A Burke for Our Times

By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Edmund Burke was the greatest master of the English language, not even excepting Shakespeare.  It is no doubt a startling claim, but one that I think is highly defensible.  The man could simply make the language do whatever it was he wished to do, and the range of his effects – from careful argumentation to lofty exhortation to powerful philippic  – is as compendious as the human mind could make it.  But because Burke’s powers of expression were generally exercised in political polemic, set in the context of various historical events now little remembered – like the trial of Warren Hastings or the Gordon riots – his work will never have the same purchase on the attention of the reading public as the great poets and novelists.

Another reason for our inadequate appreciation of Burke’s accomplishment as an author is that we have forgotten the art which he mastered so thoroughly – the art of rhetoric.  The very word connotes in our mind something slippery and deceptive, but for the duration of Western history, until very recent times, rhetoric simply referred to the art of persuasion, and as such, it occupied a central place – as one branch of the Trivium – in the curricula of schools from Periclean Athens to Victorian London.  To be sure, doubts about the propriety of rhetoric are at least as old as Socrates’ assault on the Sophists, but in fact, this whole-scale dismissal of the art represents a distinctly minority view in the history of Western thought; Quintillian’s assertion that the orator is simply “the good man speaking well” more faithfully captures the typical historical attitude towards rhetoric, that, when properly taught, it constitutes, an important, even necessary, element in a proper education.

To excel at persuasion presupposes a deep knowledge of human nature, of men’s beliefs and habits of thought in a broad variety of circumstances.  No book emphasizes the importance of this knowledge more than Aristotle’s Rhetoric, a text which might almost be mistaken for a psychological treatise (indeed, for large durations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was used in courses on moral philosophy, rather than rhetoric).  Thus Aristotle devotes the greater part of Book II to explaining things like what kind of man arouses the anger of others, on what occasions do men feel gratitude, and what is the nature of pity and indignation.  A good rhetorical effort is one that displays an adequate command of this kind of wisdom.  To put the point basically, even simplistically, some notion of human nature is always the ruling norm in rhetorical discourse.

For Edmund Burke, human nature was always the ruling norm of his political thought.  His great objection to Enlightenment philosophy was that it had lost contact with what we know – or ought to know- of ourselves.  Over and over again in his Reflections, he contrasts the airy speculations of the Revolutionists with the hard-won wisdom of human nature reflected in both the ancient republics and the British Constitution.  He writes that “the legislators who framed the ancient republics…had to do with men, and they were obliged to study human nature.”  He describes the British Constitution as a “constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature;” boasts that the English “procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men,” and that they “have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.”  He excoriates the Revolutionists for being the “sort of people…so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature.”  He dismisses their schemes for equality by asserting, “in this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.”  He derides them for the shallowness of their thought, noting that “the nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity, and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.”  And he defends his right to advise on the momentous affairs of his time by claiming, “I have endeavored my whole life to make myself acquainted with human nature.”

It may be fairly objected that the idea of human nature is extremely pliable, subject to a very broad range of definitions.  But this just is the point – according to Burke, all political debate should begin from questions about what kind of creatures we are, what limits are intrinsic in our make-up, and most importantly, what policies and practices are best suited to our natures.  All political arguments should take the form: “given that we are this type of creature, this kind of political arrangement is best for man.”  But this is not at all the form which our contemporary political debate generally takes; there is in our discourse almost no obligation upon the participants to verify, or even to make explicit, the notion of human nature they are working with.  Instead, everybody just hollers their favorite abstract nouns at their enemies, one camp screaming “diversity” and “equality” at the top of their lungs, the other side shouting back, in equally full-throated ire, “democracy” and “capitalism.”  This is true of our academic, supposedly “learned” discourse as much as the more popular sniping which takes place nightly on the television talk-shows.  Consider the following passage from John Rawls’s Political Liberalism:

I begin by listing in summary fashion the basic elements of the conceptions of citizens as reasonable and rational…the two moral powers, the capacity for a sense of justice and the capacity for a conception of the good…we add the intellectual powers of judgment, thought, and inference.  Citizens are also assumed to have at any given time a determinate conception of the good interpreted in the light of a reasonable comprehensive view…Finally, we suppose that citizens have the requisite capacities and abilities to be normal and cooperating members of society over a complete life.

