Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Conservative Convert” first appeared in the June 2003 issue of Touchstone.
The Conservative Convert
The Life & Faith of Russell Kirk
by Eric Scheske
Terse Kirk. That’s one way to describe Russell Kirk, the literary critic and father of modern conservatism. He was the author of over thirty books and hundreds of articles, the founder of two quarterlies, and a busy speaker. But he was laconic when it came to his religion. Whereas many converts have a tendency to gush about their newfound faith, Kirk—a convert to Catholicism—didn’t write or talk much about it.
As a result, perhaps it is not surprising that there has been no treatment of Kirk’s religion since his death in 1994. But a sense of the transcendent informed everything he wrote. At some point, his religious background and disposition ought to be explored. This biography is a small contribution to that project.
From Ghosts to Books
Born in 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan, a small town west of Detroit, Kirk’s early life wasn’t religious. His parents were largely indifferent toward religion and declined even to have him baptized. Although his mother taught him prayers and encouraged him to attend Sunday school for a little while, he received no other religious instruction. By all appearances, his youth seeped the religious lukewarmness that God spits from his mouth.
But there was more to his upbringing. His recent ancestors weren’t just lukewarm Protestants. They were spiritual heirs of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scientist-turned-mystic who emphasized correspondence between the world of the living and the dead and whose followers gravitated toward séances and the uncanny and preternatural phenomena. Kirk’s ancestors offered their house at Piety Hill in Mecosta, Michigan (a village in the center of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula) for séances in the 1880s and 1890s after a local Spiritualist church burned down shortly after being built. Piety Hill also came to be the name of the family home, suitably enough, because of the rumors of strange goings-on that took place there, such as an aunt who levitated in her rocking chair and a fiddle that was played by invisible hands.1
These stories were passed on to Russell Kirk during his frequent and prolonged trips to Mecosta during his youth. Young Kirk himself once had a glimpse of these ghosts. He woke up one night in the front parlor and saw two men looking in the bay window. Thinking he must be seeing things, he put on his glasses and saw two men—one tall with a tall hat, the other short with a round hat. Frightened, he hid under his covers; the next morning, he looked for footprints in the snow but didn’t see any. Years later, his old Aunt Fay—a long-time resident of Piety Hill—told Kirk how, as a young girl, she had played with two men outside the bay window whom no one else could see—Dr. Cady, a tall man with a tall hat, and Patti, a short man with a turban. She knew nothing of Kirk’s experience years earlier.2
The ghostly influence of Piety Hill would stay with Kirk the rest of his life. Though his conventional religious upbringing may have been slack, this electric tinge of the supernatural would help make him receptive to sparks from the spiritual world, such as becoming aware, skeptic though he was and years before his eventual conversion, of a strong presence while standing in the vestibule of St. Teresa of Avila’s convent in Spain—a presence that has been known to cause women to flee the vestibule in tears.3
His ancestors were also cultural heirs of men like Sir Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, fiction writers whose stories effused the moral imagination, a term Kirk borrowed from Edmund Burke. The moral imagination, Kirk said, is the “power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events,” especially as embodied in poetry and art, and sustained by religion.4 By its nature, it emanates from the unseen and makes the mind’s eye aware of things the physical eye can’t see. A person with a well-developed moral imagination (like Kirk) is a natural opponent of the modernist disposition that rejects all things that aren’t susceptible of physical or statistical proof. His mother, who gave him a set of books by Scott and Hawthorne when he was seven, encouraged the type of reading that fosters the moral imagination, and his grandfather greatly contributed to it as well, spending long hours walking with the boy and talking to him about literature and historical events.
His extensive reading made him a natural student, and he excelled throughout elementary and high school, publishing his first article at age 16, “Mementos,” an essay describing his reverence for the ancestral keepsakes of his family. Notwithstanding his brilliance, he neared graduation with no prospects, not having given his future much thought (a characteristic that would mark his entire life), thinking he’d find any job that provided him with “two bowls of bread and milk daily, with leisure to read good books.”5 But his high-school principal encouraged him to test for a scholarship. He won the scholarship and entered Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) in 1936, majoring in history.
