After spending so much time recently reading books that help me understand the historical roots of modern critical theory, which is to say, works that are for the most part fundamentally deconstructive and fundamentally “unconstrained” in their vision of humans (to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase), I thought it was high time to read something that would help me to understand the roots of the other side: the constrained, the moderate, the conservative. And there it was — still sitting on my shelf from when I must have read it during college — the birthplace of modern conservatism:
“[I]t is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes” (54).
That’s Edmund Burke, in his famous and controversial Reflections on the Revolution in France: a hugely influential book both in its time and in the centuries since. The writer Russell Kirk once wrote, “If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke.” It figured it was time to do the same.
He didn’t disappoint.
Where to begin?
There are two ways to read and to evaluate this book.
The first is to ask, was Burke right about the French Revolution? Was he right about the causes, about the possible effects, and about the whether it was a good idea to revolt or not. Clearly answering these questions was the foremost reason Burke wrote the book, in the form of a letter to a young Frenchman who’d asked his opinion on the events in France. The revolution itself – what Burke termed “the most astonishing [event] that his hitherto happened in the world” (9) – was the whole reason, after all, that he was writing.
But there is a secondary way to evaluate and even to read this book: as the (albeit inadvertent and largely unsystematic) explication of a new political philosophy. Here one can ask: Does his philosophy seem sound? Does it seem to accord to reality, and to offer plausible solutions to real issues facing humans? Or perhaps you could ask, does it seem like it has any relevance to the modern world?
I largely chose to read the book in the second way. And the answers to each of those questions is a resounding “yes.”
Let me confess that my knowledge of the French Revolution is light at best (largely remembered from my AP modern European history class circa 1998) – although this reading was a good chance to brush up. More importantly, it seemed to me that this book has lived on not because of its specific references to events of its day, but because of its general prescience and because of its explication of a new and unique philosophy – that is, because of way number two.
That said, I couldn’t help reading it, at least a little bit, in the first way, particularly after I’d brought myself back up to speed on the events of the French Revolution. On that account – and this is a very basic, general opinion – it did seem to me that Burke was largely right about the terror that was to come, but wrong, or at least ignorant, as to the true causes of the revolution. For instance, Burke’s famous, glowing passage about the grandeur of the deposed queen, Marie Antoinette, seems to belie her significantly complex political legacy. Moreover, throughout the book Burke repeatedly chastises the French for revolting rather than reforming what he insists was a tolerant, flourishing monarchy. He writes:
“They have seen the French rebel against a mild and lawful monarch with more fury, outrage, and insult than ever any people has been known to rise against the illegal usurper or the most sanguinary tyrant. Their resistance was made to concession, their revolt was from protection, their blow was aimed at a hand holding out graces, favors, and immunities” (34).
Yet it’s not clear to me to what extent Burke knew the reality of the poverty and suffering of the French people (something that made such an impression on me as a student that I still remember learning about it, 25 years later). Burke never mentions this; for him the revolution sprang from an ungrateful, short-sighted power grab – inspired by the subversive political ideas of philosophes like Rousseau – natural rights doctrine, social contract theory – and undertaken by men long on ambition and short on political experience. “The fresh ruins of France,” he writes, “ . . . are the sad but instructive monuments of rash an ignorant counsel in time of profound peace” (34). There is almost no recognition in the book whatsoever that there was real suffering occuring in France at this time, and while I cannot tell to what extent Burke knew about it, this omission seems to me a major shortcoming of the book.
But when you stop looking for perfect historical accuracy and ask yourself, is there something true about what Burke is saying regarding the real underlying causes of most revolutions? – this is where the book gets really interesting. Plato believed that true democracy is largely powerless to prevent itself from devolving into tyranny because powerful demagogues take advantage of both the toleration and of the anything-goes permissiveness to usurp power on promises of creating clarity and discipline. Burke seems to agree – for him the leaders of the Revolution destroyed the stability of a monarchy largely as a power grab for themselves, creating a dangerous turbulence that will surely lead not to equality, but to tyranny and bloodshed. “France, by the perfidy of her leaders . . . has sanctified the dark, suspicious maxims of tyrannous distrust, and taught kings to tremble at (what will hereafter be called) the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians” (33). Burke repeatedly castigates the leaders of the revolution as opportunistic raiders, bent on hoarding power:
“Not one drop of their blood have they shed in the cause of the country they have ruined. They have made no sacrifices to their projects of greater consequence than their shoebuckles, whilst they were imprisoning their king, murdering their fellow citizens, and bathing in tears and plunging in poverty and distress thousands of worthy men and worthy families” (35).
