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Time and Timeless: The Historical Imagination of Russell Kirk

Summer 1999 - Vol. 41, No. 3

“Our religion, our culture, and our political rights all are maintained by continuity: by the respect for the accomplishments of our forefathers, and by our concern for our posterity’s well-being.”

In his private library at Piety Hill, Russell Kirk devoted a large bookcase to the works of those he called “philosophical historians.” Kirk placed on those shelves the books of Arnold Toynbee, Christopher Dawson, Herbert Butterfield, John Lukacs, and others whose work fused mastery of historical fact with a philosophical approach to the past. These scholars, however, did not compose “philosophies of history”: neither the abstract patterns of Comte nor the ahistoricism of Hegel (or Hegel’s student Fukuyama) would have found a place of such favor. Rather the historians who occupied this privileged place understood, as Kirk did, that history is the memory of humanity and its interpretation is an attempt to plumb the mysteries of the human condition.

Through his work, Kirk evoked a past from which conservatives could draw their guiding principles and individual models; conservatives, therefore, owe him a particular debt. With the publication of The Conservative Mind in 1953, Kirk had established an “intellectually formidable and respectable ancestry” for conservative principles.2In a telling phrase, historian George Nash concludes that Kirk had given American conservatism a “genealogy of good men and valuable thoughts.”3 Recovering this patrimony of conservative figures and principles was itself a significant act of historical scholarship. Kirk’s description of The Conservative Mind as “a prolonged essay in the history of ideas”4 and “an historical analysis of a mode of regarding the civil social order”5 gives some sense of how he conceived of his own work.

As Professor Wilfred McClay points out in his excellent monograph, “The Mystic Chords of Memory: Reclaiming American History,”6Kirk did not often explicitly discuss the nature of history in his writings, what we shall call (following Professor McClay) “historical consciousness.” Rather, for Kirk, “[h]istorical consciousness seemed to have been infused into the air he breathed and mixed into the soil of the ancestral land in which he chose to live.”7 History and tradition lay at the very center of Kirk’s understanding of human society. As Frederick Wilhelmsen has written, “Nothing he saw was simply itself. With Kirk everything was charged with history.”

This essay will concentrate on Russell Kirk’s historical thought, and the development in his work of a conservative historical consciousness, what scholar Mark Henrie has called “the normative value of tradition.”9Kirk explored in his work the tension in Western civilization between the individual and the community, and between respect for the past with concern for the future. Kirk knew that history is made by individuals: ever wary of abstractions, Kirk concentrated on specific persons who altered history through their actions, rather than making obeisance to abstract “History.” Kirk saw the conservative’s task as preventing this individual action from degenerating into neoterism or revolution, and only by understanding individual action within the broader canvas of history disciplined by authority and tradition can we prevent this degeneration. The historical figures Kirk puts forth for our consideration are those who were able to act within the bounds of history, even as they changed it.

Kirk, although never a formal academic for long, was trained as a historian, and his earliest works bear the clear imprint of his scholarly training. Even as Kirk concentrated more on cultural and educational criticism and commentary than strict historical studies, his historical approach remains evident. As the years passed, Kirk combined his historical sense with his skill in story-telling, and clothed the framework of historical fact in narrative form.

Although widely read in the classical and modern historians, the strongest influence upon Kirk in his understanding of history, as in much else, was Edmund Burke. Burke taught Kirk that history was more than mere chance or a meaningless string of events; rather, it was the “gradual realization of a supreme design,” with individuals as the agents of Providence.10Kirk rejected historical determinism, and instead agreed with Burke that the Christian doctrine of free will provided a better insight into human nature. Providence works in natural ways, and individuals can and do resist the divine will. Although this design is never more than partially comprehensible to us, Burke thought that it revealed itself through the historical development of cultural institutions, customs, and traditions. History is a “proving ground, testing institutions through circumstances.”11It combines and transcends contingent facts and provides a standard for personal action.12

Knowledge of a people’s historical prejudices and patterns of behavior is essential for statesmen who must confront the challenges of a new age—as Burke confronted the challenge of the French Revolution. Kirk’s reliance on “seers” (Bruce Frohnen’s term) represents another instance of how Kirk conceives history as transcendent. Through the moral imagination, they expound the permanent things and using historical circumstances to pierce ephemera and to convey a sense of the eternal to the wider world. 13

History, then, is not an ideology, nor can it be used as one would use a tool. From Burke, Kirk learned that history at best can provide only glimpses of an underlying order. “The truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and misery of our condition.”14 To suppose otherwise is to assume the attitude of the intellectual who looks with arrogance rather than with awe upon the mystery of human existence.

