An Interview with Bradley Birzer
Bradley J. Birzer says that being a conservative "has little to do with politics, but instead has much to do with identifying and preserving excellence in art, culture, literature and scholarship. It means to identify and conserve the particular talents, dignity and freedom of each individual and, where possible, to connect all persons across time from the beginning of things to the end." If that sounds more than a little Kirkean, it is no accident. Birzer, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Indiana University, is the co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He is at work on a new book titled Russell Kirk: A Conservative Life (Fall 2015, University Press of Kentucky), which traces the writer's intellectual development through its various phases and the massive influence that he had on the post-war American conservative movement.
In the 2014-15 academic year, Birzer is Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy as well as Scholar in Residence at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Among other works, he is the author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll; Sanctifying the World: the Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson; J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth; co-editor of The American Democrat and Other Political Writings by James Fenimore Cooper, and co-author with Larry Schweikart of The American West. He talked about his new book on Russell Kirk with Religion & Liberty Executive Editor John Couretas.
R&L: Your new book Russell Kirk: A Conservative Life looks at the writer's intellectual development, the roots of his thought. Did the writing of this book offer any surprises about the man, or change your perception of Kirk in any significant way?
Bradley Birzer: Thank you so much for talking to me. I've been a faithful fan of Acton since its founding, and being a part of it is always an honor. I went to the first or second Acton student conference back in the early 1990s (in North Bend, Washington), and I proudly wore one of my two beige "Power Corrupts" t-shirts for years. I'd still happily wear them, but they finally gave out, entering clothing heaven.
As to your question. Over the past five years, Russell Amos Augustine Kirk has never ceased to surprise me. I've been reading him consistently since my senior year in college (ND, Class of 1990), and I had a very good grasp of his published materials. These, of course, are enough to overwhelm any reader. The sheer amount of words and ideas seemingly never ends. But, then, Annette Kirk, Russell's widow, graciously opened up the unpublished material to me. From the moment I began to read Russell Kirk's diaries, his letters, and other unpublished ideas and materials, I found myself humbled over and over again in ways even the published material hadn't affected me.
The breadth of his knowledge, the growth of his wisdom over his lifetime, and extent of his own reading and understanding of things made sure the project never became in any way, shape, or form boring. First, there was the quantity of it all. How Kirk found so much time to write what he did still amazes me, and I often pictured him as having some kind of third arm, itself linked to a permanent typewriter. As the late Wesley McDonald once wrote, Kirk probably wrote more in his lifetime than the average intelligent man reads during the same. But, second, is simply the quality of those ideas. Kirk grasped nearly everything around him, near and far, and that which he couldn't digest perfectly as knowledge and facts, he mythologized.
Russell Kirk said that "ideas, well or badly apprehended, rule the world." Yet you say that Kirk "had little original" to contribute to the fields of politics or economics, even though his writings touched on these areas frequently. In what areas would you say that Kirk made his greatest contribution as a journalist and scholar?
Kirk understood politics and economics quite well, taking most of what he knew from the statesmen, experiences, and movements of the late 18th century Irish and Scots. But, in neither field, did he innovate during his own writing career. Instead, he synthesized and offered criticism of some of the end results of each. As a very young man, he cherished the economics of Friedrich Hayek, though he soon came to adore Wilhelm Röpke. In the last decade of his life, Kirk wrote a textbook on economics. His views in that book amount to: yes, the economics of Adam Smith and other free market theorists are absolutely right. But, no matter how true the laws of supply and demand, self interest, etc. are, the seven virtues trump them all. So, no matter the pull of self interest, charity remained higher.
Throughout his life, however, Kirk despised utilitarianism in whatever guise it appeared. As to political theory, he drew most upon Cicero and Burke, and he favored a type of political prudence, "the art of the possible," as he put it. He was, for all intents and purposes, an American patriot and a small "r" republican, never a nationalist.
Indeed, it would be impossible to imagine Kirk as anything other, really, than a true citizen of the world. Kirk believed in a continuity of past, present, and future and a connection of all persons from the first to the last. Indeed, perhaps the central point of all of Kirk's writing is the interconnectivity of humanity at every level. Kirk was a citizen of Piety Hill (his ancestral home), of Michigan, of the United States, of the Catholic Church, of western civilization, and of the world.
Kirk enthusiastically embraced the Goldwater presidential run in 1964. Did he live to regret that decision?
