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The essence of conservatism: the now-deceased Russel Kirk was at the forefront of conservative thought, adept at showing both conservatism's correctness and liberalism's faults.

The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, edited by George A. Panichas, Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007, 640 pages, paperback, $20.00.

From the publication of his first major book, The Conservative Mind, in 1953 until his death in 1994, Russell Kirk remained one of the most significant conservative intellectuals in America. Kirk not only wrote 30 books and countless journal articles and newspaper columns, but he also edited 30 volumes of The Library of Conservative Thought and served as the founding editor of Modern Age and publisher of The University Bookman. Throughout his profoundly prolific career, Kirk resolutely carried out his literary labors from his home in Mecosta, Michigan, far removed from the cubicles of the New York and D.C. Beltway corps of New Right and neoconservative "think tanks" and foundations--although his erudite contributions to conservative thought often resulted in invitations to speak in such circles.

Kirk's writings continue to exert significant influence among conservatives. Three major studies of Kirk's thought have been published since his death in 1994. Several of his most influential works--including The Conservative Mind and Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered--remain in print, and one of his novels and three volumes of his short stories have been republished.


The recent publication of The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays will serve to perpetuate Kirk's influence. The editor, George Panichas, has done a masterful job of selecting representative essays that cover the major themes of Kirk's thought. The 44 essays are divided into nine major sections: "The Idea of Conservatism," "Our Sacred Patrimony," "Principles of Order," "The Moral Imagination," "Places and People," "The Drug of Ideology," "Decadence and Renewal in Education," "The American Republic," and "Conservators of Civilization." An epilogue follows, entitled "Is Life Worth Living?," which was drawn from his posthumous memoir.

Although much of the content of The Essential Russell Kirk was reprinted from previous collections of his essays, many of those volumes are now no longer in print, and some of the items Panichas included in the book are from more obscure journals where they might otherwise have lain forgotten. Although some of the essays may be of less general appeal (e.g., "Eigg, in the Hebrides"), others, such as "What is Conservatism?," "Civilization Without Religion?," "Can Virtue Be Taught?" and "The Framers: Not Philosophes but Gentlemen," are among the many which demand careful attention from any thoughtful reader concerned for the preservation of the heritage of Western Civilization. The book is supplemented by a brief, insightful preface; each of the nine major sections is led by an introduction; and the editor has included an introductory paragraph for each essay, which summarizes and introduces its content.

A Consideration of Content

A brief review cannot do justice to a work of the scope of this anthology of Kirk's writings; we will, therefore, consider one section of The Essential Russell Kirk. In the estimation of this reviewer, the section entitled "The Drug of Ideology" is among the most rewarding in the entire book. Two essays--"The Drug of Ideology" and "The Errors of Ideology"--advance the thesis that the rise of the ideologies of the modern age are united by common, defining characteristics: "Ideology really means political fanaticism--and, more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning." Thus, in Kirk's estimation, communism, socialism, fascism, objectivism, and modern liberalism simply vary in degree, not in kind. On the other hand, conservatism is the negation of ideology.

The first essay of the anthology--Kirk's essay entitled "The Idea of Conservatism"--is intended to demonstrate the fundamental difference of character between conservatism and modern ideologies. Whereas ideologies purport to offer "a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells," the principles guiding true conservatism "are to be taken from a rough catalog of the general assumptions of conservatives, and not as a tidy system of doctrines for governing a state." That "rough catalog" entails being able to live one's own life based on an accepted moral code without outside government interference. Whatever else the reader may find of value in this book, this essay should be considered "required reading" for conservatives, and is certainly key to understanding the rest of the anthology.

Of course, it is the nature of such an anthology that readers may question some of the choices made in the selections. For example, Kirk's essay entitled "The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species" (and published in The Politics of Prudence) contains many seemingly prescient insights regarding the origins and ideology of the neoconservative movement that has wielded so much influence in recent years (e.g., "Deficient in historical understanding as in familiarity with humane letters, most of the Neoconservatives lack those long views and that apprehension of the human condition, which form a footing for successful statecraft. Often clever, these Neoconservatives; seldom wise"). However, despite the obvious timeliness of Kirk's observations regarding the neoconservatives, which have had such a controversial influence on American domestic and foreign policy in recent years, the essay was not included in this anthology.

Where's the Fiction?

Also, although Kirk's brief (five pages in this edition) essay entitled "A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale" was included in The Essential Russell Kirk, none of his 22 short stories, nor any excerpt from his three novels, were included. Kirk famously referred to his "Gothic mind" and he certainly understood his fiction to be "of a piece" with the rest of his writing. Thus "A Cautionary Note..." offers only the briefest of introductions to a significant portion--roughly 20 percent--of Kirk's published work. At the risk of hyperbole, one might say that reading Kirk's essays without giving consideration to his fiction would almost be analogous to reading T.S. Eliot's essay "The Idea of a Christian Society," while ignoring his poetry. Those readers who are interested in reading Kirk's fictional writing should acquire his Old House of Fear (originally published in 1961, but republished in 2007) and Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales (2004).


Despite these minor criticisms, this volume is an extremely helpful introduction to the thought of one of the most important bookmen of our age. The decision to end The Essential Russell Kirk with the essay "Is Life Worth Living?"--the same essay which concluded Kirk's posthumously published memoir, The Sword of the Imagination--was wise, and allows the anthology to end on the same hopeful note with which he concluded his own labors:
 Humankind has it on authority that
 riches cannot well pass through the
 needle's eye into the world beyond
 the world. Being unencumbered
 with pelf, Kirk is not distressed by
 that difficulty; his worn old knapsack
 will suffice him for the tramp from
 corruption to incorruption. In imagination,
 at least, may he be permitted
 to carry with him, into another realm
 of being, beyond time, his Mogul
 sword? That blade might repel certain
 Watchers--the old Egyptians
 dreaded them--at the Strait Gate.
 Quite conceivably imagination of the
 right sort may be so redemptive hereafter
 as here. Forward!

Kirk's writings are permeated with such optimism which bespeaks confidence in the Lord of heaven and Earth, who has already won the victory. In the midst of the darkness of this present age, conservatives will be well-served by the rekindling of such a lively hope.

Rev. James Heiser is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Malone, Texas.
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Title Annotation:The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays
Author:Heiser, James
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 31, 2008
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