This lesson has two corollaries. First, history is not Marcel’s “armed ghost,” but rather the unfolding of God’s plan through the free actions of individuals.15 We shall address more precisely Kirk’s understanding of the relation between the individual and history later in this essay; suffice it now to say that Kirk allowed for individuals to alter dramatically the path of history, and thereby to reveal or to obscure the supreme design. Burke himself was just such an individual, Disraeli perhaps another; others adorn the section headings of The Conservative Mind. In his first books, Kirk profiled two figures—Edmund Burke and John Randolph of Roanoke—who represented this historically-rooted individualism on either side of the Atlantic. Their examples, Kirk thought, could move us still: John Randolph of Roanoke, for example, was a deliberate attempt to “rescue from obscurity” the legacy of the great Virginian in order to guide the succeeding generations.16His study of Burke also was meant to retrieve a Tiresias for our time, who could confront modern mass-ideology with the alternative of the “great continuity.”17

The second corollary is Kirk’s preference to discuss concrete historical circumstances when he found them. History has no Hegelian “meaning,” to be deducted from a collection of facts, not least because we can never know enough about the past to understand it fully. It is instead a series of clues to enduring norms of behavior, or a “conceptual order” that, however imperfectly understood at any one moment, nevertheless reveals a latent integrity.18The resources of history are embedded within concrete places and customs, and supplement the individual’s own private stock of reason to provide a framework for decision. The common law, for example, embraces numerous assumptions and presumptions about human behavior and norms that have become entrenched through time and expressed in legal decisions.

Kirk emphasized the specifically British roots of the American system, even while he placed the United States within the wider tradition of the West. As M. E. Bradford has pointed out with respect to The Roots of American Order, this approach is a typically “Burkean prologue” to the study of history.19That Kirk remained convinced that the British experience was the proper prism through which to judge American history is evidenced by one of his last books, America’s British Culture, in which he compares the “literary” legacy of Greece and Rome with the “institutional” influence of Britain.20 

Indeed, as the title indicates, the chapters of America’s British Culture concentrate on the concrete connections between British and American ways of life. After discussing language and literature, the rule of law and the system of representative government, Kirk turns to “Mores and Minds,” perhaps the most important chapter of the volume. It is a powerful argument for the persistence of habits of behavior over long stretches of time, even when the sources of those habits have been forgotten. The “traditional customs, [the] way of regarding the human condition, [and] principles of morality”21that compose American culture Kirk traces to America’s orginal British settlers. “All spoke and read English, all lived under English law, all abided by many old English prescriptions and usages. Theirs was Christianity in British forms.”22 These habits remain, in a form recognizable to Tocqueville, whom Kirk relies on, and despite the mass immigration of other ethnic groups into the United States. These habits, Kirk implies, must be the basis for a regeneration of our political and cultural life; any other basis would be building on shallow foundations.

Kirk contended, that America, and American conservatives, ought to be oriented toward Europe, especially Britain. His emphasis on the British experience was not accepted silently by Kirk’s fellow conservatives during the renascence of conservative thought in the years following World War II. These conservatives critics suggested Kirk had done little more than create a “usable past,” and one not very useful at that. In general, he was criticized for favoring the traditions and the institutions of aristocratic and pre-industrial Europe, rather than industrial and democratic-republican America.23Others, such as Thomas Molnar, argued that American history contained no conservative tradition pointing to universal truths.24More recently, critics have argued that Kirk was not writing history at all; works such as The Conservative Mind were “literature meant to achieve political ends.”25And some have argued that, had he foreseen the political ends of his works as proclaimed by recent political figures, even Kirk might have questioned the value of his accomplishment.26

