Is Burke Our Intellectual Father?

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


Devon, PA.  Last week, Caleb Stegall’s reprinting of his article on Community from the Conservative Encyclopedia excited a small objection that the genealogy of conservatism said article offered was untenable because two of its supposed leading figures, Edmund Burke and Robert Nisbet, were not conservatives but “liberals.”  If the objection was a small one, then to pursue it may convict me of a different form of small-mindedness than that which our administrators and technocrats seek to correct by sensitivity training, “Awareness weeks,” and “Pride” months.  I plead guilty to pedantry, but hope some readers might find it of as much interest as I do to return to the thought of Edmund Burke and see what light it sheds on our current practice of distinguishing conservatism and liberalism.  I delight particularly in this exercise, because my first essay for Front Porch Republic called into question David Brooks’s purblind interpretation of Burke and, in the process, raised doubts-if they had not been adequately raised already-about the substance of Brooks’s conservatism.

Burke was perhaps the most complex of English thinkers during a period of great, brilliant, but single-minded and simplifying, men.  One senses in the writings of David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and others, a desire to reduce all questions to a single abstract principle.  The power of their writings derived from its rationalism-that is, from its driving ambition to force the opposition to surrender its claims, its beliefs, even its heart-felt certitudes, by bludgeoning them with sententious abstractions.  Our age can learn little from looking back on these other writers, because our age perpetuates their practice: slapping the hesitant, shifting visages of those who dare maintain an old idea with the clean geometries of “rights” chatter or indignation on behalf of “fairness.”

We can, conversely, still learn much from Burke; it was his objection that the spirit of his age was a reductive one.  His ever-recurring attack on “the clumsy subtilty of” his opponents’ “political metaphysics” makes him sound consummately anti-intellectual, and indeed the modern conservative heirs of Burke seem often to risk a “common sense” Philistinism at odds with Burke’s intentions.  One could understandably, though inaccurately, understand Russell Kirk’s discussion of Burkean conservatism as the antithesis of ideology to be a renunciation of ideas altogether.

The real cause of Burke’s ire, however, was the supposedly intellectual disdain with which his contemporaries greeted the conditions of actual human life-of what we may redundantly call lived experience.  Rejecting the claims of natural rights variously articulated in the months after the French Revolution, Burke contended that, as rights, liberties, and restrictions “vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.”  Human experience is not only the source of human wisdom, but its permanent condition and also its end.  Those who would either transcend the concrete conditions of history or ignore the legitimate concerns for the preservation of human happiness in order to take flight into utopian realms of abstraction succumb to a double weakness; their minds blithely reduce reality to theory and, in pursuing a theory, may brutally cause real suffering.  Hence, the old conservative maxim that it is easier to destroy than to create expresses well one fundamental premise of Burke’s thought.

How far, though, does a suspicion of intellectual abstraction and a strong desire to conserve the known rather than to essay the hitherto only imagined explain Burke?  One encounters moments in Reflections on the Revolution in France, when he seems totally averse to any statement of principle, abstraction, or right.  He says, after all,

Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect.  By having a right to every thing they want every thing.  Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants . . . If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law.  That convention must limit and modify all the descriptions of constitution which are formed under it.  Every sort of legislative, judicial, or executory power are its creatures.  They can have no being in any other state of things; and how can any man claim, under the conventions of civil society, rights which do not so much as suppose its existence?

He grants that natural rights exist-but follows with the assertion they are irrelevant to civil society.  Society and government are “contrivances,” they are artifices created through a primeval social contract, and their forms are “conventional” rather than natural.  It will not do to introduce arguments of abstract principle from outside of the closed conventional system of a particular government, as if these outside abstractions could be relevant to what is interior to the manmade, artificial province of the State.

One might think this the most illiberal claim possible.  In fact, it is exactly here that, I would claim, Burke comes into closest contact with his fellow Whigs and the French Revolutionaries he vilified.  Like them, Burke believes that society is, again, a manmade and merely conventional artifice, brought into being by that great historiographic Gordian-knot cutter, the social contract.  The Revolutionaries claimed that, because society is the product of such human artifice, its human members may withhold consent and remake it however they wish.