He is absolutely devastating in his characterization of these revolutionaries, whom he repeated attacks in some of the most scandalous and vivid writing that I have ever read. He specifically attacks them both for their lack of experience and for their rash desire for revolution as an end in itself.
Here he is on the composition and lack of experience of “a very great proportion of the assembly”: they are “obscure provincial advocates, of stewards of petty local jurisdictions, country attornies, notaries, and the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation” (37).
These men “snatched from the humblest rank of subordination” are “intoxicated with their unprepared greatness” and thereby revert to their usual habits of stirring up trouble for personal gain – this time while gripping the helm of the entire ship of state. What a surprise, Burke notes with wonderful irony:
“Who could conceive that men who are habitually meddling, daring, subtle, active, of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds would easily fall back into their old condition of obscure contention and laborious, low, unprofitable chicane?” (37).
As you can see above – and as I quickly picked up after only a few pages of such stratospheric writing – Edmund Burke is quite simply one of the finest lyrical writers I have ever read, and surely one of the very few finest polemicists who has ever put pen to paper. In just the several quotes I’ve selected above – of which there are hundreds and hundreds of others, equally vivid and devastating – you can see Burke’s talent for long, unfurling strands of the most remarkable invective – often colored with scandalous irony – as well as a real talent for memorable aphorisms.
But even more importantly, I believe, much of the message of the book is embedded in his tone. Here we get to the second way to read the book – not as a specific, accurate understanding of a notable historical event, but as an articulation of a whole philosophy of governance – and even a statement of generalized wisdom.
That’s because much of the book’s message is not just about the specifics of the maneuverers behind the Revolution; it’s about attitude. Specifically, it’s about a skepticism toward change, particularly toward the flashy, the new, the revolutionary, the promises of realizing a utopian perfection. Burke’s skepticism is expressed as a kind of ironic defense of himself (and sometimes, of his country, England) as unfashionably traditional and immune to the new and the innovative:
“I know that we [British] are supposed a dull, sluggish race, rendered passive by finding our situation tolerable, and prevented by a mediocrity of freedom from ever attaining to its full perfection” (48).
Then his scandalous tone toward the revolutionaries themselves can also be read as a kind of extended mockery from an old man toward ambitious, idealistic younger men, toward those who haven’t yet grasped that real change is less about drama and more about hard work. Burke writes: “Cheap, bloodless reformation, a guiltless liberty appear flat and vapid to their taste. There must be great change of scene; there must be a magnificent stage effect; there must be a grand spectacle to rouse the imagination grown torpid with the lazy enjoyment of sixty years’ security and the still animating repose of public prosperity” (57). Burke even terms the feeling flowing through one revolutionary preacher’s body a “juvenile warmth” (57)!
He repeatedly mocks the revolutionaries as “doctors of natural rights” or as “strutting with a proud consciousness of the diffusion of knowledge of which every member had obtained so large a share” (58). After describing in graphic detail the capture of the royal family and killing of the royal guard by the revolutionaries, Burke writes one of the most darkly ironic passages I have ever read, comparing the idealistic veneer of the movement with its (for Burke) murderous reality:
“A group of regicide and sacrilegious slaughter was indeed boldly sketched, but it was only sketched. It unhappily was left unfinished . . . What hardy pencil of a great master from the school of the rights of man will finish it is to be seen hereafter. The age has not yet the complete benefit of that diffusion of knowledge that has undermined superstition and error . . .” (64).
Shortly after, he again mocks “this work of our new light and knowledge” and ironically confesses to he himself “not being illuminated by a single ray of this new-sprung modern light” (65). In a way, it’s as though he is mocking the entire Enlightenment.
Burke’s tone, his skepticism toward change, his mockery of the new intellectual ideas and the popular acceptance of the rebellion can be seen in two ways. First, they can be see as a kind of ironic defense of the unsexy virtues – reverence for tradition, desire for stability, the pursuit of moderation, incremental reform – against the much flashier, more heart-stirring (but in Burke’s mind, more abstract and thin) virtues espoused by the leaders of the radical movement in France: liberty, fraternity, equality, the rights of man, et cetera.