Kirk’s reply to his critics remained the same. As he wrote in the early 1960s, the United States belonged to the “grander tradition and continuity” of the Western world.27 And American history, rich as it may be in some respects, simply cannot provide the full range of continuity when it is severed from its European (and specifically British) roots. As Kirk himself said, “the Present . . . is only a thin film upon the deep well of the Past,” and that past—even the distant past—continues to live and influence us into the present moments.28In his last books, Kirk continues his adherence to this approach, and believes Coke and Johnson are as relevant to American civilization as John Marshall and the Founders. Kirk acknowledges the rich diversity of Western tradition, but with the implicit qualification that we in the United States, while heirs to the entire history of the West, are shaped by particular portions of that history. We must accept the full tradition through the prism of our Anglo-American history; thus, a conservative in the United States wishing to revitalize the tradition does not have open to him the same set of choices that, say, a Bernanos or a Belloc had open to them in their circumstances, even though each in some way relies upon a common Western history.

Kirk would perhaps not object to his historical studies being styled as more literary than strictly historical. Poets and storytellers influenced Kirk as much (if not more than) as did historians. Literature moves minds, and the better literature is historically-informed, even as the better histories are leavened by literary insight. Indeed, most of Kirk’s historical prose is evocative rather than strictly descriptive. He was more concerned with bringing a tradition to life than with acting as a professor “Dryasdust.” Like the historians he admired, Kirk dramatized the human condition, but this does not make him any less a historian. We do not fault Thucydides for putting speeches into the mouths of his Greeks, or Tacitus for inventing the characters of barbarian warriors.29 

Nor would Kirk object to the “political” nature of his works, if the adjective were properly understood. From his study of history, he knew that, because human nature is flawed, efforts to create a paradise are doomed to fail, and with terrible results. Therefore, politics must be understood as the art of the possible. Compromise and agreement are practices that emerge from the long history of Anglo-American political culture. Reflection upon that culture will help us understand the nature and limits of political action. We can then judge whether Burke’s slow accumulation of liberty or the blunt instrument of Rousseau’s general will is the proper standpoint from which to judge society.

Of course, Burke was not the only historical scholar to influence Kirk. In “The Perversity of Recent Fiction: Reflections on the Moral Imagination,” he mentions authors who gave him a historical sense while he was still a youth before he had read Burke, such as Dickens and even H.G. Wells.30These authors prepared him for his later, more systematic study of the great ancient and modern historians. In addition, Kirk’s prose and historical sense are marked by the strong influence of Biblical language.

Among modern historians Kirk turned to Eric Voegelin, Christopher Dawson, and John Lukacs. In an important early review of the first volume of Voeglin’s Order and History, Kirk defined the four major schools of historical thought as he saw them.31 The first school treats history as meaningless and for no purpose: “everything has been ‘evolutionary development’ or mere flux.”32The second school, which includes Condorcet, Comte, and Marx, Kirk names the positivists. They see history as the record of advancement toward a terrestrial paradise. The third school was composed originally of the ancients, and revived by some moderns such as Toynbee: history is conceived as a cycle, consisting of predictable and repetitive stages of growth, maturity, and decay. These three schools have dominated historical thinking for the last two centuries.

It is the last school that holds Kirk’s attention. This school advocates the “belief that history is the record of human existence under God, meaningful only so far as it reflects and explains and illustrates the order in character and society which emanates from divine purpose.”33Besides Voegelin himself, the main contemporary exponents of this “transcendent” school in the West were Herbert Butterfield, Christopher Dawson, and Reinhold Niebuhr, but in fact the school begins with St. Augustine. These scholars had determined from their researches that history was the slow revelation of general principles of order, both of the individual and of society. History does not, however, predict “the wave of the future.”34It has not one meaning but many particular meanings for the regulation of private and public conduct; and the ends to which history leads are not in history but beyond it.

