Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology

Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology

Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology

Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology

Synopsis

Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind and A Program for Conservatives, has been regarded as one of the foremost figures of the post-World War II revival in conservative thought. While numerous commentators on contemporary political thought have acknowledged his considerable influence on the substance and direction of American conservatism, no analysis of his social and political writing has dealt extensively with the philosophical foundations of his work. In this provocative study, W. Wesley McDonald examines those foundations and demonstrates their impact on the conservative intellectual movement that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Kirk played a pivotal role in drawing conservatism away from the laissez-faire principles of libertarianism and toward those of a traditional community grounded in a renewed appreciation of man's social and spiritual nature and the moral prerequisites of genuine liberty. In a humane social order, a community of spirit is fostered in which generations are bound together.,According to Kirk, this link is achieved through moral and social norms that transcend the particularities of time and place and, because they form the basis of genuine civilized existence, can only be neglected at great peril. These norms are reflected in religious dogmas, traditions, humane letters, social habit and custom, and prescriptive institutions and create the sources of the true community that is also the final end of politics. Although this study does not challenge Kirk's debts to a predominantly Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition of natural law, its focus is on his appeal to historical experience as the test of sound institutions. This aspect of his thought wasessential to Kirk's understanding of moral, cultural, and aesthetic norms and can be seen in his responses to American humanists Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt and to English and American romantic literature. Russell Kirk and

Excerpt

One of my goals in writing this book is to rescue Russell Kirk from his hagiographers, who, since his death, sometimes venerate him at the expense of understanding the substance of his thought or quote him selectively to promote agendas that would have been foreign to his thinking and nature. Much of what today passes for “conservatism” would not have pleased my subject. Always suspicious of proponents of global military adventures, expansive government, and social innovation, he would have cast a skeptical eye on the ambitious schemes advanced by prominent conservatives to spread democracy throughout the world, link government to private faith-based organizations under the rubric of “compassionate conservatism, ” and cleanse ourselves of customs and symbols to avoid offending some perceived “victim” group. On the basis of my personal knowledge of him gleaned through the years as his former research assistant and later friend, I do not believe that he would have wanted to become an empty icon for a political movement. I hope that my examination of his social and political thought will correct misperceptions about Kirk's legacy and lead to an appreciation of his teachings by those who eschew partisan politics. Insofar as my book accomplishes these ends, it will serve as a tribute to the memory of an esteemed teacher.

Russell Kirk first entered my life when I was a freshman at Towson State College (now Towson University) in Baltimore, Maryland. I had developed a campus reputation as one of Senator Barry Goldwater's most outspoken supporters during his 1964 campaign for the presidency. Such enthusiasm was hardly appreciated or admired. On this heavily Democratic campus, to declare yourself publicly to be a Republican, much less a supporter of the “extremist” Barry Goldwater, was to invite derision, contempt, and ridicule from most of your classmates and from nearly all the faculty. a tiny band of us, impervious to such censure and blithely unaware that some professors might reward our enthusiasm with less than desirable grades, soldiered on, in the mistaken belief that our candidate was electable. Such are the follies of youth.

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