To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily
constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II
1152 x 864
11 jan 2013
Review of Russell Kirk, Rights and Duties: Reflections on our Constitution (Spence, 1997) 320 pp.
Edward Peters, Review of R. Kirk, Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution, in National Catholic Reg.(22-28 Mar 1998) 10.
Russell Kirk appeared on the
American intellectual scene in 1953 with the publication of The Conservative
Mind. That book, unsurpassed as the seminal study of Anglo-American
conservative thought, launched Kirk's string of vital contributions to Western
social and political thought. Until his death in 1994, Kirk was recognized by
many as the single most perceptive synthesizer of cultural—especially
jurisprudential—trends in the United States.
first started reading Kirk nearly 20 years ago, half-way through law school,
when I found a copy of The Conservative Mind at a used book sale. Later,
shortly before graduation and with the bar exam still looming over me, John
Lulves of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute invited me to join a small group
of graduate students for a weekend seminar with Kirk at his ancestral home in
Piety Hill, Mich. There, a dozen of us from all across the country--no two with
similar academic specialties--gathered for a long weekend in the presence of one
of America's best-educated and most capable teachers.
During the days, Kirk led us through law, literature, history, and philosophy.
Each evening he dimmed the lights, allowed his younger children to join us, and
read us ghost stories from his award-winning fiction.
The details, both visual and intellectual, of that splendid summer seminar have
faded during the years, not in the sense of being lost, but rather by becoming a
part of me indistinguishable from the whole. Till this day though, one
particular image remains sharp: that of a young man named Russell Hittinger,
then a doctoral student in philosophy in St. Louis, who in a way quite beyond
the others (myself included), seemed to grasp what Kirk was saying and whose
exchanges with Kirk were designed not so much to clarify for himself what the
master had said, but rather to amplify it for the benefit of all.
One can imagine my delight, these many years later, at seeing Kirk's final
collection of essays, Rights and Duties: Reflections on our Conservative
Constitution, introduced by Hittinger, now holder of the prestigious Warren
Chair of Catholic Studies and research professor of law at the University of
Rights and Duties
some 20 essays, none of daunting length, each supported by but not clogged with
endnotes. The essays are loosely grouped under five headings, but they need not
be read in any particular order to be enjoyed. The book is of archival quality
and the index is detailed and useful. Hittinger's introduction is quite fine, and if Rights
and Duties is one's first taste of Kirk, I would suggest reading the
introduction both before and after one reads the rest of the book.
Besides a copy of the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, one might also
wish to have access to a selection of Edmund Burke's main works, and perhaps a
sampler of Orestes Brownson, since Kirk is not shy about referring his readers
to the masters from whom he learned so much.
It is Kirk's contention that American society, the values that support it, add
Constitution that governs it are, objectively considered, conservative.
Regrettably, the words "liberal" and "conservative," having
begun their corruption in the bloody days of the French Revolution, are now so
degraded as to imply nothing more than "abortion on demand" to one
group and "corporate greed" to another.
to a deeper and more fruitful understanding of what conservatism is,
however: a recognition that, in most cases, healthy change is slow change.
Abrupt breaks with law and custom
usually result in harm to body
and mind, soul, and society. For most of his career, one of Kirk's main
contributions was showing that the "radical American experiment" was,
despite the attendant rhetoric, actually a conservative evolution that preserved
the healthy order of the past, albeit leaving mom
for necessary accommodations to modem times.
Only in Rights and Duties, notes Hittinger, does Kirk become
"somewhat more cautious in his verdict" that "the general
character of that American order remain little altered [and] that, though
circumstances have changed markedly from time to time, the laws and mores have
Kirk, for all his command of the various disciplines that make up American public thought, does not lord that knowledge over his readers. In fact, several of these essays began as lectures or oral addresses and thus are remarkably easy to read. If Kirk expects anything from his audience beyond the ability to think carefully, however, I'd say that he assumes a certain level of basic historical knowledge, as opposed to, say, legal or philosophical training. If one is broadly familiar with major names and events of American (and to some extent English) history, Russell Kirk will take it from there. +++