A Burke for Our Times

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.

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