But Burke’s tone can also be read as proto-reactionary: a kind of extended rant against the youngsters with their newfangled ideas like popular sovereignty. Seen this way, it’s hyperbolic, defensive, caustic, bitter. At one point, Burke seems to invent the concept of the “silent majority” 170 years before Richard Nixon – comparing English revolutionary sympathizers to the crickets in the field who make a lot of noise, but don’t enjoy the support of the mass of quieter animals, slowly chewing their cud.
I think it’s some of both. One of the one hand, Burke, as I mentioned, doesn’t seem to regard the revolution as ascending from real grass roots concerns and struggle, and he does not seem to admit any real nobility to its sentiments or goals. He begins the book, for example, by refusing to congratulate France on its newfound achievement of liberty because he is not sure that they have aimed at or achieved an admirable *kind* of liberty:
“Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights?”
You can certainly read this sort of thing as not only reactionary, but off-base. Clearly there was *some* real nobility to the French Revolution! And clearly there’s a part of Burke that seems to relish reacting to the new events by mocking them, putting them down, all without building up much of a counterargument first.
But at the same time, if Burke does not seem to acknowledge any of the real nobility in the Revolution, he puts his finger on something tremendously important, a sort of person or a kind of movement that has proven dangerous throughout history. It is a kind of political idealogue who, so taken up by their own ideas, turn out to be, at best, an inconsistent agent of change:
“Almost all the high-bred republicans of my time have . . . soon left the business of a tedious, moderate, but practical resistance to those of us whom, in the pride and intoxication of their theories, they have slighted as not much better than Tories” (55).
“It is with them a war or a revolution, or it is nothing” (55).
They are idealogues because they will hear of no other ideas but their own; no other input is needed:
“They have ‘the rights of men.’ Against these there can be no prescription, against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament and no compromise; anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice” (51).
But it’s even worse than that, of course. It’s not just that revolutionaries who Burke describes are inconstant, vain, and power-hungry. It’s that, left unchecked, even those with the most idealistic, highest-sounding of motives can and will employ violent means to accomplish their ends. Of the “literary cabal” behind the Revolution, he writes: “They were possessed with a spirit of proselytism in the most fanatical degree; and from thence, by an easy progress, with the spirit of persecution” (97). And:
“To those who have observed the spirit of their conduct it has long been clear that nothing was wanted but the power of caring the intolerance of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution which would strike at property, liberty, and life” (98).
Or in the spirit of George Orwell:
“Those who attempt to level never equalize” (43).
Or most chillingly and prophetically:
“In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows” (68).
That is one of the major messages of his book, it seems to me: Beware of revolutionaries attempting to remake society according to noble-sounding theories; more often than not, dramatic restructurings of society, especially those that attempt to prod human nature, descend into terror and persecution. The events of the Revolution itself, just a few years after this book, bear out Burke’s terrible prescience.
And as regards Burke’s prose – there are no two ways about it: It’s flat-out fun. It’s always enjoyable to read a writer landing his blows against the righteous, the self-important, the fashionable. But Burke’s voice and tone represent an intriguing contradiction: His is the voice of restraint, of moderation, of age, and of prudence – yet his written tone is has so much zest, so much humor, is so scandalous and, extravagant, so youthful. He makes you laugh even as he cautions you to take a dim view of humanity. Fundamentally it’s hard to root for the guy who is saying, “Slow down.” Were this book written in a more “sober” fashion, or in the kind of turgid prose characteristic of a John Dewey (!), it might be easier to dismiss its points as the murmurings of a fossil, a relic, but Edmund Burke was a linguistic bomb thrower and troublemaker nonpareil and it’s just such a joy to read a writer soaring along so high in the air. That it is surely one of the reasons we’re still reading Burke all these years later.
It’s time to look more closely at the heart of the second way of reading him: As a philosopher of a unique and new approach to political thought: as the first modern conservative.
So, what is the heart of Burke’s political philosophy?
Burke’s Political Vision
Once again, there are two levels of which Burke’s political philosophy can be read.
The first is his defense of the specific form of British hereditary monarchy. The second is his broader view toward stability and change in a country’s government. I think it’s important to differentiate these two points, because Burke makes arguments on both levels throughout the book, but it’s only on the second level that his book really becomes philosophy. Yet the first level is required to illustrate the second, so let’s start there – with with the first level.