Following graduation, he attended Duke University and obtained a master’s degree in history. He wrote his thesis on the southern statesman John Randolph, a work that would later become his first book, John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics. After graduating in June 1941, he entered the army, having been conscripted shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The Stoic Soldier
Due to his typing abilities, Kirk was stationed at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the Chemical Warfare Service’s experiment field, where he was appointed the recorder and custodian of classified documents. It was a blessed assignment—not only did it keep him out of harm’s way, but it also gave him ample leisure for reading the works of the great Stoic authors, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, while sitting on the sand dunes of the Utah desert.
Many intellectual converts come to Christianity slowly. They get pulled there gradually by the truth discerned in their studies, taking small steps toward God, though they’re often not cognizant of where they are headed until they are fairly well along the way. Such was Kirk’s conversion, and Stoicism was one of his important steps.
Stoicism starts with a monistic ontology that teaches that a divine reason pervades the universe. Human beings, the Stoic says, can use their reasoning capacity to know the divine reason and conform their lives to it, but in order to improve one’s ability to reason rightly, it is necessary to subdue passion. Passion is anathema to the Stoic. Not only does passion distort reason, it conflicts with the Stoic’s basic theological precept—that divine reason guides and directs the world. Whatever happens, happens, says the Stoic, and there’s no use in either rejoicing or moaning over it; it all ultimately leads to wherever divinity wants it to lead. As a corollary, the Stoic doesn’t place too much stock in his likes and dislikes or his successes and failures. Such things count for little, if anything, in the grand scheme; ultimately all things turn out for the best. This attitude leads to resignation and the acceptance of all things as divine handiwork.
Stoicism has been called the “porch” of Christianity.6 Its resignation and detachment take a person to the threshold of Christianity, but not all the way into the house. It has been said that the last of the great Stoics, the good and virtuous Marcus Aurelius, did not have the god he deserved. His philosophy gave way at its logical end to a resigned, and sad, nihilism: “A little while and thou wilt have forgotten everything, a little while and everything will have forgotten thee.”7 He never heard of Christ’s redemption and didn’t know about the beatific vision—the vision the good Christian awaits patiently, with Stoic detachment and resignation.
Kirk’s deep reading in the Stoics while sitting in the Utah desert put miles behind him in his unwitting pursuit of Christianity by instilling in him a Stoic ethic that is largely consistent with the Christian ethic. Furthermore, as he sat reading, he began to ask the larger questions of existence and to formulate Christian-like responses that helped remove the shackles of his youthful skepticism. He wrote in his autobiography (written in the third person):
The Conservative Mind
Following his discharge from the army in 1946, he returned to Lansing, Michigan, where he continued to publish articles (in addition to reading the Stoics and typing up confidential papers, he published two articles while in the army). He had no aspirations or future plans. One day, one of his old professors saw him in a Lansing hash house and asked him if he wanted to teach Western civilization at Michigan State College (MSC). The school sorely needed instructors to handle the flood of GI-bill-funded students. Kirk, for lack of anything better to do, accepted the position.
It was his first glimpse of the “dumbing down” that has plagued American education for the past fifty years. He was quickly dismayed at MSC’s tendency to supply students with a plate of facts instead of genuine knowledge and to hand out a diploma rather than plant seeds of wisdom. Students were expected neither to think nor to write at MSC; just to answer multiple-choice questions and show they could memorize the handful of facts presented by the lecturer. He would later, at age 35, leave MSC and retire to Piety Hill in Mecosta after a fierce battle with its president, a man who cared less about education than he did about becoming bigger and better at sports than the University of Michigan.9
Education, Kirk knew, should fill students with thorough knowledge of the subject matter—not just an amalgamation of unrelated facts that provide individuals with a mere appearance of knowledge. The purpose of education, Kirk said, is “to inculcate wisdom and virtue, with the understanding that learning is a lifelong process, not something from which to be liberated on commencement day.”10 His view contrasts sharply with the aim of higher education today—to give as many students as possible a diploma and a shot at upward socio-economic mobility—but meshes nicely with Cardinal Newman’s, in whose The Idea of a University Kirk found “the ideal modern expression of his own philosophy of education.”11 Because he became acquainted with Newman’s ideas at a young age (by his early thirties), it is possible that educational issues constituted another step in his eventual conversion to Catholicism, for Newman insisted that Catholicism and good education are inextricably intertwined, both being concerned with ultimate truths.12
With little desire to remain at MSC for long, Kirk applied at the oldest university in Scotland, St. Andrews, and was admitted as a candidate for its Doctor of Letters degree.
