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Volume 31, Number 3 (Fall 1991)

The Moral Imperative of Edmund Burke

book cover imageEdmund Burke: The Enlightenment and Revolution
by Peter J. Stanlis, Foreword by Russell Kirk.
Transaction Publishers, 1991.
xxi +259 pp. $40.

Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence
by Francis Canavan.
Carolina Academic Press, 1987.
xiv +183 pp. $24.

Rod Preece

There has been a price to pay for the resurrection in recent decades of the awareness of the cardinal importance of Edmund Burke to sound political thought and practice. We have been compelled to endure a number of commentaries by academics in revolt against Burke’s popularity—and in support of their own ideological predilections. Such writers as Macpherson, Kramnick, Dryer, and O’Gorman appear to have read Burke but have never understood him—wilfully, on occasion, one is tempted to conclude. Sharing none of Burke’s attitudes, they have maligned and misrepresented him. What a delight then it is to read the latest contributions from Stanlis and Canavan, authors who know Burke intimately, share his disposition, and, indeed, have become as Burke themselves.

I began reading Stanlis’ book in the belief that I already knew Burke well. Yet I learned so much from a reading of Stanlis that I came to realize that I knew him less fully than I had imagined. After Stanlis I believe I know him now as well as I thought I knew him before. To take a small but significant example, previously I stressed the importance of the similarities between Burke and Aristotle. I now recognize the greater indebtedness of Burke to Cicero. This is not to deny the similarities with Aristotle, merely to acknowledge the greater emphasis on Cicero in Burke’s own writings. Such personal observations might not appear especially relevant, and the point may appear trifling given Cicero’s general consistency with Aristotle, but they may help convince a Burke scholar to read yet another book on the eighteenth-century Whig philosopher-statesman. The minutiae help paint a clearer picture. The trees do indeed constitute the forest.

Stanlis does not offer a particularly new interpretation of Burke. Rather it is that Stanlis provides us with abundant—and incontrovertible—evidence for what previously may have been contentious. For example. I considered the evidence for Burke’s belief in the moral natural law to be clear and certain, but I also thought that the evidence was not prominent and that there were understandable, if quite erroneous, grounds for interpreting Burke as some kind of ethical relativist. Stanlis demonstrates beyond all shadow of doubt that Burke was a whole-hearted exponent of the natural law, that he made frequent—almost constant—reference to it, that it constitutes the very foundation of Burke’s political thought, and that anyone who reads Burke otherwise has not read Burke with due care at all. After Stanlis there should no longer be any debate—about Burke’s view, his consistency, his adamance, or its centrality to his thought.

The relationship between natural law and natural rights is not a very clear one. Indeed, there are many scholars who have argued that the espousal of natural rights constitutes the repudiation of natural law. In our own era those who proclaim the loudest about rights (without, of course, ever acknowledging that rights require corresponding duties) are likely to be those who would scoff at a transcendent code beyond the measurement of pleasure and pain. Stanlis shows, however, that the Burke of natural law was equally a proponent of the real natural rights of man—not, of course, of the metaphysical and radical abstractions of the revolutionaries, but of those rights inherent in nature which exist in some kind of middle, incapable of definition though subject to ready discernment.

At issue for Burke was the practicality of promoting and protecting natural rights, not their existence. Metaphysical abstractions could not ascertain them; and radical action predicated on those abstractions would prevent the achievement of the real rights. Prescription was the surer path. Prescription was the means; the real rights of man the end. Radical action would subvert the end. As Burke said of the French revolutionaries, “Even the fundamental sacred rights of man they have not scrupled to profane.”

In his explanation of Burke’s concept of mankind’s “second nature”—the habits, norms, and mores developed in a particular culture—Stanlis shows how the “law of nations” avoids ethical relativism and is itself an intrinsic part of the natural law. The good, for Burke, is invariable. How it may be approximated depends upon the experiences and constitutional practices of each nation. There is, as Stanlis points out, in the minds of Burke’s positivist critics “a false antithesis between nature and prudence.”