Burke first seeks to differentiate the French Revolution from past revolutions in England, and one of the main differences he cites is that the British never fully abandoned the hereditary monarchy in favor of a more purely democratic government, even during moments of revolution.
This is where Burke attempts a defense of hereditary succession itself – the specific situation of the specific British government, and in my view, he doesn’t do a very good job of it. He seems to equate the conservation of the principle of royal hereditary succession with the conservation of broader civil liberties: in no other method other than “an hereditary crown our liberties can be regularly perpetuated and preserved sacred as our hereditary right” (22). He makes the link again, rather off-handedly, a few more times, shortly afterward. As a specific point, as a defense of a specific form of government, you don’t really buy it.
But that’s the thing: it’s not about defending a specific type of government. For Burke, to insist that there is only one tried and true method would be to adopt the philosophical abstraction and intolerance of the revolutionaries across the water in France. What’s more important to understand about the example of English revolutions is that they sought to both conserve what they already had that was good, while changing only what needed improvement – rather than attempting to start over again from scratch.
Here Burke draws a key distinction in his philosophy, one that seems deeply important to understand, particularly in light of later developments in conservatism: he is by no means advocating a regime that never changes. He is not, as it were, against change. Instead, he argues, change is important, even the kind of change that occasionally demands radical measures, so long as these moments are the exception, not the rule, and so long as they are carefully considered. “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” (19) he writes. But these changes should be carefully thought-out: “The sacredness of an hereditary principle of succession in our government with a power of change in its application in cases of extreme emergency” (19) and even such emergencies effect change “without a decomposition of the whole civil and political mass” (19). He compares this sort of delicate work to a kind of surgery: “ . . . they [British legislators] regenerated the deficient part of the old constitution through the parts which were not imparied” (19). Later he writes of it as the treatment of a disease: “An irregular, convulsive movement may be necessary to throw off an irregular, convulsive disease” (22). Burke calls these two principles “conservation and correction.”
This passage brings to mind William Buckley’s famous definition of a conservative as someone standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!” Burke’s definition would be of someone yelling, “Slow down!” Burke does not wish to stop all change; to the contrary, he wishes to design a system capable of changing, even drastically when need be, but carefully, with consideration, and not everything at one time.
The second major key to Burke’s philosophy is that he views civil society as dependent upon a whole host of institutions, formal laws, informal norms, and precedents that have been tried and found to work through long experience. All of these traditions and mechanisms, viewed by revolutionaries as outdated and unjust, should instead be viewed as an “inheritance” from our forefathers. Therefore Burke distinguishes between the revolutionaries’ conception of abstract rights versus the British conception of inherited rights, or “patrimony,” as Burke puts it.
Why is this difference of characterization – almost a mere difference in metaphors – so important? Why is it more important for rights to be legally enshrined as “inherited” rather than as “abstract rights of man”? Once again, it’s not so much about the metaphor or even about the specific form of government, so much as it is about the underlying concept. The British rights are traditional rights, tried by long experience and expanded and adjusted organically over time, while the new French rights are simply new, untested theories. Even at times of revolution, sober-minded British lawmakers “preferred this positive, recorded, hereditary title to all which can be dear to the man and the citizen, to that vague speculative right which exposed their sure inheritance to be scrambled for and torn to pieces by every wild litigious spirit” (28). Starting anew, as the French are doing, rips the status of these rights from the much surer ground of legal and cultural tradition and attempts to replant it in fair less certain soil. Burke’s focus is always upon constructing a state that can endure and so he chides the revolutionaries for their short-sightedness: “They think that government may vary like modes of dress” (77).
What’s critically important here for Burke is that traditions exist for a reason. They might seem slow and backward and unexciting, but they have been proven over time, and what’s most important is to understand where they came from: “all these considerations make it not unadvisable, in my opinion, to call back our attention to the true principles of our own domestic laws . . . that we should continue to cherish them” (22).
Burke then marries these two broad concepts together: the metaphor of inheritance, and the balance of conservation and improvement. He writes that the concept of inheritance promotes both conservation of the good, and improvement where necessary: “It leaves acquisition free, but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement” (29). Society is seen as a partnership between the dead, the living, and the future members; we are passed along rights by our forefathers as a treasured family inheritance, and we caretake these rights in our turn, passing them along to a future generation with great care.
