A Burke for Our Times

By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

In a wonderful article published here at FPR a few weeks ago, Jason Peters argued that a proper education ought to provoke a kind of spiritual or intellectual crisis among its students.  If I could choose one author who best challenges a young mind in this way, it would have to be Edmund Burke.  And if I had to pick the sort of passages from his work that would best elicit this sort of crisis, I would pick a passage like this from his Letter to a Noble Lord: “Had (certain reforms) taken place, not France, but England, would have had the honor of leading up the death-dance of democratic revolution,” or this one from the Reflections: “they would not bear to see the crimes of new democracy posted as in a ledger against the crimes of old despotism, and the book-keepers of politics finding democracy still in debt, but by no means unable or unwilling to pay the balance.”

What is common to each of these passages?  Obviously, in each case the term “democracy” is used in a pejorative sense, and carries an unmistakably negative connotation.  This is hardly surprising considering Burke’s general attitude towards democracy, which he regarded with unvarying detestation.  To be sure, he defended democracy as an element — and even, the supreme element — in the English Constitution, as his life-long advocacy of Parliamentary supremacy demonstrates.  But what he calls a “pure democracy” is the target of his repeated invective; he states frankly that “I cannot help concurring with their opinion (ie, the opinion of ancient authors) that an absolute democracy, no more than absolute monarchy, is to be reckoned among the legitimate forms of government,” and he asks the indignant rhetorical question:  “Is it then a truth so universally acknowledged, that a pure democracy is the only tolerable form into which human society can be thrown, that a man is not permitted to hesitate about its merits, without the suspicion of being a friend to tyranny, that is, of being a foe to mankind?”

Burke’s prime reason for objecting so strenuously to democracy is as plain as it is compelling: democratic governance represents for him the exaltation of will above reason.  That it is the people’s will rather than the monarch’s which is thus exalted does nothing to mitigate the arbitrariness of such rule.  Government, he writes in the Letter to a Noble Lord, is instituted precisely to thwart the subjection of power to mere will:

I have ever abhorred, since the first dawn of my understanding to this its obscure twilight, all the operations of opinion, fancy, inclination, and will, in the affairs of government, where only a sovereign reason…should dictate.  Government is made for the very purpose of opposing that reason to will and to caprice, in the reformers or in the reformed, in the governors or in the governed, in kings, in senates, or in people.

There is perhaps no word in contemporary American discourse which carries a more unambiguously positive connotation than the word “democracy,” no word so common in the mouths of politicians, and other disreputable types, hoping to burnish their appearance in the eyes of the public.  With us, to ascribe to the unqualified goodness of democratic governance is simply to hold sane and tolerable political views; to doubt that goodness is to dwell somewhere among the ideological precincts of fascism.  Moreover, when we justify our faith in democracy to ourselves, we always say that democracy is the best form of government because it best embodies the “will of the people,” a phrase and an idea we have all been taught to reverence from our youth.  Nothing could be more bracing then to a modern American than to open a volume of Burke, and encounter there an evidently wise and humane thinker referring to these things with such consistent disdain.  The word that fills us with pride fills him with horror.  The motto which we take as the seal of legitimate government he takes as the byword of arbitrary power.  We are cast at once into an entirely new connotative atmosphere, such that we are forced to call into question the self-evident truthfulness of the political mantras chanted at us on a daily basis.

I am confident that this experience will occur over and over again to any modern American reading Burke with a willingness to wrestle earnestly with his thought.  It is not just that Burke presents one devastating argument after another against the most sacred truisms of American political discourse, though he certainly does this.  What is finally most impressive about Burke’s work is that novel connotative atmosphere he creates, the startlingly strange but persuasive aura of thought which permeates his writings from the beginning of his career until the end.  Take, for instance, the question of rights.  In contemporary discourse, an appeal to rights always constitutes an attempt to disarm argument.  The minute someone asserts his right — to education, to healthcare, to what have you — half of our skepticism towards his position is dissolved, because we are all convinced now that the highest duty of a government is to preserve the “natural” rights of men in a civil order.  An appeal to rights, therefore, always serves to put the community on the defensive.

