Burke and the Philosophy of Prescription

By Russell Kirk

Conservatism, as a critically held system of ideas, is younger than equalitarianism and rationalism. For philosophical conservatism begins with Edmund Burke, who erected prescription and “prejudice”—by which he meant the supra-rational wisdom of the species—into a conscious and imaginative defense of the traditional ways of society.

When the age of Miracles lay faded into the distance as an incredible tradition, and even the age of Conventionalities was now old; and Man’s Existence had for long generations rested on mere formulas which were grown hollow by course of time; and it seemed as if no Reality any longer existed, but only Phantasms of realities, and God’s Universe were the work of the Tailor and the Upholsterer mainly, and men were buckram masks that went about becking and grimacing there,—on a sudden, the Earth yawns asunder, and amid Tartarean smoke, and glare of fierce brightness, rises Sansculottism, many-headed, fire-breathing, and asks: What think ye of me? Well may the buckram masks start together, terror-struck; “into expressive well-concerted groups!”

Thus Carlyle on the events of 1789; his French Revolution, said Lord Acton, “delivered the English mind from the thraldom of Burke.” Acton, by the way, would have hanged Robespierre and Burke on the same gallows, a judgment in this matter as philosophically representative of Liberal sentiment during the past century as its execution would have been abhorrent to Liberal practice. From Carlyle onward, a great part of the reflecting public maintained that the truth about the Revolution must lie somewhere between Burke and—why, Condorcet, if one must choose a name.

Throughout its century of ascendancy, indeed, Liberalism believed that Burke had erred woefully concerning the significance of the Deluge; Buckle went so far as to explain, in mournful pages, that Burke had gone mad in 1790.1 But for all that, the intellectual defenses of the Revolution never recovered from the buffet Burke dealt them; Carlyle could not find it possible to share the ecstatic vision of Paine. Burke’s Reflections had captured the imagination of a powerful section of the rising generation. His style “forked and playful as the lightning, crested like the serpent” (Hazlitt’s description) had outshone the flame of Rousseau in the eyes of many a young man of mind and spirit; his great work had not only survived Paine’s assault, but had eclipsed it. He had set the course for British conservatism, he had become a pattern for Continental theorists, and he had insinuated himself even into the rebellious soul of America. Buckram masks could not survive the Deluge which Burke himself proclaimed the revolution “most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.” But Burke was other than buckram; nor did he belong to the age of Conventionalities. He believed in the age of Miracles—the old age of Miracles, not the new. He lit a fire to stifle a fire.

For Burke provided the principles to refute the abstractions of the equalitarians. The task was not congenial to his nature. Even when he set himself doggedly to it, as in the Reflections and the Appeal from the New Whigs, he could hold himself to the abstract expression of general principles only for a few consecutive paragraphs. This present essay, intended to systematize Burke’s opinions, might itself be anathema to him, since generalities separated from contingencies were in his eyes almost impious. Yet he perceived the necessity of opposing ideas with ideas, and by 1793 his tremendous countermine had effectually thwarted the sappers from the equalitarian school. “Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician,” he had written. “It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man. It is like that of the principle of evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil.”2 In 1798, nevertheless, admiring Hazlitt was telling Southey that “Burke was a metaphysician, Mackintosh a mere logician.”3 By the clutch of circumstance, Burke had been compelled to enter the realm of the abstract, but he never went one foot further into that windy domain than exigency demanded: “I must see the things; I must see the men.” Never was statesman more reluctant to turn political philosopher, but never, perhaps, was the metamorphosis more happy.

Edmund Burke was impelled to undertake the delineation of a system of general principles by his alarm at the rapidly swelling influence of three separate schools of thought: that of Rousseau, that of the philosophes, and that of the heritors of Locke. The hostility between Rousseau’s romanticism and the rationalism of, say, Voltaire has been remarked often, and Burke was not unaware of it; he assaulted both camps, though generally sighting his heavy guns upon Rousseau. As for Locke and his successors, the great Whig orator could not well disavow the defender of the settlement of 1688; yet his fealty to Locke’s politics is only nominal,4 and he wholly disclaims or ignores Locke’s psychology and metaphysics. That Burke represented the actual sentiments of the Whigs throughout their supremacy, the perspective of history certainly discloses; but the theories of the Whigs, so far as they are embodied in the works of Locke, passed to such diverse legatees as Rousseau in Geneva, Price in the Old Jewry, Fox in St. Stephen’s, Jefferson at Monticello.

