1997 marked the bicentenary of Edmund Burke’s death, the perfect occasion to measure the enduring relevance of his thought. What endures, amply evident from this fine collection of essays by leading Burke scholars, politicians, and political theorists, is not insubstantial, for what Burke warred against has not been vanquished completely, nor is it likely to be any time soon. Burke’s “antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow” is still with us, no longer in the more deadly form of the defeated “armed doctrines,” to be sure, but subtly, in the transformed categories of thought, the decadence of cultural expression, and the corruption of laws in liberal democratic societies. Burke set himself against the French Revolution as the principal embodiment of the antagonist world; for citizens of the liberal democratic universe today, to oppose the antagonist world means opposing, at least in a certain sense, ourselves, The Enduring Edmund Burke provides many paths, insights, and arresting formulations, but since it is a collection, and its authors are not in full agreement, I will sketch what I believe endures in Burke—three lessons that help us oppose ourselves—rather than outline the book’s diverse contents.
Why do I say we must oppose ourselves? At the heart of the antagonist world lies the triumph of the human will over any external or internal constraint. And what drives modern, free societies—what drives democracy—more powerfully than the unleashed will? Destructively, the unleashed will pushes ever deeper into the capillaries of the social order, sanctioning doctors to end life where once they would have preserved it, and eroding belief in a human nature or divine law which once might have checked the will’s dominion. Thus, the emergence of abortion and assisted suicide as hotly contested stakes in the culture war, the evisceration of any notion of moral truth by the idea that we invent our values, and myriad other phenomena of modern life. “We are the world,” as the fatuous pop song put it. Burke’s first enduring lesson teaches us that we are not the world, as several of the authors in The Enduring Edmund Burke—Norman Barry on political economy, Joseph Pappin III on rights, among other—remind us vigorously. We owe obligations to predecessors and to those who follow, however difficult it is for us to see them past our solipsism. Freedom without limits soon becomes disordered freedom, and then no freedom at all. We need to hear Burke’s wisdom about the true sources of ordered liberty again if we are to preserve what is just about liberal democratic societies—their freedom, their basic decencies, their awesome prosperity.
Contemporary liberalism, drawing its inspiration from the French Revolution, is the will’s agent in modern life, and threatens to undermine liberal democracy by squandering its preliberal moral capital. Contemporary liberalism is intolerant of everything that is not contemporarily liberal, and therefore, aided by its power in universities, the courts, and the media, it colonizes the moral world and makes institutions over into its own individualist and contractualist image. Inventing its morality, it believes it can make moral beliefs fit together in geometric perfection; anything that does not fit, well, that we can toss aside as “unreasonable,” as John Rawls—the theoretical voice of contemporary liberalism—all-too-reasonably puts it. Contemporary liberalism, in other words, is profoundly illiberal; Burke offers a different kind of liberalism, a liberal conservatism, far more pluralistic than the gray monotony of Rawls’s Harvard. (Though Burke was one of the first conservatives in the history of Western political thought, he was also a liberal, as Conor Cruise O’Brien, one of the contributors to The Enduring Edmund Burke, stressed in his masterful The Great Melody).
Burke, while acknowledging the universality of human nature, was acutely aware of the conflictual nature of human ends, and sought, like Aristotle, to moderate them, seeking “not an excellence in simplicity, but one far superior, an excellence in composition.” To seek to iron human ends into a perfectly flat shape, as do Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and our current Supreme Court, is disastrously at odds with the rich plurality of human allegiance and aspiration—hence Burke’s support for the “little platoons” which exist prior to the state, and which provide varied sources of identification and human belonging. Burke’s second enduring lesson, then, is this emphasis on the plurality of the human good—without denying certain universal goods—and commensurate recognition that civil society, not the state, best serves it.
Given Burke’s sensitivity to what we call pluralism, is there not a danger of relativism in his thought? The Enduring Edmund Burke follows the winding paths across which Burke sought to make principle and circumstance “compose” with the least damage to human flourishing: his moderate defense of the American revolutionaries; his struggle for the rights of the subjects of British rule in India (superbly recounted here by P. J. Marshall); his quest for justice for Irish Catholics; and, of course, his steadfast resistance to the Jacobins. It is easy to confuse Burke’s peregrinations with a kind of pragmatism, but we must keep Burke’s ultimate ends in view, as well as his feel for the variegated texture of the human world. Burke always defended the weak against the powerful, always fought for justice against arbitrary power, always sought to preserve through reform a truly free society against the homogenizing impulses of the modern age. Pursuing these ends called for Burke to respond differently in different settings, as editor Ian Crowe suggests in his fine introduction, but it never meant rejecting principle outright. Perhaps Burke’s prudence gave way too much to pragmatism, as Leo Strauss has argued, but we might in part excuse this by his abandonment of the scholar’s life for that of statesman. Burke’s third enduring lesson, then, is to offer a model of thinking politically matched in the twentieth century by the great French political philosopher Raymond Aron, Winston Churchill, and precious few others.
The Enduring Edmund Burke, in addition to mining these three lessons, presents much of scholarly and practical interest, from Burke’s influence on post-revolutionary France and nineteenth-century conservatism in England, to historical treatments of Burke and the American Revolution (by Peter Stanlis) and Burke and the French Revolution (by Steven Blakemore). Beautifully designed, it perfectly complements ISI’s republication, with a new foreword by Salisbury Review editor Roger Scruton, of Russell Kirk’s 1967 biography of Burke. And not least of the book’s pleasures are copious quotations from Burke, one of the great stylists in the English language.
Dr. Brian C. Anderson is Senior Editor of City Journal and author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, newly published by Rowman & Littlefield.
Posted: January 13, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.