Contrast this with the prevalent tendency of Burke.  His repeated references to the “rights of men” are invariably contemptuous; one senses he can hardly get the phrase down on paper without spitting, such as when he writes “if the rude inroad of Gallic tumult, with its sophistical rights of man, to falsify the account, and its sword as a makeweight to throw into the scale shall be introduced into our city by a misguided populace…we shall all of us perish and be overwhelmed by a common ruin.”  This is not to say that he finds no legitimate use for the concept of a political right, but then it must really be a political right, that is to say, a right emanating from a man’s station in a certain community, and from the traditions and conventions of that community:  “Far am I from denying in theory, full as far is my heart from withholding in practice…the real rights of men.  In denying their false claims of right, I do not mean to injure those which are real, and are such as their pretended rights would totally destroy.”  What he calls the “pretended rights” of the Revolutionists are always the rights of the “natural,” pre-social individual, asserted against the community.  They represent an attempt to secure the perfect freedom of uncivil man within the civil order, a necessarily futile project, since “men cannot enjoy a civil and an uncivil state together.”  An assertion of these rights is always an imposition of individualist volition against the limiting and guiding structures of the community.

Thus, the term “rights” generally carries in Burke’s work a cloud of suspicion with it; it is always prone to abuse as a fraud.  It is always more likely to be an assertion of will, rather than a deduction of reason.  It is the assertor of a right, therefore, who must always be on the defensive.  Whereas with us, an appeal to rights always dissolves skepticism, with Burke, it always arouses skepticism.  Whereas with us, an appeal to rights ends debate, with Burke, it invites it.

It is hardly going too far to say that in the writing of Burke, one encounters a new political language, for even where his terminology is the same as our own, the significance and effect of that terminology is not what it is for us.  This has obviously been one of the main causes of his unpopularity for Americans.  But it is also the secret to the immense potential for change contained in his corpus.  Because what Burke forces us to do, if we really take him seriously, is to stand outside the invidious atmosphere of liberalism which permeates and stifles every last recess of modern society, to recognize it — for perhaps the first time in our lives — as only one form of political order, and that not the most just or appealing, and thus to rob it of any claim to self-evident truthfulness.  For at the level of practical politics, liberalism is just a certain kind of language, with its own connotative atmosphere — an atmosphere in which appeals to rights cow everyone into a cessation of debate, where appeals to freedom are generally hysterical and unqualified, where doubts about the virtue of “the people” are always akin to wickedness.  To stand outside that atmosphere for the first time is to realize that there is nothing obvious about these assumptions, that, to the contrary, there is great reason to question the rightness of the whole world view implicit in this language.  And the moment we entertain such doubts, liberal dogma loses the greater part of its persuasive force, because liberalism has always presented itself as a universal creed, as the commonsensical conclusions which all honest persons will arrive at in time, divested of the superstitions and prejudices of their own local traditions.  Once this pretense is stripped away, once liberalism appears to us in its true light, a single perspective among many equally plausible rivals, it loses the privileged ambience which is its hidden power.  No other author strips away that pretense so relentlessly and thoroughly as Burke; no other author has the power to make us see the liberal language surrounding us as something wholly contingent and supremely dubious, and thus to inspire us with the confidence to confront it unfalteringly.  In this respect, Burke closely resembles one of his more famous polemical opponents, Joseph Priestly, the Dissenting minister and the discoverer of oxygen — both of them revealed to us the air we breathe.

