Appealing to Burke’s Moral Imagination
Does the world need yet one more book on the social and political thought of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) promising a novel interpretation of his views? Among the books, monographs, articles, reviews, and more published on Burke just since Russell Kirk’s landmark work, The Conservative Mind (1953), could any major aspect of this thought have escaped examination? William F. Byrne, an assistant political science professor at St. Johns University, thinks so. “[T]here are important aspects of Burke’s that have been inadequately recognized, appreciated, and explored.” Byrne intends to uncover “these neglected dimensions” in Burke’s thought so “we can recover . . . a path to addressing fundamental problems of order and meaning in the contemporary world.” While his claim to have expanded our understanding of Burke’s thought may not ultimately be persuasive, he makes a better case for Burke’s current relevancy.
The author faults previous Burke scholars for failing to adequately consider the importance of the concept of the “moral imagination” to Burke’s thought. They either incorrectly attribute the concept to later writers or fail to mention it altogether, overlooking “an entire complex of ethical, epistemological, and social ideas that may in fact represent Burke’s most important contribution to political and philosophical thought.” He contends that Burke’s moral-imaginative orientation gives his conservatism coherence by making sense of the apparently contradictory “conservative” and “reformist” public policy positions he took throughout his career. Burke’s “understanding of political order, and of how one perceives truth and does good, offers insights that demand incorporation into contemporary political theory and practice.”
The application of Burke’s moral-imaginative approach would improve discussion by “illuminating issues of emotion and ‘reason’ in politics.” Typically, one group of interlocutors in a debate declares that while they have reason on their side their adversaries are guilty “of acting emotionally.” Reason, on this view, trumps mere feelings. People who pride themselves in the conviction that their opinions are based on reason while dismissing opposing points of views as “irrational,” are frequently themselves “blinded to their own feelings” and incapable of critically examining their own biases. Burke’s moral-imaginative framework, on the other hand, Byrne suggests, opens up the prospect for more elevated dispassionate discussions. “If the commonality between emotion and reason were widely recognized,” he asserts, “political actors would perhaps be both more likely to examine their own feelings and motivations and less likely to dismiss opposing views as emotionally driven and therefore irrational.”
Perhaps so, but forgive some skepticism. Although Burke’s parliamentary speeches and political writings certainly are models of what civilized discourse once looked like before the age of mass appeals, Burke himself could be polemical. He was not above accusing his radical opponents of being totally bereft of reason and common sense. His famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1793) is, for all its virtues, a one-sided condemnation of the doctrines of the French Jacobins. He dismisses their concerns out-of-hand and accuses them of the darkest of motives.
Byrne exaggerates somewhat the paucity of critical discussion of and attention given to the importance of the concept of the moral imagination in Burke’s thought. In fact, particularly in recent years and thanks largely to Russell Kirk, who helped popularize the phrase, a vast and growing literature on Burke’s moral imagination has emerged. A simple Google search will turn up an impressive 180,000 hits for the phrase “Edmund Burke and the moral imagination.” In just the last few years, several books devoted at least in part to the topic have been published, including Vigen Guroian’s Rallying the Really Human Things, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s flawed but still worthwhile, The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling, Ian Crowe’s collection of essays, An Imaginative Whig, Gerald Russello’s The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, and lastly my own intellectual biography, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology. More systematic treatment of the topic is clearly called for, but interest in the idea itself is not lacking.
Though the concept was, as Kirk noted, “first clearly expressed by Edmund Burke,” it would be the American humanists Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More who later adapted it to “the twentieth century discussion.” Burke invoked it in defense of the ancient customs, traditions, usages, manners, and religion of European civilization then threatened by the “armed doctrines” of a “barbarous philosophy,” French Jacobinism. Babbitt and More, more than a century later, seized upon this phrase and raised it to a philosophical concept to be wielded against the incomplete accounts of man’s nature and experiences found in the pragmatists and other philosophical naturalists.
Any analysis or explication of Burke’s concept of the moral imagination must tackle first two immediate difficulties. First, in all of Burke’s voluminous published works, speeches and correspondence, the phrase, “the moral imagination,” appears only once, in the much quoted passage, found about forty pages into his classic Reflections on the Revolution in France. Here, at his most eloquent and moving, he mourns the passing of an age of refined manners, ancient institutions and “[a]ll the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal.” All has changed now. The “barbarous philosophy” of the radical innovators has swept away the manners, customs and institutions that since time immemorial created the sense of “love, veneration, admiration, or attachment” upon which civilized existence depended. “[T]he sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. 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 to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion” (my emphasis). Everything would be judged, Burke predicted, by the abstract speculative reasoning of the “armed doctrines” of the Jacobins and, if found wanting, would be contemptuously destroyed.
