The University Bookman


Volume 5, Number 1 (Autumn 1964)

Habit and Being in Burke

Jeffrey Hart

Peter Stanlis is well known to students of eighteenth-century history and literature as the author of Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958) and, indeed, this book and his many essays and articles have brought him recognition as one of the country’s leading authorities on Burke’s life and thought. It is entirely fitting, therefore, that in Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches he should make available to us the best selection of Burke’s writings to appear so far. These selections cover the entire range of Burke’s career, and include even some interesting book reviews from the Annual Register—of Rasselas, for example. They exhibit his thought on all the great issues that concerned him, from the debate over colonial policy to the crisis of the French Revolution. The critical and historical commentary provided by Mr. Stanlis exemplifies the best in modern interpretation of Burke, reflecting as it does the view that Burke’s politics rests on a foundation of permanent moral principle, and not, as in the older view, upon pure expediency.

Yet despite the enormous amount of commentary that has appeared on Burke in recent years, it may be that there is still an important point to be made about the role of habit in his political thought, for Burke’s politics, like any genuinely conservative politics, places a high valuation on habit. In Burke this valuation proceeds, first of all, from an awareness of the complexity of social life, and from the elementary observation that habit performs complex tasks with greater ease than does the conscious reason. The tasks we perform most easily, or, as we say, most “naturally,” from tying our shoes to handling the day’s social encounters, we perform habitually. If we were forced to think them through analytically our activities would come rapidly to a halt. The same is true of society at large. The vast majority of its activities, from delivering the mail to running a legislature, go forward smoothly as long as they are carried out according to habitual procedures. It is the habits of a society—its customs, institutions, and prejudices—that embody the results of its historical experience and enable it to function and preserve its cohesion in the present. It was one of Burke’s great accomplishments as a political philosopher to show that Hobbes and Locke erred in assigning to “reason” rather than habit the function of maintaining the stability of society. Habit, to be sure, is not an appropriate instrument for dealing with novelty. On that account, as Burke saw, there is a limit to the amount of novelty a society can absorb without suffering a catastrophe.

Now with this summary virtually anyone, whatever his political temper, would agree. Yet habit plays a far larger role in Burke’s politics than the minimum necessary for the maintenance,of society, and this large role proceeds from the ideal of self that is central to his work.

Any political or cultural allegiance that goes beyond material self-interest has as its basis an ideal of self; it affirms, even at the expense of material interest, a particular kind of person as against the other kinds that are available, actually or potentially. Such allegiances really consist, finally, of answers to the question “What am I to be?” And when one has affirmed a particular answer, one must then attempt to defend or establish the conditions hospitable to that mode of being.

In his high valuation of habit, Burke was opposing a main tendency of modernity, rejecting a principal modern conception of the self. He was aware, perhaps to a degree unique in his time, that the political crisis brought about by the Revolution, and the attendant ideological crisis, were involved with a very special crisis that beset the relationship of the self to its social roles. The sources of this crisis, in broad outline, are as follows.

In a settled condition of society, social roles are largely a matter of habit. Wealth, property, and power do not pass with great rapidity from one hand to another. A man may be a soldier, a merchant, a landholder, or a nobleman, and, whatever he is, probably has not thought very seriously about being something else. His sense of himself is largely a matter of habit; his identity seems to him “given” rather than willed or achieved. It seems “natural” for him to be what he is. No society, to be sure, can be entirely habitual in this sense, but some are more so than others. Now as the eighteenth century drew to a close, various circumstances, but primarily the growth of cities and the advent of unprecedented prosperity, brought about a more fluid condition of society. Social roles were no longer so definitely given. Individuals became, to a greater extent than previously, free to create themselves as social entities. Yet this kind of freedom, which on a simple view seems all to the good, produced highly ambiguous results.

To the extent that “careers are open to talents,” to the extent, that is, that one’s social identity is a product of one’s own talent and will, one’s identity must be experienced as arbitrary. One might just as well have willed something else. And when the identity thus partakes of the quality of the willed and the arbitrary, it is experienced as a kind of mask, or even as a lie. One’s roles seem absurd; and often, as a result, they even seem hateful. The self comes to stand in an ironic or antagonistic relationship to all its social manifestations. No doubt this is one reason why the literature of the Enlightenment has as one of its central themes the critique of roles and appearances. Even such conservative writers as Swift and Goldsmith play the game of role criticism, and shock conventional views by examining society through the wrong end of a telescope or from the perspective of a Chinaman. By such devices they approximate the experience of the externality of social roles as apprehended by the increasingly mobile self.

The logical conclusion of the critique of roles is the dream of a roleless existence. The “mask” should be stripped away so that the, “true self” may emerge. Accordingly, the theoreticians of the Revolution proposed, as Taine puts it, to strip from man his artificial garments, all those fictitious qualities that made him “ecclesiastic or layman, noble or plebeian, sovereign or subject, proprietor or proletarian.” Only then would “natural man” make his appearance, spontaneous, innocent, and free. Nor was this hope defeated by the actual results of the Revolution; long afterward, Shelley could hope for another, and culminating, Revolution that would completely transcend the “masks” of known social existence:

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Scepterless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise; but man
Passionless?—no, yet free from guilt or pain.

At the center of Burke’s Reflections, however is a critique of the critique of roles. Adopting the familiar metaphor of clothes, he describes the plans of the philosophes:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and raise it to dignity in our estimation, are to be exploded . . .