As I noted in my last essay, James Banks accuses the authors here at FPR of generally “idealizing” community, or otherwise treating community in an “abstract” fashion.  This charge, in fact, is wildly inaccurate, as anyone who has spent time reading the material at this website can confirm.  In general, the authors here have tended to put much stock in specific communities — typically, their own — all across this country, appealing to the local customs and culture of their places as a source of political renewal.  And it is precisely on this point that I find myself dissenting most consistently from the work published here, because I think, in most cases, the authors fail to account for how deeply the language of liberalism has permeated every nook and cranny of American life, how far down it has seeped into even the most apparently conservative communities, and thus they have tended to overrate the resources for political renewal present in any American community, as it is currently constituted.   Whether in blue states or in red, in the city or on the farms, Americans all speak the same language now — they all speak liberalism.  It is spoken as much in our local elementary schools as in the corridors of academia, in the town hall meeting as commonly as the Senate-floor debate.  Travel where you please across this country — if you speak there of the potentially malignant effects of majoritarian rule, of the absurdity of “natural rights,” of a liberty qualified by intrinsic human nature, you will be speaking a foreign political language.

It would seem to me that a viable conservative politics must start from an acknowledgment of this unpleasant reality, a frank admission that in America, those who do not subscribe to the dominant liberal ideology — and particularly, to the rancid and dehumanizing conception of liberty at the heart of that ideology — are effectively strangers in their native land.  Our challenge then, at the most basic level, is simply to avoid speaking the language of liberalism, to prevent it from influencing our personalities and forms of life as effectively as we can, and this demands that we maintain some form of aloofness from those communities in which that language is the prevailing idiom.  The forms which that aloofness might take are almost infinitely various, and I have no desire at this point to state my preferences for or against any.  I simply wish to dispute what I take to be the profoundly mistaken confidence that full and authentic participation in American civic life can proceed from anything other than general loyalty to that whole liberal vision of things which Burke so effectively punctured.  Those who perceive the deep truthfulness in Burke can never feel perfectly at home in modern American society.

But of course, the condition of an exile is not tolerable for long, and the real work of conservatism at the present time is to prepare the conditions requisite for the establishment of communities which will serve as an alternative to the dominant liberal society.  To say this is not to commit oneself to utopian speculation, or abstract theorizing; it is simply to acknowledge the prime place which the faculty of imagination must take in our work at the present time.  We greatly misunderstand that faculty if we consider it merely as a vehicle of reverie or escapism.  Properly understood, and properly exercised, the imagination is the means by which we perceive unrealized possibilities among our present circumstances.  It is the vision which sees the telos, or perfected form, in ourselves, in our artwork, and in our communities, and sets that up as the goal of our laboring.  The imagination is the bridge between potential and actuality in all human affairs, for the former will never be transformed into the latter until it is grasped by the mind.  The failure of modern conservatism has been fundamentally a failure of imagination, a failure to imagine new possibilities for our society, and a consequent resignation to deliberating among the political options already available, which are all liberal options.  The one authentic conservative movement I have seen in my times has been the homeschooling movement, and it is remarkable how little it has had to do with mainstream debates over vouchers and charter schools and standardized testing and union influence and teacher accountability.  The leaders of this movement have simply ignored the barren choices represented by these debates, and imagined an entirely different mode of schooling for their children; the result has been the broad implementation of a curriculum, based on classical sources, which generally dwarfs the level of instruction on offer in our schools, public and private.  This is what I mean by seeing new possibilities, and this is proof that to imagine a different direction for our society does not mean to float off into realms of airy or dangerous idealisms, but rather, to identify the causeways leading out of our engulfing decadence.

How then should we begin imagining new possibilities for our society as a whole?  If liberalism is, as I have claimed, its own kind of language, then it follows that one of the most efficacious ways to move beyond its dominance would be the cultivation of an entirely different language, one with its own connotative atmosphere and its own forms of final appeal.  And it is this task which most requires the assistance of Burke.  In my next and final essay, I will explain why I believe a close study and emulation of Burke’s rhetoric affords us the one viable intellectual route out of our political darkness.

This essay is the second of a three-part series. Read Part I of “A Burke for Our Times” here, and find more essays by Mark A. Signorelli at markanthonysignorelli.com.

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