A Burke for Our Times

By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Edmund Burke

Several weeks ago, at the web journal Humane Pursuits, James Banks published an article entitled “Community as We Know It, Not as We Wish It,” which was largely a response to an article I had published earlier here at FPR. Mr. Banks takes me to task (and other authors here at FPR, though he is certainly wrong about this) for thinking of community in the “abstract,” as opposed to having an attachment to this or that particular community – a habit of mind which he thinks violates the political teachings of Edmund Burke.  He writes:

These are the trappings of the vibrant community in which I grew up.  But they were not loved because they were common; they were common because they were loved.  Perhaps FPR could idealize these characteristics until they became disincarnated into an abstraction.  However, I am satisfied that the aesthetic remain (sic) of earth, fire, air, and water – not of aether.  Edmund Burke would not disagree.

Now, it so happens that Burke is the author for whom I hold the highest reverence, and if it was really true that I had violated the spirit of his writings, I would be quite embarrassed with myself.  But it is not true.  In that earlier essay of mine, I argued that a great exercise of the imagination was necessary for conservatism to succeed at the present time.  In this essay, and in the essays to follow, I wish to demonstrate not only that a true reading of Burke enjoins such an act of imagination upon us, but that his thought supplies us with the materials to make that act uniquely fruitful.

To begin, then, it is unquestionable that Burke admonishes us to be wary of abstract political theorizing, to remember the particular circumstances of our own communities in all of our political projects.  In the opening pages of his Reflections, he claims that circumstances “give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect,” that they are “what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”  Later in that same work, he excoriates those who would blindly impose a priori theories of government upon their countries, without regard to the history or customs of the place: “I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases…a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country.”  And in his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, written amid our own War of Independence (a war which Burke worked strenuously to avert), he laments that “I have lived to see prudence and conformity to circumstances wholly set at naught in our late controversies.”

Yet precisely because Burke emphasizes “circumstances” so consistently, because he holds that specificity is what gives “every political principle its distinguishing colour,” we must read his own work in the context of his own particular historical circumstances.  To isolate Burke’s arguments from their original purposes, to consider them without reference to the corruption of the East India Company, or the machinations of the Jacobins, is to read Burke in the most un-Burkean fashion.  To take his defenses of tradition, hierarchy, or property as defenses of tradition per se, or hierarchy per se, or property per se, is to ignore all the “distinguishing colours” of his ideas.  Burke wrote primarily in support of a particular social order, one shaped by what he called “the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion,” and a particular political dispensation, inhering in the English constitution, with its balance of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements.  And throughout his life, though especially in those works from his later years which have typically influenced conservatives the most, he warred against a specific and relatively discrete body of thought – the liberalism of the philosophes, with its doctrine of the universal rights of man.

Only when we recall this last point will we properly understand his repeatedly stated antipathy to “abstraction.”  For the abstraction that Burke is most commonly objecting to is liberal abstraction, with its theory of the reified individual, devoid of all social bonds, receiving certain rights without qualification of place or circumstance.  It is a form of abstraction that is ultimately traceable to the scientific paradigm of rationality, with its highly quantitative methodology.   Thus, one finds Burke dismissing the Revolutionaries ideas as “metaphysical,” but just as often his terms of disparagement are “mathematical” or “geometrical.”  And he more than once contrasts true political reasoning with the delusive application of “geometrical” reasoning to political affairs, as in the Reflections, where he writes: “Political reason is a computing principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.”

In contrast to this liberal theory of abstract humanity, Burke proposes, for our preference, an inheritance: a set of positive law and precedent, of custom and belief, of “little platoons” of family and church, all belonging to the specific community of England, but developing in conformity to, and finally serving to edify, general human nature:

In this choice of inheritance we have given our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchers, and our altars. 

Whereas liberal theory can command only a rational assent, the political inheritance of our unique communities can do this and more  – it can engender an affection, one analogous to the affections we feel for our loved relations and our God (Burke laments of the Revolutionists’ new order that “nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth”).  Thus Burke’s distinction between theory and inheritance is a contrast between a political order corresponding merely to our speculations, and one, on the other hand, which accommodates our whole natures.