In his Foreword to Stanlis’ book, Russell Kirk describes the chapter on “Burke and the Sensibility of Rousseau” as “the strongest section of the book.” Hesitant as I am to contradict the man whose wonderful writings first introduced me to the Burkean mode of thought, I find that Stanlis goes a little too far, emphasizing only one side of the coin. Burke certainly denounced the excesses and paradoxes of Rousseau, indeed of the whole school of sensibility. Nonetheless, it seems equally important to note that for Burke sensibility lies at the root of man’s moral intuition—however erroneous its excessively sentimental variant may be. Indeed, in Burke’s occasional direct commentaries on Rousseau he makes it clear that there are important truths to be learned from him; it is the metaphysical whole into which Rousseau weaves those truths which is calamitous. Burke’s complaint, I would conjecture, was not against the validity of moral feelings per se but of foolish, arrogant sensibilities based on novelty and sentimentalism rather than those examined against reason grounded in experience.

Burke castigates “false and spurious feelings” but reveres those “unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity”, those which “are our old and immemorial . . . possessions.” It is decidedly not that Stanlis is unaware of this side of Burke, but rather that by his emphasis on Burke’s denunciation of Rousseau’s excesses we may be led to ignore the importance of moral feelings to Burke. Otherwise we are at a loss to understand Burke’s reverence for familial and national loyalties which are prior to our love of mankind in general; otherwise we are at a loss to explain his influence on such Romantics as Wordsworth and Coleridge and the reverence they express toward him.

Stanlis’ examination of Burke’s philosophical relationship to the English Pyrrhonist tradition of Dryden, Swift, and Johnson is a veritable tour de force on a topic previously only scantily examined. And the discussion of the legal strength of the Jacobite tradition against which Burke pitted himself in his defense of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is most instructive. Indeed, there is so much of value in Stanlis’ book it is not possible to comment on it all in a short review. Suffice it to say that Stanlis explains Burke’s views on Enlightenment and revolutionary thought better than it has ever been done before.

Still, allow me one last criticism. Early in the book Stanlis asserts that “so catastrophic was the French revolution that it compelled [Burke], against his will and temperament, to become a political theorist . . .” This goes against the tenor and the grain of the remainder of the book and indeed of the evidence Stanlis provides. At most, perhaps Burke was a little more of a generalist and a little more theoretically explicit in the Reflections and later writings. Indeed, this one assertion by Stanlis seems to contradict the claim that Burke was “the perennial political philosopher” and also the evidence offered that Burke was more abstractly theoretical in his earliest writings. In fact the theoretical principles found in the Reflections, the Appeal, and the Regicide Peace are to be found elsewhere, often expressed at greater length and more explicit form. What the revolution did was not to make Burke more of a political theorist but more despondent and fearful. Burke may have lost some of his intrinsic moderation, his emphasis on prudence—for extreme circumstances may call for extreme measures; but Burke never changed his political philosophy.

It is one of the tasks of a reviewer to find fault if fault is to be found—and these, it appears to me, are faults. But they are faults which mar but a little one of the very best books ever written on Burke—perhaps the very best. Certainly, if I were asked to recommend one book on Burke above all others it would be this.

Francis Canavan’s book is narrower in scope than that of Stanlis. It is a detailed and insightful examination of Burke’s theology and his religion as the foundation of his political theory. Canavan’s task was a daunting one, for although Burke makes the importance of his religion to him quite clear, he wrote little of an explicitly theological nature and was quite content to accept prevailing Anglican doctrine more or less unquestioned.

Canavan examines the contest of prevalent Protestant doctrine in the eighteenth century and discusses Burke’s rather latitudinarian Anglicanism in relation to it. The emphasis is on the belief in Providence—the manner in which God is involved actively in directing the course of human events—and the belief in the moral law as the will of God. Canavan demonstrates that Burke’s Christianity is not one of utility to the state but is sincerely held and firmly believed. As with Stanlis, Canavan demonstrates the subservience of prudence and prescription to the natural moral law. As with Stanlis, one concludes a reading of Canavan by wondering why so many previous writers interpreted Burke differently. While Canavan does not provide the abundance of evidence to be found in Stanlis, one may nonetheless assume in similar vein that the issues raised—Burke’s religious sincerity and the belief in the active role of the deity, for example—are now beyond reasonable dispute.

