The Libertarian Who Loves Kirk: Bradley Birzer on the Permanent Things
The Bookman is pleased to post the first of two parts of a conversation with Bradley Birzer. Brad holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of American Studies at Hillsdale College and is one of his generation’s most important scholars of conservative thought and the tradition of Christian Humanism. He is the author of several books, including American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth, and Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, as well as many articles, essays, and reviews. He is also a founding contributor to The Imaginative Conservative.
Brad, thanks for joining the Bookman. We are happy to have you here.
Gerald, thank you! I'm thrilled to do this. I'm a big fan of your work on Dawson, Kirk, Christian Humanism, and all the things that really matter. I’m glad God decided to have us sojourn together. Add this to the fact that you now edit the Bookman, founded in 1960 by Russell Kirk, and it all seems a bit like perfection to me. So, again, thank you.
Before we get to the more specific questions, why don't you tell us about your major intellectual influences.
Well, I'm 45, and I've always been an avid reader. At least as far back as I can remember. I'm also a fast reader. And, when it comes to things I’ve read, I have a good memory.
My love of ideas and more and more ideas—and then some more—comes from my mom. Indeed, one of the best things my mom did (among many great things) was to give me a sense of a love of books, of knowledge, and of debate. Everyone in my family read, and we debated important issues constantly, especially at the dinner and brunch table. Sometimes the discussions got rather heated—well, heated in a Germanic, Kansas kind of way—but we all gained from them.
As a young man, four types of reading shaped me rather dramatically: newspapers and news journals (I devoured them; I even used to sneak US News and other periodicals into my textbooks during high school, reading them rather than listening to the lectures, which were often just restatements of the textbooks); science fiction and fantasy—but especially Bradbury, Orwell, and, of course, Tolkien; anything dealing with economics (especially Friedman, Hayek, Williams, and Hazlitt); and politics and political theory.
If I ever ran out of things to read, Greg Rehmke (then working for the Reason Foundation, IHS, and a number of other free market institutions) offered another title and another article.
One of my greatest memories growing up in our comfortable house on Virginia Court in Hutchinson, Kansas, was the set of encyclopedias and the Britannica Great Books shelved on one side of the hearth, with Goldwater's works, a few classical novels (mostly modern classics—Doctor Zhivago, for example), a four-volume Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and the Bible on the other side.
In college (University of Notre Dame), I became interested in history, working closely with such fine historians as Greg Dowd, Walter Nugent, and Marvin O'Connell, and the folklorist Barbara Allen. Toward the end of college I became very taken with Robert Higgs, Larry Reed, Walter Grinder, and Leonard Liggio (and still am).
In graduate school, I worked with R. David Edmund, Bernard Sheehan, Russell Hanson, Randy Simmons, and Anne Butler. I still love them all. I marvel at what they saw in me, and why they were willing to give me so much of themselves. I don’t think I deserved it. All of them were as kind as they are brilliant.
If I write at all well now, I owe this to Anne Butler, who worked extensively with me with that old, East Coast Roman Catholic kind of rigor that is now pretty much extinct. Each use of a passive construction or “to be” verb automatically lowered any given paper assignment a full grade level. Anne was ruthless in her grading, and I can never thank her enough for the time she gave me and my work. But it wasn’t just the ink that she bled all over my papers. She talked to me about the importance of verbs and explained the art of writing. I fell completely in love with the written word between 1990 and 1992, and it was Anne who showed me what high art writing could be. It was under her tutoring that I decided I would dedicate as much as my life as possible to writing. At the time, I didn’t know if that would be as a publisher or editor, researcher or author. I just knew that writing was the art I hoped to perfect in my own life. I’m still hoping.
What wisdom Anne possessed in other matters as well! We disagreed about almost every single issue dealing with politics (she remains an unrepentant 1960s radical), but I adore and respect her as one of the greatest teachers and persons in my life. She is as cultured and smart as they come. She is also as fierce in personality and beliefs as she is diminutive in size. And she is quite a character, as is her wonderful husband, Jay.
As I finished graduate school, I encountered Winston Elliott, Gleaves Whitney, Joseph Pearce, and John Willson—all of whom inspired and led me toward a serious Christian Humanism. Winston especially encouraged me to write on Tolkien, a figure who had been the object of my greatest hero worship since I turned ten (in September 1977; Houghton Mifflin released The Silmarillion that same month). Through Tolkien, I found Christopher Dawson, C. S. Lewis, Romano Guardini, Owen Barfield, and so many other brilliant humanists.
I came to Hillsdale in 1999, and probably nothing has educated me liberally so much as teaching our core course, “Western Heritage.” Here at Hillsdale, the greatest influence on me has come from two of my colleagues, Mark Kalthoff and Richard Gamble, and a former colleague, Harold Siegel. Each is a scholar of the highest calibre and a gentleman.
