W. Wesley McDonald Interview; Part I

My political and philosophical leanings have been heavily influenced by Russell Kirk. As fellow Michigander, historian, and lover of literature I was immediately drawn to the “Sage of Mecosta.” Despite his influence on modern American conservatism, however, Kirk has not received much attention from academia or even conservative journalism. So when word came of a new book exploring Kirk’s work and thought I was excited. The work, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley McDonald, turned out to be a fascinating, enlightening, and thought provoking book; and one I highly recommend.

I hope to have review published in the near future, but I wanted to give my readers a taste of the issues and ideas discussed in this intelligent work. So I asked Dr. McDonald if he would be willing to answer a few questions and he graciously agreed to do so. Dr. McDonald is Professor of Political Science at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. He was also a frequent visitor to Mecosta (Kirk’s ancestral home and study center) and served as an assistant to Kirk. The questions and answers are in two parts. Part one is below and part two is here.

1) You knew Dr. Kirk personally and have been student of his thought for some time, what led you to write an intellectual history of Kirk at this point.

I suppose that I always knew that someday I would write a book on Kirk’s social and political thought. My college senior thesis was partly on Kirk. My Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation, out of which this book grew, were also studies of his political thought. From the beginning, my advisor at the Catholic University of America, Claes Ryn, urged me to revise and publish my dissertation. For too many years, though, my teaching and various administrative responsibilities distracted me. A sabbatical leave in 2000 finally gave me the opportunity to finish the book.

2) What was it like working and living with Kirk and his family? How did that impact your approach to his thought and writing?

I was a frequent visitor to Piety Hill (as he called his residence in Mecosta, MI) from 1969 to 1980. The last time, I spent an extended period of time at his residence was during the summer of 1985. I assisted him with several books, including Eliot and His Age and The Viking Portable Conservative Reader.

While working on my master’s thesis during the summer of 1969, I slept on the second floor of Kirk’s library, an old converted toy factory. Kirk worked the graveyard shift in those years. At about midnight, he would begin his nocturnal tasks, sitting in his straight back chair behind a sturdy wooden table. The chair looked so uncomfortable that I was convinced that it had been deliberately designed to mortify the flesh. Gazing distractedly off into space, he would puff on his thick cigar while he collected his thoughts. Then he would pound furiously away on his antediluvian Remington electric typewriter from which words would steadily spring until about five or six in the morning. Finished, he would look up from his typewriter to ask me, “Mr. McDonald, care to go for donuts and coffee?” If I couldn’t make it through the night and had retired early, he would climb the stairs to fetch me from my cubbyhole. We would then stroll down to the town bakery as the sun peaked over the horizon. At about eight in the morning, we would both turn in. Kirk would sleep for about four hours before rousing himself to begin the day’s routines. As for me, I was soon a sleep-deprived wreck. Eventually, I adjusted to the rhythm of his life, but today still blame my mentor for my continued bouts of insomnia.

Kirk tended to be stiff and formal with people he didn’t know well. Even with me, he took him several years before he stopped addressing me as “Mr. McDonald.” I vividly recall the thrill I felt the first time he called me “Wes.” It was a sign that I had been accepted as a friend. Much of our time together was spent in silence. He didn’t invite idle conversations, but told stories and delighted in showing his visitors some of the strange haunts of Mecosta County, such as Lost Lake or the mysterious house on Sand Road where a ghastly murder had been committed. Those who peppered him with endless questions about his work just annoyed him. Usually, when I would ask him something about his work, he would answer by pointing me to a book or essay from which I was expected to root out the answer. Kirk avoided emotionally charged debates. It was obvious that he was more comfortable with the written word than with face-to-face confrontations.

The last time I officially served as his assistant was in 1980, when the Marguerite Eyer Wilbur Foundation awarded me a nine-month fellowship to complete my doctoral dissertation on his political thought. While performing my duties as his research assistant, I used his library to begin my work on a study of his social and political thought.