I want to pause here for a moment to reflect on Burke’s vision so far. In one sense, it reminds me, vaguely, in its insistence on engendering a kind of earthy, familial connection to one’s country (the notion of one’s British “inheritance”), as a faint parallel to Plato’s famous “noble lie” told to the citizens of the Kallipolis to artificially bind them to their own city. It is, after all, just a metaphor, or – in the parlance of postmodernism – a social construction. It’s a kind of national fiction designed to engender civic traditions – ones that do promote (for Burke) real freedoms and advantages. And Burke’s point is surely a good one – traditions are hard to break, and they do maintain stability.
But even more than that, all of Burke’s emphasis on a reverence for tradition, for long-dead forefathers, all of his insistence on seeing the wisdom in what is ancient, all of this seems to me a fairly high bar for humans to live up to. This is “old man” thinking, not “young man” thinking. It’s quite natural, especially for the young, to see all that has gone before them, the laws, the traditions, the institutions, not as time-tested buffers against disorder and savagery, but as relics and impediments to truer and more just possibilities of freedom and equality. As Burke writes:
“It is vain to talk to them of the practice of their ancestors, the fundamental laws of their country, the fixed form of a constitution whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long experience . . . They despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men.”
Seen another way, of course, this is part of the educative process of any country: the passing along of the importance of a country’s traditions, institutions, and customs so that the real gains that have been made will not be lost by younger generations. I think here of the tradition of free speech – that ultimate classical liberal virtue in that it goes entirely against human nature to allow one’s enemies to speak without sanction. It must be passed down to the next generation through careful instruction in order to avoid losing it forever to our more tribal instincts.
One key point that stands out to me is that Burke very much falls under what Thomas Sowell called the “constrained” vision of humanity. Although he is not explicit about it, Burke takes a dark view of human beings. Their individual stock of reason is low so they must rely more of the wisdom of a group. They are given over to intolerance and persecution; for Burke there is a short slide from intellectual to physical persecution. Their systems of government, which I will describe Burke’s view of below, are largely attempts to check the worst of their tyrannical and selfish impulses. These attempts at civil society are at best uneasy and precarious, and the best way to make them stick is to rise above factionalism and narrow-mindedness and to focus on maintaining stability at all costs. This is why he insists so greatly on the metaphor of an inheritance, almost a kind of Platonic noble lie: just like the original noble lie, it’s a kind of trick to make selfish men treat the entire state as their family. All of the future inhabitants of the nation become kin and heirs. This promotes the kind of moderation and care necessary to govern such a complex entity with the caution and prudence necessary to avoid a total breakdown in civil order. Once again, this is all based in an apparently – shall we say – measured view of the potential of human beings, so at odds with the “unconstrained” vision that Burke sees in the revolutionaries of France.
But what is Burke’s vision of the state? Once again, he does not seek to define and ideal, but begins with the actual, the tolerable, the better-than: Britain.
Burke’s vision seems fairly “Lockean” – he outlines the specific rights that men should have, he argues that the state is designed to promote the general well-being of its citizens, and to protect their inherent rights. But he draws a distinction with the grandiose claims of total equality of the revolutionary philosophy by defending the wise restrictions civil society must place on each person for the benefit of the society as a whole, which he characterizes as a “partnership,” a “covenant,” and a “consideration of convenience.” First, Burke defends the unequal outcomes of capitalism. Once again, Burke has a talent for aphorism: “In this partnership, all men have equal rights, not to equal things” (51). Then he defends the judicial system: yes, it does fundamentally impinge on what we may consider a “right of man” in that under a judicial system, no man has a right to be judge in his own cause. Yet this is a right that the “uncovenanted man” does enjoy, but which the man who wishes to enjoy the benefits of civil society must abdicate.
“Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together” (52), he writes.
Burke is even more frank: another restriction of civil society is that men’s own desires, more broadly, must be checked. “Society requires . . . the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection” (52). Humans are not capable of doing this themselves so they require a “power out of themselves” and Burke seems again to taunt the Rousseauian disciples: “In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights” (53).