Two of these historians deserve special note. Christopher Dawson, though mentioned only once each in The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order, was to become a favorite historian. Indeed, later in his life, Kirk had embarked on a project to publish Dawson’s collected works, and one of his last trips abroad was to visit places associated with the British historian. For our purposes, the crucial point in Dawson’s work is his contention that culture springs from cult, from the structure of organized worship, and that without a religious foundation a civilization will collapse of its own weight. Dawson, like Kirk, had a dual vision of history: history is a record both of the spiritual progress of the Kingdom of God and of the material progress of the City of Man, each of which “works and finds concrete social expression in history.”35 Kirk used the distinction between secular and sacred history in his discussion of the roots of the Western conception of time and order in the thought of the ancient Hebrews.36 

The great movements of history occur neither on the plane of pure reason nor that of nature. Rather, they are found on the middle ground of history, on which men war against “great unknown powers—not merely against flesh and blood, which are themselves irrational enough, but against . . . powers which are more than rational.”37This view gives proper place both to the larger forces that act upon human events, most importantly the will of God, and also to human action that is able to influence the course of those forces.

The Hungarian-born John Lukacs is the last historian we shall consider. His Historical Consciousness is a wide-ranging study of the nature of historical knowledge.38 Lukacs proposes a new understanding of history, which includes not only documents and other traditional instruments of reconstructing the past, but also an exploration of the “deepening consciousness of the functions of human memory.”39 This new history will discard the false distinction between objectivity and subjectivity that is a byproduct of a scientific worldview, and will reconceive historical knowledge as personal or participant knowledge.40

Lukacs draws on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics, which struck a terminal blow to the idea of scientific objectivity, and from which Heisenberg concluded that all of our problems are at root problems of human nature. There are no “objective” processes or mechanisms working upon us. As Lukacs notes, “we cannot avoid the condition of our participation” in examining reality.41 In his Introduction to the volume, later included in the collection Redeeming the Time, Kirk incorporates Lukacs’ insights into his own view.

Discerning the framework of the Logos remains Kirk’s understanding of history. He further elaborates upon that bare definition by saying that “historical consciousness necessarily is entwined with the mystery of personal consciousness, and involves not only history but also psychology and philosophy.42Kirk had been edging toward that understanding of history as a “participant” form of knowledge that meshes the objective with the subjective in his earlier works. In his study of Eliot, for example, he says that “our present private condition and knowledge depend upon what we were yesterday, a year ago, a decade gone; if we reject the lessons of our personal past, we cannot subsist for another hour.”43 And one can see even from a brief reading of Kirk’s works that his personal vision is fused into the facts that he relates, as in his account of Burke’s struggle with Fox, or of Eliot’s early public reading before the critic Sir Edmund Gosse.44

Turning from this necessarily abbreviated sketch of the sources of Kirk’s historical thinking, we shall now consider three themes of Kirk’s own thought: the role of narrative in history, the meaning of tradition, and the relationship between history and the individual.

The idea of history as a narrative, a story of events grand and malign, is central to Kirk’s sense of history. As he touchingly records in his essay on Eigg, for Kirk general truths are bound up in the particular.45David Frum has written that Kirk could summon up nostalgia with a list of place names, as he did at the opening of The Conservative Mind.46Similarly, Kirk traces the roots of Western culture to four particular cities—Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London.47 This nostalgia, of course, was intentional. Kirk’s sense of tradition was self-conscious, and he expresses in his writings a palpable sense of loss, a sadness, when recalling an almost- forgotten past.

In the course of his discussion of Lukacs, Kirk derides the cult of Fact that obsessed the nineteenth century. A fact, by itself, means nothing. Only by association with other facts can they assume meaning and bring the underlying event to light. And this process of association must by necessity partake in the nature of a story. “In the commendable sense,” Kirk writes,” the genuine historian must be at home with fiction.”48 The combination of fact and narrative reveals the manner in which Kirk understood history as including both subjective and objective elements. As Claes Ryn has suggested, this approach provides a way to understand history as an exercise in self-knowledge against the backdrop of the passage of time.49

On this point, Kirk parts from historians of the liberal school. Liberalism is beset with a contradiction: it lacks a way to transform empirical facts into what Charles McCoy, S.J., called “social facts.”50 Whether bound by the laws of evolution or progress or as some latter-day liberals would have it, the “procedural republic,” the liberal schools of historical thought preclude the possibility of making value judgments or intellectual distinctions between competing goods.51 Trapped within their theoretical models, liberal historians are unable to encompass the human story that Kirk sees being played out sub specie aeternitatis.