It was Scotland that would propel him onto the national stage in America. For his dissertation, he analyzed the thinkers who wrote in the tradition of his hero, Edmund Burke. Burke, the father of the Anglo-American conservative tradition, was an eighteenth-century writer and politician in England who sympathized with the American Revolution and excoriated the French Revolution, seeing that the American Revolution was rooted in God, tradition, and custom, but that the French Revolution warred for the overthrow of everything—especially God, tradition, and custom.
Kirk’s remarkable dissertation was published in 1953, just one year after he received the degree of Doctor of Letters from St. Andrews (the highest arts degree of that revered university; Kirk is the only American ever to earn it). Kirk wanted to call it The Conservatives’ Rout, but his publisher changed it to The Conservative Mind.
Kirk’s study would become something of a landslide event in twentieth-century political philosophy. Before The Conservative Mind, there was little conservative thought in America. Indeed, before 1953, most people assumed that all intelligent thought was liberal and that conservatism was just a knee-jerk reaction against change and a longing for the good old days when 8-year-old girls could be worked 16 hours a day in a factory. Kirk changed those assumptions.
The Conservative Mind is an intellectual history, but different from most histories in that Kirk created the history. Before Kirk, apparently no one had even recognized the conservative themes underlying Kirk’s parade of thinkers—John Adams, John Randolph, John Calhoun, Fisher Ames, James Fenimore Cooper, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry and Brooks Adams, George Gissing, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More, to provide a partial list—much less written a comprehensive study on the topic. In this highly readable book, Kirk paid particular attention to how these thinkers tried to reconcile the claims of freedom and the claims of order, a dilemma that had largely been ignored by recent scholarship in favor of an unhinged freedom that crushes order and eventually eliminates freedom itself. Kirk’s attention to the tension between freedom and order would help bring the crucial question of how to reconcile their respective claims back to the intellectual forefront.
For an intellectual book that praised a supposedly outmoded way of thinking, it was remarkably successful, due in large part to the New York Times, whose Book Review published a lengthy and favorable review of it. The first printing sold out immediately. The book was subsequently reviewed in many other publications, getting intellectually influential ink from sources like the Kenyon Review and the Sewanee Review. Sales remained brisk. The book would go through seven editions.
The Permanent Things
As a result of The Conservative Mind’s success, Kirk’s name became nearly synonymous with conservatism.
But it would be unfortunate if his name were automatically dismissed by people who equate conservatism with partisan politics. Kirk is conservative, but only as long as that term is properly understood. Kirk himself would have insisted on that caveat. The term conservative, properly understood, cuts across party lines because it is deeper than political bickering and transcends conventional understandings of Left and Right. It is not surprising that many “liberals” liked The Conservative Mind and many “conservatives” disliked it. Kirk, for instance, wrote this about a review by Frank Meyer (a man of the Right): “Frank Meyer denounced the book, in the pages of the Freeman, as ‘collectivism rebaptized’ . . . [and] suspected Kirk of being a Trojan horse within the conservative camp. He was not alone. . . .”13
Kirk himself had “liberal” traits, as that term is understood by many today (though Kirk would have fiercely denied that the traits are liberal). He detested Ayn Rand and her objectivist philosophy that teaches that selfishness is a virtue, and distrusted the efficiency-obsessed economics of many capitalist economists. He denied that people have an absolute right to private property. He admired the trust-busting and early conservationist Teddy Roosevelt (listing him as one of the top ten conservatives of all time14). He endorsed environmental protection legislation and was an ardent lover of nature who planted thousands of trees during his lifetime.
Six canons, Kirk said, make a conservative:15
1. Conservatives believe there exists a transcendent moral order to which society ought to conform; as a corollary, political problems are, at bottom, religious problems.
2. Conservatives believe that society ought to change slowly, with caution and with acknowledgement that the whole of wisdom exceeds our partial knowledge, and hence, all things contain mysteries that shouldn’t be cast aside merely because we do not understand their importance.
3. Conservatives respect tradition and the wisdom of their ancestors, even those who are dead.
4. Conservatives believe all public measures should be guided by prudence—i.e., concern for long-term consequences, not just short-term expediency.
5. Conservatives believe that different people have different callings, and do not think the differences—social, economic, educational—should be eliminated. As a corollary, conservatives believe complete equality on earth cannot be obtained, is not desirable, and ought not be attempted (save in the courts), and therefore governmental attempts to take private property from the rich to give it to the poor in an attempt to level the economic playing field is a bad idea.
