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Volume 9, Number 2 (Winter 1969)

Strong Essays on Burke

Edmund Burke, the Enlightenment and the Modern World,
edited by Peter J. Stanlis.
Detroit: University of Detroit Press, 1967.
129 pp.

Francis Canavan, S.J.

Putting a title on a collection of disparate papers is always a problem. Considering the difficulty, the editor of this volume has succeeded rather well. The five papers and two commentaries that make it up were originally read at a Burke symposium at the University of Detroit in November 1965. The papers do not really hang together, but at least a fair part of then can be grouped under the symposium’s stated theme: “Edmund Burke, the Enlightenment and the Modern World.”

The first paper fits the theme only by having Edmund Burke as its subject. Written by Thomas H. D. Mahoney, it is a carefully detailed account of Burke’s part in the repeal of the Stamp Act, an episode in which Burke’s “meteoric rise from political obscurity to national prominence” (as Prof. Mahoney calls it) coincided with the first act of the drama of the American Revolution. Prof. Mahoney is an historian and a good one. The work he does here is characterized by the same excellence as his earlier writing on Burke and will be useful to all students of a man in whom political thought was so closely linked with political action. A commentary on this paper, by Daniel L. McCue Jr., is brief but deserves praise for bringing out the case that can be made for Burke’s opponents in the Stamp Act controversy.

The union of thought and action in Burke is also the theme of the second paper, Robert A. Smith’s “Burke’s Crusade against the French Revolution: Principles and Prejudices.” As its title indicates, this paper is squarely focused on one aspect of Burke’s relationship to the Enlightenment, i.e., his thorough repudiation of the French Revolution. But Prof. Smith’s point is that Burke’s quarrel with the Revolution cannot be understood as a clash of principles alone. Burke, he says, was a man of his time, whose reaction to the Revolution was inspired not only by his intellectual convictions, but also by other “essentially personal and momentary themes.”

Prof. Smith seems to accept, though he does not quote, John Morley’s dictum that Burke “changed his front, but he never changed his ground.” Smith says: “There can no longer be any reasonable doubt that there is a fundamental intellectual consistency within and behind the superficial diversity of Burke’s ideas and writings. The same basic principles and assumptions can be found everywhere from the earliest letters and pamphlets to the last.” Nonetheless, he says—and this is the burden of his paper—one does find shifts of emphasis in Burke’s thought and a varying “application of some of these fundamental principles to the judgment of specific political events . . . between his earlier writings and those of the Revolutionary period.”

Thus the early Burke had more faith in the wisdom of the people than the Burke of the 1790’s. This change of attitude was due not merely to the French revelation of what the people were capable of doing, but also to Burke’s discovery over the years that the British people were not natural and dependable supporters of the Rockingham Whigs. Again, Burke’s distrust of radicalism in religion and politics was consistent throughout his life, but it sprang from his attachment to a transient political and social order as well as from his deeper beliefs. One consequence was that Burke looked upon movements for constitutional reform simply as the expression of false and dangerous ideas, ignoring the extent to which they manifested the needs of a changing society.

Personal considerations also shaped Burke’s attitudes as time went by. Many of the reformers and interest groups who had been Burke’s political allies eventually revealed themselves as “the avowed enemies of everything in which he believed most passionately.” Not only that; he became convinced that they were trying to drive him out of public life. Burke’s growing disaffection from men whom he had trusted and esteemed goes part way to explain the vehemence of his attacks on radicals in the Revolutionary period.

Prof. Smith’s paper is a reminder to students of Burke’s political thought that he was not a detached intellect, but very much a political partisan. If one can imagine a highly intelligent and reflective U.S. senator, one might expect to find a political philosophy in his speeches and writings. But it would be astonishing if they did not bear the traces, after their author had spent nearly thirty years in Congress, of outdated controversies, shifting political alliances, and personal bias and rancor. So, too, with Burke: he was not exempt from the common weaknesses of political men.

Harvey C. Mansfield Jr.’s “Burke and Machiavelli on Principles in Politics” is brilliant, intriguing, but not entirely convincing, at least to this reviewer. Written in the style of Leo Strauss, it seems clearly to reflect the master’s well-known interpretations of Burke and Machiavelli. To say this is not to detract from the paper’s considerable merits: there are far worse starting points in political philosophy than the works of Leo Strauss.

