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Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology Hardcover – April 1, 2004
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McDonald's book, "Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology," attempts to rescue Kirk from those who might distort Kirk's ideas or who might not understand his approach. The author begins with personal anecdotes about the time he spent studying at Kirk's home in Mecosta, Michigan. Some of these stories explain a lot about Kirk's relation to the public. He was a very shy man who often stuttered in conversation. Although he was not a master in speech, he was indeed a master with the pen. McDonald explains that Kirk worked for hours each day writing on his typewriter. Sometimes when asked a question about a particular subject, Kirk would silently point to a book, figuring that McDonald could figure out the answer on his own.
Kirk explained that Conservatism in its modern sense did not exist before 1790 when Burke published "Reflections on the Revolution in France." The French Revolution was based, for the most part, on abstract ideas divorced from historical development, and wished to overthrow the order of things in the form of a new world, supposedly replacing the old world of custom, tradition, prejudice, and local connections. It appears that Burke's critique attenuated the British impulse to copy the French Revolution, which would soon drown Europe in horrible bloodshed.Read more ›
As I've said before, Kirk tends to be a rather opaque writer. Kirk rarely presented definitive plans to solve specific problems. Instead he offered a general approach to society based on respect for tradition and some general "canons" of conservative thought. For this reason, Kirks opposed libertarianism. Besides libertarianism being wrong on certain issues, libertarianism represents an "ideology" -- a preplanned approach to society which (to that extent) is similar to socialism. As someone once said, certain political systems offer the "One Big Solution" to the "One Big Problem." To Kirk, society's problems are more complex.
The best part of this book concerns the chapter on "moral imagination," which plays a central role in Kirk's thoughts. McDonald also highlights the influence of Irving Babbit and Paul Elmer More on Kirk. There is also an excellent discussion of Kirk and the Natural Law. I enjoyed the brief discussion outlining the differences between the Old Right (writers such as Kirk and Nisbet), paleoconservatism, and neoconservatism.
The late Wes McDonald was a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, and his recent death due to the ravages of cancer, is a great loss to scholarship. Wes was a friend, and like myself, a former assistant to Russell Kirk. Thus, this volume takes on special significance. Not only is it a work of commendable and fine scholarship, a corrective to those who would attempt to place Kirk in the current egalitarian/Neoconservative "mainstream," but a warm personal tribute to a mentor and brilliant and elegant writer and thinker. While I might not share every proposition in Wes' study, I greatly admire his serenity and his honesty, and his ability to explain and detail some profound ideas. For anyone wanting to begin to understand the work and thinking of the late Russell Kirk, indeed, of the development of 20th century American conservatism, Wes McDonald's book is a primary place to begin.
Belatedly, Wes, my friend, thank you! And thank you for your many contributions to scholarship.
Kirk, who died in 1994, is best known as the author of "The Conservative Mind" (1953), a book which galvanized young thinkers -- McDonald was one of them -- disaffected with the prevailing political culture of America. "The Conservative Mind" appeared at a time when received wisdom about conservatives in politics hadn't evolved since 1861, when John Stuart Mill pegged them as "the stupid party." American political scholars seriously argued in print that political conservatism was not a philosophical position but a mental maladjustment.
Kirk was a "traditionalist." He believed that an objective universal moral order exists, and that it ought to be defended from ideologues of the left and right. He disliked unbridled free-market capitalism (which fuels "the dream of avarice"), and he believed the state has a constructive role to play. He believed that traditional patterns and institutions -- "the permanent things" -- preserve order, and they are the best foundation of a political system that can offer real freedom rather than mere anarchy.
"Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, but rather a way of looking at the civil social order," Kirk wrote. It is not a sharply defined program or an ideology -- a word Kirk loathed, it seems. As a result, even sympathetic critics lamented Kirk's "lack of philosophical precision." McDonald has made great progress, in this book, in stripping down Kirk's vast and diverse body of writing to reveal its philosophical framework.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
The late Wes McDonald’s 2004 book presents an examination and defense of Russell Kirk’s ideas, strongly differentiating his brand of conservatism from both libertarianism and... Read morePublished 4 months ago by SockPuppet
For those who appreciate Russell Kirk and his grand and often overlooked influence on American political discourse, this book will have a permanent place on your nightstand. Read morePublished on June 20, 2012 by Amazon Customer
Russell Kirk stands today as one of the intellectual giants of our time. The work under review is the first in depth study of Dr. Read morePublished on May 24, 2004 by Gandalf