The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn: A Remembrance
William F. Campbell (MA 41:4, Fall 1999) - 09/18/08

Perhaps I can begin with a pun at the beginning, since it is based on something I learned from Erik. As the ancient Etruscans used to say, “being a person is a hard act to follow.”

Erik loved to point out that the word person derived from the Etruscan phersu which meant an actor playing out a role in a sacred drama. Erik was not just a hard act to follow, but an impossible one. There will never be another person like Erik.

Erik was always a personalist rather than an individualist or a collectivist. He detested the excesses of the French Revolution, communism, and Nazism. His hatred of these movements can be found both in writings and in his art work. A sample of his art work can be found on The Philadelphia Society’s Townhall web site which fortunately we were able to share with the world before Erik’s death. You will find in his paintings a Boschian combination of drollery and serious critique of his times.

Erik worked closely with Modern Age and Russell Kirk from the very beginning. Not only was he a long-time member of the advisory board, but he was a frequent contributor in the early years. That does not mean that he didn’t have friendly disagreements with Russell on minor issues.

Unlike Russell Kirk who always equated the word ideology with the above excesses, Erik had a fondness for ideology, properly understood. Not all isms gave him the jisms. He understood ideology to be a set of principles which could be rationally articulated and defended. Erik’s most succinct statement of his principles can be found in The Portland Declaration, a copy of which accompanies the paintings.

Erik and Russell were, of course, both right. Truly this was a semantic difference, but a semantic difference which caught the different tenors of their mind. Russell was a conservative; Erik was a liberal.

Erik was insistent on the point that he was a liberal in the European sense of that word and not the bastardized American meaning. He believed in free men endowed by their creator with the freedom to choose; they were also burdened with the responsibility for their actions.

Although he was far from being a free market ideologue, he was an unabashed defender of the classical liberal understanding of the market. Erik constantly fought the mushy, reactionary elements in the Catholic Church traumatized by economic liberalism. He participated in conferences and dialogues between European Catholics, bishops and priests in the hierarchy, and economic liberals, attempting to straighten up the occasionally cloudy thinking of the Church which existed prior to Centesimus Annus. I will have to rely on Erik’s Catholic friends to tell that story in more detail and recount his loyalty to and admiration for the current Pope.

Erik’s economics were shaped most closely upon his friendship with Wilhelm Roepke. Roepke was also Russell Kirk’s favorite economist. It is interesting to note that in the early 1960s, Kirk was denied membership in the Mont Pelerin Society. Hayek delivered his famous address, “Why I Am Not A Conservative” (subsequently a chapter in his Constitution of Liberty); Russell Kirk was at the meeting and gave a spirited rejoinder. Around the same time, Wilhelm Roepke left the MPS in the famous Hunold controversy; Erik who had been a member for about two years, also resigned out of loyalty to Roepke.

But what was indicative of Erik’s liberal temper of mind was that he loved to recount his frequent and lengthy meetings with Hayek during the summer months where they would take long walks and discuss wide-ranging topics including religion. I don’t know the details of these meetings and the upshot of these discussions, but I would love to have been the proverbial fly on the wall.

Three generations of my family had the good fortune to visit Erik in his home in Lans, Austria. My parents got to know him and his lovely wife, Christian, in the early 1950s. Through Dad’s work with ISI, Wabash College, Hillsdale College and multiple other conservative organizations, he got to know Erik quite well. A delightful chapter in my Dad’s book, Hoosiers Abroad, is devoted to his experiences with Herr Erik.

After my father died, I came across a couple of undated index cards which he used to introduce a talk by Russell Kirk at a conservative forum in Indianapolis organized by Don Lipsett when he was the Midwestern Director of ISI. As my father worked into the introduction of Russell, he told a story of his attempt to verify the rumor that Archduke Otto von Hapsburg considered Russell the world’s greatest living scholar. He wrote a cable to Erik which read, “Otto Von Hapsburg has stated that Russell Kirk is the greatest living scholar in this country. Is this true?” The response came back, “The answer is ‘NO.’ You people have an adopted son from Austria who is in 1st place. Modesty prevents me from naming him. But my friend Russell Kirk is in 2nd place—this is good because he will try harder. Herr Erik.” Although the story may be apocryphal, it not only reveals my father’s wonderful sense of humor, but it could also be true. Whether Herr Erik or Russell Kirk get the laurel for scholarship, I will leave in the lap of the Gods.

Through our friendship with Don and Norma Lipsett, Helen and I got to know Erik better. Don was his most important American supporter. One time in Europe, in loyalty to Erik, Don and Norma, Ed and Linda Feulner, Helen and I went to visit the residence of the Archduke Otto von Habsburg! Don was just one of Erik’s many American friends and supporters—we could form a fan-club that would fit into every nook and cranny of these United States.

Helen and I were fortunate enough to visit Erik and his wife on several occasions at his house in Lans. While enjoying spaetzl and delectable white wines, we shared the usual dazzling conversations. When Erik was in the United States, he came frequently to Baton Rouge to lecture at Louisiana State University and stay with us. He loved to refer to my daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, as his “little kittens.” Elizabeth and her husband, David Corey, also made the pilgrimage to Lans to visit Erik.

In his last letter to me he wrote, “If I survive, I will come back to God’s Own Country.” He was jocularly referring to Baton Rouge and not to the Kingdom of Heaven. Erik knew that he might not survive his last operation, but characteristically he wrote, “I am prepared to meet my Maker!”

Erik would have understood the words of Augustus Caesar on his death bed who murmured the words, “the play is over.” Augustus didn’t mean that his life was a fake or a charade, but similar to the Etruscan meaning of the word person mentioned earlier, a serious drama in which he had been merely a player. Augustus exhibited the same jolly seriousness that one associates with Erik’s life and actions. What’s past is prologue.

Although given his belief in man’s sinful nature, Erik would not have assumed that either he or we are necessarily going to be in Heaven. If we make it to Hell, (“I had no idea I was just going with the flow”), there will be no story telling for we will be doomed to the prison of ourselves.

If we do make it to Heaven, it will be like the movie, Groundhog’s Day. We can look forward to hearing Erik tell his many stories and experiences until we start to get it right. The hundreds of individuals who loved Erik, sponsored his lectures in this country year after year, put him up in their homes, and visited Erik in his home in Lans, Austria, will forever be like the blind Indians and the elephant. Each will have a part of the story, and the story will unfold over eternity as we compare our stories and experiences.

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