We must try to understand Kirk’s historical writing in terms of its ethical ends: as demonstrations of vice or virtue. Kirk thought history so important for this purpose that he places it among the types of literature children should be exposed to as they grow older and outgrow reading only “fantastic tales.”52Good history, like good literature, will evoke both the reality of continuity and the responsibilities that the present generation has to those preceding and succeeding it. James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose historically-informed fictions Kirk discusses in The Conservative Mind, create a vision of the past not too different in purpose and effect than the storytellers of Eigg.

Even scholars in full possession of the “facts,” may not necessarily be “standing in the tradition.”53 Without imagination, history at best is worthless; at worst, it becomes a servant of ideology. Imaginative history at some point, however, becomes tradition. The transformation is slow; Kirk liked to quote Hawthorne’s aphorism that it takes a century to make a tradition. The tradition-making process, being in part a narrative, is also a creative and dynamic process. Tradition constantly is being revised, rewritten, reinterpreted. Each generation has the task of confronting the truths anew and making them present to the next generation through fresh interpretations. Just as not every historical fact can be known with certainty, so the full “story” of tradition cannot be grasped or told at once. Tradition is, as Eliot intimated, a responsibility one must assume, and fully appreciating that tradition and handing it on to the next generation takes effort.

Josef Pieper and others have pointed out the distinctions between history and tradition. In some ways, history is the opposite of tradition: history presupposes a separate past that can be analyzed and examined, while tradition assumes within itself the continuity of what has been passed on. The past is immediate for tradition in a way that it is not for history.54Likewise, history is understood as a series of actual events occurring sequentially in the past. Tradition, acknowledging that not all of the past can be known, is more concerned with the past as it is perceived in the present.55 In some ways, a proper understanding of tradition will incorporate events that do not happen according to linear time.56

Tradition itself has two parts: the process of handing down a tradition, and the actual traditum that is tradition’s substance. Stories and narrative history are necessary to convey the tradition from one generation to the next. Scientific histories are misleading because they operate on the false premises that all historical facts can be known and that, if they were known, could supply definitive answers without taking into account individual action.

Perhaps, paradoxically, Kirk is not as precise when addressing the substance of the Western tradition. In his short essay, “What Are American Traditions?” Kirk attempted to describe traditional ways of thinking in the United States that derived from its Western heritage.57 He lists as American traditions “belief in a spiritual order which in some fashion governs our mundane order; belief in political self-government; belief in the importance to human persons of certain natural private rights; belief in the value of marriage and the family.”58 This approach helps accomplish Kirk’s goal of connecting American institutions with those of the Old World. These traditions, however, are more abstract than we would expect from Kirk; one expects, rather, something like the list of customs that Eliot employs, which encompass concrete events and symbols that every British subject would know.59 The particular habits Kirk mentions in America’s British Culture—a pioneering spirit, marital fidelity, courage in adversity and the like—are somewhat more concrete, but still too vague to ground particular actions.

In “American Traditions,” Kirk laments that such things as the migratory habits of Americans and the influx of immigrants are detrimental to tradition in the United States. Yet, Kirk does not explain why these patterns of behavior might not at some future time assume the status of traditions. Indeed, one might object even to the traditions Kirk does name. A New Age spiritualism represents, in some way, a belief in a spiritual order “which in some way governs our mundane order,” yet is clearly not what Kirk means by an American tradition. Likewise, we are given no guidance as to when a “pioneering spirit” might devolve into a selfish individualism that eschews connection to or responsibility for the larger community. His descriptions of traditions in that essay and in his books are only partial answers to the question of defining tradition. Kirk’s generalizations must be understood against the historical background of those traditions if they are to have meaning.