6. Conservatives believe that mankind is imperfectible.
The term conservative, Kirk would have said, is a framework for analyzing all issues, regardless of the culture or era in which they arose. The framework applies to all cultures and eras because it is built around what Kirk, borrowing from T. S. Eliot, called “the permanent things”: mores or norms that transcend the world’s cultures.16 A basic list of such mores or norms can be found in the appendix of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man; they include the duties to help others, to take special care of family members, to be faithful to one’s spouse, to be brave. A list of the virtues is in large part a list of the permanent things: courage, moderation, prudence, justice, faith, hope, love, piety, wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, fear of the Lord, charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity. These are largely Christian terms, but the good characteristics they describe have been endorsed by most developed cultures. These permanent things are written into every culture: instilled by God in the heart, developed and tacitly passed down throughout the generations, reinforced by human law. In every culture, it is one of the most important roles of philosophy and religion to stand behind the permanent things and push them to the forefront, reminding people they exist and helping society apply them to changing conditions.
That was Kirk’s primary service to his readers and listeners. He applied the permanent things to the cultural decay of the twentieth century. The permanent things informed everything he wrote, from his criticism of modern education, to his views on urban renewal, to his appreciation for the beauty of a tree or a Scottish castle, to his disdain for abortion and pornography. He tried to pound into the American people a way of looking at things that makes sense, that makes transcendent sense. And it was that transcendent conservatism that eventually brought Kirk to Christianity.
Kirk’s broad reading had led him as a young man to a number of atheistic writers, like H. G. Wells, and a spate of Christian writers, like Samuel Johnson, Samuel Coleridge, and Paul Elmer More. He found that he rarely agreed with Wells and his kind, but generally agreed with the Christian writers. But for whatever reason, he was a skeptic like Wells, not a believer like Johnson. The irony hit him while sitting on those Utah sand dunes. He began to ask himself, “Why should he prefer [the negations of writers like H. G. Wells] to the affirmations of men whose precepts he took otherwise for gospel? . . . If their minds gave credence to revealed religion, must not Kirk, in mere toleration, open his mind to the possibility of religion’s truth?”17 A little later, Kirk’s deep studies in Edmund Burke helped bring him toward a Christian worldview. Burke was a devout Anglican who tended so heavily toward Catholic ideas that, according to Kirk, “bigots whispered that [he] must have been educated in [a] Papist seminary.”18 Kirk’s studies in Burke would also drive him to theological writings, particularly those of Richard Hooker and other Anglican divines who influenced Burke. From there, Kirk worked his way forward to more recent theologians, like Newman.
These Christian writers seared an indelible mark on Kirk’s young adult mind. By the time he wrote The Conservative Mind, a Christian worldview had definitely taken shape. In particular, Kirk was looking at the world as a Catholic, such as in these approving words about Newman: “In religion and in politics, the essence of Liberalism is private judgment; and to Newman, who venerated authority, judgment of grave questions according to the impudent and fallible dictates of one’s own petty personal understanding was an act of flagrant impiety, approaching diabolic possession, the sin of spiritual pride”19 (Kirk would later write that Newman won him over altogether and taught him the meaning of Authority.20) At another point, he mentions that Burke, Tocqueville, and Babbitt (three of his favorite conservatives) praised the Catholic Church’s conservative tendencies and its potential for saving society from modernity’s miasma.21
In his treatment of Orestes Brownson, Kirk sympathized with Brownson’s scathing assertions that Protestantism leads to individualism and a disdain for legitimacy and authority, and states, paraphrasing Brownson, that “Catholics, above all others, should be conservatives.”22 At about the same time he wrote The Conservative Mind, Kirk in another essay pointed out that Brownson properly averred that, in order for justice to endure, society needs the Catholic Church to help interpret the higher law for application in the mundane sphere.23 It is not surprising that he was publishing widely in Catholic periodicals, such as Commonweal and the Dublin Review, at this time.
