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The Legacies of Edmund Burke and Robert Frost

An Interview with Peter J. Stanlis

Interviewed by James E. Person, Jr.

book cover imageThe Bookman is pleased to publish this interview with Peter J. Stanlis, Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Rockford College and one of the foremost scholars of Edmund Burke and Robert Frost. Stanlis’s groundbreaking work, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958), forever changed the way scholars view Burke’s work. Stanlis placed Burke firmly in the tradition of Western natural law reasoning. Stanlis has also published a number of essays and articles on Frost, including Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher (2007).

James Person: Paul Elmer More recorded that in 1913, while visiting a New York club, he happened to mention Edmund Burke’s name; and a companion inquired, “Burke? He’s dead, is he not?” In a manner of speaking, just how dead is Edmund Burke?

Peter Stanlis: I think that for people who are alive, vital, and interested in what’s going on in the world, and who have some sense of history and how the past has shaped the present, Burke is very much alive. And he always will be, because he had so many perceptive things to say about the nature of man and civil society, and of civilization, politics, government, religion, and literature—and you name it! He was a very vital person in a broad cross-section of the humanities.

Person: In his best-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke coined a phrase often used by Russell Kirk and yourself when he spoke of “the wardrobe of a moral imagination.” What did Burke mean by that term, “moral imagination”?

Stanlis: I think he meant that civilization is an instrumental means of developing the total nature of man, including his moral imagination. When we’re born we have a potentiality to be developed, and that is developed through family, and through going to school. We take years and years developing our lives, our skills, and our formal education; and then, of course, creatively, on our own initiative, we accomplish much that helps us to develop what is unique in our personality and character.

But, of course, the moral imagination is primarily the contribution of religion: through the family, and through the Church and society. And of course the humanities also contribute very much to the moral imagination of students as they’re growing up, so that one doesn’t have the attitude toward society of a person with a tabula rasa. There is not a blank blackboard of the mind to be written on. Rather, the moral imagination involves a conception of knowledge that is basically centered in the memory: memory and retrospection. Past experiences are all lodged into our memory and become the unvoiced assumptions of all future experience. Our accumulated knowledge enables us to assume something before experiencing it. And in that respect, faith precedes reason. We anticipate things by virtue of what we believe, and not in terms of what the present senses and reason in the abstract tell us.

Person: Burke declared that God willed the state for man’s benefit; and that we must not venture to trade upon the petty bank and capital of our private rationality, but should rather venerate where we do not presently understand, an abide by the wisdom of our ancestors, the winnowed and filtered experience of the race. This he summed up by saying that while the individual is foolish, the species is wise, because, over time, the species judges aright through the accumulated, sifted wisdom of prejudice, habit, and custom. Burke would seem to have held that prudence is of immense importance as a virtue within a healthy culture.

Stanlis: Yes, in fact he called prudence the first of virtues, the first of the political and moral virtues. Without prudence people do things very irrationally, and most of the great tragedies in human nature and society are a result of statesmen who lacked prudence—sometimes to their destruction. Napoleon was destroyed by his lack of prudence in invading Russia. Hitler was destroyed by his fanaticism, which is at the opposite extreme of prudence. Prudence acts as a brake to the human will. The “motor” in human nature is to go forward and do things. Prudence acts as the steering wheel and the brake that prevents one from just running amok.

It’s a moral virtue, not an intellectual virtue: that’s an important point. It’s connected with the larger aspects of human nature. And I think it’s also connected with aesthetic sensibility. You have to have some sense of what is beautiful in life, as well as what is true, in order to be prudent. There’s the true, the beautiful, and the useful, and I think prudence is certainly involved in all three. All the other virtues depend upon it. It’s the first of the moral virtues and the practical virtues. There’s theory and there’s practice. You can’t carry theory over into practice in a sensible way without prudence.

Person: Burke held that change is the means of our preservation. In his Fourth Letter on the Regicide Peace he made it emphatically clear that private thoughts and individuals actions may exercise a profound change upon the general drift of the age, for good or for ill. That is, where he wrote, “The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature.” In other words, although the individual is foolish while the species is wise there is a crucial role for the individual in society in terms of choices and actions.

Stanlis: Yes, I think that’s true. It doesn’t preclude the individual or the special historical occasion when individualism determines a course of action. In reference to the girl, in that passage you quoted, Burke referred to Joan of Arc. She changed the whole political climate of France in her time. She had the inspiration of leadership; of course it was mystically enforced through religious revelation—and of course all the intellectual rationalists and skeptics treated her with contempt until they saw the consequences of her behavior, which was positive to the welfare of her nation at that time in their struggle with the English forces that were invading France.

So there’s plenty of room for good, solid, moral, courageous leadership, and that in no way precludes the wisdom of the collective, corporate wisdom of man. When Burke says “the species is wise,” he doesn’t mean merely numbers; I think he means the corporate nature of man. Man in his institutional functions is wiser than man abstracted or isolated.

