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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Mark Anthony Signorelli is an essayist, playwright, and poet, who is committed to reviving the old ways of writing essays, plays, and poems.  He has spent a very large portion of his life producing work in such highly unfashionable genres as the traditional "fourteener" ballad and blank-verse tragedy (which may, in part, explain why you have never heard of him).  He currently serves as a Contributing Editor for the New English Review, a web journal, where he has written on the poverty and absurdity of contemporary philosophical materialism and on the need to return to the broad tradition of humanist, literary learning.  He lived for five years in the seaside town of Ocean Grove, NJ, one of the most charming and distinctive locales on the east coast, where he frequently sat on his very non-figurative front porch, and conversed with his neighbors sitting on their adjacent and equally non-figurative front porch (this is probably his only real qualification to write for FPR).  He now resides elsewhere in central Jersey with his wife - like Penelope, a woman of great arete. Visit Mark's website to see more of his writings!

8 COMMENTS

  1. “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.”

    To have and to know that one has “human nature” and to live accordingly is to live as a creature in a created order, so made and ordered by the Creator. To realize, as a human creature, that one is fallen and in need of grace, the provision of that grace to be particularly celebrated in Holy Week, which we are about to enter, is to live Christianly, dying daily to self and conforming oneself daily to His image, made perfect in Christ and reflected throughout creation. Creation is being called by God to conformity to His image in Christ.

    The liberal state and the elites, ideologues and bureaucrats which animate it are the instrument of the great counterfeiter. With concepts and principles he, the father of lies, places his “call” upon our lives; and rather than wooing us with love – a love which includes wrath, curse, law, mercy, grace, forgiveness and longsuffering – he coerces with power, the power of the state. Rather than conforming to the image of our God as made manifest in Christ; we are compelled to conform to his counterfeit image.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article very much. Many of my conservative friends (some of whom lean hard toward a Porchers’ vision of politics and society) have never read anything by or about Burke. He is incomparable.

  3. This series has been extraordinary. Thank you, Mr. Signorelli. I have one question, though.

    The punch line of your argument seems to be this: “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.”

    But yet in this same essay you observe (approvingly) that Burke was a member of Parliament, and you cite speeches given and actions taken by him in that capacity as political actor. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that his legacy would be as relevant to this discussion had he not been actively engaged in “practicing politics.” Do you perceive this to be in conflict with your core thesis? If not, why not?

    Further, how would you respond to the following claim: given the “political and cultural darkness surrounding us” is due at least in part to the ubiquity of “liberal dominance,” does not the decision to cede the ground of politics and “existing institutions” portend that, eventually, liberal dominance will be so ubiquitous as to snuff out the little platoons which you call for? I am trying to push your thesis to its logical extreme: do you envision that liberal dominance will continue to run its course, while the little platoons hunker down to weather (in MacIntyrean language) the new dark ages? And if you affirm this vision, on what basis is it realistic to think that the platoons can survive amidst a culture which is utterly hostile to their continuance?

  4. I find much more that I can recognize as commendable in this essay than in the previous ones — perhaps because I have already expressed my reasonably well-founded biases against Burke, and can now look at his virtues. More than that though, his observations on human nature and good government are critical to the enduring success of any republican experiment. In many ways, the most ardent political philosophers involved in framing our constitution applied Burke’s concerns to designing the government that resulted from the revolution he opposed, made by the colonists whose grievances he sponsored.

    Contemporary commentary, including the Federalist Papers, and a plethora of Supreme Court opinions expounding on the Constitution, emphasize that there were many things the constitution puts as far outside the jurisdiction of electoral majorities as of monarchies.

    I can’t begin to accept Peters’s statement as any basis whatsoever for civil government. The genius of the first two clauses of the First Amendment is the recognition that civil government is incompetent to rule upon, or to enforce, the Word of God as the Word of God. Human nature being more or less what Burke has pointed out, human beings in possession of coercive civil powers will always try to impose their own flawed human understandings, wrapped in their own flawed human agendas, using God as a political club, rather than bowing to him as a sublime and transcendent Creator. Whatever the merits of Peters’s statements, they must be established by conversion without force or bribery, voluntary acceptance, preaching, teaching, by recognition of truth as truth, not be the instrument of government.

    It is certainly true that people of many ideologies hold up some idealized paragon of humanity that bears little relationship to real life human beings. We could better resolve issues of race, of police brutality and law and order, if we recognized that we are talking about a wide variety of human beings and natures, not politically convenient ideals of either pure virtue or unmitigated evil. (This is true of traditional communist claims for the nobility of the working class also — which leads to contempt for any flesh and blood worker who doesn’t measure up to the theoretical ideal).

    Burke, however, is far too ready to accept whatever status quo holds power, on the grounds that it is dictated by human nature. The British constitution was a muddled hodge-podge accumulated by one venal ruling clique after another, so easily amenable to amendment by whoever holds power at a given time, as to be little restraint on the human nature of those with power in their hands.