Numerous differences of opinion divided these several camps, of course; but the later followers of Locke were agreed that change they must have, and that change for them was very nearly a synonym for reform. One may go further, fixing upon a half-dozen points of doctrine concerning which they reached consensus—these:

That God is a Being of a sort quite unlike Jehovah—at once incorporated in us, this God of the deists and of Rousseau, and yet infinitely distant.

That abstract reason or imagination may be utilized not only to study, but to direct, the course of society.

That man is naturally benevolent, generous, healthy-souled, but is corrupted by institutions.

That mankind is struggling upward toward Elysium, is capable of infinite improvement, and should fix its gaze upon the future.

That the aim of the reformer, intellectual and political, is emancipation—liberation from old creeds, old oaths, old establishments; that the man of the future is to rejoice in complete liberty, self-governing, self-satisfying.

To this catalogue of progressive philosophy, the Utilitarians and the Collectivists later submitted amendments; but it will serve for our present definition of that radical mind which Burke endeavored to discredit. Burke conceded his enemies not one premise. He began and ended his campaign upon the grand design of morality; for Burke, the whole of earthly reality was an expression of moral principle. This it is which lifts him so far above “political science” that many scholars have been unable to understand him; yet Burke remains, notwithstanding, so devoted to practicality that he leaves metaphysicians at a loss. It is wise to commence our view of Burke’s reluctantly produced system with an eye to his concept of the force which governs the universe. For him, the formulas upon which man’s existence rested never had grown hollow.

“The Tory has always insisted that, if men would cultivate the individual virtues, social problems would take care of themselves.” So Granville Hicks once wrote of Stevenson.5 Extend the epithet “Tory” to “conservative,” and the observation is sound enough. This is not the whole of Burke’s opinion upon the ills of society, since no one knew better the power for good or evil that lies in establishments; but it is true that Burke saw politics as an exercise in morals and that a great part of conservative doctrine on this point comes out of Burke’s dicta. To know the state, we must first know the ethical man—so Burke tells us.

“Rousseau is a moralist, or he is nothing.” After delivering this judgment, Burke rises to an assault upon the Genevese so merciless that one is tempted to add the obvious quip. But Burke was in earnest. A false morality, Rousseau’s, but a pretentious, in the view of the old Whig statesman: against it must be set a nobler. A new-forged morality was a monstrous imposture, and so Burke turned, as he always did, to prescription and precedent, to old materials ready to the true reformer’s hand, in order to produce this opposing morality. The praise of humility was often on Burke’s lips, and in his construction of a system of thought he showed himself a humble man. Disdaining a vain show of creation, he turned to Aristotle and Cicero, to the fathers of the Church, to Hooker and Milton, and put new warmth into their phrases, made their ideas flame above the revolutionary torches. And he poured in a catalyst of his own that transformed blind tradition into deliberate adherence to ancient values. Rejecting the concept of a world subject to impulse and appetite, he revealed a world always governed by strong and subtle purpose.

There is a God; and He is wise; and this world is His design; and man and the state are God’s creations. Such is Burke’s philosophical fundamental. These were ideas accepted without question in most ages, but obscured by the vanity of the eighteenth century. How is God’s purpose revealed? Through the unrolling of history. And how do we know God’s mind and will? Through the prejudices and traditions which millenniums of human experience with divine judgments have implanted in the mind of the race. What is our purpose in this world? Not to indulge our impulse, but to render our obedience to divine intent.

Now this view of the cosmos may be true, or it may be delusory; but it is not obscure, let alone incomprehensible. The enduring influence of latter-day rationalism and utilitarianism, nevertheless, has prevented a number of writers in our day, scholars in philosophy and politics, from understanding how a great statesman and man of letters could hold such a view. We have stated Burke’s position in the simplest terms: he makes his own case in language at once more lucid and more lofty. For many hundreds of years, all thinking men held this position to be supported by truths undeniable. Yet even by friendly critics, the dread word “obscurantism” is applied to Burke’s affection for a moral tradition that was venerable when Socrates undertook its defense. R. M. Maclver remarks with a species of indignation, “It was no service to our understanding when Burke enveloped once more in mystic obscurity the office of government and in the sphere of politics appealed once more against reason to tradition and religion.”6

