An Augustine for Our Age
I first met Russell Kirk when a professor of mine took me to the Kirk home—Piety Hill—in the winter of 1985. Shortly after that I attended an ISI Piety Hill seminar on renewing the higher learning with Dr. Kirk, Stephen Tonsor, and Gerhart Niemeyer presiding. I was a college undergraduate, interested in ideas but more activist in orientation. During my stay there I examined wondrously Dr. Kirk’s magnificent library, listened to him tell stories of his family and of the old life in the village he loved, and I sat fascinated while he told fantastic ghostly tales in front of a roaring fire.
I was drawn immediately to his conservative mind, and to his powerful imagination. I recognized in Dr. Kirk that rare man who combined both moral and intellectual virtue. He became for me, as for so many others, the kind of exemplar he wrote about in The Politics of Prudence: a champion of the permanent things whose convictions we apply and whose policies we emulate. Dr. Kirk worked upon my imagination, and upon the imagination of so many others, in ways much needed if our virtue-starved, luxury-sated civilization is to repel the forces of disorder.
Not long after my first visit to Piety Hill I became one of Dr. Kirk’s editorial and personal assistants. Thanks to the generosity of the Wilbur Foundation, I am one of dozens who have profited from time spent working, living, and learning with Dr. Kirk and his wife Annette.
Being with Dr. Kirk as he worked was a rare privilege. I would watch him in awe as his fingers worked the type keys with the precision of a master craftsman. Page after page of perfect prose came magically from his typewriter. If the act of writing was an exercise in bloodletting—as it is for so many writers—he never showed it. He produced perfect essays with a grace and effortlessness that is the mark of an accomplished artist. His professionalism is legendary; and by his example he passed that standard on to his assistants.
I’ll always cherish the times when, after a long night of working, he would walk with me around the grounds, invite me to join him for a late night brandy, and, with a twinkle in his eye, snatch from some forbidden place a very rich dessert.
From my earliest encounters with him, I knew I was in the presence of a great man. I often thought of him as an Augustine of our age, writing furiously about renewing our shaken civilization as the barbarians scaled the city walls. Like Augustine, Dr. Kirk wrote with greater urgency and precision than any of his contemporaries in an effort to advance and protect the central truths of our civilization from the onslaughts of its enemies.
Also like the bishop of Hippo, the wizard of Mecosta taught the rising generation about the centrality of hope to our cause. For his stance toward the modern crisis was never one of despair; he was hopeful—always letting a little cheerfulness break through.
It is fitting, too, that he died on the feast day of another great Doctor of the Church—St. Catherine of Siena. Like St. Catherine, there was literally no end to the care and charity he and Annette extended to those whom God sent to them. It mattered not to him whether one was a distinguished scholar, celebrated political figure, son of the head of Austria’s first house, or a petty burglar, an unwed mother, an Ethiopian, Polish, or Yugoslavian refugee—all of whom resided at Piety Hill at one time or another. Perhaps Dr. Kirk’s love for Christ and for the Church was best expressed in his active tenderness and charity toward others.
St. Catherine herself made a political impact of a kind. Six hundred years ago she vigorously wrote, traveled, and lectured beseeching warring factions in her Italy to come to peace. Within conservative circles, Dr. Kirk performed an analogous function. His authority was such that he could help settle internecine political disputes in Michigan, and he used his powerful pen to help secure conservatism’s vital center from the destructive energies of various extremists.
Personally speaking, I was attracted to Russell Kirk, Bohemian Tory. Dr. Kirk filled my mind with the pageantry and drama of history; he filled my imagination with the romance of orthodoxy.
He taught me, too, about the importance of place—of the land, a tree, a good fire, of communities of memory, little platoons, of folkways, customs, and conventions, the elemental stuff of our existence.
“It’s a mad, mad world, my masters!” Kirk used to quote. And while it grows madder every day, Dr. Kirk showed those who would listen how to recover our sanity. He struck out against the levelers, utilitarians, humanitarians, positivists, secularists—in short, against all enemies of the permanent things. And while he was our country’s greatest defender of those permanent things, in his example he represented the unbought grace of life.
All of us owe him an immense debt; he was a giant who invited dwarfs such as we to stand upon his shoulders and see out a little farther. He showed us how to redeem this time of ours—and so we set out together to do so. Russell Kirk touched all who knew him and who read his books. Through his family, his teaching, his lectures, and his writings, he has written on the face of eternity. What Pope John Paul II said of Catherine of Siena is also true of Russell Kirk: he was “a great work of God.”
Dr. Jeffrey O. Nelson is Vice-Chairman of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and Executive Vice President of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Posted: October 16, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.