To separate true elaborations of tradition from false ones Kirk turns to authority. For Kirk, what remains of history after being tested by Newman’s “Illative sense” and authority can be called tradition. Authority conditions the development of tradition, even as it itself is limited by historical circumstance and long existence. Authority is not a monolith; there are several potentially legitimate authorities that compete for personal allegiance. In such circumstances, “the conscientious man endeavors, according to what light is given him, to determine which representatives of authority have claimed too much.”60 Yet, the role of authoritative institutions—churches, nations, old families, universities that still respect the higher learning—is to judge whether emerging social forms deserve incorporation into the tradition. Because of their own historical existence, sources of authority are removed from everyday controversies and thus are able to make judgments from an impartial position. Such institutions can, through a “collective Illative sense,” purge individual error from the tradition.61 Kirk would not dispute that such institutional authority can go astray and do positive damage to the tradition; yet, a properly developed tradition will contain within itself the means of regeneration, as Kirk clearly believes the Western does.

Describing tradition in detail, however, is self-defeating, because tradition is neither static nor entirely comprehensible. This may be one reason why Kirk does not set forth anywhere the full lineaments of Western tradition. Another may be his habitual reluctance to take on the “prophetic afflatus,” and believe that one person could condense into words the habits and mores of an entire culture. Conservatives who attempt to hold “tradition” to a particular place or time inevitably conjure up romantic periods of time that cannot be duplicated because they never really existed.

Rather, the force of tradition is present in those moments Kirk describes as intersections of time and the timeless. As he recounts in his memoirs, the visit of Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge was one such moment; playing with his children early one morning was another. The timeless nature of the acts—hospitality, the reverence of children to their parents, and the love of parents for their children—is revealed through their particularity. These acts took place at Piety Hill in the state of Michigan at specific points in the twentieth century.

The fusion of moral imagination and history for Kirk occurs not in abstract historical processes but in individuals whose actions can change the course of history. He frequently made use of the following passage from Burke: “The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of nature.”62 Burke’s insight in this passage gives the lie to the historical determinists; the actions by, for example, Joan of Arc (the girl) or Hannibal (the child) could not have been foreseen, but yet were charged with historical import. The passage reveals instead the truth of Burke’s Christian understanding of history. God works through individuals, not processes. And human decisions take place not against the backdrop of an idealized world, but in the face of concrete and difficult historical circumstances. Because of the disjunction between the particular historical framework and transcendent norms, history assumes the possibility of freedom and decision, and of evil.63Humans can confound the divine plan, at least temporarily, in a way that the materialist or Hegelian plans do not permit.

Thus, Kirk intended his work for those individual “shapers of public opinion” who influence their communities.64 He knew the power one individual could have on historical circumstance; indeed, he himself was such a person. We have already seen how Kirk assumes that each individual should distinguish between competing authorities when these conflict.65

Kirk is in this sense an individualist, but his individualism is chastened by the sense of homage that each person owes to the past. Like Burke, Kirk would have each person “respect the general sense, the accumulated experience of the past that has become embodied in the habits and usages that the superficial rationalist would dismiss as prejudice.”66Tradition guides individuals, but there must be “vigorous application and prudent reform” for tradition to remain appealing and persuasive.67 

The study of history is at a crossroad. One path leads to the historical determinists, who see larger forces, either material or historical, at work that dwarf individual human actions. The other path leads to those who doubt there is any purpose to history at all; every act is random, and no meaning can be discerned from them.68 These two options are the contemporary versions of the schools that Kirk found so dominant in historical thinking. Both schools have little use for tradition, and can say little to the individual presented with a welter of conflicting traditions and masses of historical material.

Kirk proposes a different approach. Although he did not develop a complete historical vision, its outlines are readily apparent from his writings. A proper conservative view of history will recognize that facts are important for human society only when they are embedded in narrative. Narrative gives a sense of identity that the “science” of history cannot provide; such a history is useless to daily existence or to penetrate history’s larger meaning as an illustration of the divine plan. Kirk’s thought in this regard parallels certain postmodern thinkers, who have developed an elaborate framework to highlight the importance of “stories” to culture. Richard Delgado, for example, has written that stories and what he calls “counterstories” can “open new windows onto reality [and] enrich imagination.”69The postmoderns emphasize more than Kirk does the destructive power of stories, which can expose structures of oppression or exploitation.

