For Our Time
“He that shall peruse the political pamphlets of any past reign,” wrote Samuel Johnson, “will wonder why they were so eagerly read, or so loudly praised.” Yet, as Leslie Stephen was to assert more than a century later, no writer has received or deserved more splendid panegyrics than Edmund Burke, whose “inevitable literary quality . . . sure mastery of style” (added Woodrow Wilson) “mark the man, as much as his thought itself.” Not only by virtue of his style, but with his perennial political philosophy, Burke has escaped the fate of Johnson’s pamphleteers; and his writings have endured, as Harold Laski once remarked, perhaps with a profundity deeper than his own realization, “as the permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea.”
Unfortunately, the approach of the student to that “permanent manual” has proved difficult. As the editors of The Philosophy of Edmund Burke remark, Burke never put down his ideas “in a systematic treatise where their relations show clearly.” Professors Bredvold and Ross have undertaken that task, compounding quotations into a “manual” in a sense more specific than Laski intended. To some readers the result may be disappointing. While the Bredvold‑Ross volume is unerring in its pinpointing of Burke’s political norms, their presentation in quotations, ranging from snippets of sentence length to several pages, may exude too much the aura of professorial abstraction and itemizing. Yet while we miss the spectacle of Burke’s serpentine mind winding sinuously into its subject, at least we see emphatically and clearly, as if in skeletal starkness, his guiding principles. And yet again, Burke’s position on so fundamental an element as the natural law has been so widely misunderstood, even by Professor Oscar Handlin of Harvard, that one can be thankful for a volume that, in its opening chapter, will prevent the modern student from falling into the like error of presuming that Burke was the enemy rather than the consistent adherent of the ius naturale. Further, a terse editorial commentary elucidates with sharp definition and helpful explanation what Burke meant by such words as “prudence,” and some minimal historical notes, as well as translations of classical questions.
Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of an anthology of its particular kind, the Bredvold‑Ross volume has the first virtues of a textbook—accuracy and clarity, and its juxtaposition of adroitly chosen excerpts, rather than selections, provides the student with a cross‑illumination of Burke’s political norms that is valuable. Still, it is a moot point whether such a “manual” constitutes a textbook that will provide the best approach to that grander manual that Burke wrote in the practical application of his principles, not merely in their perception, throughout his long and illustrious career.
While I happen to have first encountered Burke in a tenth‑grade high‑school English class, where, under the rod, we outlined, more profitably than I could begin to say, his Speech on Conciliation with America, such students as are now introduced at all, on the university level, to his “permanent manual,” generally meet him in one of the several available paperback editions of his Reflections on the French Resolution. Perhaps properly so, for there, as in all Burke’s writings on French affairs, as Professors Bredvoki and Ross observe, “his ideas . . . came together, were rethought and extended, and then marshalled to fight for justice and freedom.” There is no denying that Burke is at his most rhetorically emphatic in such works as the Reflections, where he saw the attack upon Western civilization launched from a European base and on a grand international scale. Burke’s value, in the Reflections, is that his perceptive mind stood contemporary to the beginnings of what Irving Babbitt later described as “the modern internationalist movement,” emanating from the eighteenth century and still threatening the twentieth. In the parallel, to which the student should be alerted, between the revolutions of 1789 and 1917, Professors Bredvold and Ross sternly emphasize the immediacy of Burke’s philosophy to us.
The editors make the analogy of the French Revolution “to the Russian Revolution, blinded by ideology, invoking ‘science’ as the French Revolution invoked ‘reason,’ and announcing, as the French had, its devotion to the age‑old aspirations of man.” Aware too of the differences between the two revolutions, the editors see beyond these to their common nature:
The Russian Revolution did not appeal to abstract reason as the French Revolution did. Its guide is ‘History’ . . . interpreted rigidly by principles labeled ‘scientific’ but bearing the clear mark of the a priori. Yet the result is the same in essence; reason is separated from experience and becomes the enemy of morals. A nation is created which is not just a nation but the center of a worldwide revolution, which exists to foment civil war everywhere. Its end is a new social organization opposed to the spirit—moral, social, religious—of Western civilization. . . . Its means are any that will serve its purposes . . . and they are forged deftly, without the hindrance of scruple. To confront the U.S.S.R. as though it were just another powerful state bidding for still more power and to try to defeat it by nineteenth-century means would be suicidal folly. . . .