No, Kirk certainly never regretted his decision to help Goldwater. At the time of the 1964 campaign, Kirk believed him to be the great hope of conservatism. They admired each other deeply. A number of other conservatives—those labeled by the press and sometimes by themselves as "New Conservatives"—denounced Kirk as a pretender. That is, they thought he betrayed the conservative movement by going into the political realm. Kirk, however, remained dedicated to helping conservatives (and some libertarians, such as Larry Reed) in politics throughout his career. While he didn't believe a conservative should only work in politics, he knew politics was a vital sphere.
At a practical level, Kirk consulted a number of politicians, sometimes openly and sometimes quietly. Though, he especially liked Goldwater and Reagan, he also supported Norman Thomas, Hubert Humphrey, and Pat Buchanan. As was the case with economics, Kirk sought the humane rather than the ideological or utilitarian in politics.
Would it be fair to say that Kirk had mixed feelings about free market economics, especially given his frequent jibes about the "uglification" of modern American life, its consumer excesses, and his famous rants about TV and radio? His support for conservation, tree planting, organic farming, midwifery and "natural" living tends toward the broadly communitarian, does it not?
Kirk never expressed reservations about true free markets in as much as he believed that freedom allowed us to choose the good and the true. In this as in many other things, he was rather Pauline. What is liberty? Liberty, Paul told the Galatians, is the right to do what is right. What Kirk disliked was the use of freedom as a thing or end in and of itself or the use of freedom to make things ugly, tacky, and false. He believed, however, that the very same freedom that allowed one to create something ugly gave him the right to criticize that act.
Certainly, though, Kirk would never espouse what is often today called crony capitalism. He noted more than once that he feared that the communists, socialists, and capitalists all wanted to conform us, to make us less than God intended us to be. Kirk had feared what's now crony capitalism in the 1940s and 1950s already. His love of conservation came from his own Stoic and Christian appreciation of creation. He agreed completely with the opening chapters of Genesis that man served as a steward and, as Tolkien would put it, a sub-creator. He was not himself a god, nor did he have the right to treat fellow creatures as such. As a descendent of Adam, he could name, plant, and leaven.
Kirk did have an appreciation – and was influenced here by Harvard literature professor Irving Babbitt – that the "the economic problem blends into the political problem, and the political problem into the ethical problem, and the ethical problem into the religious problem." Would it be fair to say that Kirk was well aware economic questions were often at the root of problems more central to his concerns?
Kirk feared that materialism—in any way, shape, or form—determined or attempt to determine all things in life. As such, he disagreed with John Stuart Mill as much as he did with Karl Marx. With Christopher Dawson and T.S. Eliot and others, he believed that all things vital in this world flowed from the root of culture, the cultus, the manifestation of the divine around which a people coalesce. The root of every culture, therefore, is spiritual. The material serves as a means to extend the spiritual. The two are not in opposition, but the material serves the spiritual, as Kirk saw it. When economic problems, then, were at the root of the problem, they were so because of a misunderstanding or misperception of the spiritual, as Kirk believed.
"The modern world is Leviathan," Kirk wrote in 1977. But he also included big corporations as well as government in his indictment. Would he find anything to change his mind today, do you think?
Probably not. Almost certainly, the power of corporations and the power of the military, especially abroad, would shock Kirk. He predicted that George Bush's New World Order would lead to an American replacement of the Soviet empire, but even Kirk would not have likely foreseen the extent to which his prophecy would prove correct.
I think the size of the debt, the size of imperial outreach, and the size of governmentbusiness- banking collusion would sadden him profoundly. As he argued time and time again, every person is a principle of proliferating variety, a unique reflection of the Infinite. Such colossal structures in government, business, and education served only to lessen and demean, not leaven.
Kirk asserted that conservatism was not an ideology but "rather a drift, a movement, a loose league of people who prefer the devil they know to the devil they don't." Some who knew him said he was more of a Christian humanist than a conservative. Is that a fair assessment?
This proved a serious problem for Kirk. In the summer of 1953, after his incredible success with The Conservative Mind, he hoped to move conservatism toward a set of principles, rooted in eternity. Though no one would mistake the Kirk of 1953 for an orthodox Christian, he read widely and considered orthodox Christianity one of the most important allies conservatism could have. He read carefully Christopher Dawson, Gabriel Marcel, Josef Pieper, and other Christian Humanists of his day. For conservatism to have a real go, it would need to blend with the American Humanism of Irving Babbitt with the Christian Humanism of Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, Dawson, and others. Kirk also saw each form of 20th century humanism as rooted in Stoic ethics and an Augustinian theory and philosophy of history.