In economic matters, he had also come to view things from a Catholic perspective. Like any good conservative, he disdained socialism; so does Catholicism. Likewise, he held the welfare state in contempt; so does Catholicism. But like any good liberal, he did not have an unquestioning confidence in the competitive market economy; neither does Catholicism. Kirk, an admirer of Wilhelm Roepke, the architect of West Germany’s economic recovery after World War II, favored what Roepke called a humane economy: “an economic system suited to human nature and to a human scale in society, as opposed to systems bent upon mass production regardless of counterproductive personal and social consequences.”24
Essentially, Kirk advocated what is known as distributism: a free market that encourages and fosters economic independence for as many people as possible. It is an economic system that revolves around “smallness”—small plots of land widely distributed, small shops, small manufacturers. The goal of distributism isn’t the greatest GNP possible; its goal is to return the greatest number of people possible to the economic reality of relying on themselves for their economic sustenance. Once people rely on themselves, they no longer rely on the government and aren’t dependent on big employers and the vicissitudes of market fluctuations, a dependence that results in a constant feeling of instability. It is the economic alternative most favored by such Catholics as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, E. F. Schumacher, and arguably Pope John Paul II.25
In his friendships he also gravitated toward Christians, especially those of a Catholic frame of mind. There was T. S. Eliot, a man whose Anglicanism was, like Burke’s, so Catholic that Kirk later speculated that, had Eliot lived a little longer, he would have joined the Roman Catholic Church.26 He was also drawn to a little-known writer named George Scott-Moncrieff and the Southern fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, both Roman Catholics, saying of them that he was never drawn so swiftly to any other writers as he was to them.27 There were also the poet/soldier Roy Campbell and the sculptor Hew Lorimer, who lived in a Scottish castle and befriended Kirk while he was at St. Andrews (an entire subchapter of Kirk’s autobiography is devoted to the Lorimer family).
Then there was the influence of Annette Courtemanche—his intellectual admirer, then platonic companion, then fiancée, then wife—a devout follower of Thomas Aquinas who helped Kirk understand Catholic doctrine, encouraged him to study the catechism, and was the final beacon that brought him all the way into the Catholic Church. Shortly before their marriage in 1964, Kirk took the formal steps to be received into the Church and was baptized.
Kirk later wrote that he would have converted earlier in life but was prevented by indolence and distractions. This implies that he would have converted eventually, regardless of Annette’s influence, but that would be a hasty conclusion. Conversion is difficult. The Catholic Church, it could be said, is a real thing; Chesterton called it “The Thing.” Because it is a real thing, another real thing is usually needed to get the convert into it. The devout fiancée or friend becomes a vehicle to conversion and grace, a foretaste, one might say, of the sacraments, which use tangible mediums to impart intangible grace. Mere intellectual persuasion, without a tangible intermediary, is usually insufficient to breach the walls. In Kirk’s case, this is borne out: He had traveled well along the intellectual road to conversion by the early 1950s, but by 1963 hadn’t taken any steps toward actually entering the Church. Kirk later said of his conversion (drawing from words written of Eliot’s conversion): “One might say that he became a Christian on discovering that he already was one.”28 Perhaps, but based on his thoroughgoing Christian intellectuality, he should have discovered that fact years earlier; it was apparently only the influence of a tangible thing, Annette, that brought him to that final step.
The Catholic Stoic
Kirk’s first formal instruction in the Catholic faith gives an important glimpse into his religious disposition. In late 1953, he sought out a Jesuit to instruct him in Catholicism, but he had no desire to convert. Rather, he sought instruction from the mere “yearning of intellectual curiosity.”29 He was curious about those ultimate questions: “By what principles are we to live here below? And how are we to know that those principles, or norms, or doctrines, or dogmas, are true, and were true, and will be true?” Pursuit of these questions, he later said, brought him to an “intellectual love of God,” but he never became an “enthusiast.”30
Kirk’s outlook, though informed by the Christian faith, remained largely that of a Stoic following his entrance into the Church. Stoicism’s exclusive reliance on reason, and its corollary rejection of all emotion (whether good or bad—“good emotion” being an oxymoron to the Stoic), is not consistent with Christianity. Kirk never seemed to get over his Stoicism completely, so much so that his wife would refer to him years later as a Stoic rather than a Christian.31
This Stoic-influenced mindset, unsurprisingly, gave him a dispassionate disposition, and it even seems to have made him dispassionate toward his own soul. It is impossible to judge any man’s spiritual life, but glimpses of Kirk’s can be gained here and there through his life and writings.