Since Kirk was often away on lecture tours, we assistants (there were several of us) were left largely to our own devices. The highlight of our day came in the morning, when we would pick up the mail at the Mecosta Post Office and bring it back to the Kirk kitchen. At the kitchen table, we would read both our personal mail and the newspapers, and engage in lively discussions about current events. Then, I would walk over to the library where I would sort out Kirk’s mail and start on my own work. If Kirk was home and had guests, we would all gather in the evening in his large dining room for the main meal. Otherwise, my roommate and I would practice our culinary skills on each other. Finding ourselves wanting in that department, we persuaded the eldest of the Kirk daughters, Monica, to do our cooking. Kirk disapproved of this arrangement when he discovered that Monica was spending more time secretly watching forbidden soap operas on my television set than cooking.

That summer I helped compile the selections for Kirk’s forthcoming Viking Portable Conservative Reader, an anthology of the selected writings of great conservative thinkers. Photocopy machines being a rarity then, I would truck large stacks of books to Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, twenty miles away, photocopy texts and bring them back to the Kirk library, where I would do cutting and pasting. I then wrote a brief synopsis for each selection to help Kirk in composing his introductory essays for the entries. Occasionally, I would recommend items for inclusion in the anthology.

During the time spent at their home, Russell and Annette Kirk became a second family for me. Their many acts of kindness and generosity are beyond my ability to repay. More than anyone else, aside from my parents, this couple was responsible for what modest accomplishments I have achieved as a scholar since knowing them.

What makes my book unique and different from James Person’s excellent biography is that I knew him personally. He was my mentor and friend for nearly twenty-five years. Drawing upon that vast experience has given me insights into his character and mind that would not be available to other biographers.

3) The book centers, uniquely to my knowledge, Kirk’s thought in the philosophy of Irving Babbit and Paul Elmer More. Why was it important to situate Kirk’s thought in “ethical dualism?”

Claes Ryn, a Catholic University of America professor of politics and my mentor, who has written extensively on Babbitt, More and the New Humanism, opened this avenue of critical analysis to me. Kirk was not a philosopher, in the technical sense of that word (as he readily admitted), and therefore, was not concerned in his work with the formal analysis of basic philosophical concepts. The works of Babbitt and More are indispensable aids toward achieving my objective in this book of explicating Kirk’s moral principles in areas where he is least precise. I strive to demonstrate that the principles of Kirk’s social and moral thought philosophically defended and are not merely products of the intuition. In addition, I hope that my analysis will encourage other scholars to give his work the serious, engaged attention it deserves.

4) What role did literature play in Kirk’s thought?

The role of literature and humane letters in reawakening the normative consciousness increasingly became integral to Kirk’s social and moral thought by the 1960’s. His work began to exhibit an evolving appreciation of the “moral imagination” and its significance for the revival of reflective conservative thought. No doubt his growing interest in the moral principles of T.S. Eliot opened this avenue to him. Kirk’s ethico-aesthetical approach first played a central role in his literary and social criticism in Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969), and would become his most distinctive and enduring contribution to modern conservative thought.

For a more thorough discussion of the role of literature in Kirk’s thought than can be found in my work, I would strongly recommend Russell Kirk: Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999) by James E. Person, Jr.

5) What did he mean by “the moral imagination?”

Kirk described the moral imagination as “that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment,” especially “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” A uniquely human faculty, not shared with the lower forms of life, the moral imagination comprises “man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events.” Without “the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty, inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only, of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self interest.” In any civilized society, the moral imagination reigns supreme. When it functions in an impaired manner or ceases to function altogether, not only does communication between generations become difficult, but distorted views of human nature arise and moral character erodes. The result is moral decadence throughout society.

6) Kirk is often portrayed as being in the Natural Law camp, but you don’t seem to entirely agree. Was Kirk a proponent of Natural Law?

Most of his strongest admirers certainly believe that he was a natural law thinker. Yet, a close examination of his work reveals aspects of his thought inconsistent with the consensual Christian natural law position typically attributed to him. Although the moral principles to which Kirk appealed may in most cases be compatible with natural law postulates, his moral epistemology significantly differed from that employed by natural law theorists. Even though Kirk consistently maintained during the last forty years of his life that the moral basis of conservatism comprised natural-law principles, he never explicitly defined them nor explained how man apprehends the dictates of natural law. Kirk appeared satisfied that the moral principles embodied in the natural-law tradition are compatible with and supportive of what he calls “the permanent things.”