Second, as Byrne correctly observes, “Burke does not develop the philosophical dimension of his thought in a highly explicit, systematic way.” It has thus been left to others to fill in the gaps. This is precisely Byrne’s purpose. “This book is an effort to draw out and develop from Burke various ideas that are implicit in this thought,” he explains. “These ideas have been grouped with reference to Burke’s concept of the moral imagination, although they go beyond the meaning of the term as explicitly used by Burke”—as, of course, any explication of this term would be compelled by necessity to do. He offers, then, “an application of Burke’s ideas to some political and, perhaps, existential problems of the contemporary world.”
More is at stake in Byrne’s analysis than filling lacunae in the interpretative scholarship on Burke’s concept of the moral imagination. Byrne seeks to rescue the conservative movement from intellectual decrepitude. His mentor and former teacher, Catholic University of America politics professor Claes Ryn, has been sharply critical of the shallowness and intellectual muddle-headedness of much contemporary conservative thinking. Ryn accuses movement conservatives of being obsessed with politics and economics and ignoring the more vital issues of philosophy, history, morals, and culture. Consequently, Ryn maintains, “Intellectual and moral confusion made it susceptible to manipulation by people with access to money and the media.” John Stuart Mill’s stinging gibe that conservatives are “the stupid party,” in Ryn’s estimation, still applies. By placing Burke’s ethical, epistemological, and social thought on firmer philosophical grounds, Byrne intends to augment the intellectual arsenal of culturally and historically centered conservatism against the challenges of what Ryn has derisively labeled as “the New Jacobinism.” Rather than subscribing to Burke’s moral-imaginative orientation, the ahistorical reasoning and abstract “principles” of these self-described conservatives more closely resemble the mechanistic philosophy so vigorously condemned in the Reflections.
Some mention of Kirk’s discussion of the topic could have helped to clarify the idea conceptually because Byrne—oddly—nowhere explicitly defines what he believes the “moral imagination” to mean. To summarize briefly and inadequately, Kirk, who was America’s foremost Burkean conservative, described the moral imagination as “that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment,” especially “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” Only through imagination, Kirk said, can man come to perceive what is abiding in his existence. The perception of ethical norms in an imaginative vision is indispensable to civilization. From these norms derive laws, standards of justice, customs, and other moral beliefs that bind people into community. The most important guide to living in accord with these enduring norms is the imaginative absorption of the totality of man’s experience. It is from the non-conceptual and non-definitional power of the moral imagination rather than the faculty of reason that the ordering norms of the soul and commonwealth are derived.
Some of Byrne’s examples of Burke’s application of the moral-imaginative approach are debatable. In one instance, while observing correctly that Burke drew a sharp distinction between “reform” and “change,” embracing the former while expressing skepticism about the latter, Byrne explains, “What destroys the fabric of society Is not necessarily a bad change, but any change, good or bad in itself, that is accomplished without due reverence for what has come before.” But would not any “change” that disrupts the fabric of society be inherently “bad”? What Byrne means by “good change” in this context is puzzling.
Elsewhere, Byrne makes the startling claim that Burke believed that “the practice of slavery . . . actually enhances the [American] southerner’s love of liberty.” Byrne does not explain what he means by this assertion. He should have added that Burke was merely making an observation about human nature. In his famous 1775 “Conciliation with America” speech, Burke observed that Southerners were more stubbornly attached to their liberty than Northerners because people in a slaveholding society “are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom to them is not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege.” He admitted that he did not mean “to commend the superior morality of this sentiment,” but only to describe how people really feel.
In his discussion of Burke’s unsuccessful prosecution of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal, Byrne argues that the power invested in Parliament to impeach “is important both as a political mechanism and as one of the elements equipping Britain’s moral imagination, since it emphasizes the accountability of political leaders.” Equating the moral imagination with holding political officials accountable seems something of a stretch when the issue of political accountability was hardly unknown to thinkers as early as Solon and Aristotle. Moreover, the case for impeaching a public official may be inspired by arguments rooted in the moral imagination, but more frequently is driven by furious partisanship, desire for revenge, or simple political opportunism. And whatever the motivation, the results are not always pretty either for the commonwealth or the people.
Although competently written and researched, this book reads too much like the doctoral thesis it apparently was. To the author’s credit, Byrne examines some of Burke’s neglected early writings (some written when he was still a youth) which provide valuable insights into the development of Burke’s thought. With some qualifications as noted, this work is worth considering as a plea for additional serious scholarship on this important topic.
W. Wesley McDonald, Professor of Political Science, Elizabethtown College (PA), is the author of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, (University of Missouri Press, 2004), and was a former assistant to Russell Kirk.
Posted: November 27, 2011
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