  5. Mr. Jenkins,
    Your words:

    “I can’t begin to accept Peters’s statement as any basis whatsoever for civil government.”

    Were you referring to statements which I made in my post on this thread? If so, it would be important to know I intended none of my statements in that post to serve a the basis for civil government.

  6. It may be a hodge podge bastard but its damned well our hodge podge bastard and in no small measure, a worthy jack ass for we mere mortals to ride the road to purgatory upon.

  7. It is generally assumed that a recognition of the dark side of human nature gives to conservatives a sour, gloomy, negative view of human society. Even the briefest reading of Burke makes it clear that the truth is the opposite. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “Both the majesty and the tragedy of human life exceed the dimensions within which modern culture seeks to comprehend human existence.” Rawls is certainly a case in point.

    In contrasting the Rawlsian concept of human nature as unimportant on the one hand, and multiculturism on the other, Signorelli fails to note the shallowly-thought but deeply-ingrained underpinning of multiculti thought.

    This is, of course, the cheery world view which believes that “People Are Basically Good” (hence “PABGoo”). PABGoos believe that all our problems are caused by bad political or economic systems, or not enough social science grants or psychotherapy or public education or whatever. The fact that it is publicly refuted countless times a day in every city on the globe has not stopped PABGoo-ism from becoming the default feel-good philosophy of our age.

    Niebuhr: “No accumulation of contrary evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself.”

    Niebuhr continues. “The question therefore arises how modern man arrived at, and by what means he maintains, an estimate of his virtue in such pathetic contradiction with the obvious facts of his history. One possible and plausible answer is that the great achievement of modern culture, the understanding of nature, is also the cause of the great confusion of modern man: the misunderstanding of human nature.”

    In other words, our respect for the accomplishments of science has led us into the false worship of the sophistry that goes by the name of “social science”.

    Signorelli skillfully posits the difference between a “principle-based” philosopher like Rawls and a reality-based philosopical citizen like Burke. Rawls’ belief in the eventual promise of science explaining man to himself is an unacknowledged act of charming, childlike faith. But the effects on society are not so charming.

    “Social science” is in fact a uniquely modern form of sophistry. It takes the forms, language, and prestige of science, and puts it to use in the service of any political, economic, or social movement willing to pay the “research” bill. Plato’s Republic describes the Athenian sophist in terms that make clear the kinship with the modern social-scientific advocate.

    The role of “social science” in overthrowing all the accumulated understanding of human nature is clearest in our modern judicial lawmaking. When a social element wishes to overthrow an institution firmly established throughout human history, it does so on the basis of “social science.” When the Iowa Supreme Court decided that marriage is not an institution between man and woman and that society has no interest in the traditional family, it cited

    “”an abundance of evidence and research, confirmed by our independent research, supporting the proposition that the interests of children are served equally by same-sex parents and opposite-sex parents. On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children. These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies. The research appears to strongly support the conclusion that same-sex couples foster the same wholesome environment as opposite-sex couples and suggests that the traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well-adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.” (April 3, 2009, p.54)

    Burke would have known what to say about such social-scientific nonsense put forth by sophistic advocates whose major goal is the destruction of all natural law and inherited wisdom. In fact, he did say it. Reflections on the Revolution in France is a truly great work.

  8. Mr. Peters, I appreciate your clarification. Absent an application to the form or priorities of civil government, I find much that is valid in your pronouncements, and nothing that I have any right or reason to contend against.

    However, I am mystified, in that case, by your summary reference to “the liberal state.” I don’t think we have one, but if we did, why is it even mentioned?

    PABgoo is an interesting concept. Is the diametric opposite, PABevil? I am reminded of a Unitarian minister, who wrote to liberal-minded parents, “Your children are an empty glass. If you refrain from filling them with your values, someone else will fill them with some other values.” I frequently visit a conservative Lutheran church (I’m barred by many criteria from communicant membership), which places great emphasis on each child is born evil, an enemy of God. I beg to differ. But a good deal of socialization is needed, and Burke was far from the most inhumane in his thoughts about how this should occur.

    I agree that social science is mostly expensive sophistry — the notion that there can be much precise science to social existence is absurd. But properly done, public education has played, and could yet play, a valuable role in the socialization process. My recent tutoring experience with high school students affirms what I have long believed. School systems, driven by faux experts and the social planners in the Department of Education, are trying to cram more material into less time to “accelerate” learning. Instead, learning is passing students by at high speed, with no time to come to grips with the content. My role is simply to take time explaining what was “taught” in the classroom, which is then understood by the student.

    The French Revolution… poorly done, by bold visionaries who didn’t know their own limits, but Burke’s critique would ring less hollow if he had not, in the end, questioned the very legitimacy of revolution against established authority. The monarchy and the nobility badly needed to be overthrown. It was, perhaps, unnecessary to cut off the head of Citizen Capet, who seems to have been unmotivated to attempt a Restoration.

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