Burke cannot argue against them categorically, because, as a Whig, he is committed to accepting the theory of society as artifice.  And so, his most direct response will be to claim that the contract, once undertaken, is permanently binding; our ancestors bound all subsequent generations to it.  We could not reason otherwise, because the end of society is not a finite task; its end is ongoing and perennial, to wit, its end is its own perpetuation, growth, maturation, and improvement.  The contracted, constitutional government

 is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.  It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.  As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

 To repeat, Burke grants that society and government are conventional, they are the work of human hands; but they were not created for some “subservient” and ephemeral purpose, as might be a civic association for the suppression of “vice” or a contract between the owner of some land and an architect to construct a house.  Indeed, they are not subservient to us, if we understand “us” as merely the aggregate of living persons at any one time.  Burke shows himself here as granting a major historical premise of his political party, the Whigs, but he draws from it conclusions in which many of his contemporaries could not share.

The question I would like to address is whether this Whig-identity can meaningfully be said to disqualify Burke as a conservative.  To propose such disqualification one must presume that being a Whig puts one in a political tradition we now identify with liberalism, and which also assumes that conservatism is antithetical to liberalism.  As a historical thesis, this confuses rather than crystallizes.

In Burke’s day, there were two conceivable political positions-that of a Tory and that of a Whig.  But the Tories had been thoroughly routed and forever banished from power in the tumultuous 1750s.  The only game in town was Whiggery, and so the Whigs comprised all of the possible political positions one could occupy while in political power.  Under such circumstances, even if one were sympathetic with the Tory cause (which may generally be expressed as the “divine right of kings” but was specifically expressed in a desire to see the Stuarts restored to the throne), if one wanted actually to participate in politics, one had to become a Whig.

Burke was not, as it were, a Tory in a Whig wig.  He not only accepted the Whig theory of society as an artifice founded by contract, but also many of the notions deducible from it.  As I quoted above, he affirmed that “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.”  Provision for human wants is the raison d’être of government, rather than, say, the provision for the desires of the monarch.  Indeed, by “human,” Burke primarily intended what almost every other Whig in his day intended: the aristocratic and mercantile classes whose relatively wide oligopoly had come into being through the overthrow of a monarch.

Does being a Whig make Burke less a conservative?  I would provide two answers, a strident no and a qualified no.

The strident “no” replies to this question as a historical one.  As T.S. Eliot said, addressing the London Conservative Union in 1955, most persons rightly understand conservatism as the product of “a fusion of Tory and Whig elements, due largely to the effect of the French Revolution upon the mind of Burke.”  Burke is not simply a conservative; he is the cornerstone of a tradition.  And that tradition has generally freely acknowledged that, in opposing liberalism, it is not opposing all the elements of Whiggery (or, if you will, Classical Liberalism).  Most self-described conservatives are Burkean conservatives (to muddy the waters a bit: this excludes so-called “neoconservatives,” who are merely Jacobins with bigger pocketbooks capable of hiring even bigger guns).  Good Whigs that they are, they see government and society as matters of contrivance and convenience; they believe the free market the crown jewel set in this artifice (like Burke, they admire Adam Smith greatly).  They are suspicious of all innovation that does not seem to derive logically from the currently existent and operable system of government.  Like Burke, they suspect abstract thinking not only because it floats freely in the ether, but because they are themselves men of the world, men of affairs, and think it not the least offense of abstract speculation that it gets in the way of real work and real action.  Burke is most certainly the fountainhead of the mainstream of conservatism, even American conservatism, in his combining an aboriginal individualism with an artifice of social order fused in the primeval social contract.

But a qualified “no” is also required.  Burke’s text admits of another reading-one of which he may not have approved, of which many of his posterity certainly would not, but which, finally, I believe he would recognize as superior to that his posterity has given us.  Burke tells us society and government are artifices, and these artificial structures are not founded on some natural property called “rights.  He says they come into being through a binding but nonetheless manmade contract.  But government and society are not impenetrable monads, admitting nothing at all from outside themselves.

To the contrary, Burke insists that we view every living generation as admitting three distinct influences from outside itself.  First, and, surprisingly, least of all, Burke tells us (as we have seen) every living generation finds itself indissolubly bound to “those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  We are not our own, and we are not therefore sovereign rulers of ourselves or our society, at least to the extent that we compose a small part of an “eternal society” comprising past, present, and future generations.  As such, the work of artifice is founded in a Constitutional theory; the English constitution, as the exemplary form of government, works “after the pattern of nature,” and so 

is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression.

However artificial the constituted society may be, it is patterned on nature through what Burke calls a “philosophic analogy.”  As W.B. Yeats wrote, Burke “proved the state a tree.”  It is organic, growing, and groaning, rather than mechanical, clockwork, and ticking.