For Burke was one of the first to understand that the spirit of the Revolution, and indeed the spirit of modernity itself, is characterized by a hatred of the very idea idea of society. Burke knew that the defense of what the philosophes called “appearances” or “masks” is the defense of society itself, that the “reality” of society consists of “appearances.” The natural man of revolutionary myth is merely an abstraction, albeit a terribly destructive one. The critique of roles, the pursuit of man scepterless and free, has issued, precisely because such a natural man is a fiction, not in a more intense experience of selfhood, but in the experience of emptiness and disgust. Apart from its particular historical manifestations, the self remains an abstraction—“naked, shivering,” to use Burke’s words. The self evidently comes into existence, or, at least, is, experienceable, only in its concrete cultural activities.

There is a sense, indeed, in which it is really habit, paradoxically enough, that renders one free, since freedom is experienced only as a quality of an activity. One is free to do this or that; one is not simply “free” in the abstract. Castiglione spoke of the courtier’s quality of sprezzatura, by which he meant the courtier’s ability to perform his role with ease; through long practice, that is, he could perform it unconsciously; and Lord Chesterfield advised his son to practice entering a drawing room, so that he could do it with ease. A skillful musician is “freer” to play his instrument, than is a novice. And these examples may be taken as synechdocal of our other activities.

It is because Burke perceived that our activities are experienced as easy and natural, as integral to the self, only when they partake of the nature of habit, that he opposed mobility rapid enough to destroy social habit; “I do not hesitate to say,” he wrote, “that the road to eminence and power from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course. If rare merit be the rarest of all things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation . . .” Burke’s politics, then, in its attitude toward nobility, and in all of its other principle aspects, is protective of habit, and has as its basis a preference for the equanimity, the ease, and, as is frequently to be found, the grace, that characterize habitual behavior.

No one can doubt, in reflecting on Burke’s treatment of these matters, that he had penetrated to the heart of portentous issues. If his opponents conceived of the self as a secret thing, hidden, so to speak, behind false appearances, their intellectual descendants have professed, analogously, what might be called a conspiracy theory of reality. Not the appearances of society, it is held, but their hypothetical and hidden economic or sexual “source” is the “reality.” Our experience of culture, we are told, is deceptive: it is the esoteric theory that defines the “truth.” The intellectual filiation of both Marx and Freud is clear enough. Both conceive of society as a constricting thing, as inimical to spontaneity and freedom. Marx s “natural man” is the worker; the “artifice” from which he is to be liberated is “capitalism”; its overthrow will bring about a “classless” and “stateless” condition in which he will at least be “free”—i.e. roleless. Freud’s system also conceives of society as repressive. Here, “natural man” is the infant, and civilization is the agent of repression. It is quite true that Freud, in contrast to Marx, does not hold out the hope of bliss. Those who hailed him in the twenties as a prophet of freedom and joy, and as celebrating the “reality” of the anarchic id as against the “falsity” of bourgeois society, have had to defer to later and grimmer explicators; yet that earlier feeling was not entirely misplaced, since Freud, like Marx, sanctions the notion that society and its habits are intrinsically constricting and repressive; and the two systems have enough in common, morphologicalIy, to permit the advocates of one to become, without much sense of transition, the advocates of the other. Indeed, even in matters of detail, there are striking resemblances, as between the labor theory of value and the psychoanalytic theory that holds culture to be a product of sublimation: both theories describe value as proceeding from a source customarily rated as “low”—from the worker and from erotic desire.

But it is possible to question the validity of this modern temper in a fundamental way, as Burke did. The “modern imagination,” according to Lionel Trilling, conceives of the self as experiencing autonomy and delight only “in opposition to the general culture,” and he seems to ratify the idea that the life of culture, the life of habit and assumption, is hostile to “the freedom of the self.” It is certainly not to be disputed that modern society in many respects resists the affections. “To make us love our country,” as Burke said, “our country ought to be loveable.” Yet it is pertinent to raise the question of whether, in actuality, it is really the Scholar Gypsies of our experience—the marginal figures of the culture, as the sociologists call them, those who are most antagonistic to habit and assumption—who really impress us as being free, autonomous, “full of delight.” Or is it that other exemplar in Arnold, that least opposing of selves, not his Scholar Gypsy but his Eton Boy, at ease in his relation to the culture and its habits, and characterized by “simplicity and truth of feeling,” who is really “free”? One’s answer to this question will depend, no doubt, on whether one conceives of one’s own most satisfactory experiences as occurring in opposition to the culture or in harmony with it, and such an answer, of course, will necessarily have political implications.

The issue at stake here is nicely epitomized by the way in which, during Burke’s period, political opponents made use of the “chain” metaphor. Traditional opinion affirmed a so-called Chain of Being, and insofar as this figure had a social implication it meant that “being” depended upon limitation; men had particular, limited roles to play, as defined by a “chain” of assumption and habit, and in participating in these roles men experienced their own “being.” Burke speaks of the “great chain of society,” of “proud submission” and “dignified obedience,” and we understand that such dignity and pride are, paradoxically, dependent upon the limitation implied by “obedience” and “submission.” Rousseau, however, used the chain metaphor in an opposite way, though he had in mind the same chain. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Thus, whereas such a traditionalist spokesman as Burke affirmed the chain of custom and habit in the interest of “being,” Rousseau attacks it in the interest of “freedom.” Yet, as I have argued, it does not seem to be the experience of freedom that emerges when the chain is broken.  

Jeffrey Hart is a cultural critic, columnist, and professor emeritus of English literature at Dartmouth College.

Posted: July 10, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

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