Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thinking & Writing Like Edmund Burke

Political Thought

Stable Governments are best, Edmund Baurke says: "Property with peace and order; with civil and social manners . . . are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty is to [let] individuals . . . do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints," 
as cited in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, by David Bromwich.
Image Credit & Source: Barnes & Noble

In a book review article, on David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, Ian Hampsher-Monk writes in Foreign Affairs that if Burke seemed inconsistent, it was for a valid reason. Or perhaps Burke was consistent in the one area that mattered most: he was not a radical. What mattered most was stability.

Hampsher-Monk writes:
Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British politician and writer, is today best known for Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790. In it, Burke denounced the revolutionaries in France and their supporters in Great Britain for what he considered their misplaced faith in principles such as “abstract liberty” and “the rights of men” and for their rejection of more pragmatic, procedural paths to ending the tyranny of hereditary monarchy. As Burke put it: 


“Property with peace and order; with civil and social manners . . . are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty is to [let] individuals . . . do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints."

In a sense, the debate between Burke and his antagonists—between conservatism and radicalism, broadly defined—has shaped political debate in the Western world ever since, and Burke himself has become known as “the father of modern conservatism.”



David Bromwich is not fond of that phrase. “No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism,” writes the esteemed scholar of literature in his magnificent, beautifully written new study of the first half of Burke’s career, which is the most notable addition to a recent crop of books about Burke. The trouble is not only that the line between Burke and modern conservatism is hardly straight but also that Burke’s legacy is far too complex to be captured by any such phrase. Part of the problem, as Bromwich makes clear, are the tensions (and even paradoxes) within Burke’s own thinking and writing.

His condemnation of the French Revolution was preceded by his sympathy for the American one that took place two decades earlier. This gave ammunition to his radical foes, such as the critic William Hazlitt, who later wrote that by rejecting the French Revolution, Burke “abandoned not only all his practical conclusions, but all the principles on which they were founded. He proscribed all his former sentiments, denounced all his former friends, [and] rejected and reviled all the maxims to which he had formerly appealed as incontestable.”
If you have read Burke, you would agree, I think. But I do not see this as a fault, but as a moral necessity for a writer and thinker. That Burke favoured the American Revolution but not the French Revolution is easy to comprehend once you delve, even a little, into how both came about and what each achieved. For example, the Reign of Terror (1793-94), and in particular the public executions by guillotine of thousands, cast a long shadow on the revolutionary ideals. That the American ideal has lost currency today, and has been replaced by other ideas, does not take away its original great achievement.

In that sweeping historical and cultural narrative, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000), Jacques Barzun says the following about Burke and his view on stability in government:
The greatest political thinker of the late 19thC. Edmund Burke, had demonstrated that stable governments depend not on force, but on habit—the ingrained, far from stupid obedience to the laws of ways of the country as they have been and are. It follows that to replace by fiat new sets of forms with another, thought up by some improver, no matter how intelligent, ends up in disaster. To expect such a scheme to prosper is unreasonable, because habits do not form overnight. (520-21)
When you consider this, and look at places where one nation has attempted to force new habits on another (so-called nation-building), it has ended up in disaster; the middle east, of course, easily comes to mind as one not-so-shining example. In this, at least, I sense that Burke had it right.

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For more, go to [ForeignAffairs].

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