This is taken from a passage in which Rawls claims he is describing “the moral psychology of the person.”  But is there anything in this long string of abstractions which even remotely resembles an insight into our real moral psychology?  What kind of airy political theorizing starts with the assumption that all citizens possess a “conception of the good interpreted in the light of a reasonable comprehensive view?”  What kind of absurdly utopian speculation simply “suppose(s) that citizens have the requisite capacities and abilities to be normal and cooperating members of society?”  This is not the political thought of a man who feels required to justify his ideas in light of human nature, and indeed, Rawls explicitly denies any such obligation:

 It is not a psychology originating in the science of human nature but rather a scheme of concepts and principles for expressing a certain political conception of the person and an ideal of citizenship.  Whether it is correct for our purposes depends on whether we can learn and understand it, on whether we can apply and affirm its principles and ideals in political life, and on whether we find the political conception of justice to which it belongs acceptable on due reflection. 

I put to side Rawls’s thoroughly wrong-headed assumption that a real understanding of human nature must “originate in science,” and note instead that Rawls dismisses altogether any notion of human nature as a normative standard.  His only criteria for judging the rightness of any political program is whether we find it “acceptable” and whether it can be “applied,” though of course, the sorts of political programs that any group of men will find acceptable and applicable (with due force) is almost limitless.  So in Rawls’s theorizing, we have human nature on one side, and a set of acceptable “concepts and principles” on the other side, with no necessary or rational relationship between the two.  The force required to bridge the enormous gap between the one and the other is the source of extraordinary expansion we witness in the coercive power of the liberal state.

A politics of human nature is one that prioritizes the inculcation of virtue before the formulation of the right “concepts and principles.”  And this is simply to say that a truthful politics is one oriented towards our improvement, one that tends to cultivate the better portion of our nature, and stymy our more ignoble tendencies.  Here is the great excellence in Burke: the invincible high-mindedness of his political thought, his constant conviction that, as he put it in his Speech on Conciliation with America, “magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom.”  Thus in that speech, he ends by exhorting his parliamentary audience as follows: “If we are conscious of our situation, and glow with zeal to fill our places as becomes our station and ourselves, we ought to auspicate all our public proceedings on America with the old warning of the church, Sursum corda!  We ought to elevate our minds to the greatness of the trust to which the order of Providence has called us.”  He opened the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings by informing the Peers, who sat as judges, “You have before you the Commons of Great Britain as prosecutors, and I believe, my Lords, that the sun, in his beneficent progress round the world, does not behold a more glorious sight than that of men, separated from a remote people by the material bounds and barriers of nature, united by the bond of a social and moral community.”  And in his Reflections, speaking of those possessing political wisdom, he writes, “They 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 will its connection with the source and original archetype of all perfection.”

Such a deeply rooted belief in the edifying capacity of politics requires some shared conception of the good in human nature, a conception which can serve the goal of our policies and institutions.  But the possibility of such a shared conception is the great point which liberal theory will never admit, and this is why our politics is characterized so thoroughly by a pervasive baseness and low-mindedness.  The importance for us of Burke’s magnanimous example, then, can hardly be exaggerated.

I think there is an unpleasant, and certainly controversial, implication of the argument I have been making so far.  If rational politics presupposes some minimally accurate conception of human nature as its starting point, then we cannot currently practice politics, since we do not find, anywhere in our culture, a minimally accurate conception of human nature accepted by a sizable portion of the public; what we have instead are various travesties of such a conception, such as are provided by evolutionary psychology on the one hand, and multiculturism on the other.  This means that those who wish to redeem our politics right now should not be practicing politics, if by that term we mean to designate the holding of office, the deliberation of specific policies, the support of existing institutions – in short, participation in the civic life of America as presently constituted.  What they should be doing instead is the hard intellectual and spiritual work of reflection, raising their minds above the sordid state of affairs surrounding us and searching for a timeless understanding of our essential natures which will serve us in the work of social renewal.  Above all things, they should be turning to the study of literature and poetry, since, as I have argued before here at FPR and elsewhere, it is the study of these things which most effectively helps us to answer the ancient admonition, “know thyself.”  We can gauge the perfect unseriousness of contemporary conservatives by their almost complete neglect of the literary arts, when a cultivation of these things is the only possible starting point for us now in the combat with liberal dominance.

We will know we are taking our first steps out of the political and cultural darkness surrounding us when we once more frame our political debates in terms of human nature, and when we make an inquiry into that nature the first and necessary prerequisite of all policy deliberations.  We will know we are heading in the right direction when we return the study of literature and poetry to its former pride of place in our educational curricula, as the true propaedeutic of all who are to participate in political debate.  We will have some hope for the future when we have infused a spirit of dignified and mutual ambition into our political affairs, in the place of the sordid cynicism which currently reigns.  And in all of these tasks, if we too “are conscious of our situation, and glow with zeal to fill our places as becomes our station and ourselves,” we will find our highest model of emulation in the works of Edmund Burke, the first of political philosophers, and the first of authors.

This essay is the last of a three-part series. Read Part I here, Part II here, and find more essays by Mark A. Signorelli at markanthonysignorelli.com.

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