A man is born neither a Christian nor a gentleman. Through baptism one attains the former status. Through his own efforts one arrives at the latter. A gentleman is a rare species indeed. The world is awash with regular folks, but a few of them remarkably noble. Conversely, it is also full of titled heads, many of them shallow boors.
In our day and age, noble ranks inherited from illustrious ancestors do not automatically translate into the sense of chivalric honor, dignified fortitude, refined manners, and Christian charity — all indispensable attributes of a gentleman. To be sure, they never fully did. However, at least in the past a Christian gentleman was the noblest ideal to strive for. Nowadays such a designation is liable to elicit a cynical smirk from the moral relativist, an empty stare from the man on the street, and a temper tantrum from the egalitarian.
Yet, the universalism inherent in the ideal of yore still endures. Its manifestation is a logical alliance first championed by Edmund Burke. The rare gentlemen and, indeed, ladies who have not forsaken the ancestral admonition about “my station and its duties” have joined forces with the remarkable few from the outside of the traditional milieux who have come to realize that God likewise blessed them more than others and therefore they had certain obligations toward the less fortunate. The idea of service to the community unites both traditional and meritocratic elites.
The members of the alliance call themselves conservatives. They sense that “the dead alone give us energy”. They believe that we are first and foremost obligated by the invisible bond between the past, present, and future generations. The conservatives argue that we inherited everything around us from our ancestors. We matter only so far as we can bestow this, and hopefully more, on our progeny.
Lest the ladies and gentlemen of the alliance be accused of Western exclusivism it is wise to remember that the sentiments they express once enjoyed wide currency outside of the Christendom. For instance, already Confucius flatly asserted that “a gentleman does what is honorable, the vulgar what pays.”
That ancient sentiment is echoed and elaborated on by the eminent conservative man of letters Russell Kirk:
“Americans often find it difficult to conceive that an upper class of birth and manners still exists; they fancy that aristocracy vanished with the waning of the Middle Ages — although they still approve somebody possessed of ‘good manners.’ When Americans think of the upper class, they identify their status with the possession of much wealth; and indeed there has been, and remains, considerable connection between manners and wealth, although a more subtle relationship than is commonly recognized. Nevertheless, the rich man and the gentleman are not identical — especially not in Europe.”
And further, Kirk adds, “a gentleman is a person who never calls himself one. One may add that to ascend in society, one must not be a climber. Even nowadays, wealth is no card of admission; indeed, wealth without manners will not ingratiate.”
Lest the conservatives, because of their unabashed hierarchism, be mistaken for the gnostic epigones of the all-pervasive and centralized state planning and their elitism, it is necessary to spell out the conservative fields of endeavor. Hierarchy does not mean exclusiveness. As Kirk put it, “it is quite possible to live whole within one’s own class. But that is not a very good way to understand the human condition nowadays.” The conservatives concentrate their efforts on the individual, the family, and the immediate community. Only through harmonious efforts springing from a multitude of focal points can we elevate the nation from its present malaise. And we cannot get there without God.
To paraphrase St. Bonaventura, the life story of Russell Kirk is reason’s journey to God. But not only. Spirit traveled along with the mind. True, the trip took a long time. Kirk was forty-five when baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. His areligious upbringing, his teenage atheism, and his youthful stoicism seemingly militated against finding God. Or did they? Kirk discovered his path to the Truth in an incremental manner. A conservative compass guided him on the pilgrimage.
The key to Kirk’s gradual conversion lies in his remarkably open mind and open soul. His conservatism first made him a gentleman and then brought him to God. For Kirk was not an intellectual harking from the narrow confines of the Enlightenment. For “the men of Enlightenment had cold hearts and smug heads; now their successors…[are] in the process of imposing upon all the world a dreary conformity, with Efficiency and Progress for their watchwords — abstractions preferred to all those fascinating and lovable peculiarities of human nature and human society that are the products of prescription and tradition.” The practical legacy of the Enlightenment is the destruction of the old hierarchies and the imposition of uniformity on all by the gnostic liberal elites. The result? As Kirk warned, “when both great and small are broken, mediocrity remains; but boring mediocrity cannot forever sustain a civilization.”
Not one guilty of overweening and brutal liberal hubris, Kirk never excluded the possibility that certain things are simply beyond the grasp of our limited human mind. Quite early on,
“he began to perceive that pure reason has its frontiers and that to deny the existence of realms beyond those borders — why, that’s puerility. Yet even within the realm of reason, if disbelief in a transcendent order is suspended, evidences of every sort begin to pour in — proofs drawn from the natural sciences, from psychology, from history, from physics — demonstrating that we are a part of some grand mysterious scheme, working upon us providentially. This granted, one must turn for elucidation of those mysteries to a different science, theology.”
Eventually, Kirk was able to stand the Cartesian axiom on its head and pronounce defiantly that “I am, therefore I think.” And then he added, “Or perhaps it should be put, ‘I really am, therefore I imagine?’ With recognition of one’s soul identity is established.”
Enamored of books, Kirk sensed the visceral connection between “culture” and “cult”, hence his respect for the supernatural. A family tradition of spiritual séances engendered in Kirk a curiously druidic fascination with ghosts and apparitions. The passion endured throughout his life and gave us many a novel written in the best of the gothic tradition. And Dr. Cady and Patti are familiar to anyone who ever visited Mecosta.
