Edmund Burke and the Roots of Conservative Thought

800px-Smelling_out_a_ratWhen exactly modernity happened, or when the modern era can best be understood to have begun is a matter of some contention. The date of the Storming of the Bastille is as good as any. The French revolution serves as such a useful landmark because it was so traumatizing to the European mind; it is also the event to which we can trace most of contemporary political discourse.

Edmund Burke was a protestant Irishman who made a career for himself as a politician, orator, and rhtorician. His main patron was Lord Rockingham, one of the great Whigs. He also dabbled in philosophy, though my impression is that his philosophy is studied more as a historical document than as a philosophic system. Burke is a unique figure because he is trapped between the world of restless, Catholic, Jacobin Ireland, and his loyalty to his great conservative patrons.

Burke is best know for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which appeared in the early stages of the Revolution, before the Terror. The context is that the French Revolution seems to catch everyone in England by surprise, and nobody knows what to think about it, much less respond in anyway. The English prided themselves on their liberal, quasi-democratic system, well on its way to the parliamentary constitutional monarchy we know today. France was a long time traditional enemy as well (this is right after the French has helped the American colonies gain their independence), so large sections of the English population would have been favorably disposed to news of the French Revolution.

But Burke sees the danger. And he must not only reveal the truth of the Revolution, he must stir up support against the Revolution. And he uses the incident of the sermon of Dr. Price (of the cartoon above) to write a book against the Revolution. The result is a classic of political philosophy which has had enduring significance. During the propaganda struggle of the Cold War, ‘France’ was replaced with ‘Russia’, quite literally, and Burke was deployed in the Russian Revolution was well.

Burke is at his best when he discusses the Revolution itself in terms of human nature. This allows Burke to foresee the Terror and even has some sentences that foreshadow Napoleon. Burke clearly had a intuitive grasp of the weaknesses and flaws in human nature, and clearly diagnoses what has and will go wrong.

“When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of Fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honor, and the honor of those who are to obey it. Kings will be tyrants from policy when subject are rebels from principle.” 

This passage shows not only Burke’s insight into government, but also shows his knack for one-liners that stick, like the last sentence. In this sense, there is very little to be found in the book that one would disagree with out right. One sees the ills and dangers of Revolution laid bare in ways that, if they seem common now, are only so because Burke saw them so clearly and set them forth so well in this book.

It’s important to remember that Burke is writing not so much to convince but to reassure a strata of Englishmen, and energize to action the people that would already be suspicious of the Revolution to begin with. This shows in the structure and caliber of the argument, which one nods one head along too, but remains unconvinced. The book starts out posing as a “letter intended to be sent to a Frenchman” but at several hundred pages long, fools no one. But Burke has a good reason for the charade because he is not laying out a formal intellectual argument.

This is a work of rhetoric, not directly of political philosophy. This allows Burke to adopt the tone of a matter-of-fact Englishman in one passage, and soar away to lofty flourishes which tug on heartstrings on the next. The best example of this is when he talks about the French queen, Marie Antoinette, and waxes poetic on her position after being captured and paraded by the Parisian mob.

“…surely never light on this orb, which she hardly seems to touch, a more delightful vision…glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendor, and joy….little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. – But the age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of exalted freedom.” 

This is the woman who is attributed the phrase “Let them eat cake.” Obviously, this never historically happened, but I feel that the phrase is probably closer to historical reality than the image Burke presents of her as the perfect Queen, described as both a Roman matroness, loaded with dignity and feminine perfection.

Ultimately, Burke doges the big questions of the Revolution. In deprecating Dr. Price’s sermon, he destroys the letter quite well, but carefully doges the spirit of the sermon. He uses technical and historical inaccuracies  to avoid awkward questions that dig deeper then  he’s prepared to go. It’s not that he says anything wrong exactly, or anything I would disagree with, it is exactly what he does not say, what he does not ask.

Burke has no inkling that revolutions, far from being prompted by pure theory (as he would have us believe), are completely grounded in economics and social reality.  People don’t read books and then go storm the Bastille. In other words, Burke does not allow that the French Revolution may owe more to genuine human misery than the wicked writings of Voltaire and Dr. Price. He presents the operation of the French monarchy as wise, glorious, and prosperous and is perplexed by why the French might choose to do away with the French Monarchy. I got the sense that for Burke, much less than saying starvation is a good price to pay for la glorie and Marie Antoinette, pretends that nothing at all is wrong with the French monarchy.

This is where he is weakest. Despite his grasp of human nature with all its dangers and weaknesses and foibles,  he likes to present the French Revolution as the poor decision of new managerial staff, mislead by myopic, dusty theorists. To be clear, Burke is concerned with showing the dangers of the Revolution, and inspiring English resistance at home and abroad to the movement, and by and large I agree with him.

But his writing’s second life as a foundational text of conservative thought, especially in the Cold War context, can bare some criticism. Conservative thought has always been oblivious to its own consequences. If Revolutions are violent political and social change that happen in a short time, then they must only occur when normal or reasonable change has been suppressed. Revolution does not happen without a repressive, conservative regime in place that allows nothing to change and refuses to do anything to alleviate human suffering. The worse the repression, the worse the revolution, generally. How much mismanagement and incompetence does Burke expect the French people to put up with?

His arguments are essentially emotional, and they appeal to the heart, but do not sway the head. Burke is of course known for his statement about “change as the true guarantor of conservation” (or something to that effect) but the historical record shows that conservative leaders, be they political, economic or social, are largely incapable of effecting gradual change to the benefit of the public at large. It is one thing to urge slow and rational change, and in that sense be against Revolutions (with this I agree completely) but you have to painfully aware of how this rational is far to often perforated into the “big No” that lays at bottom of conservatism.


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