Consequently, Kirk’s self-identification with the natural-law tradition makes for some exegetic difficulties. Some critics have expressed uneasiness with Kirk’s natural-law assertions by arguing that neither Kirk nor his mentor, Edmund Burke, were proponents “of an orthodox conception of natural law.” Kirk’s affinity for the natural-law tradition tends to obscure the fact that his moral epistemology deviates in two significant respects from the usual natural-law approach. The first involves the role of reason. St. Thomas Aquinas, who is regarded as the pre-eminently authoritative Christian natural-law theorist, defined natural law as “the rational creature’s participation [in] eternal law.” In other words, man apprehends the precepts of natural law through his faculty of reason, which all men possess, but not in equal proportions. The good is conceived of here as static and predefined because the precepts of natural law are viewed as unchanging and universal.

Second, Kirk could not accept a natural law that predefines the good for all time and formulates a code that transcends all other codes. Many advocates of natural law take a legalistic and intellectualistic view of morality because they perceive the moral ultimate to be a precept of reason that can be applied to particular cases in a casuistic manner. But, moral law cannot be enacted in advance of experience. Man’s finite mind is incapable of grasping all the infinite possibilities that will emerge. Man, then, must be given the freedom, which natural law apparently denies him, to adjust moral prescriptions creatively to emerging, unique situations.

The moral imagination, on the other hand, as Burke and Babbitt understood it, and as Kirk used it, presupposes a decidedly different conception of moral experience. The good is seen as dynamic, living, and organic; it has particulars that cannot be conceptually predefined but are grasped by an intuitive vision. This conforms to Kirk’s understanding of the actual experience of moral decision-making. Reason plays a secondary role to intuition in Kirk’s moral thought. In his search for the good life and ethical universals, man is aided by intuitive knowledge supplied by the moral imagination. A body of images conjured up by the imagination shapes his moral deliberation as he weighs the probable effects of acting on particular impulses. Therefore, a genuine moral decision is a creative act.

Kirk’s affirmation of the natural-law tradition was intellectually confusing because he overlooked the fact that natural-law theorists, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, understood natural law as the law of reason discovered by rational cogitation. Kirk’s moral imagination, by contrast, is the power of intuition, which is nonconceptual and nondefinitional. Intuition and reason are distinctive modes of apprehending the good that cannot be subsumed into each other. The moral imagination is a direct, concrete perception of a standard of life, of moral experience, which is not arrived at through discursive reasoning.

7) How was the search for genuine community central to Kirk’s thought? What did he mean by community?

Many right-wing ideologues of the libertarian persuasion, Kirk believed, possess a naïve view of the individual’s potential to act morally and rationally outside the confines of community. The genuine conservative, on the other hand, Kirk explained, has “always stood for true community, the union of men, through love and common interest, for the common welfare.” When emancipated from the traditional ties that bind them to family, kinship groups, church, voluntary associations and all those other social groups that give meaning and purpose to their lives, people typically become anxious, frustrated, lonely, and bored.

The necessary preconditions for community are, he held, order, tradition, authority, diversity, localism and hierarchy. Beginning in the later part of the eighteenth century, a series of social and ideological disruptions afflicted traditional communities. . This emancipation from group memberships paved the way for widespread anomie and the desperate and often careless quest for new community. An ineluctable slid toward a totalist state, brought about by the progressive atomization of American society, could only be halted, Kirk believed, if the requisite social and moral foundations of community are restored.

A genuine community is an association of persons voluntarily united by affections and interests. Self-indulgent, partisan and selfish impulses threaten its destruction. Such, Kirk believed, is precisely the present situation. Community has been terribly afflicted in our times by social and ideological disruptions. Consequently, for Kirk, the “towering moral problem” of our time is the loss of community. He attributes this decay to three interconnected causes: industrialization, urbanization, and social boredom.

Continue on to Part Two.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).