But what if that theory becomes our inheritance?  What if that mode of liberal abstraction becomes the legacy which our own political community, through its habits and customs, its precedents and institutions, bequeaths to us?  What if our country asks for our loyalty to her political dispensation precisely on the grounds of “geometrical reasoning,” rather than “familial affection?”  What if our political tradition, rather than emanating from man’s nature, grows instead from a radical distortion of man’s nature?  What if our form of government, far from according with our loyalties to home and church, stands in a certain necessary hostility to home and church, and most characteristically exercises its power to vitiate the integrity and influence of these subsidiary institutions?

I do not think I am being hyperbolic when I say that this, or something very like this, is a fair description of our situation as modern Americans.  And this means that Burke’s arguments in favor of tradition and attachment to specific community cannot be read off in any straightforward manner as having pertinence to our own traditions and our own communities.  We cannot suppose that his championing of his own particular political order can stand as a model for us, since he championed it largely because he saw it as a bulwark against the rise of the kind of political order we now endure.  We cannot take his advocacy of the specific and the local to mean now, after the universal conquest of liberal theory, what it meant for him then, essentially a safeguard against the spread of an incipient liberal theory.  Burke advocated the instinct to conserve in opposition to the tendency towards abstraction; he cannot then be read, with any semblance of accuracy, to mean that we should conserve a political order built on abstraction.

There is a care, then, that must be taken in interpreting Burke properly, and this care must be shown in regard to all of his positions.  Take property, for instance.  There can be no question that Burke argued consistently throughout his career in favor of strong legal protections for private property.  Yet it becomes clear, from reading his work, that what Burke means by property is primarily (if not exclusively) land and specie, and his motive in favoring strong protections for these things is to preserve the peace and stability of the community.  That is why he attacks the Revolutionists so harshly for imposing a paper currency on the people, and for issuing massive quantities of assignats (bonds issued on the security of lands confiscated from church and crown), such as when he identifies the “crown” of the Revolutionists’ crimes as the issuing of “the discredited paper securities of impoverished fraud and beggared rapine, held out as a currency for the support of an empire in lieu of the two great species that present the lasting, conventional credit of mankind.”  And that is also why some of his strongest invective in the Reflections is reserved for “stock-jobbers” and “money-jobbers,” the men of finance who were profiting so handsomely off the Revolution, and whom Burke refers to alternately as  “gamesters,” “adventurers,” and an “ignoble oligarchy.”  The tendency of all these things was to “volatize” property, and to transform it from a support of social stability to one of the chief means of undermining that stability:

By this means the spirit of money-jobbing and speculation goes into the mass of land itself, and incorporates with it. By this kind of operation, that species of property becomes (as it were) volatized; it assumes an unnatural and monstrous activity, and thereby throws into the hands of the several managers, principal and subordinate, Parisian and provincial, all the representative of money, and perhaps a full tenth part of all the land in France, which has now acquired the worst and most pernicious part of the evil of a paper circulation, the greatest possible uncertainty in its value.

There is clearly no warrant here in Burke’s thought for a defense of financial property, of the sort that has been accumulated in massive amounts in our times.  There can be no appeal to Burke in favor of those allegedly conservative policies, like the deregulation of Wall Street and decreases in the capital gains tax, which serve to promote the affluence of those “gamesters” and “adventurers” he regarded with unfailing contempt.  Indeed, his whole economic perspective would now be characterized as typically, even virulently, left-wing.  Would the man who penned the following words favor low taxes as a matter of policy: “(is it) more advantageous to the people to pay considerably, and to gain in proportion, or to gain little or nothing, and to be disburthened of all contribution?  My mind is made up to decide in favor of the first proposition.”  Would the man who wrote the following approve of the “privatization” of retirement funds or medical care: “the spirit and symbols of gaming (are brought) into the minutest matters and (by) engaging everybody in it…a more dreadful epidemic distemper of that kind is spread than yet has appeared in the world. With you a man can neither earn nor buy his dinner without a speculation.”

