Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Russell Kirk and the Providence of Permanence

At the 30th anniversary of his death, the man of Mecosta still evinces a wisdom that is enduring—one might even say permanent.

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When I find myself in times of trouble, Russell Kirk comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, “Permanent Things.” Hit Pause. Okay, so ends my career as a revisionist lyricist for The Beatles’ classic, “Let It Be.” 

But the permanent things endure. And in an hour of darkness, there is still a light shining on all of us. The faithful can detail that luminescence, and yet conservatives might also recall the shining and sturdying wisdom of Russell Kirk (1918–1994). In his Ten Conservative Principles, he wrote, “In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.”


Examining the first part of that sentence, “permanent things” include tradition, family, classical learning and architecture, and of course, the biological difference between the sexes. Later in the sentence, we see the twin devils of “Chaos,” which is the antithesis of conservatism, and “Old Night,” which we can interpret as primordial backwardness, an inky abyss more negative than, say, apparitions—of which, in point of fact, Kirk was a fan, writing his own ghost stories

To nail down the point about prudential progress alongside permanent thing-ness, Kirk added, “Conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy ‘change is the means of our preservation.’” Yes, preservation in the face of what’s coming, whether it’s merely entropic or obviously wicked.  

As for the simply erosive, if Kirk was dismissive of such ephemera as television, what would he make of social media? If he prized property, what would he make of the idea of software-as-a-service coming from the cloud? And if he didn’t like the automobile—deriding it as a “mechanical Jacobin”—we know what he’d think of Uber and the rapidly emerging everything-as-a-service.  

As for outright evil, Kirk would see rampant crime and violent protest as just what it is: barbarism. “In any tolerable society, order is the first need,” he explained, “Liberty and justice may be established only after order is reasonably secure.”

Months before the 2024 election, we’re already sensing the tremors of the political ruckus—maybe convulsion is a better word—to come. Top Democrats and allied celebrities routinely compare Donald Trump to Hitler. For his part, Trump says, “If we don’t win on November 5, I think our country is going to cease to exist.” Got apocalypse? Why yes, both sides have plenty. 


In fact, the ’24 balloting will start in mid-September in some states, and the counting and adjudicating could stretch into, well, who knows. For perspective, the outcome of the 1876 presidential election was not settled until March 2, 1877

Kirk would probably doubt the attachment of any of the presidential candidates to the permanent things, even if he might well have a preference. 

The deep-keeled author of The Conservative Mind would likely see Joe Biden as, at best, a luftmensch, wafting along on trendy currents. One recent waft is the rigid orthodoxy of political correctness, now wokeness. Kirk foresaw this: “Liberalism had begun, defying authority and prescription, by breaking all sorts of ancient ties and obligations.... Liberals came to accept a new authority, that of the omnicompetent welfare state.” If Kirk could update that point today, he’d no doubt agree with Mary Harrington, who sees a progressive “omnicause,” uniting student Hamasniks with international greens such as Greta Thunberg. It’s the usual intersectionalism, plus the New Fanon Canon of “cleansing” violence. Biden himself might not be any of these things, but as the incumbent leader of the party of the left, he owns them. 

As for Trump, Kirk quite possibly would be a supporter; like Burke before him, he was not above partisan brawling. Indeed, in his time, Kirk was a longtime adviser to Barry Goldwater. So in our time, he could perhaps accept Trump as a preferable right-winger, if not his kind of conservative. It’s hard to imagine that the once-married man who lived on Piety Hill in Mecosta, Michigan would think much, personally, of the thrice-married Don of Mar-a-Lago. And as for rowdy MAGA, Kirk was never a fan of pro wrestling or anything close. 

So come what may, this year and next, the permanent things seem destined for a collision with big-box politics. But then, Kirk always saw conservatism as at odds with modernity.

So what can the rest of us do? We can take inspiration from T.S. Eliot, shoring up our shards—and everything else we own—against the prospect of ruin. That means keeping hard, or analog, copies of books, music, photographs, memorabilia, etc. so that they’re safe from sneaky digital censorship, to say nothing of hacking, ransoming, and electro-magnetic pulsing. Already, great intellectual treasures seem to have been deleted. So we need the spontaneous order of DIY preservation, somewhere between what the Mormons do already and The Benedict Option.

What else needs permanence? All the cultural and social structures of our lives, that’s what. From churches to fraternities—frats are back in favor now, at least in some circles, thanks to a new display of manly virtues—from private schools to home schools, from the separation of powers to the sovereignty of the states. While we’re at it, let’s take care to preserve and protect the decent drapery of life: Burkean “little platoons” and Tocquevillean “habits of the heart.”  

To be sure, conservatives should always be instantiating positive permanence, but the looming threat of emulsification is a helpful spur to action. Because Bruce Springsteen was right about this much: “Gonna be a twister to blow everything down / That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.”  

Yes, Chaos and Old Night will always be threats, but Kirk had the faith of a stoic and a Catholic that the permanent things will endure. If, that is, they are lovingly and dutifully maintained.  Kirk is gone, now, these 30 years, and yet, through his wisdom, he’s still around—maybe just a tune away.