But is not this begging the question? The Age of Reason, Burke protested with all his Irish fervor, was in reality an Age of Ignorance. If the basis of existence is genuinely divine will, limiting politics and ethics to a puny “reason” is an act of folly; it is this blindness to the effulgence of the burning bush, this deafness to the thunder above Sinai, this shrugging at mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, which Burke proclaimed a principal infatuation of the French “Enlightenment.” Even Rousseau cried out against such overweening confidence in a reason which, though assertedly independent of providential guidance, proclaims its own infallibility. Here we are concerned with first principles, and Burke himself doubtless would have agreed that if the teleological arguments of Aristotle, Seneca, and the Schoolmen are rejected, there remains no means of converting the skeptic but revelation. To dismiss such postulates summarily, however, and resign man to an abstract “reason” (by which is generally meant analytic empiricism) was to Burke an act of intellectual impudence. For Burke’s forceful imagination, there could be no suspension of judgment: either there was design, or there was chaos. If chaos is demonstrated, the fragile equalitarian doctrines and emancipating intentions of the revolutionaries had no significance; for in a world of chaos, only force and appetite are valid.

I allow, that if no supreme ruler exists, wise to form, and potent to enforce, the moral law, there is no sanction to any contract, virtual or even actual, against the will of prevalent power. On that hypothesis, let any set of men be strong enough to set their duties at defiance, and they cease to be duties any longer. We have but one appeal against irresistible power—

Si genus humanum et mortalia temnitis arma,
At sperate Deos memores fandi atque nefandi.
7

Taking it for granted that I do not write to the disciples of the Parisian philosophy, I may assume, that the awful Author of our Being is the Author of our place in the order of existence; and that having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, he has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned us. We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not a matter of choice . . . When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not a matter of choice. . . . The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform.8

Was this aspect of the argument for Providence ever better expressed? If the sanction for human conduct be divine, the way of wisdom is comprehension of, and submission to, the divine injunction; if there be no such sanction, “reason,” “enlightenment,” “equality,” and “natural justice” are so many figments of dreams; for men require neither knowledge nor charity in a world without purpose. MacCunn observes concerning Burke, “It seemed to him the sheet anchor of a true political faith that the whole great drama of national life should be reverently recognized as ordered by a Power to which past, present, and future are organically knit stages in one Divine plan.”9

Polybius’ contention that the ancients invented the myths of religion in order to shelter morality and property was repugnant to Burke. The arguments Burke advances to prove that society cannot subsist without divine sanction are so convincing that a skeptic might concede, “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent one”; but this is inverting Burke’s own conviction. His piety was fervent, and its source was innate conviction. A world away from that other great Whig, Locke, Burke frequently expounds the doctrine of innate ideas. For the rest, the great arguments of the Platonic tradition in behalf of a universe of purpose and order are implicit in his speeches and writings: the instinct toward perpetuation of the species; the conviction of conscience; the intimations of immortality; the awareness of immaterial soul. New proofs he does not attempt to introduce; a man always desperately busy, he leaves theology to the schools. We detect in him much of Doctor Johnson’s exasperated, “Why, Sir, we know the will is free, and there’s an end of it!” Christianity he believes established on foundations no one but the restless, the shallow, and the self-intoxicated would venture to assail; and the spectacle of Burke’s great intellect thus convinced, his erudition supporting the common voice of centuries, his prudent, practical, reforming spirit submitting to the discipline of the Christian tradition, is as good a proof as any from the books of the Scholastics, perhaps, to attest the truth of Christianity. It is a Christian faith, Burke’s, and also a Greek faith. Observe the Hellenic ring in this pronouncement:

He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state. He willed its connexion with the source and original archtype of all perfection. They who are convinced of this His will, which is the law of laws, and the sovereign of sovereigns, cannot think it reprehensible that this our recognition of a signiory paramount, I had almost said this oblation of the state itself, as a worthy offering on the high altar of universal praise, should be performed as all public, solemn acts are performed, in buildings, in music, in decoration, in speech, in the dignity of persons, according to the customs of mankind taught by their nature; this is, with modest splendor and unassuming state, with mild majesty and sober pomp.10

Transcendent even of Christianity, Burke’s piety; for he viewed with a corresponding reverence the rites of the Hindus and the Mohammedans: his fiercest indignation against Hastings was from the Governor-General’s heavy-handed contempt for native religious ceremony.