In his writings, Kirk seemed wholly divorced from self-regarding spiritual concerns. Rarely, if ever, did he write introspectively about the effects of sin on his soul, the need for the sacraments, mortal sin, or other things that animate Catholics—if not for love of God, at least out of fear of him. It is, for instance, difficult to imagine two Catholic autobiographies more different than Kirk’s The Sword of Imagination and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The emphases of the two books are different (Merton set out to write a spiritual autobiography, Kirk didn’t), but one gets the impression that a book like Merton’s would have been wholly foreign to Kirk’s way of thinking. Merton’s book is a spiritually emotional one; Kirk’s is one of complete detachment, consistent with his decision to write the book in third-person narrative.
Kirk’s stoical disposition seems to have influenced his religious practice. Whereas most faithful Catholics fulfill the weekly Mass obligation out of fear of mortal sin or love of God, Kirk didn’t. Though he attended regularly, it wasn’t unusual for him to miss.32 He was also unmoved by the Sacrament of Reconciliation, saying that, though it did not repel him, he simply was not attracted to it.33
Whether such indifference stems from Stoic detachment, spiritual lethargy, an eccentric personality (Kirk’s life gives glimpses of all three), or some other cause, it is impossible to know, though this lack of “internal concern” might have been linked to, for lack of a better term, his “outerness.”
Kirk tended to be drawn to things outside himself. It is a trait consistent with his Stoic training. Stoicism, as a result of its monistic theology, loves the world. In the words of Etienne Gilson (quoting Marcus Aurelius):
Kirk’s life and writings seem to exude this receptiveness to the world and things outside himself. He was drawn to the other and had a tendency to ignore himself: He did not think about his future; he refused to save much money and spent it on others; he was absorbed by nature; he repeatedly took foreign refugees and societal outcasts into Piety Hill and cared for them.
If Kirk did “suffer” from spiritual indifference, he appears to have suffered from the right kind, the kind that is indifferent because it is not self-centered—the kind that leaves a person wondrously open to the “other,” which, as C. S. Lewis liked to point out, is a path to true joy.
At age 45, Kirk married Annette, a beautiful young lady who shared his intellectual tastes, and settled into a good life. She bore him four daughters. The family would live at Piety Hill for the rest of his life.
He would continue to publish books, including a monumental biography of T. S. Eliot, T. S. Eliot and His Age; a history of Western civilization as it pertains to America, The Roots of American Order; and a superb analysis of returning norms to politics and literature, Enemies of the Permanent Things (a book many readers rank as his best). In all, he would publish 32 books.
He also became a syndicated newspaper columnist, writing a popular column, “To the Point,” from 1962 until 1975, and publishing hundreds of articles (by the time of his death in 1994, he had published approximately 800). He also founded two quarterly publications, Modern Age and The University Bookman.
Kirk also became an accomplished fiction writer, publishing numerous ghost stories (drawing on his sense of the uncanny that he acquired from his ancestors and Piety Hill) and three novels, including a Gothic romance, Old House of Fear, that would sell more copies than all his other books combined. His story-telling ability earned him various awards, including appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of Count Dracula, bestowed by the Count Dracula Society.
He was also an accomplished speaker, delivering lectures or participating in debates at hundreds of campuses from the fifties through the early nineties. He received over a dozen honorary doctorates from colleges and universities where he spoke.
For the contributions he made to conservative thought, he was offered posts in the Nixon and Reagan administrations—which he declined, being no “hot partisan” and preferring the quiet labor of the writer in a small Michigan village to the hectic life in the Beltway. He was invited to meet with many distinguished persons, including Pope John Paul II, one of the last men he prayed for.
Kirk, at the end of a life that he recognized as enchanted, fell ill in late 1993 at age 75. His health quickly deteriorated. By early 1994, he knew he would not live long. His four daughters came home to be by his bedside. He talked with them quietly, exhorting them to a life of virtue and counseling them to read the works that inform the moral imagination.35 The morning of his death, he heard that John Paul II had fallen and broken his hip. Kirk asked his family to pray for him. A few hours later, his wife noticed that Kirk had grown silent and had closed his eyes. She called two daughters who were in the house, and they came and sang to him and held his hands as he slipped away. On his bedside table sat the book he was reading the night before, All’s Well That Ends Well.36
For an eccentric Stoic who subsisted solely on the natural sacraments—the goodness that effuses from God’s creation—for the first 45 years of his life, he was an honorable Christian. He venerated the saints, awaited purgatory with comfort, held great reverence for the Shroud of Turin,37 and prayed regularly. His life was marked by Christian virtue: a good father and husband, a charitable man who cared for the poor and downtrodden, a writer who labored in God’s vineyard in an age that tramples his grapes. What Kirk often said about other great men and women of the twentieth century who spoke out against vulgarizing modernity could well be said of him: A few more such Christians and contemporary civilization might be redeemed by now.
