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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar David March 13, 2012 at 10:17 am

“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.” Perhaps it cannot. Perhaps it should not. It is in this that I struggle with my on-again-off-again reading relationship with FPR. Conservative thought isn’t properly an -ism at all and ought not be a cause for which we can rally the flag and succeed. It is a reflection of a way of life, which isn’t available to us today except in shadows.

The Libertarians are fond of “Going Galt” perhaps we are stuck with “Going John Savage”. A much less pleasant image to be sure, full of unfortunate, degenerate imagery. But even in this mad world, seeking to cast concrete saints and bolt them to the side of skyscrapers remains a mockery of the marble cathedrals of old.

This is not to say that you cannot live as you can live, as much as will be allowed before they find out and cast you into the outer darkness (I think this is near Barstow, CA). The political criticism within FPR remains brilliant, but when aspiration rears its rotted head I am only reminded of the auto-exhumation of corpses in fright night feature films.

Let the dead lie with the dead and tend to the living.

Specifically we have passed beyond the time and place for righteous coercion. All the world is libertine. Once you say a man has a right to rule himself and no other, then all that remains is how to maintain the illusion of process.

You have no need to win. The present order is dying. Depending on what your romantic notions are, we might be fortunate to be martyrs or to live past its demise to a more reasoned age. But to win using the tools of modernity is to lose to modernity.

From your previous article, “The simple answer is, we debate our disagreements and abide by the best arguments produced.” This statement is absurd (you admit is absurd immediately after making it). There is no best argument, there is only “what we do and what we do not do.” Communities, dynasties, republics and all live out their lifespan like any man. There is no perfection, no best practices. No key to unlock the vaults of time.

There is only and has ever been your neighbor, your brother, your wife, your child, your land and your God.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 14, 2012 at 7:53 pm

“what can be the use of reading Burke now”?.

A hell of a lot of use of course but we must come to recognize that our current malady is not one of peerage and nobility against a constitutional bar but one more insidious because it traffics in cant. We possess a Federal government entrenched in a reprise of the French Revolutionary urges for stark perfection and empire of utopian unity competing against a remnant populace which knows our system is more beautiful for its imperfections. Unfortunately, the remnant is fast declining.

The dolts need a stint in Time Out, reading Madison’s 10th Federalist Paper

avatar Tony Esolen March 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Thank you, Mark, for calling out Professor Hart.

I’m reminded here of a thought I’ve had for years, which recently I’ve discovered to my delight has long been current among certain Catholic thinkers like Romano Guardini and Josef Pieper: and that is that we no longer possess a culture at all, and therefore also no real traditions. We’re in the state that Alasdair McIntyre describes in After Virtue: we have the terms as holdovers from a bygone age, but we no longer have the realities to which the terms should correspond, and we do not yet understand that we don’t have them. So we use the word “culture” to refer to that melange of mass entertainment, mass politics, and mass miseducation that swamps us all; and we use the word “tradition” to refer to long-standing habits that do not any longer join us to our forefathers, such as voting. We are, I guess, fighting against the Great Nothingness. How to do that? I’m not certain — but one thing I am certain of, and that is that we cannot traditionalize or catechize or humanize the Great Nothingness, just because there is nothing there, literally nothing.

avatar John Gorentz March 16, 2012 at 8:40 am

“Would the man who wrote the following approve of the “privatization” of retirement funds or medical care”

Yes, that man would approve of the privatization of retirement funds or medical care, if not in abstract theory, then once he saw in practice how government control of these things destroyed human and family relationships.

avatar Joan March 19, 2012 at 11:28 pm

This did my heart good. Full disclosure: I’m not a conservative, at least I’ve never called myself any such thing. I’m an old hippie who first heard of Wes Jackson through one of the Whole Earth publications. I wandered onto this site from a link on a Peak Oil blog and immediately saw the similarities between the kind of ideas presented here and the “soft leftist” influences of my youth, many of which are still around, of course, from the E. F. Schumacher Society to the feminist (I would credit her if I remembered her name) who opposed Locke’s assertion that we begin as free, self-interested and unencumbered individuals and then come together to create the social contract with the plain truth that we begin as little, squalling, helpless bundles of need and that if we had to repay, at normal interest rates, the value of everything that was done to ensure our survival and well-being before we were old enough to ensure these things for ourselves, the repayment would take all we could earn in a normal lifetime and still be incomplete. When you wrote of Burke, “Indeed, his whole economic perspective would now be characterized as typically, even virulently, left-wing,” I felt that I had been introduced to a kindred spirit. I may never cut my hair or go back to church, but just knowing that there are self-proclaimed conservatives out there who value love over ambition and getting along with each other over getting and spending gives me a warm feeling. I look forward to your next essay.

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