At the risk of oversimplifying a subtle piece of analysis, let us say that the paper’s basic premise is this: “A political principle is or implies a universal assertion about the common good which excludes other universal assertions.” A principle of this kind would be a conception of the good life for man and society such as one finds in the classic writings of antiquity or in Christian revelation; and it makes party government as practiced in today’s liberal democracies impossible, because party government assumes a plurality of principles, all of them legitimate.

According to Dr. Mansfield, Machiavelli was the first to have asserted that party government is good, on the ground that the competition of several principles in a state is the source of its freedom and its power. “But,” says Mansfield, “by allowing such competition, he seems to have blasted all principles from politics.” For Machiavelli, a party cannot be founded on a principle which is a conception of the good of the whole community; politics is only the clash of interests, of which the common good may be a byproduct.

Burke asserted, according to Mansfield, that parties were not only good but respectable. But he sought to maintain that “it is possible to practice several principles without abandoning all principles.” This he did by yielding a point to Machiavelli and accepting an “impartial” natural law which “contains no summum bonum and recommends no particular end or way of life.” Rather, the end of the state is “a noble and liberal liberty” that enables men to “live securely, actively and as virtuously as they will.”

At the very end of his paper, however, Mansfield says that on certain decisive occasions Burke had to recur to principles higher than those of his “prescriptive, impartial natural law [which] does not include the highest good of man and hence ... does not permit an appeal to principles above politics.” It is not clear to Mansfield “whether the source of transcendent principles for Burke was the classical good life or the Christian conscience or both.” There he leaves the matter. There, too, since lack of space forbids criticism, we must leave the matter, with but one remark: this paper may be wrong about Machiavelli or Burke or both, but it is a penetrating critique of liberal democracy.

The editor of this volume, Peter J. Stanlis, has contributed a valuable essay entitled “Edmund Burke and the Scientific Rationalism of the Enlightenment.” He finds the essence of this rationalism in a “faith in reason as an absolute, sufficient unto itself”; and the most perfect product of this reason is geometry. The rationalist faith of the Enlightenment thus included “the conviction that an exact science of human nature, and therefore of ethics and politics, was possible, if only men applied the infallible methods of deductive logic and analytical geometry to human affairs.”

It was against this conception of reason that Burke revolted all his life. But in this he was only continuing what Prof. Stanlis calls “a rich tradition of philosophical skepticism toward speculative theory based on scientific rationalism,” of which Dryden, Swift, and Johnson were the best representatives. They did not reject reason itself, but they had “a profound awareness of the limits of human reason as the supreme instrument for establishing ‘truth,’ especially in religion.” Prof. Stanlis shows without difficulty that Burke stood in this tradition. His paper has the additional merit of defining clearly what it was in the Enlightenment to which Burke and his predecessors most strongly objected.

A brief paper by the late Walter D. Love, “‘Meaning’ in the History of Conflicting Interpretations of Burke,” concludes the volume. Dr. Love urges study of the history of the interpretations of Burke. As we know, explanations of what Burke meant have varied widely, and some of the explanations have contradicted Burke’s own explicit statements. Yet the commentators had all read Burke, and they were not stupid men. Dr. Love suggests that it would throw light on the history of thought if scholars today were to ask, not only what Burke really meant, but also why so many intelligent people thought he meant something different.

The ultimate value of this kind of inquiry might be a better understanding of Burke. But Love sees it as useful also because of what it would tell us about the men who have interpreted Burke and about the intellectual preoccupations of the periods in which they wrote. It might even lead to some conclusions about the ways in which ideas are transmitted and transformed from generation to generation.

This book, one sees, is a somewhat mixed bag of papers. But they are all good, and all give evidence of the growing depth and sophistication of scholarship on Burke and his time. Dr. Stanlis, the editor, deserves particular praise for the stimulus and encouragement he has given this scholarship in the past ten years and more. The present volume is but one more testimony of his efforts. 

Father Canavan (1918–2009), of Fordham University, is the author of three books on Burke.

Posted: April 6, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

The survival of any culture, or of the material fabric of civilization, requires vigorous imagination and readiness to sacrifice. By dullness and complacency are intellectual and social orders undone.

Russell Kirk

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