contributions. Kirk quickly rose to prominence in American political discourse during the 1950s, but fell from the public eye following Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election, whom Kirk had firmly supported. But at this year’s Acton University, Bradley Birzer, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, and the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, outlined three major defenses for Kirk’s lasting relevancy in his lecture titled, “Why Russell Kirk Matters.”

First, Birzer described Kirk as “deeply non- ideological;” he was a man who viewed conservatism not simply as a political wing or a reaction against communism, but as something much higher, even transcendent. Kirk’s negation of ideology manifests in the “canons” of conservatism he developed. Birzer pointed out that they are called canons because Kirk did not construct a complete system that would be consistent across all times. Rather, Kirk laid out a set of general principles that must be applied prudentially to any circumstance. True conservatism, according to Kirk, required the belief that there is something greater than man, an affection for the variety of life, and a recognition of the orders in society, to name a few. Birzer held that Kirk’s conservatism was one “about the humane tradition” which “might be important for us, especially in 2017, as we’re rethinking conservatism.”

Second, Birzer argued that Kirk matters for his “individualistic anti-individual” outlook on the person. On the surface, this seems undoubtedly contradictory, but makes perfect sense upon closer inspection. Kirk repeatedly described his belief in the uniqueness of each person and a deeply rooted fear of conformity but simultaneously argued that being unique for the sake of individuality does not fulfill one’s purpose in life. Birzer pointed out that this tension is “troubling for us in 2017 because here’s Kirk arguing in favor of tradition, in favor of piety, but very much against conformity.” In a time where conservatism is being reexamined, Kirk shows that tradition and individualism certainly do not have to be in conflict with one another.

Finally, and most important for Birzer, was Kirk’s lifestyle of charitable giving. Birzer relayed countless testimonies of the simply astonishing, selfless acts that Kirk and his wife, Annette, carried out which may seem preposterous and bizarre to the average person. Russell Kirk saw himself as an “agent” for helping others fulfill their purpose in life, which is an aspect “that in 2017, in our cynical minds, we have a hard time understanding.” But his heart for giving is an attribute all people can learn from, and Birzer claimed, is the one aspect of Kirk’s life which will surely be his legacy.

For those interested in discovering more about Russell Kirk and his contributions to American political thought, Birzer recommended Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives, and Birzer’s Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

For an additional learning opportunity, come and attend the Acton Lecture Series upcoming event featuring Seth Bartee on the Hard Work of Leisure: Russell Kirk’s Wisdom on Leisure, Work, and How Christians Can Best Impact Society. Find out more at acton.org/events.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Taegan James

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