Saturday, August 15, 2009

Edmund Burke: Prophet of Conservativism

There is no point in trying to summarize Kirk's chapter on Burke in his magisterial, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, because the original chapter is, of course, a summary of Burke's thought and summaries of summaries cannot fail to obscure what is limpid in the original. So I will limit myself to a few quotes that stood out to me and a few comments on them concerning the relevance of Burke's political philosophy for today.

Burke was a prophet whose warning was heeded in England. His Reflections on the Revolution in France was written in 1790 before the worst of The Terror, social destruction and military dictatorship that was to be the fruit of that outburst of evil. He despised both the romanticism of Rousseau and the rationalism of Voltaire and was incredulous that intelligent men would live in the illusion that reason was sufficient by itself, unsupported by custom and tradition, to restrain the passions and the will. Kirk writes:

"That Jacobinsim has never come to Britain or America is in some considerable measure the work of Edmund Burke's conservative genius. He first succeeded in turning the resolute might of England against French revolutionary energies; and by the time of his death, in 1797, he had established a school of politics founded upon the concepts of veneration and prudence, which ever since has opposed its talents to the appetite for innovation. 'We venerate what we cannot understand,' he taught the rising generation. He reverence for the wisdom of our ancestors, through which words the design of Providence, is the first principle of all consistent conservative thought." (p. 65)

Burke knew that change was inevitable and the last thing he wanted was a rigid constitution that could not bend (which, he thought would only result in an eventual explosion of chaos). He believed that change, however, should be organic, slow and evolutionary in nature rather than radical, instantaneous and revolutionary in nature. Which side one comes down on with regard to this question will depend largely on how highly one evaluates the power of naked reason.

Kirk points out that conditions in France were not that different from England at the end of the 18th century and the influence of Burke's ideas were crucial in preventing disaster in England. As Pope John Paul II and Alexander Solzhensitsyn taught us in the Twentieth century, culture precedes politics and is more fundamental; Marxian economic determinism is wrong. A remark by de Tocqueville, quoted in a later chapter is telling. Kirk writes:

"Tocqueville was present at the wild street-fighting of the first strong socialist snatch at power; he saw the balloon of Marxism pricked, for the time being . . .

Tocqueville believed that men and societies possess free will. . . His faith in Providence, genuine and pervasive as Burke's, was wholly opposed to these pretentious theories of fixed fate and national destinies. . . Even the Old Regime could have been preserved and reformed without indiscriminate destruction, granted a little patience and good conduct: 'The revolution broke out not when evils were at their worst, but when reform was beginning. Half-way down the staircase we threw outselves out of the window, in order to get sooner to the bottom. Such, in fact, is the common course of events.' The common course, yes; but not the inevitable course; and a determined stand still could avert the coming of democratic despotism." (p. 217)

One reason why the spirit of Jacobinism is dangerous is that it is a spirit of rebellion against God. Kirk writes:

"Burke knew that economics and politics are not independent sciences: they are no more than manifestations of a general order, and that order is moral. . . Greatly though he disliked an easy familiarity with metaphysics, he saw that the struggle between order and innovation in modern times has its cause in a metaphysical and religious problem . . . Burke perceived that the root of evil in society 'lay in the meddling instinct which presumes to interfere with the mysterious march of God in the world. . . Men will never be gods, Burke was convinced; all their will and virtue is required if they are to attain mere genuine humanity." (p. 66)

Only a faith in God or some sort of transcendent providence can give a person the needed strength to persevere in the face of injustice without resort to revolutionary violence. So Marx was right to see religion as his enemy, for achieving his goals requires throwing off all veneration of custom and the denunciation of faith in God, eternal life and the Final Judgment. These things have ever been a comfort to those suffering injustice and they have often prevented social disasters, violence, uprisings, famines, wars and killing of the innocent.

Kirk point out that 'radicalism at the end of the 18th century expressed its case in terms of 'natural rights.'" Paine's Rights of Man popularized the notion of inalienable natural rights and was embraced by many. Today the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" drawn up by the United Nations includes a host of "rights" including the right to free education, to enjoy the arts and the full development of personality. For Burke, as for Kirk, this is nonsense on stilts. As Kirk puts it:

"This lengthy catalogue of 'rights' ignores the two essential conditions which are attached to all true rights; first, the capacity of individuals to claim and exercise the alleged right; second, the corresponding duty that is married to every right. If a man has a right to marry, some woman must have the duty of marrying him . . . If rights are confused thus with desires, the mass of men must always feel that some vast, intangible conspiracy thwarts their attainment of what they are told is their inalienable birthright. Burke (and after him, Coleridge), percieving this danger of fixing upon society a permanent grudge and frustration, tried to define true natural right and true natural law."

There are such things as human rights. But not every desirable outcome can be confused with a right. Modern history demonstrates clearly that (a) fallen human beings have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing between true and false rights and (b) the widespread belief in false rights leads to social upheaval and disaster. In summarizing Burke's thought, Kirk writes:

"Man's rights exist only when man obeys God's law, for right is the child of law. All this is radically different from the 'natural rights' of Locke, whose phraseology Burke sometimes adopts; and Burke's concept of natural right, obviously, is descended from sources quite separate from Rousseau's. Rousseau deduces natural right from a mythical primeval condition of freedom and a psychology drawn chiefly from Locke. Burke's natural right is the Ciceronian jus naturale reinforced by Christian dogma and English common-law doctrine.

Now Hume, from a third point of view, maintains that natural right is a matter of convention; adn Bentham, from yet another declares that natural right is an illusory tag. Burke, detesting both these rationalists, says that natural right is human custom conforming to divine intent." (pp. 49-50)

In that last phrase "human custom conforming to divine intent" we have the nub of the issue. In a society shaped and influenced by Christianity, like 18th century England, it is possible to point to common-law, tradition and even what most people would recognize as common sense in order to justify natural right. Such a society can be tolerant and lauditudinarian so long as the "divine intent" remains unchallenged. But in a society like Twentieth century Britain, in which atheistic iconoclasts like Richard Dawkins are given chairs in the ancient universities from which to promulgate their skeptical doctrines, it becomes very difficult to keep the concept of rights from slipping from a grounding in divine intent first to mythology, then to convention and finally to be dismissed as mere "labels" corresponding to no reality whatsoever. Then we all are at the mercy of a calculating utilitarianism and the way has been prepared are ready for abortion on demand and assisted suicide, which themselves are but heralds of greater evils still to come. All this was seen and foretold by Edmund Burke two centuries ago.

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