Conceivably Burke’s conservatism might stand of itself even though shorn of its religious buttresses. The doctrine of expediency in politics might suffice as an apology for a conservative order—and, indeed, seemed quite enough to such pupils of Burke as Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. But Burke himself found it impossible to envisage a social order worthy of respect from which the spirit of piety was absent. The state is a creation religiously consecrated, he tells us:

This consecration is made, that all who administer in the government of men, in which they stand in the person of God himself, should have high and worthy notions of their function and destination; that their hope should be full of immortality; that they should not look to the paltry pelf of the moment, nor to the temporary and transient praise of the vulgar, but to a solid, permanent existence, in the permanent part of their nature, and to a permanent fame and glory, in the example they leave as a rich inheritance to the world.11

Such consecration is necessary in a monarchy or an aristocracy—but even more necessary in a popular government:

The consecration of the state, by a state religious establishment, is necessary also to operate with a wholesome awe upon free citizens; because, in order to secure their freedom, they must enjoy some determinate portion of power. . . . All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.12

To call such a faith “obscurantism” and “mysticism” illustrates the lexicographical Dark Age into which our time has been slipping. A lofty faith, Burke’s, but also a practical man’s, linked to public honor and responsibility. The rationalist may believe such a man wrong, but the rationalist is confused if he calls him a “mystic.” And Burke proceeds, by reference and aside throughout his political career and his writings, to make his creed still more a part of private and public life. If the state of the world is the consequence of God’s design, we need to be cautious about our reformations; for though it may be God’s will to use us as His instruments of alteration, yet we should first satisfy our consciences and our intellects on that point. Again, Burke tells us there is indeed a universal equality; but it is the equality of Christianity, moral equality, equality in the judgment of God; equality of any other sort we may be foolish, possibly impious, to seek. That shrewdest of Socialists, Sir Leonard Woolf, remarks this bond between Christianity and social conservatism:

As soon as people began to believe that happiness was politically of supreme importance, that everyone had an equal right to happiness, or that government should aim at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the conflict between political psychology and religious psychology began in their minds. Christianity envisages a framework for human society in which earthly miseries have a recognized, permanent, and honourable place. They are trials sent by Heaven to test and train us; as such, it is impious to repine against them.13

Burke would have taken up this gauntlet. Poverty, brutality, misfortune he did indeed view as portions of the eternal order of things; sin was a real and demonstrable fact; religion was the consolation for these ills, not the product of them. Religious faith made existence tolerable; vain ambition without pious restraint would fail of accomplishment and destroy the beauty of reverence.

Burke was well aware of the powerful conservative effect upon society of the church, and recommended to parliament a decent concern for the well-being of the Roman clergy in Ireland, that their influence might be for the preservation of order, not its subversion. In the years that followed the restoration, de Maistre and de Bonald were to adapt the concepts of Burke to French clerical conservatism and ultramontane theories.

True religion is not only identical with national spirit, in Burke’s view; it rises superior to law, and is, indeed, the origin of all law. With Philo and Cicero, both of whom he quotes, Burke proclaims the doctrine of the jus naturale, the creation of the divine mind, of which the laws of man are but a manifestation. “All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.”14 “Religion, to have any force on man’s understandings, indeed to exist at all, must be supposed paramount to laws, and independent for its substance on any human institution. Else it would be the absurdest thing in the world; an acknowledged cheat.”15 The majority of the people “have no right to make a law prejudicial to the whole community, even though the delinquents in making such an act should be themselves the chief sufferers by it; because it would be made against the principle of a superior law, which it is not in the power of any community, or the whole race of man, to alter.—I mean the will of Him who gave us our nature, and in giving impressed an invariable law upon it. It would be hard to point out any error more truly subversive of all the order and beauty, of all the peace and happiness, of human society, than the position that any body of men have a right to make what laws they please; or that laws can derive any authority from their institution merely and independent of the quality of the subject-matter.”16

By no means new, these concepts of the law; but powerfully presented, and that at a time when the world was infatuated with constitution-making, when Abbe Sièyes was drawing up organic documents wholesale. And these concepts are promulgated, too, by the spokesman of the Whigs, nominally the heritor of Locke the constitution-designer. America had just got fourteen new constitutions and was thinking of more. A man of strong conviction and original mind was required to find the basis of law in a transcendent plan, rather than in a neat parliamentary construction; and that man, paradoxically, was also the advocate of enlarged expediency as the guide to the conduct of affairs. But expediency, said Burke, always must yield to the dictates of right—the right which God teaches to man through the experience of the race.