Having parsed the “rights of man” more carefully and shown that a good society requires this Locke-inspired balance of freedom and restraint for the civic good, Burke then reminds us that the administration of this state requires a great deal of wisdom and experience. The regulation of men’s passions is situational, contingent, subject to a host of contextual exigencies; it cannot be determined by abstract rule alone. It is a “a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill” requiring “a deep knowledge of human nature” as well as a skillful understanding of incentives which “facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions” (53).
Here Burke writes a beautiful, timeless description of the lawmaker’s challenge: sometimes noble laws have poor effects, and vice-versa. He says, “very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions” (53).
It is challenging work to run a state, and challenging work, surely, to set one up. Burke writes, “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.”
Burke is at once drawing a distinction, as best I can tell, because the practical matters of running a state, which he says take real experience and prudence, versus the theoretical claims of the philosophes, most of which sound appealing, but which offer little direction in the day-to-day affairs of governance.
Once again, Burke’s comparisons feel thin; clearly he is straw-manning the opposition when he characterizes them as all abstract slogan and no depth or experience: “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them” (53). Surely there is far more to be said for social contract theory in general, or the doctrine of natural rights, or even of the specific claims of justice of the starving masses of French poor than Burke gives credit for.
Still, we’re reading Burke all this time later not because of the acuity of his specific analysis of the specific revolutionaries, but because of his articulation of a governing philosophy, and once again, he comes up with a gem. In arguing that the science of governing is complex and requires experience, he writes that it requires,
“ . . . even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life . . . [so] it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes” (54).
What a remarkable quote. That quote to me seems to embody what I have to imagine is best about the conservative temperament: a resistance to change that comes from a degree of respect for experience. Burke asks that we first consider what reason the old laws and customs were put into place – because there usually is a reason: “We are but too apt to consider things in the state in which we find them, without sufficiently adverting to the causes by which they have been produced and possibly may be upheld” (69).
Burke insists that it is not just institutions or cultural traditions that he wishes to uphold, but even prejudices. What Burke means by “prejudices” are a kind of cultural, every day wisdom – beliefs, opinions, and perspectives – passed down by each generation, accumulated and tested over time. This is a truer, more reliable wisdom than “naked reason,” presumably, because it both incorporates experience as well as reason, and because it is the work of many thousands of people. His writing here reminds me Friedrich Hayek in “Law, Legislation, and Liberty: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages” (76). Once again, he’s taunting the philosophes, arguing that their new ideals are only large enough to fit neatly into one small corner of the rational behind regular, run-of-the-mill British political and cultural life. It’s as though he’s saying to them, “Young men, there is nothing new under the sun. Others before you have thought your same thoughts many times before, and if you’d looked more closely at our existing practices, you’ve found that there are reasons for the things that we do.”
Again, this is “old man” wisdom – or perhaps at least “grown up” wisdom. At its best, it’s savvy (learning from history), economical (no reinventing the wheel), and time-tested; at its worst, it’s close-minded, provincial, stagnant, even ignorant – and proud of it.
But either way, Burke is invested in preserving, conserving. In one of his most famous passages, Burke argues that the state is so valuable that we must care for it as we would for our own father:
“No man should approach to look into [the state’s] defects or corruptions but with due caution . . . he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude” (84).
To be clear, Burke regards the state as not only a living, organic entity, but as a fragile and even mortal one. Not only can modes of governance not be changed like so many clothes, but if you go too far with frenzied reform, you can destroy the state forever:
“By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitution and renovate their father’s life” (84).
This is quite a chilling image. Clearly for Burke the stakes are high; civil society is surely a delicate matter, and push or pull too far in any direction, and you’re liable to lose everything your ancestors have painstakingly spent their lifetimes building up for your benefit. The state is both an inheritance received, and a debt to be paid; wise stewards must value what they receive, and pass along this valuable object to their own progeny.
In another famous passage, Burke writes that the state, “ . . . becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (85).
But how is one supposed to improve the state when one is so busy conserving it? He writes, “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman” (138). How is this possible?
If you recall, Burke originally explained that the British *had* undertaken radical changes in the past – but only as exceptions to the rule during real emergencies. How exactly is one supposed to make even incremental changes?