Person: In your first book, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law, you wrote that the Natural Law is fundamental in Burke’s conception of man and civil society. What did Burke mean when he used the term Natural Law?

Stanlis: Burke seldom used the term as such. But he does appeal to the moral basis of law, particularly in two areas: in Ireland, with the anti-papal penal code against Irish Catholics, which was in complete violation of not only the civil and constitutional rights of the Irish people, but it was a violation of elementary ethics as well, because the great object of civility is to protect life, liberty, and property. Well, all three of them were being emasculated and destroyed in Ireland by the British government. Burke, in one sentence, said in effect that it was the Irish penal code that was the most systematically thought-out abuse of power “as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” He had witnessed it in the process of growing up in Ireland, so he knew what it was like at first hand, seeing how whole families and regions had been destroyed by such abuse.

The other area where the moral Natural Law was most abused was in India. There the English, through the East India Company, had evolved into what Burke called “a statesman in the disguise of a merchant.” They had invaded and secured control of large sections of India, and had established their own court system, their own army, and were abusing their privileges, exploiting the people for their own benefit, and sending back fortunes to England so that they could live on in prosperity when they returned. So Burke defended the Indian people against that kind of abuse of basic morality.

Person: To shift gears just a bit: Even many of those who disagree with Burke philosophically agree that he was a superb prose stylist, notably William Hazlitt, who admired Burke’s wisdom and eloquence, and his marriage of truth with an appealing style of expression. What are your own views of Burke as a rhetorician?

Stanlis: I agree with Hazlitt. And there were quite a few other excellent writers—Thomas De Quincey, Matthew Arnold, and Leslie Stephen—in the Victorian era, who have praised Burke’s mastery of the English language. There have been doctoral dissertations written on his style. One author even claimed that there are seven different types of prose style in Burke.

I would say that the key to his prose style is that he appeals to the total nature of man. He doesn’t leave anything omitted. He appeals to the sense, and therefore you have imagery. He appeals to reason, and therefore you have argument. And he appeals to the basic emotions of man, and therefore you have psychological elements. And all these are fused together and brought to bear upon dramatic action, you might say, because his main purpose was to persuade his listeners to a certain course of political action. And in this he was often quite successful. But you know, you have to keep in mind that he was always in the minority; out of the 29 years he was in the House of Commons, he was in the Opposition to the reigning power for 27½ years. His party, the Rockingham Whigs so-called, was only in power about a year and a half in Burke’s whole career.

He appealed to the public, because many times the speeches he made in Parliament would be published, and these would see great circulation among the educated public. And that was true not only in England but in America, where Burke was celebrated for his opposition to the policies of Lord North and George III, which led finally to the American Revolution. He anticipated that they were headed for serious trouble if they continued the policies they were following. And he did his best to undercut it. It’s doubtful that Burke could have persuaded the Americans not to rebel against England; that may be a foregone conclusion. But at least he moderated the abuses of power by the British government, and for a while postponed the great climactic opposition that finally emerged in the American Revolution. He thought the American Revolution was justified, although he lamented the fact that it was necessary for the Americans to take that course of actions.

Person: Your own scholarship is most often associated with Burke and Robert Frost. Burke wrote a famous essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful. Is there any connection between Burke’s theory of the sublime and the beautiful, and Frost’s?

Stanlis: When I first published my book on Burke and the Natural Law, I sent a copy to Frost, and I inscribed it in appreciation of all the wonderful talks we had had together in his cabin at Bread Loaf and in Boston and other places. I didn’t hear from him and I didn’t expect to, because that wasn’t his style. But the first time I met him after sending him that copy of my study of Burke, he made it clear that he had read it very carefully. He also made it clear that he thoroughly agreed with much in Burke, particularly Burke’s view of the French Revolution. He said Burke was absolutely right in condemning the French Revolution as a way of making changes in society. Woodrow Wilson, who is often thought of as a great liberal, agreed with Burke on that, as well. So it’s not a question of being conservative or liberal, whether you agree with Burke on the French Revolution. Frost had a great admiration for Burke—and incidentally, he had a conception of prejudice which was absolutely identical with what Burke defends as prejudice: a prejudgment of things that accrue as a result of past experience, which becomes lodged in the mind and become the basis for knowledge and for how we respond to future experiences. So I think there was a great deal of what you might call spiritual affinity between Frost and Burke. We can’t know what Burke would have thought of Frost, but it’s clear that Robert Frost had a very favorable and deep-down appreciation of Edmund Burke, not only in terms of politics but as a human being.

book cover imagePerson: Your new book, Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, argues that an understanding of dualism in Frost’s belief system is essential to better understanding the man and his poetry. In a little-discussed article on Frost published in the June, 1925 issue of The Fugitive, John Crowe Ransom took issue with this very idea. Responding to an article published elsewhere by Gorham Munson, Ransom wrote: “A dualist is a practical man whose mind has no philosophical quality. It may be that we begin our intellectual lives as dualists, but under the logic of experience (if our minds entertain the logical categories) we soon find that the largest problem in our lives is to effect an escape from dualism. The dualist sees himself as one, and the objective world as another; the world is not sympathetic, not even sentient, but still fairly plastic to his will, and capable of being made by hard work to minister to his happiness: a wilderness which may [be] transformed into a garden, a habitat which has the makings of a home. His problem is purely the physical one: the application of force at the point where it will do the most good.” Your own definition of dualism is somewhat different that Ransom’s. How do you so differ? And how does an accurate understanding of Frost’s dualism aid in the understanding of his craft?