Ours is a moral order, then, and our laws are representative of grander moral laws; the higher contentment is moral happiness, says Burke, and the cause of suffering is moral evil. Pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, disorderly appetites—these vices are the true causes of the storms that trouble life. “Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition, by rooting out from the mind the principles to which these fraudulent principles apply? If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast. . . . You would not cure the evil by resolving, that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. . . . Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names.”17

Nor can this moral order be altered by counting noses. “When we know, that the opinions of even the greatest multitudes are the standard of rectitude, I shall think myself obliged to make those opinions the masters of my conscience. But if it may be doubted whether Omnipotence itself is competent to alter the essential constitution of right and wrong, sure am I, that such things, as they and I, are possessed of no such power.”18

This doctrine of the moral order, the realm of divine injunction, may appear to march with the bog of metaphysical abstraction so loathed by Burke himself. But the Whig orator would have thundered his retort upon the doubter. Surely as indulgence brings disgust, surely as violence is repaid in kind, just so certain is the operation of other causes and effects in the moral world; they are matters of observation, not of conjecture, Burke would have rejoined. The illustration of the principle he left to the preachers and essayists of the age. How is the nature of the moral world to be comprehended? How are we to guide ourselves within its bounds? By observance of tradition and prescription, says Burke.

* * *

“The reason first why we do admire those things which are greatest, and second those things which are ancientest, is because the one are the least distant from the infinite substance, the other from the infinite continuance, of God.”19 This was only a passing remark of Burke’s, in a general conversation; but it holds the kernel of his philosophy of prescription.

What is the basis of authority in ethics, politics, public economy, law? Burke found it necessary to re-state for the eighteenth century the position of those who have faith in a permanent order of things. His answer, succinctly, was “Tradition tempered by expediency.” The custom of mankind determines principles; expedience, its application. The contemner of abstraction was far from rejecting general principles and maxims; and his doctrine of divine purpose puts a gulf between his “expedience” and the expediency of the Machiavellians, just as it separates him from the geographical and historical determinism of his teacher Montesquieu and his pupil Taine.

Willfully or not, it was for a long time the fashion among the liberal admirers of Burke to look upon him as a sort of Benthamite, lauding his determination to deal with circumstances, not concepts; Buckle is as enthusiastic about this side of Burke as he is indignant concerning the Reflections:

We had, no doubt, other statesmen before him who denied the validity of general principles in politics; but their denial was only the happy guess of ignorance, and they rejected theories which they had never taken the pains to study. Burke rejected them because he knew them. It was his rare merit that, notwithstanding every inducement to rely upon his own generalizations, he resisted the temptation; that, though rich in all the varieties of political knowledge, he made his opinions subservient to the march of events; that he recognized as the object of government, not the preservation of particular institutions, nor the propagation of particular tenets, but the happiness of the people at large. . . . Burke was never weary of attacking the common argument that, because a country has long flourished under some particular custom, therefore the custom must be good.20

Curiously perverse here, Buckle, translating Burke’s exceptions into Burke’s rules. Above all else, Burke’s philosophy has principle and prescription written upon the face of it; not these, but abstraction and abuse, does Burke attack. “I do not put abstract ideas wholly out of any question, because I well know that under that name I should dismiss principles; and that without the guide and light of sound, well-understood principles, all reasoning in politics, as in everything else, would be only a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion.”21

Abstraction, no; principle, yes. To the first, the guide was knowledge of nature and history, the expressions of divine purpose; to the second, that prudence Burke extols as “the director, the regulator, the standard” of all the virtues. Expedience serves principle, never supplants it. For principle is our cognizance of the divine intent.