In brief, there is nothing in Burke which would justify the forms and distribution of wealth which now dominate our society.  To the contrary, there is much in Burke which will call our attention to the hazards of such wealth.  Look at the present economic condition of the Western world, where hedge funds control the fate of nations, where the “shadow banking” system of derivatives, and credit default swaps, and all the rest of that incomprehensible speculative chicanery threatens to cast us every hour over the precipice into economic ruin and civil turmoil.  There is no greater threat to the stability of our communities, at the present time, than the threat emanating from financial property.  But Burke’s entire defense of property sprung from a desire to preserve the stability of the community.  So to suppose his arguments in favor of property can be enlisted to justify our present economic practices is to misread his work about as grotesquely as it can be misread.

Take another example; take hierarchy.  Burke repeatedly defended the aristocratic hierarchy in England and in France against the egalitarian doctrines of the Revolutionists.  He states candidly his reasons for opposing the spirit of leveling in his Reflections, where he writes: “Believe me, sir, those who attempt to level, never equalize. In all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levelers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things.”  As to what description of men ought to be “uppermost,” Burke makes this very clear in his description of the aristocratic ideal in the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs: 

To see nothing low and sordid from one’s infancy; to be taught to respect one’s self…to be led to a guarded and regulated conduct, from a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow-citizens in their highest concerns…to be a professor of high science, or of liberal and ingenuous art…these are the circumstances of men that form what I should call a natural aristocracy, without which there is no nation.

Does this description sound anything like our so-called “elites” (the most asinine word in contemporary American parlance) – that mass of celebrities, pundits, politicians, bankers, businessmen, and professors, who do in fact stand “uppermost” in our own society?  Is it true that the Hollywood starlet sees “nothing low and sordid?”  Is it true that our politicians typically behave with a “guarded and regulated conduct?”  Is it true that the academic proponents of deconstructionism or sociobiology are “professors of high science?”  Quite clearly, no.  The ascendancy of this class of people merely represents that perversion of “the natural order of things” to which Burke alluded; they are the “description of citizens” who have risen in accord with the frankly plebian tastes of our times, usurping the rightful place of a “natural aristocracy.”  So obviously Burke’s justification of his hierarchy will never stand as a justification of our hierarchy, since he valued his largely as an impediment to the growth of ours.  There is nothing in Burke which would support our faith in America’s purported “meritocracy,” since, on his standards, none of the persons who rise to prominence in our social order have any merit whatsoever.

We cannot pretend that the last two centuries of Western history, since the time of Burke, have not witnessed the progressive expansion, and present domination, of liberal theory.  We cannot therefore pretend that Burke’s arguments in favor of tradition and community can be directly translated into arguments in favor of our traditions and our communities.  The tactics used against an insurrectionist are not the tactics used against a tyrant.  To lose sight of the “distinguishing colours” of Burke’s thought, derived from the historical context of his work, is to risk severe misinterpretation of his positions, and to mistake him for an advocate of various features of contemporary society which the whole of his thought militates against.  Perhaps the most notorious example of this kind of false reading can be found in an article written several years ago by Jeffrey Hart, in which Hart claimed that the “right” to abortion has resulted from a “relentlessly changing social actuality,” that the wish to ban abortion in the face of this actuality was a “utopian notion,” relying on an appeal to an “abstract right to life,” and was for these reasons thoroughly un-Burkean in spirit.  Thus the thinker who argued more persuasively than any other against the liberal “right to choose” was now to be taken, according to Hart, as providing arguments in its favor, since that right had been established by the “changing social actuality” of the last two centuries.  This kind of interpretation of Burke represents the death of conservatism as a viable antagonist against our social ills, since it recruits the instincts Burke set in opposition to liberalism in support of liberalism, and counsels accommodation and surrender to those ideological forces against which Burke cried for an “eternal battle.”

What then can be the use of reading Burke now?  If his appeals to tradition and circumstance cannot have the same meaning for us that they did for him, what is there in his thought to assist and guide modern day conservatives in their efforts?  If his ideas are so thoroughly qualified by their historical context, what can be their significance to our times?  These would all be fair questions to ask at this stage of my own argument.  To this point, I have focused on the wrong way to read Burke.  In my next essay, I will begin considering the right ways to read Burke, and in doing so, I hope to show what valuable guidance is to be found there.

Mark A. Signorelli’s personal website can be found here: markanthonysignorelli.com.

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