1. It was also called “Piety Hill” because Kirk’s ancestors were teetotalers.
2. As an adult, Kirk raised his family at Piety Hill. One day he heard his two-year-old daughter Monica call out, “Hi, Patti! Hi, Patti!” to an invisible man that Monica described as short.
3. Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s, 1995), p. 243.
4. Russell Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 1998), p. 71.
5. The Sword, p. 34.
6. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1992), p. 117. The phrase might be a play on words. Stoicism takes its name from the Greek stoa, which means “porch.” The name derives from the location in Athens where the school first met, early in the second century B.C. The phrase could also be used to refer to simple chronology: Stoicism was the last great philosophical school prior to the advent of Christianity.
7. See Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, n.d.), pp. 36–37. For a good discussion of the tenets of Stoicism, see Seneca, Moral and Political Essays: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed. John Cooper and J. F. Procope (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. xvii–xxiv, 5–10; and Kirk, The Roots of American Order, pp. 117–125.
8. The Sword, p. 67–68.
9. James E. Person, Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books, 1999), p. 11.
10. Person, p. 86.
11. Peter J. Stanlis. See Person, p. 84.
12. See Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 384. “If the Catholic Faith is true, a University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale. . . .”
13. The Sword, p. 150.
14. Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 1998), p. 72.
15. See The Portable Conservative Reader, ed. R. Kirk (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), pp. xv–xviii. Kirk provided a similar, but not identical, list of six principles in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Regnery Co., 1953), pp. 7–8 (some of the ideas from that list are incorporated in the list set forth here in the text). He offered another list, expanding it to ten canons and altering it somewhat, in The Politics of Prudence, pp. 17–25.
16. Person, p. 19.
17. The Sword, p. 68.
18. The Conservative Mind, p. 31. The Irishman Burke was exposed to Catholicism as a youngster. His mother and sisters were Catholic. See Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1967), p. 137. Another man who exhibited some Catholicism in his thinking and was admired by Kirk was Paul Elmer More, to whom Irving Babbitt once exclaimed in exasperation, “Great God, man, are you a Jesuit in disguise?” To which More replied, “I have never been able to answer the question satisfactorily.” The Conservative Mind, p. 377.
19. The Conservative Mind, p. 251.
20. The Sword, p. 230.
21. The Conservative Mind, p. 214.
22. The Conservative Mind, p. 215.
23. Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Peru, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1991), pp. 141–143.
24. The Politics of Prudence, p. 114.
25. See Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 371. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus is laced with distributist ideas. In particular, see nos. 34–49.
26. When asked if Eliot and C. S. Lewis would have remained in the Church of England if they were alive toward the end of the century, Kirk said it was “extremely unlikely for both of them but particularly so for Eliot.” Pearce, p. 408. It should also be noted that Eliot described himself as a Catholic, though his English bias kept him from going all the way to the Tiber, his Christian conversion stopping at the Thames. Pearce, p. 130.
27. Of O’Connor, he would say that she discerned truths at the age of 30 that he would only begin to discern when he was 45, the age at which he joined the Church. The Sword, pp. 182–183.
28. The Sword, p. 233.
29. The Sword, p. 230.
30. The Sword, p. 231.
31. The Sword, p. 231.
32. However, it should be noted that he attended Mass weekly until the mid-1970s, at which point his local parish became torn by an internal dispute and was led by a modernizing priest who was more focused on America’s foreign policy in El Salvador than on religion. Person, p. 13.
33. See William F. Buckley, Jr., Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 252.
34. Gilson, p. 35, quoting and paraphrasing Marcus Aurelius.
35. Especially recommending The Little Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen, The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis, The Golden Key
by George MacDonald, and Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien. Person, p. 18.
36. Person, pp. 18–19.
37. The Sword, pp. 244–247.
Eric Scheske is a freelance writer and the editor of Gilbert! The Magazine of G. K. Chesterton.
“The Conservative Convert” first appeared in the June 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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