Sunday, February 22, 2015

Edmund Burke and Conservatism

“Society is indeed a contract … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) was a British parliamentarian and political philosopher who is often regarded as the founder of modern conservatism. He was an Irish Catholic who made his way in English, Protestant London through intelligence, eloquence, and force of personality. Like many successful immigrants, he internalized the values of his adopted country more thoroughly than the natives themselves. When the Revolution broke out, he became the spokesman for a nation that agreed with the ideals, but was horrified by the methods, of the French Revolution.
During the debate on the American Revolution he argued for a negotiated peace, reasoning that the Americans could not be held in subjection by force. Britain might, besides, realize benefits in future generations if it parted on good terms with the young nation, whose rising population and vast territories guaranteed that it would one day surpass Britain in power. Rather than fight a costly and futile war, Britain should face up to facts early. If it could keep the Americans within the Empire on mutually agreeable terms, good – if not, better to part friends. Adam Smith was then making similar arguments in Wealth of Nations.

Like many English he was at first sympathetic to the French Revolution, but as it became increasingly radical, he grew wary, and when he realized that some of its more dangerous ideas were getting a sympathetic hearing in Britain, he became genuinely frightened. In Reflections on the Late Revolution in France (1790), he argued that the Revolution had gone off the rails when the duly-constituted authority, the Estates-General, had been dissolved, and the upstart National Assembly had usurped its prerogatives. Responsible legislators, he said, have a duty to transmit to future generations a well-ordered society – and that means respecting the traditions, property, and religion handed down to them by their ancestors.

Tradition is the accumulated wisdom of past generations, who had to learn, through a painful process of trial and error, how to make civilization work. Life is too short, and reason too feeble, for the individual to understand all its whys and wherefores. If he is wise, he will accept it without complaint. To judge it is to betray an absurdly inflated conception of one’s own intelligence; to reject it is to reject civilization itself. The French, by staking everything on the political theory of the Enlightenment, had gambled on reason, and lost.

Property owners are the stake-holders in the social order. They are the most cautious, and therefore also the most responsible members, because they are the ones who have the most to lose if that order is overturned. People without property, by contrast, have little to lose, and so tend to be more reckless. To give every person the same say in government, regardless of property, is to put the irresponsible on the same par with the responsible. Worse, it ensures that the responsible will be shouted down on any important question, because those who do not have property always outnumber those who have. Given the chance, the poor will inevitably vote themselves the property of the rich, turning the state into an officially licensed robber. At the moment he wrote, the First Republic was busily confiscating the lands of the Aristocracy and the Church, and selling them at auction in order to prop up its bloated budget.

Religion maintains the social order by impressing the values of civilization on simple souls, who, if they never read a book of philosophy or literature in their entire lives, can nevertheless understand that theft, murder, and rape will be punished by the Almighty. The Church, with its awe-inspiring rituals, the poetry of its scriptures, and the humanizing association of likeminded people in worship, is the nursery of civilization. Robespierre admitted as much with his absurd “Cult of the Supreme Being,” which aped as much as it could from Catholic doctrine and practice, though with none of its effect.

Is everything, then, to be sacrificed to order? No – the goals of the French revolution were laudable. Of course there should be as much liberty, equality, and fraternity as possible. The problem was not the goals, but the arrogant, reckless method with which they were pursued. Civilization is a fragile, precious thing - it's real and tangible benefits should not be risked for the utopian visions of a few philosophers. French writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, who spoke with such enthusiasm about British institutions, might well have reflected on how they came about. The British, too, had executed a king, overturned a Church, and instituted a Republic, only to see it all end in the military dictatorship of Cromwell. When Cromwell died, Britain had welcomed the Stuart Monarchy back as a relief, as the French would one day welcome back the Bourbons. The British had learned their lesson, and from that time on adopted a policy of gradual reform. The French had ignored the lessons of history, and thereby doomed themselves to repeat it.

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (XIII of XVII)

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