There is one area, however, where I feel constrained to offer a different interpretation. Canavan refers to Burke’s claim in Thoughts on French Affairs that those who oppose “this mighty current in human affairs [the French Revolution], will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate”. In examining the evidence Canavan concludes rightly that this is not any indication of a change of attitude toward the revolution. It is rather, for Canavan, an example of Burke’s habit of seeing God’s will in the course of events “as a permanent cast of mind.” If a new order is coming on, then it is God’s will—though one is still entitled to resist, for one cannot know God’s will in advance. Canavan acknowledges, however, that Burke may have meant instead that where resistance becomes useless it is also perverse and obstinate.

A more secular interpretation—one consistent with the recognition of the futility of resistance on occasion and not inconsistent with Burke’s providential views—may be offered as an alternative. For Burke, prudence requires that one work with the material at hand, which includes the practical state of affairs and its attendant value system. Prudence and prescription are subordinate to the natural law, and wise political decisions often involve maximizing the natural law by choosing among the least of political evils. Accordingly one must accept what one cannot change and reform prudently. Circumstance sets limits to what may be achieved but it also offers opportunities, provided one recognizes the limits inherent in a situation. To attempt to achieve the best when circumstance proscribes it is to fail in one’s duty to attempt to achieve the best available.

If Burke were with us today he would no doubt conclude that the utilitarian and hedonist culture thrust on us by democracy (via the French Revolution) are perversions of our true nature. He would, I am confident, conclude that democracy has brought public pandering rather than good government, the pursuit of lower pleasures rather than noble engagement, and the elevation of the self at the expense of family, church, and nation. Nonetheless, he would not waste his time attempting to subvert democracy. Democracy is now the glory and expectation of the people, the essence of their political belief system. To decry democracy, denounce its errors and castigate its perversions, would be philosophically right. It would also be obstinate and futile. What is theoretically right may be practically wrong. It would ensure that one failed to achieve the potential good inherent in a patently flawed system. One must work within the unchangeable, however flawed, to maintain what is maintainable of what Burke called “the sterner virtues,” to encourage as much as possible of an adherence to the natural law. If the French Revolution were to succeed, after one had fought it with all one’s might, then one must accept the consequence and treat its success as the context in which one pursues justice and the moral law to the degree permitted by the new circumstances.

I found it disappointing that Canavan did not consider the relevance of Burke’s views on India to his discussion of Burke’s Christianity. While Burke was indeed a Christian, he also acknowledged the importance of their own religions to the peoples of India. He did not advocate the Christianization of India. Instead he deplored interference by the East India Company in the culture of the conquered. One is tempted to conclude that, for Burke, religion is not an intellectual question but a constituent part of one’s identity. Perhaps Burke did not engage in theological dispute because religion is an inherent part of the self, family, and nation. One is born to a religion; it lies at the core of one’s being—it need no more be questioned than the moral law itself.

Certainly, both Stanlis and Canavan have produced eminently worthy works—both to tax the mind and elevate the soul. Dr. Johnson said of Burke that “He talks not from a desire to excel but because his mind is full.” The same may be said of Stanlis and Canavan—though excel they do.  

Dr. Rod Preece is professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. He is also a businessman and chairman of the board of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Posted: May 19, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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The Edmund Burke Society of America is pleased to announce a call for papers and open registration for “Edmund Burke and Patriotism,” their third conference on Edmund Burke. It will be held on February 27 and 28, 2015 at Villanova University. Keynote addresses will be from David Bromwich, Michael Brown, and Regina Janes. Please see this link for details and to register. (27 Aug 2014)

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