The madness of the Age of the Psychic Connection demonstrates that ghost hunts do not necessarily lead to God. Clearly, something else must have been incrementally at work in Kirk’s case. It was of course his family. At home he learned the basic tenets of conservatism which served him splendidly on his earthly journey to embrace the Divine. From his father, “the younger Russell acquired a suspicion of the gospel of Progress; for the elder Russell, skeptical of popular fad and foible, was fortified by sound prejudice, which Burke calls the wisdom of the unlettered men.” As for his grandfather, “it was by example rather than through discourses that the old gentleman taught the boy charity and fortitude.”
The immense love Kirk felt for his mother was only matched by his teenage inability to express it openly. When Kirk’s mother died prematurely, he cathartically exclaimed about himself: “What a fool he had been then, and at many other times, with the one he loved most!” He persevered the loss with Marcus Aurelius and Seneca at his side.
Russell Kirk Jr. was born and raised in Michigan. The physical surroundings: nature, buildings, his familial site (“a tall clapboard Italianate house of angular charms”), furniture, pictures, and — above all — books imparted to him the love of “permanent things”. Kirk sensed “that he participated in a continuity of the dead, the living and those yet unborn.” The continuity was best felt in his beloved Mecosta. Little wonder Kirk rebelled when the ugly face of Progress began wreaking havoc in his neck of the woods: “The old America, indeed, was dissolving even as Russell wrote his essays: for those were the years of the Great Depression and the Roosevelt Recession.”
Kirk was lucky enough to have attended school in the 1920s, when “from kindergarten to graduation day, he took it for granted that schools were orderly, safe, and reasonably pleasant places — an assumption that would be dispelled swiftly in most public schools seven decades later.” Even more felicitously, in college, Kirk found out that “in those days, college students were often more Jacobite than Jacobin.” When radical left wing trades unionists physically attacked the campus of Michigan State University College, the students courageously stood up to defend their Alma Mater. Today, most would probably join the leftists in burning it.
Kirk’s brief sojourn at the graduate school at Duke University exposed him to the stupendous wealth of the Southern tradition. A treaties on John Randolph of Roanoke he penned demonstrates that amply. Later, under the influence of Richard Weaver and others, Kirk refined his feelings about “the Old Dixie” and began calling himself, only half in jest, a “Northern Agrarian”.
But he always sensed that he belonged to a much more universal tradition. He traveled widely to find clues that would help him elucidate his feelings. Everywhere he walked indefatigably and observed silently the world around him. Kirk realized that
“to the student of history, as contrasted with the doctrinaire positivistic reformer, it seems that people are decent, when they are decent, out of habit. They fall into habits of decent conduct by religious instruction, by settled family life, by assuming private responsibilities, by the old incentives of private gain and advancement in rewards for decent conduct. When the individual seems to run no risk; when food, shelter, and even comforts are guaranteed by the state, no matter what one’s conduct may be; when the state arrogates to itself a complex of responsibilities that formerly were undertaken by church, family, voluntary association, and the private person — why, then the old habits of decency are weakened, and the police constable and Borstal [jail] are required to maintain precariously by compulsion what once was taken for granted in Britain and elsewhere.”
The outbreak of the Second World War helped Kirk elucidate his love of peace. This is not to be confused with mindless pacifism. Kirk convinced himself that all of America’s wars, including the one for independence, could have been avoided. But when the call of duty came, Kirk joined up dutifully. Stationed in the desert in Utah, his unit tested gel bombs. In an eloquent condemnation of the modern technology of death, Kirk sadly averred that “having been thus thoroughly tested, the gel bomb was employed, very near the end of the war in Europe, to wipe out Dresden and its population, the air being sucked out of Silesian [sic! Saxon] lungs while their dwellings were incinerated. This had been a war to vindicate the democratic and humanitarian way of life.”
Kirk’s final shaping experience was his adventure at St. Andrews University in Scotland. For a doctoral thesis, he wrote The Conservative Mind, a work of seminal importance. But even more significantly, in Scotland he found a total vindication of the way of life he himself cherished. Kirk’s “frequent hours with J.W. Williams,” his dissertation advisor, “taught him what it is to be a scholar and a gentleman.” The Scottish ambiance helped Kirk to elucidate that
“his was a gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. He did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what he sought was a complex of variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. He despised sophisters and calculators; he was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties.”
Whom did he love then? In particular, his wife Annette (“the fairest of them all”) and their four daughters. In general, the Scots. For “Scots hospitality’s the warmest in the world; and the further north ye gang [sic!] in Scotland, the warmer the hospitality gets.” By that measure, Kirk’s Mecosta is as far north as it gets. Any traveler who made his pilgrimage there can vouch for that. Where else would the hostess permit herself to be coaxed to play the accordion, while the guests sing Polish war songs? And above it all the spirit of Russell Kirk, the eternal pilgrim, floats in perpetuity because, as he himself put it, people “do not perish…they merely depart from us.” God speed.
Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995).
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Chicago, 22 November 1996