MECOSTA, Mich. — Nestled in an idyllic corner of a forest, close to lakes and rolling green fields, stands Piety Hill, a house in the small town of Mecosta, north-central Michigan. Beautiful and incongruous-looking with its Italianate architecture, the house was once the home of Russell Kirk, a convert to Catholicism and one of the founders of the modern American conservative movement.
But today, it’s more than just Kirk’s former home; it’s a living tribute to this man of letters who, in his day, was considered one of America’s leading thinkers. That’s because Piety Hill has been turned into a study retreat center, offering the chance to reflect not only on Kirk’s many writings, but also what it means to be a Christian humanist in the 21st century.
Kirk came to prominence after publishing the book The Conservative Mind in 1953. Heavily influenced by the writings of St. Augustine, Cardinal John Henry Newman and the 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke (often considered the father of Anglo-American conservatism), he believed strongly that Christianity and Western civilization were inextricably linked, and that “all culture arises out of religion.”
He was also known for drawing up what he called the “six canons” of conservatism (the first of which is a belief in a transcendent order, based on tradition, divine revelation or natural law). He wrote 32 books and many political essays, some on environmental conservationism.
But although he was feted by Ronald Reagan and other political leaders, he preferred to be seen as a man of letters rather than a political theorist or social critic. Ranked among his friends were the writers T.S. Eliot, William F. Buckley and Malcolm Muggeridge.
Kirk died in 1994 at the age of 75, but in order to ensure that his rich literary legacy lives on, the following year his widow, Annette, founded the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.
A public foundation where students and professors can reside for extended periods of time as a community of scholars, the center provides surroundings conducive to study projects or complete doctoral theses for up to a year at a time. Occasional seminars are provided, and resources include the Kirk Center Library which contains more than 10,000 volumes on history, religion, politics, literature, philosophy, law and economics.
To be a Kirk Center Fellow, a simple desire is needed: to strengthen civilization by protecting those things that underpin society such as family, school and Church. That being so, the center’s philosophy in many ways reflects the concerns of both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II in articulating a culture of life, preparing a New Evangelization to counter the crisis of modernity with its fragmented, relativistic view of human society.
“It acts as a sort of pre-evangelism," says Jeffrey Nelson, who worked with Kirk in the 1980s and now is president of St. Thomas More College in Merrimack, N.H. “Before the New Evangelization can really take hold, we need to put people in a pre-evangelization mode, to prepare minds and hearts for the opportunities that the new springtime will bring to fruition.”
And the Kirk Center does this in a very practical sense, according to Bruce Frohnen, a senior fellow of the center and professor of law at Ave Maria Law School. “One of the great things about coming here,” he says, “is that in this small town, in this small community, one is committed not just to a set of books but to a set of ideas and to integrating them into one’s life.”
Numerous testimonies affirm this view.
Maxwell Goss completed his doctorate in philosophy at the center in 2005. He says his time there provided him with a supportive environment in which to write, largely because Kirk’s broad, humane vision “suffuses” the place.
“Academic philosophy is as hyper-specialized and insular as any other discipline today — cluttered with problems and pseudo-problems of no enduring significance,” says Goss. “One of the most helpful aspects of my time at the center, therefore, was the constant exposure to a universe of ideas spanning literature, history, law, morals, theology and much else. Largely, as a result of this — of the books, lectures, seminars, dinner discussions, heated debates and stretches of time for unfettered reflection — I was able to regain the larger perspective that academia works so hard to smother.”
Goss adds that thanks to the breadth of disciplines available at the center, larger questions concerning God, self and the nature of reality could take their rightful place in the center of his studies.
“I’m not sure my project would have risen much above a technical treatise had I not escaped for a year to Piety Hill,” he says. Nelson describes time spent at the Kirk Center as “life-changing” and akin to a pilgrimage.
“The Center helps people to be absolutely refreshed, revived and reinvigorated in the same way a pilgrim would after walking countless days in a desert and find an oasis,” he says.
The center also aims, through its interdisciplinary approach, to provide sound formation to those aspiring to public office and politics. It tries to help such leaders keep in mind a sense of the transcendent, to look beyond mere personal ambition and success and narrow definitions of conservatism.
It’s about “changing political sensibilities,” says Frohnen, “expressing who you are, what society ought to be, in light of the will of God.” Kirk, he says, had a vision “not of power but the integrated life in which we can make connections with one another.”
According to Annette Kirk, her late husband firmly believed that it was important to “shore up one’s own culture.”
“What we’re doing, though we’re a tiny speck, and what the Pope is trying to show Europe, is the contribution Christianity has made, and can make, to civilization,” she says. The center is “trying to be a guardian of the permanent things and that’s what Russell thought he was — the guardian of certain concepts, the family, Church and state.”
Now, through Mrs. Kirk’s efforts, the center hopes to bring more of her husband’s works into the public domain, including aphorisms such as these:
“At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, ‘What is the object of human life?’”
“The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love.”
Kirk penned that in 1954. Few would argue against its relevance today.
Edward Pentin is
based in Rome.