For whatever reason, God has always placed the most interesting persons in my life. Indeed, if I ever had to list the greatest things that have happened to me in this life (aside from my wife and kids, of course), it would simply exist as a listing of relatives and friends. Stunning and humbling, frankly. Discussions with my high school debate colleague, Ron Strayer (now a very high up figure at Microsoft) and two of my college roommates, Kevin McCormick and Jim Otteson, have shaped me as well. Kevin is now a respected professional classical guitarist and Jim is the leading philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. Ron and I talked politics, Kevin and I talked theology and culture, and Jim and I philosophy. I can't remember a time in my life without rigorous friendship and vigorous discussion. More recently, I would add archivist and writer Craig Breaden, political scientist Gary Gregg, Liberty Fund Fellow Sarah Skwire, philosopher Chris Morrissey, editor and theologian Carl Olson, and others.
I mentioned my family above. I’m the youngest of three boys, and describing the profound influence of either of my brothers, Kevin and Todd, would require a book! I couldn’t have asked for more interesting, more intelligent, or more caring and loving brothers.
We understand you are working on a book about Russell Kirk. What is it about, and what do you see as Kirk's importance to conservatism?
Well, everything about Kirk fascinates me. His life, his mind, his eccentricities, his Stoicism, his temper, his writing. Everything. I started reading Kirk’s works in college, and I found him and his ideas quite inviting. At the time, I would have regarded myself as a hard-core libertarian (near anarchist) who had little use for traditionalists, and there was much in Kirk that bothered me.
I couldn’t understand why Kirk didn’t explicitly focus on the individual and the individual’s choice to embrace virtue, especially as he wrote non-stop about important individuals. His critiques of libertarianism didn’t mean much to me, and I was confused how virtue could thrive without a vigorous freedom of the individual. Sometime around 1990 I planned and outlined a truly long letter to send to him, questioning a number of his assumptions. I never sent that letter. In some ways, I regret this, as I assume Kirk would have been a complete gentleman in his answer to me.
In another way, though, I’m glad I didn’t send it, as it probably was me at my most arrogant and pretentious. I was writing lots of fiction, short stories, song lyrics, and even poetry at the time, and I think I was pretty full of myself. During college my two closest friends cringed when anything of a political or economic nature was mentioned in casual conversation, as I would usually go ballistic on any person who challenged the idea of freedom. Amazingly, Kevin and Jim (mentioned above) put up with me, and we remain the best of friends.
But, back to your question, Gerald. My book is an intellectual biography of Russell Kirk, with a special—but not exclusive—focus on life before his marriage in 1964. I’m interested in the development of Russell Kirk as a thinker and writer in the 1930s, forties, and fifties. Annette Kirk has graciously opened to me all of Kirk’s private letters, papers, and diaries. It is a humbling honor, and I want to live up to Annette’s trust in me. Equally important, I want to do justice to Dr. Kirk. Some things I am learning about him have shocked me, and others have not in the least.
To my mind, he represents the best of the best of the twentieth century. In large part, he was so great because he knew his own place within, as well as his relationship to, a long line of thinkers stretching back to the beginnings of Western civilization.
Kirk had a nearly perfect sense of what to appreciate and what not to appreciate in historical characters. He was an excellent judge of the human person, past and present.
He also was great because he was a master communicator. I really have no idea how he wrote so much. In my sabbatical request for the 2011–12 school year I joked that Kirk must have possessed an extra arm or two to write and publish as much as he did. In the sheer mass of his personal correspondence as well as his published writings, he remains a bit of an enigma to me. How could one person accomplish so much? As Wesley McDonald once wrote, it’s legitimate to argue that Kirk wrote more in his one lifetime than most persons read in the same amount of time.
After calculating his scholarly articles and books, and trying to assess the number of letters he wrote, I happened upon his newspaper columns. Between 1962 and 1975, he wrote over 2,500 of them. Topics included everything from some movie star he didn’t like (Barbra Streisand was his most controversial dismissal) to how one should tend a garden to an analysis of the Watergate crisis.
Tell us about your group website, The Imaginative Conservative. What is its mission?
The genius behind The Imaginative Conservative is Winston Elliott. He’s been one of my closest friends for almost two decades, and I always marvel at three of his best qualities: loyalty, intelligence, and tenacity. He started TIC in the summer of 2010. As Winston and I had talked at the time, we wanted an open forum where we could debate about the most important issues. Winston came up with the title after reading an essay by Dr. Kirk. We always wanted to spread Kirk’s ideas, but we didn’t want the website to be merely about Kirk and traditionalism, but rather about Kirk and traditionalism in engagement with other forms of thought. I can’t speak for Winston, but I viewed our allies or models at that point as the libertarian Pileus and the Wendell Berryite Front Porch Republic. If anything, TIC would be a website dedicated to discovering the best of Christian Humanism and attempting to decide what is worth conserving, what is worth reforming, and what is worth discarding.
At first the articles we were posting—though intellectually strong—were only getting a handful of page reads. Because of Winston’s genius at marketing—he was a successful entrepreneur in the computer business before becoming president of the the Free Enterprise Institute, which sponsors TIC, in 1992—we currently receive over 60,000 visits to our site monthly and over 100,000 page views. Winston, though, remains fully “Kirkian,” as he calls it, and I’ve been—probably a bit to his frustration—a lot more libertarian. Anyway, I’m sure Winston will continue to lead TIC as one of the major websites in the world. His success really shouldn’t (and couldn’t) be ignored. It’s quite astounding.
Posted: February 10, 2013 in Interviews.
A Return to Reason
Gerald J. Russello