The University Bookman

 
 

Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)

Knight of Truth

A eulogy for Russell Kirk.

Gerhart Niemeyer

As we remember Russell Kirk, the author of an astonishing number of publications, the source of a new idea in American political life, the preserver and distributor of many treasures Of culture that without him would have slipped into the void of oblivion, we also still see him before us in his everyday presence, with his wisdom, his humor, his great learning, his still greater humility. Did he not strike us as one always searching, always open, always ready for truth? Of course not just the truth of speech, the truth of facts: rather the truth of living, which comprises the other truths. More than any other person I know Russell Kirk was hot on the trace of this truth, quick to defend it, happy to be subject to it. He was, manifestly, a knight of truth, he proudly wore its shining armor, he ever had his hand on the hilt of its sword, and he never counted a victory in its service as a time for rest. No human being could confer on him the nobility of this calling: it was his distinction, in our age that is so poor of all kinds of distinctions.

Nor was there any appointment, that we know of, to the other title he served: Keeper of the valid word. It was his discerning eye that saw the reality of the valid word and that it needed keeping, in all times, and today more than ever. This is what he meant, speaking of “permanent things,” in the midst of crumbling buildings, gaping roads, and rotting fields. He spoke of that environment as the bent world, and how that word took care of our self-congratulating vanity! That disorder follows order, that losing is more frequent than gaining, we all have learned by now, but Russell Kirk knew something more: He knew that “we can salvage,” and he enlisted us, the discomforted and hopeless, in the ranks of the salvaging company.

Kirk was that rare case, a public person who was an intensely private man. Nor did he become less so as his fame mounted: on the contrary, the more highly he was praised the more shy and withdrawn he became. Still, he did not merely participate in public life, he shaped and opened a new public life for many Americans. Conservatism was a name, not for an ideology but for a disposition that did not even know its own existence. Russell Kirk provided a character disposition with its proper language, which means that through him many Americans became articulate who had not been articulate before.

There is no official name of this public service, but who can deny that its importance outranks that of many presidents of the United States?

Russell Kirk, author of a great many books, founder and leader of modern American conservatism, was also a most obedient man. How could that be, since he was member of no political organization, no academic entity, no religious hierarchy? The question is appropriate, but still, obedience was the mold of this man Russell Kirk, and the honor of his energies. He did not speak about this central virtue of his, maybe because he was most obedient when least inclined to boast of it. Nor did he ever point a finger to whom, or what, he was obedient. His hesitancy to belabor it was also his shyness to define it. We are sure that his obedience was no thoughtless habit, but when desirous to discover its source, it seems that we feel stopped by something of that great awe which made him obey.  

This eulogy was delivered on May 3, 1994 at the funeral mass of Dr. Russell Kirk at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Gerhart Niemeyer (1907–1997) was at the time professor emeritus of government at the University of Notre Dame. He was the author, among others, of Between Nothingness and Paradise and Deceitful Peace.

Posted: October 2, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at the highest.

Russell Kirk

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