Burke surely spends far less time discussing this question than he does describing the need for stability. But near the final third of the book, he does briefly take up the question of reform: “There are moments in the fortune of states when particular men are called to make improvements by great mental exertion” (138). The answer, for Burke, again leads back to the importance of existing institutions. We should not destroy them, but merely seek to use them as levers (“purchase,” as he calls them) for achieving our goals. Burke compares the energy available in them to natural resources, once again precious commodities whose power we must conserve in order to use productively. Once again he taunts the French reformers for being unable to use their existing institutions, such as the church, toward their political goals: Did fifty thousand persons whose mental and whose bodily labor you might direct . . . appear too big for your abilities to wield?” (139) he asks. “Your politicians do not understand their trade; and therefore they sell their tools” (139). Yes, the churches may “savor of superstition,” Burke admits, but “is superstition the greatest of all possible vices?” A prudent man weighs and considers the available options; destroy one superstitious institution and a worse one may replace it. Reform the institutions you have, work with the devil you know, and be careful about tearing down institutions which “have cast their roots wide and deep, and where, by long habit, things more valuable than themselves are so adapted to them, and in a manner interwoven with them, that the one cannot be destroyed without notably impairing the other” (138). To do any less than this, to tear down instead of trying to work with, is the attempt to “evade and slip aside from difficulty” (146). Real, meaningful change takes time; it is not accomplished overnight, and rarely produces quick gains or victories. It requires patience, and time, and real political skill at using the levers of government. It is not a rash affair, but a delicate one.
In the end, as I said before, what is valuable about Burke is not his specific analysis of the causes of the French Revolution, or his evaluation of whether this revolution was done correctly, or warranted in the first place. He’s quite hard on the revolutionaries, he often strawmans their case – perhaps because, in my best understanding, he doesn’t fully understand it himself.
That doesn’t stop him from landing some of the greatest rhetorical punches ever written. And it certainly doesn’t stop him from delivering a powerful warning about the real dangers of trying to rebuild society anew based on a kind of theoretical, egalitarian reform.
What I take to be of most importance from Burke – and what I take to be his original contribution to political philosophy – is that he is not merely offering a defense of a specific tradition. Nor is he offering a defense of tradition for its own sake. Instead what seems original to me is his understanding of society as a kind of living, organic element, composed of a variety of interrelated parts, just like a body. And like a living body, society does not just appear. It cannot just be destroyed and founded anew without grave consequences. Instead, it grows, it evolves; its various parts are all adaptations to the necessities of human needs and wishes; each institution or even basic prejudice has behind it the accumulated wisdom of generations of citizens and is not to be cast away lightly. To the contrary, we should look to this wisdom of the past not as an impediment to utopian dreams, but as a valuable inheritance to be cared for, our surest buffer against civil strife, violence, and terror.
I find Burke an interesting reaction to the Enlightenment values of reason and intelligence. In a sense, Burke distrusts (and repeatedly mocks) these values, extolling practical experience, inherited wisdom, and even cultural prejudice as better arbiters of truth in governance than theory. He’s suspicious of the sort of exalted sentiment that one associates both with the bringers of light of the Enlightenment, and with coming Romantic movement, as embodied in the proto-Romantic, Rousseau, whom Burke also mocks and seems wary of. He is surely not an idealist, but perhaps its more fitting to say that he’s not interested in discovering the best, most perfect state; he’s merely interested in maintaining a tolerable one.
Is he a “conservative”? Yes he is. And although I lack enough contextual knowledge to satisfactorily judge for myself, the claim that he is the first modern conservative seems perfectly reasonable to me. It’s all there.
That said, I’m talking about Burke being a conservative not whatever Donald Trump is. I think it’s important to contrast conservatism, which I very much see in Burke, with its far more radical, pernicious rightward strain: reactionism, which is Trump. The conservative writer Andrew Sullivan offers a useful contrast:
“Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution.”
Burke was not a reactionary; he was a conservative: he had a loathing for revolution, was an incrementalist, did not wish to return to a golden past (and indeed actively seemed to admire and regard highly the present British society), insisted on building a means of political change into his political philosophy, and was an avowed institutionalist. Burke did not look to a fallen glory that he wished to return to in one grand convulsion. Above all, he looked around him and saw mostly good things in England that he wished to conserve, not an imagined past glory that he wished to return to. For Burke, England’s present was so closely related to its past that to “return” to a previous time would not have made any sense. That was the point of a good state – to keep alive the important civic and social traditions over many generations.
It goes without saying that Donald Trump and his ilk are something wholly different.
So was Burke the first conservative by his own terms? Absolutely. Was he a modern day Republican? The answer, to his credit, is surely no.