Second, Burke founds all human judgment on natural sentiments.  Human beings cannot intuit such abstract propositions as rights, but they may well feel by their natures what is good and what is evil, so long as they can accurately perceive the drama of historical events.  As such, prejudices and traditions are necessary and legitimate not merely because they preserve the analogically organic continuity of society, but because they are a fragile, uncertain but definite expression of nature insofar as human beings remain natural rather than “artificial” creations.  Society may be circumscribed by convention, but not the human heart.  To make claims founded on natural rights may be preposterous, but claims based upon a human nature schooled by the “moral imagination” are those most worthy of our assent.

It was for this strain in Burke’s argument that Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft most vehemently attacked him.  They tried to pin him as an irrationalist, a mere sentimentalist, so repelled were they by the suggestion that such a fragile instrument as human emotion might underlie all the heady and consequential questions of good and evil.  Burke left himself open to the charge, because of his sneering at abstract reason, but it is a false charge nonetheless.  Was Paine more an adept at metaphysics than Burke?!  The latter primarily wished to show that all abstract notions should derive from and resolve into concrete realities.  As such, our very earthy intuitions have as much at stake in human events as our most rarified reasonings.  If we hear someone deprecating something we deeply love as mere sentiment, we may often fail to provide a convincingly rational riposte, but we may well (depending on the circumstances) be right to punch him in the mouth.

Third-and this subtends and modifies the two principles above-Burke is not really a Whig in a particular sense.  Unlike so many of his contemporaries and antecedents (one thinks of John Locke), Burke sincerely and consequentially holds that belief in the Christian God precedes and informs all other human activities:

We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long.

He defends the Established Church not as one more convenient and beneficial artifice for the service of human wants; it is the portal through which man can look into his nature most clearly and see his true place.  Most distinctively modern philosophies think of human society as conventional, contingent, and artificial; they justify thereby man’s sovereignty over everything he knows, because he can know nothing he has not made.  Burke tells us something different.  Society and government are artificial not primarily in the sense of being the unnatural contrivance of human hands, but in being the instrumental means to human beings’ supernatural end.  The English, with their inheritable crown and above all their Established Church

conceive that He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection-He willed therefore the state-He willed its connexion with the source and original archetype of all perfection

 Man, as a religious animal, is by his nature destined for a supernatural end; the state, a work of artifice, is one proper and instrumental contrivance that makes it possible for the natural man to work toward that perfection which will someday allow him to see his supernatural God face to face.  If temporal government appears as a “contrivance” it is thus only because it is ultimately subordinate to the Divine, not to man.

Consequently, at a moment in Reflections when Burke seems merely to be affirming the mortmain hold of the social contract on all generations, he in fact inserts the horizontal succession of those generations through constitutionalism into the vertical relation of each human being to the supernatural end for which he is destined:

 Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible worlds, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

 For Saint Augustine, the visible world of the City of Man was in conflict with the invisible world of the City of God.  Not for Burke.  When he speaks of an “eternal society” he is speaking first of the Kingdom of Heaven, and he is speaking secondarily of the extended kingdom of man cradled within it.  The apparent sovereignty of government in the face of “natural rights” breaks down when confronted with the supernatural sovereignty of the Creator.  Or rather, human society is not merely patterned on the natural world, it is informed by its function to bring men to perfection, to aid them in becoming suitable for eternal life.  At the heart of Burke’s politics is an eschatology-one that refuses to follow the path of the Revolutionaries and become immanent.

The Burke I have just described would seem to be in tension not only with contemporary liberalism but with the Whigs of his own age.  He affirms the reality of intergenerational obligations; the upholding of inherited traditions; the informing of human society and morality by traditions, intuitions, and pure reason rather than mere instrumental, abstract, or technocratic rationalism; and, above all, the ordering of human society and government not to a series of procedural norms intended to preserve a set of prepolitical rights, but to the good life for man whose consummation will come only when he passes from the eternal society of this world to the eternal society of the next.

The Burke of history was a Whig who saw more deeply than any of his contemporaries the true maniacal evil of the French Revolution; with a prophet’s eye, he scanned the new world that the Revolution was bringing into being and predicted its horrors.  The Burke of history was a Whig who built his arguments upon the requisite foundations to gain a hearing among his peers in England; but he also spoke with a prophet’s voice that could articulate the true foundations not only of English oligarchic constitutionalism, but of human society.  The Burke of history gave us much of what has passed as conservatism for a century or more; but, happily, he also provided us the bedewed, stirring foundations for what has come to be called traditional conservatism.  Those of us who feel surrounded on all sides by plutocratic Whigs consumed with power, and liberal mobs chanting for their “rights” with a libidinous leveling insanity, may, with some pride and not a little presumption, claim to know exactly how he felt.  He is our intellectual father.

My Thanks to Dan Hugger for the conversation that led to this essay.


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