In the fall of 1953, Kirk had outlined a huge book to be called The Age of Humanism. Based on Plutarch's Lives, it would begin with Socrates and end with Eliot. Kirk never finished it, though he seems to have written several chapters of it by the end of '53. Parts of this never-completed book ended up in Program for Conservatives, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, and The Intelligent Women's Guide to Conservatism.
As much as he was a conservative, Kirk was a personalist, an existentialist, and an Augustinian as well as a Burkean. Just as The Conservative Mind had tied all together from the French Revolution to the present, The Age of Humanism would tie together the entirety of western civilization.
Didn't Kirk's writings on the moral imagination, as it came down from Burke, Babbitt, and Eliot, and his writings on "ethical perception" in art and literature, contribute to this perception of him as a Christian humanist?
Certainly. But, he was also a Judeo-Christian Humanist, having been deeply influenced by Jewish scholars such as Leo Strauss, Ludwig Freund, and others. As I've tried to explain in the book, Kirk hated any form of discrimination based on the accidents of birth, and he was, for all intents and purposes, an anti-anti-Semite. I stress this only because he saw "Christian" as a very broad and inclusive—non-sectarian—term.
As to the intent of your excellent question, Kirk had not only the firm belief in humanistic education and endeavors, he also believed his own humanistic side should manifest itself creatively. While in graduate school at St. Andrews, he found a true love of writing fiction.
Those who have written on Kirk have often divided his non-fiction from his fiction. This, I believe, is a serious mistake, as many of his best and most interesting ideas manifest themselves in his fiction. He began publishing his horror, ghost, and supernatural stories in the late 1940s and really began a fiction career around 1950. He became quite the sensation in London and British horror circles. Though the eeriness and creepiness of his fiction waxed and waned—his 1979 novel, Lord of the Hollow Dark, being the darkest by far and dark, indeed, by any standard—he maintained a successful reputation in such literary circles throughout his life. Ray Bradbury as well as Stephen King loved Kirk's stories, and Kirk often published in anthologies with King, Robert Bloch, and other horror writers.
You say that Kirk had "deeply romantic notions" about certain aspects of life, and he admitted to having a "Gothic mind" as opposed to one shaped by Enlightenment values. Did he in some ways idealize the past?
One of the most intriguing aspects of Kirk was his ability to mix the classicism of Babbitt and Eliot with the romanticism of Poe and Hawthorne. He admired and sought order, but he also loved and cherished spontaneity. He had a deeply mischievous side as anyone who knew him can attest.
So, yes, he certainly had the ability to idealize the past. In part, though, this poetic insight allowed him to understand the deep currents of the past in ways many social scientists simply could not.
His love of all things Gothic came from his respect for dogma (good little truths) as opposed to system (ideology). Any person looking for consistency in Kirk's ideas about things in this world will probably find him or herself rather frustrated. With the Scottish and Irish thinkers of the late eighteenth century, Kirk believed history to be a discovery of timeless truths with each person a new revelation(s) of the face of the Infinite. To demand comprehension and conformity of one in the past is as silly as demanding such things in the present. Each person, complicated to the nth degree, cannot be understood by mere logic. Kirk possessed a strong mystic side.
Of all the important and influential conservative books published in the early 1950s, you say that "none could match Kirk's The Conservative Mind in terms of widespread respectability and outreach." What kind of influence does that book wield today?
When The Conservative Mind appeared on May 11, 1953, it shook the English-speaking world as it attempted to understand itself in a post-World War II era. As with many scholars of the day, Kirk looked to Burke and de Tocqueville for answers, but he did so in a way that was accessible to academics as well as non-academics. One of Kirk's favorite moments that summer came when he checked in at an out-of-the-way inn in rural Scotland. The clerk took a moment to stare at the signature and then said, "You're not the Dr. Russell Kirk of America, are you?"
Every periodical and serial worth anything reviewed the book, sometimes twice. While many disagreed with Kirk, almost no reviewer dismissed him or his argument. The Conservative Mind went through seven editions during the author's lifetime, never going out of print. One can also practice a form of literary archeology reading through the seven editions, as one can trace the sometimes profound and subtle changes and evolution of the author's thought.
It is and will remain one of the foundational texts of the twentieth century.