Of course, Kirk is no postmodern. He would contest the tendency toward moral relativism and the attachment to “radical” politics that can be found in some postmodern works. While Kirk may disagree with some of the postmodernists’ conclusions, however, his area of concern is similar. J.M. Balkin, a prominent postmodern theorist, has described postmodernism as being concerned with the relationship between thought and action, and the conviction that “knowledge is always inscribed in a form of life.” Postmodern writers have concentrated on the way late-twentieth-century America assimilates and passes on knowledge and values. Balkin, for example, contends that an “emphasis on cultural practices and ways of living” is a characteristic feature of postmodern thought.70 Kirk shares a concern for how the stories that constitute our ways of life are told and transmitted and by whom. Kirk believed that history, though composed of a collection of individual narratives, nevertheless was intelligible enough to communicate to different communities. For these stories point to truths beyond themselves, and beyond history.

Although Kirk sees a difference between history and tradition, the boundaries between the two are sometimes murky. Sometimes a tradition is a social custom or habit, sometimes a pattern of thought or belief. History also is difficult to define, meaning variously past events, past events as we understand them, or the stories or narratives of these past events. Ever conscious of the importance of proper definitions, Kirk probably would see history in its original sense of inquiry or search: it is a means through which we can find answers, but not itself an answer.71

Kirk wrestled with the problem of tradition in several ways, and tried to balance its static and dynamic aspects. He tried to identify particular individuals who embodied within themselves the best of Western tradition, or who by their actions moved this tradition into new directions without severing it from its roots. Kirk also defined tradition through essays and stories of particular places and events; in this regard, The Sword of Imagination is an exercise in the creation of tradition through the life of one man.72 Kirk also found that authority, itself given legitimacy by its long existence and embodiment of tradition, had a role to play in governing the development of tradition. Individuals must create tradition anew for each generation, yet also must be chastened in their choices by the teachings of authority and the accumulated wisdom of the ages.



