Rusell Kirk and Pope John Paul II on Redemption of Man

Rusell Kirk and Pope John Paul II on Redemption of Man
Russell Kirk by Sam Torode (see samtorode@tds.net)

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was a social critic whose works best defined conservatism in the United States for decades (not that his ideas were embraced or followed by any party or platform). But his case for an imaginative conservatism in books such as The Conservative Mind, Prospects for Conservatives and the Conservative Reader received a wide readership and the comprehensiveness of his accounts and the diffuse range of what is “conservative” continue to attract readers and provoke discussion. A disciple of Edmund Burke, a lover of Scottish history and culture, a devoted family man, beloved teacher, and a Roman Catholic convert — Russell Kirk cut an eccentric and often misunderstood figure in the world of contemporary politics and academia. My brother and I had the pleasure of meeting him at his home in Mecosta Michigan in 1973 or 74 during a seminar for college students. In Mecosta there is now  a Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal directed by his wife Annette Kirk. Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a seminar at the Center for the American Idea on Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives, a seminar run by Dr Bradley Birzer, holder of the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History and Director of the American Studies Program at Hillsdale College, Michigan.

As we discussed this work of Russell Kirk, written in 1954, revised in 1962 and 1988, I was very struck by similarities between the thought of Kirk and some keys themes in the thought of Pope John Paul II, who surely develops his own style of imaginative conservatism for the world at large through, of all things, the documents of Vatican II, his philosophical studies in Thomism and phenomenology, and Polish literary and religious culture. Kirk and Wojtyla both came of intellectual age in the 1950s, Wojtyla in his country oppressed by communism, and Kirk in the United States, triumphant in its military and economic power. Wojtyla struck his blow for freedom against the might of the Soviet; but Kirk, in the midst of an emerging and expansive economic superpower, is an early critic of the consumerist mentality that John Paul II would later identify as the chief mischief of the West. He struck a blow for integrity and humanity against the dumb Leviathan of liberalism. He begins to articulate the principles of a “civilization of love” also envisioned by the Archbishop of Krakow in the midst of the worker’s paradise. I can but draw a few similarities in this blog.

First and foremost Kirk and Wojtyla, like Dante, are disciples of love. We have written a blog or two on John Paul’s Redemptor hominis in which he advocates for human self-discovery in love, in Christ. “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” §10 Christ reveals man to man himself through his love and his sacrifice on the cross.

Kirk in his opening chapter of Prospects for Conservatives says: “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 he object of life is love.” There we have the true first principle — a principle denied or neglected by Ayn Rand, or John Locke, or Hayek, or Milton Friedman. Obviously in the mid-Fifties this thirty some year old conservative would provide an alternative path for American conservatives, a path not always taken. And with what lyricism would Kirk hold forth — “he knows that the just and ordered society is that in which love governs us, so far as love can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learned that love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. . . . Men are put into this world, he realizes, the struggle, to suffer, to contend against evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire to the triumph of Love.” (21)

The just society must be a humane society, ordered to the true measure of human happiness, which is love. Neither rights, nor prosperity, nor power, nor education will redeem man. But love will. As John Paul II proclaimed: “Above all, love is greater than sin, than weakness, than the ‘futility of creation,’ it is stronger than death.” (RH §9) Kirk and Wojtyla saw how deeply this truth must be etched into our being and our striving.

So together with them we should place at the opening of any conservative creed the following:

To every captive soul and gentle heart
into whose sight this present speech may come,
so that they might write its meaning for me,
greeting in their Lord’s name, who is Love.
-Dante, La Vita Nuova

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1 Comment
  1. Thank you Dr. Hittinger, your words are insightful and inspiring to a young mind such as my own. What a good reminder to us all to live with love, rather than allowing our lives to become flooded with "success," advancement, conquering our enemies, and self-interest.

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