Further, both revolutions were anti‑religious and totalitarian; totalitarian, because, fundamentally, they were anti‑religious in their seeking to re‑make man (“Burke knew that to reject man was to rebuff God”); anti‑religious, because they were totalitarian: “Your despots govern by terror,” as Burke said. “They know that he who fears God fears nothing else; and therefore they eradicate from the mind . . . the only sort of fear which generates true courage.” Thus Burke dealt, in essence, with that with which we must deal. Perhaps, as the editors judge, because we are indeed “tyros at this sort of politics,” the notion of coexistence with such tyranny is countenanced in some Western quarters today. Therefore, as the editors make clear, we need now more than ever, not only some insight into Burke’s perennial principles, but also the example and experience of the man who wrote:
I never thought we could make peace with the system; because it was not for the sake of an object we pursued in rivalry with each other, but with the system itself that we were at war. As I understand the matter, we were at war, not with with its conduct, but with its existence,—convinced that its existence and its hostility were the same.
And “in the end,” add Burke’s editors, the “last words” are his, “whatever the battlefield—intellect, spirit, or body . . . : ‘with this republic nothing independent can coexist.’” To make Burke utterly relevant to our own time, underscore coexist, and substitute for “this republic” the phrase “these soviet socialist republics.”
The editors are forthright in their applying Burke’s writings to our own time, and it is unfortunate that, in their conceding too much to Burke’s hostile critics, they impugn his understanding of his own time. Burke, they declare, “saw some things badly”:
He thought the French Revolution an enemy of property, for it confiscated the property of aristocrats, yet in fact it gave property into the hands of those whose grip was most relentless. He overlooked the appeals of the Revolution to the most ardent and purest of the young men. He modified his earlier belief about the just power of the people. And he minimized, absurdly, the abuses of the ancien régime, as some today minimize the abuses of Czarism.
To expect Burke to be without flaw as a historian of the French Revolution is as bad an error as it would be to read him as such, but these generalizations are as harsh as they are sweeping. The French Revolution did indeed violate the property (and what, to Burke, was worse—the principle of property) not of the aristocrats only, but of the Church, and Burke was aware of its demagogic redistribution. As for the young men who found it a bliss in that dawn to be alive, they did, with maturity, rise to wisdom, and concede that Burke was right in his perceiving the ultimate lines of the development of the Revolution, from its inception to its inevitable apotheosis (after Burke’s death) of Bonaparte. Burke’s conception of “the just powers of the people,” at least as early as 1780, did not permit the “desires” of the people to “militate with the stable and eternal rules of justice and reason (rules which are above us and above them).” Arid, though it is still fashionable to say so, Burke did not “minimize,” much less “absurdly,” the “abuses of the ancien régime,” as he obviously could not have felt that it was to his purpose to deal with these abuses, but rather to warn against the more potentially and internationally dangerous abuses of the nouveau régime.
However, even were these allegations of Burke’s historical misjudgments as true as the editors presume, they would be, as the editors realize, of considerably less importance than Burke’s acute insight into the totalitarian nature of the Revolution and its course of development. And even more important than the accuracy of Burke’s prophecy, marvellous as that is, are his first principles of politics on which that prophecy was based. These principles the editors, by deft topical arrangement, have set forth in eight chapters: “Theory of Law and Legislation,” “Prudence as a Political Virtue,” “The State and Society,” “Government and Human Nature,” “Practical Politics,” “Reform and Tradition,” “Tradition in the English Establishment,” and “Jacobinism.” A ninth chapter deals with Burke’s “Aesthetics: The Psychology of the Sublime.” In the quotations which comprise these chapters, we come as close as it may be possible to come in 267 pages to a “manual,” in the more restricted sense of that word, of Burke’s writings, which, in their turn, ever shall remain “as the permanent manual of political wisdom.”
Warren L. Fleischauer was at the time of writing Associate Professor of English, C. W. Post College.
Posted: December 11, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.
On Looking for What We Have Been Given
James V. Schall, S. J.