Stanlis: I appreciate your concern in wanting to have me clarify the nature and importance of philosophical dualism in Frost’s intellectual orientation. All that is most commendable, and I wish that other readers of my book would show the same degree of interest in its chief subject and theme.

Before getting into my subject and theme, I want to dispose of the article by John Crowe Ransom on dualism (as he understands it). Ransom reveals that he has not the faintest notion of what dualism meant to Frost, and although he does not even mention “monism,” in writing that “The dualist sees himself as one, and the objective world as another,” he splits mind or spirit from matter and assumes a double monism as the basis of reality. In this bifurcation of human nature and external physical nature, he assumes the same methodology as Descartes. But then he does not even hold fast to the separated two basic elements of reality, and instead assumes a utilitarian or pragmatic desire on the part of human nature to manipulate external nature to its practical concerns. This is what leads him to assert that “A dualist is a practical man whose mind has no philosophical quality.” In short, Ransom himself shows that he has no philosophical quality of mind. He clearly favors a monism of matter, or external physical nature, and since he entertains “the logical categories,” that is, rationalism perceived as expository discourse, he is clearly in the camp of Descartes, although he shows no sign of any knowledge or awareness of that tradition. He is on the way to becoming a logical positivist whose values are centered in matter. It is perfectly natural, therefore, that Ransom later in life abandoned his inherited Christianity, such as it was, and became wholly committed to analytical reason as the sole criterion for literary criticism, as in “the New Criticism.”

In total contrast with Ransom is Arthur O. Lovejoy in The Revolt against Dualism, first published in 1930. I urge you to secure a copy of that book, if you wish to understand the philosophical conflicts over dualism since the time of Descartes. You may have noted that I devote two chapters in my book to Lovejoy’s two books on dualism and the Cartesian rationalism of the so-called Enlightenment. Frost was very familiar with both of these books, and considered Lovejoy to be one of the greatest scholars that America ever produced.

Frost was a world removed from the views of Ransom regarding both dualism and metaphorical language in its role as the mediator between the claims of spirit or mind on the one hand, and physical matter on the other. You need to not only read, but study closely, Frost’s short essay “Education by Poetry,” and truly understand his theme, before you can treat his dualism with any degree of accuracy as it applies to science, religion, the creative arts, and humanities, and even in education, society, and politics. Frost makes it abundantly clear that he was a dualist, not as Ransom understood that term, but in the “play” of metaphors in the interactions between mind or spirit and matter.

The most important sentence in “Education by Poetry” is that in saying spirit in terms of matter or matter in terms of spirit, the effort to do so is “the noblest effort that ever failed.” By that Frost meant that there is no way that any final absolute solution can be reached in the conflicts between “things in pairs ordained to everlasting opposition.” In the conflict between justice and mercy, there is no way that any society can resolve this perennial conflict by making either justice or mercy triumphant and absolute. Similarly, there is no way that the so-called “war between the sexes” can ever by resolved by making either party triumphant absolutely over the other. That was why Frost wrote two masques, not one; and why in his dramatic dialogues and monologues between men and women neither party is every wholly triumphant over the other. That is why in “Mending Wall” he repeats twice that “good fences make good neighbors,” and “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” For the role of “love,” or the absence of it, compare his “Two Look at Two” with “The Most of It.” That is why Frost insisted that there is no conflict between religion and science—only two very different ways of regarding the same reality. These supposed contradictions, or “contrarieties” as Frost called them, permeate all of Frost’s major poems.

Person: Peter Stanlis, thank you very much.

Stanlis: It’s been a pleasure.

James E. Person, Jr., is author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999).

Posted: February 3, 2008 in Interviews.

Did you see this one?

The Decline of the Liberal Imagination
The Editors
Volume 37, Number 3 (Fall 1997)

The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at the highest.

Russell Kirk


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The University Bookman is joining Fordham University in hosting the award-winning poet and critic A. M. Juster on Monday, February 6, 2017 at 6:00pm on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus (McMahon Hall, Rm. 109; use the entrance on West 60th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan). Juster will speak on “Riddles, Elegies, and Satires: Adventures in Translation.” The event is free and open to the public and registration is not required. We are also planning a second event in May on the humanities. Watch this space for more details. (27 Dec 2016)

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