Revisiting the Master Conservative

Rights and Duties: Reflections on our Conservative Constitution by Russell Kirk, edited by Mitchell Muncy

(Spence Publishing, 1997, 286 pp., $27.95)

Russell Kirk appeared on the American intellectual scene in 1953 with the publication of The Conservative Mind. That book, unsurpassed as the seminal study of Anglo—American conservative thought, launched Kirk's string of vital contributions to Western social and political thought. Until his death in 1994, Kirk was recognized by many as the single most perceptive synthesizer of cultural-especially jurisprudential—trends in the United States.

I first started reading Kirk nearly 20 years ago, half-way through law school, when I found a copy of The Conservative Mind at a used book sale. Later, shortly before graduation and with the bar exam still looming over me, John Lulves of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute invited me to join a small group of graduate students for a weekend seminar with Kirk at his ancestral home in Piety Hill, Mich. There, a dozen of us from all across the country-no two with similar academic specialties-gathered for a long weekend in the presence of one of America's best educated and most capable teachers.

During the days, Kirk led us through law, literature, history, and philosophy. Each evening he dimmed the lights, allowed his younger children to join us, and read us ghost stories from his award-winning fiction.

The details, both visual and intellectual, of that splendid summer seminar have faded during the years, not in the sense of being lost, but rather by becoming a part of me indistinguishable from the whole. Till this day though, one particular image remains sharp: that of a young man named Russell Hittinger, then a doctoral student in philosophy in St. Louis, who in a way quite beyond the others (myself included), seemed to grasp what Kirk was saying and whose exchanges with Kirk were designed not so much to clarify for himself what the master had said, but rather to amplify it for the benefit of all.

One can imagine my delight, these many years later, at seeing Kirk's final collection of essays, Rights and Duties: Reflections on our Conservative Constitution, introduced by Hittinger, now holder of the prestigious Warren Chair of Catholic Studies and research professor of law at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Rights and Duties consists of some 20 essays, none of daunting length, each supported by but not clogged with endnotes. The essays are loosely grouped under five headings, but they need not be read in any particular order to be enjoyed. The book is of archival quality and the index is detailed and useful. Hittinger's introduction is quite fine, and if Rights and Duties is one's first taste of Kirk, I would suggest reading the introduction both before and after one reads the rest of the book.

Besides a copy of the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, one might also wish to have access to a selection of Edmund Burke's main works, and perhaps a sampler of Orestes Brownson, since Kirk is not shy about referring his readers to the masters from whom he learned so much.

It is Kirk's contention that American society, the values that support it, and Constitution that governs it are, objectively considered, conservative. Regrettably, the words “liberal” and “conservative,” having begun their corruption in the bloody days of the French Revolution, are now so degraded as to imply nothing more than “abortion on demand” to one group and “corporate greed” to another.

Kirk points to a deeper and more fruitful understanding of what conservatism is, however: a recognition that, in most cases, healthy change is slow change. Abrupt breaks with law and custom usually result in harm to body and mind, soul, and society. For most of his career, one of Kirk's main contributions was showing that the “radical American experiment” was, despite the attendant rhetoric, actually a conservative evolution that preserved the healthy order of the past, albeit leaving room for necessary accommodations to modern times.

Only in Rights and Duties, notes Hittinger, does Kirk become “somewhat more cautious in his verdict” that “the general character of that American order remain little altered [and] that, though circumstances have changed markedly from time to time, the laws and mores have endured.”

Kirk, for all his command of the various disciplines that make up American public thought, does not lord that knowledge over his readers. In fact, several of these essays began as lectures or oral addresses and thus are remarkably easy to read. If Kirk expects anything from his audience beyond the ability to think carefully, however, I'd say that he assumes a certain level of basic historical knowledge, as opposed to, say, legal or philosophical training. If one is broadly familiar with major names and events of American (and to some extent English) history, Russell Kirk will take it from there.

Edward Peters is a canon and civil lawyer in San Diego, Calif.