  1. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (LaSalle, Ill., 1978), 245. Hereafter RAO.
  2. George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (New York, 1979), 67.
  3. Nash, 74.
  4. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, 7th ed., (Washington, D.C., 1986), iii. Hereafter CM.
  5. CM, iv.
  6. Wilfred M. McClay, “The Mystic Chords of Memory: Reclaiming American History” (Heritage Lecture No. 550, 1995).
  7. McClay, “Mystic Chords,” 1. See also Gregory Wolfe, “Russell Kirk—The Catholic as Conservative,” Crisis Vol. 11, No. 9 (October 1993), 31–32.
  8. Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, “The Wandering Seer of Mecosta,” The Intercollegiate Review Vol. 30, No. 1 (Fall 1994), 83.
  9. Mark C. Henrie, “Russell Kirk’s Unfounded America,”The Intercollegiate Review Vol. 30, No. 1 (Fall 1994), 51.
  10. CM, 40.
  11. Bruce Frohnen, Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism (Lawrence, Kan., 1993), 51.
  12. See Harold J. Berman, “The Origins of Historical Jurisprudence: Coke, Selden, Hale,” Yale Law Review Vol. 103, No. 8 (1994), 1735; Will Herberg, “Natural Law and History in Burke’s Thought, Modern Age Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1959), 325.
  13. Virtue, 172–73.
  14. Russell Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, Del., 1996), 102.
  15. Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (New Rochelle, 1967), 210.
  16. Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke (Indianapolis, 1978), 26. The first edition was published in 1951.
  17. Kirk, Edmund Burke, 19–20.
  18. Gerald W. Chapman, “The Organic Premise,” in Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications, edited by Daniel E. Ritchie (New Brunswick, 1990), 240.
  19. M.E. Bradford, “A Proper Patrimony: Russell Kirk and America’s Moral Genealogy,” in The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk, edited by James E. Person, Jr. (LaSalle, Ill., 1994), 74.
  20. Russell Kirk, America’s British Culture (New Brunswick, 1993), 102. Hereafter ABC.
  21. ABC, 70.
  22. ABC, 71.
  23. For an overview of these controversies, see Nash, 178–83. Among these critics were the historian Stephen Tonsor and political scientist Willmoore Kendall.
  24. Nash, 182–83. See also Thomas Molnar, “French Conservative Thought,” Modern Age, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1959), 283.
  25. David Frum, “The Legacy of Russell Kirk,” The New Criterion, Vol. 13, No. 8 (December 1994), 14.
  26. Scott P. Richert, “His Final Lesson,” Chronicles, Vol. 20, No. 11 (November 1996), 36.
  27. Quoted in Nash, 180.
  28. Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age (LaSalle, Ill., 1984), 82.
  29. Cf. Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, 2nd ed., (New York, 1984), 152–53. This was also Gibbon’s appeal, even after his factual omissions and errors were common knowledge. G.W. Bowerstock, “Gibbon’s Historical Imagination,” The American Scholar, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter 1988), 33.
  30. Redeeming the Time, 84.
  31. Russell Kirk, “Behind the Veil of History,” The Yale Review, Vol. 46 (March 1957), 466. Reprinted in Enemies of the Permanent Things (New Rochelle, 1969), 259. Hereafter EPT.
  32. Ibid.
  33. “Behind the Veil,” 467.
  34. Kirk, “Behind the Veil,” 468.
  35. Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History, edited by John J. Mulloy (New York, 1956), 259.
  36. RAO, 38–45. Biblical conceptions of time are also an evident influence on Kirk’s writings about history.
  37. Dawson, Dynamics, 261.
  38. John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (New Brunswick, 1994).
  39. Historical Consciousness, 33.
  40. Historical Consciousness, 227–236.
  41. Historical Consciousness, 278–286. For commentary on Lukacs’ historical thought, see Patrick Allitt, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950–1985 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1993), 211–222.
  42. Historical Consciousness, xiii.
  43. Kirk, Eliot, 82.
  44. Edmund Burke, pp. 187–191; Eliot, 14–16.
  45. Russell Kirk, “Eigg, in the Hebrides,” in Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (LaSalle, Ill., 1991), 280. Hereafter BDA. His essays on architecture display the same. See “The Uninteresting Future,” in The Intemperate Professor (Baton Rouge, La., 1965), 143.
  46. Frum, “The Legacy of Russell Kirk,” 13.
  47. RAO, 6.
  48. Historical Consciousness, xiv.
  49. Claes G. Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality, 2d ed. (New Brunswick, 1997), 110.
  50. Charles N.R. McCoy, S.J., “The Dilemma of Liberalism,” in On the Intelligibility of Political Philosophy, edited by James V. Schall, S.J. and John J. Schrems (Washington, D.C., 1989), 74. Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, 1981), 204–226.
  51. Ibid.
  52. “Eigg,” 290; CM, 251.
  53. Josef Pieper, “Tradition: The Concept and its Claim Upon Us,” Modern Age, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Spring 1994), 220.
  54. Kenneth L. Schmitz, “What Happens to Tradition When History Overtakes It,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (1994), 59, 65.
  55. Edward Shils, Tradition (Chicago, 1981), 195.
  56. “What Happens to Tradition,” 63.
  57. Russell Kirk, “What Are American Traditions,” in BDA, 61.
  58. Ibid, 63.
  59. T.S. Eliot, “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,” Christianity and Culture (New York, 1977), 104.
  60. EPT, 283.
  61. CM, 286.
  62. Dawson also makes use of this passage. See Dynamics, 259.
  63. Josef Pieper, Hope and History (San Francisco, 1994), 40.
  64. CM, i.
  65. See also Gerald J. Russello, “The Jurisprudence of Russell Kirk,” Modern Age, Vol. 38, No. 4 (1996), 354.
  66. Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (Indianapolis, 1979), 125.
  67. EPT, 286.
  68. For an astute commentary on the state of the historical profession, see Keith Windschuttle, “The Real Stuff of History,” The New Criterion, Vol. 15, No. 7 (March 1997), 4.
  69. Richard Delgado, “Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative,” Mich. L. Rev., Vol. 87, No. 8 (1988), 2411, 2414–15. See also Roberto M. Unger, Knowledge and Politics (New York, 1975), 42–43.
  70. J.M. Balkin, “What is a Postmodern Constitutionalism?” Mich. L. Rev., Vol. 90, No. 4 (1992), 1966, 1975–1976.
  71. For Kirk’s concern over proper definition, see Henry Regnery, “Russell Kirk: An Appraisal,” in Russell Kirk: A Bibliography, by Charles Brown (Mount Pleasant, Mich.,1981), 132.
  72. Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, 1995).