Brad Birzer speaks on the conservatism of 20th century thinker
Dr. Bradley Birzer, Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and 1990 alumnus of Notre Dame, delivered a lecture entitled “The Christian Humanism of Russell Kirk” on April 6. The lecture was hosted by the Constitutional Studies department.
Birzer prefaced his lecture by stressing that the Christian humanism of Kirk and other great conservative thinkers such as Leo Strauss and Flannery O’Connor would not fit well in our current political spectrum. He pointed out that Kirk never used the term “right-wing” to describe himself or any idea.
He then went on to examine the beliefs of Christian humanist thinkers. He explained that figures such as Kirk, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Merton believed in an holistic education that looks towards the eternal rather than just what is currently relevant.
“Their idea of conservatism was truly a conserving of the best of the past. And it’s not always easy, and it’s clearly not systematic. It’s not always consistent, but we have to make sure that we’re always striving to look for something eternal in what we find in the immediate,” Birzer said.
Raised in poverty, Kirk read both Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson by the age of eleven and was considered a genius. He earned degrees from Michigan State, Duke, and the University of St. Andrews, where he earned a double Ph.Ds. Later on, he wrote and published The Conservative Mind, which sold over one million copies after being published in 1953.
In his work, Kirk examines the lives and ideas of over 25 conservative thinkers, from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot. After analyzing these figures, Kirk developed six “canons” of conservatism based on the principles shared by each thinker.
The first three canons Kirk developed include believing in something greater than self, understanding each new person as a revelation of truth, and recognizing the necessity of belonging to community.
The final three canons are believing that property and freedom are necessary to human dignity, mistrusting those who reduce others to utilitarian equations, and acknowledging that reform is essential in all society while revolution is dangerous.
Birzer pointed out that Kirk in no way used the sixth canon as an excuse for blind acceptance of tradition, but rather used it as a call to judge everything we have been given. He called this the duty of every generation to examine what has been handed down and to determine whether it is good, bad, or in need of reform.
Birzer went on to discuss influence of Kirk and Christian humanism on the Notre Dame campus and claimed that the great Christian humanist figures who have come through the halls made the university worth knowing.
“[T]hey were teaching things that really mattered,” he said. “They were teaching things that mattered whether it’s 1800 or 2016. It doesn’t matter. These things are timeless. And they understood that, that Christian humanism was so full.”
As an atheist, Kirk wrote, “I would like to tell you one secret before I take up arms against a sea of troubles in our world. There is only one question that matters. It is the question that lies at the back of every other question, and this question is, what is the object of human life?”
Contrary to the modern view of conservatives, Kirk explicated the true conservative’s belief that the aim of life is not competition or success, longevity or possession, but rather, the object of life is love.
“The true conservative knows that men are put into this world to struggle, to suffer, and to contend against the evil that is in themselves and their neighbors, but only to do this by aspiring to the triumph of love,” Birzer said.
Birzer carried on that the true conservative looks upward from this “world of slime” to the light that gives love to the earth.
In conclusion, Birzer stated, “[Christian humanism] is … the finest thing we have in this world that can combat the ideologies of both the capitalists and the communists, the fascists and the socialists, because it is the one thing that is genuinely humane. It understands our uniqueness, it understands our dignity.”
Freshman Liam Stewart said to the Rover, “As a conservative, I found Professor Birzer’s insights into Kirk’s political philosophy truly fascinating. It was a real privilege having him come and speak here. I agree that young conservatives need to cultivate political ideologies based on more than just party platforms.”
Matt Connell is a freshman business and political science double major, and he is ready for spring weather to stick around for more than five seconds. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.