History, for Burke, was the gradual revelation of a Supreme design—often shadowy and subtle to our eyes, but quite resistless, wholly just. Burke stops far short of Hegel’s mystical determinism, for his adherence to the doctrine of free will tells him that it is not arbitrary, unreasoning will, not material force or racial destiny, which make history, but rather human character and conduct. God makes history through the medium of human souls. It may become impious to resist the grand design, when once its character is irrefutably manifested; but a full comprehension of God’s ends we are rarely vouchsafed. The statesman and the thinker must know more than history: they must know nature. Burke’s “nature” is human nature, the revelation of universal and permanent principles through the study of mind and soul—not the Romantics’ half-pantheistic nature. The phrase “state of nature” was often irritating to Burke’s accurate mind; “natural rights,” as demanded by Rousseau and other equalitarians, he denied; but the usage of “nature” which was Cicero’s is Burke’s also. Know history and nature, and you may presume to guess at God’s intent.

How has the human species collected and condensed the wisdom of its experience, the written part of which we call history? Chiefly through tradition, “prejudice,” prescription—generally surer guides to conscience and conduct than books or speculation. Habit and custom may be the wisdom of unlettered men, but they come from the sound old heart of humanity.

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence.22

Without reverence, man will not serve God, and so will destroy himself; prejudice, prescription, and custom bring reverence.

They bring reverence, but they are not modes of action, of course. When society needs to act, it should resort to an expedience which is founded upon these traditions and habits of thought. “Expedience is that which is good for the community, and good for every individual in it.”23 These words of Burke’s are not very different from the definitions of Hume or of Bentham; for that matter, one notes the similarity of this sentence to Rousseau’s identification of individual happiness with the gratification of the General Will. But Burke meant something very unlike the several concepts of Hume and Bentham and Rousseau. His qualifying phrase really is his premise. The good of the individual, for Burke, is the test of expediency—not its consequence. When Burke thought of the “good of the community” he had in mind a spiritual good, an enduring good without the alloy of incidental and private deprivation. He was unyieldingly hostile to a vision of society composed of a satisfied majority and a submitting minority. The statesman who properly understands the functions of expedience, or prudence, will have for his model a society in which every man has his prerogatives, his accepted station, and his correspondent duties; tradition and prescription will have taught every man to recognize the justice of this order, and he will not merely acquiesce in the stability of social institutions, but will support them out of a sound prejudice. An intelligent exercise of expedience will save man from the anarchy of “natural right” and the presumption of “reason.” Prescription as a guide for the great mass of mankind, tradition illuminated by expedience as a guide for the philosopher and the statesman who are shepherds of the mass of men: this combination is Burke’s recipe for a society at once pious and vigorous.

Burke’s praises of custom and traditional wisdom, ancient usage that is surer guarantee than statute, knowledge of the species that is beyond our own little intellects, are repeated in all his principal works. Of the persecution of Catholics, “You punish them for acting upon a principle which of all others is perhaps most necessary for preserving society, an implicit admiration and adherence to the establishments of their forefathers.”24 Again, “If prescription be once shaken, no species of property is secure, when it once becomes an object large enough to tempt the cupidity of indigent power.”25 The British Constitution itself is his best example of right established by custom:

Our constitution is a prescriptive constitution; it is a constitution whose sole authority is that it has existed time out of mind. . . . Your king, your lords, your judges, your juries, grand and little, all are prescriptive; and what proves it is the dispute not yet concluded, and never near becoming so, when any of them first originated. Prescription is the most solid of all titles, not only to property, but, which is to secure that property, to government. They harmonize with each other, and give mutual aid to one another. It is accompanied with another ground of authority in the constitution of the human mind—presumption. It is a presumption in favour of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, that a nation has long existed and flourished under it. It is a far better presumption even of the choice of a nation, far better than any sudden and temporary arrangement by actual election.26

“Prejudice”—the half-intuitive knowledge that enables man to meet the problems of life without logic-chopping; “prescription”—the customary right which grows out of the implied conventions and compacts of many successive generations: employing these instruments, mankind manages to live together in some degree of amicability and freedom. They direct the individual conscience and the conscript fathers. Without them, society can be kept from destruction only by force and a master. “Somewhere there must be a control upon will and appetite; and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without.” For if prejudice and prescription be eradicated, only one peaceful instrument remains for preventing man from relapsing into that primitive natural state from which he has so painfully crept up through millenniums, and which existence Burke (in most matters at war with Hobbes) also knew to be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That surviving instrument is reason. And Reason, the darling of the philosophes, seemed to Burke a poor, weak servant. The mass of mankind, Burke implies, reason hardly at all; deprived of folk-wisdom and folk-law, which are a part of prescription and prejudice, they can only troop after the demagogue, the charlatan, and the despot. The mass of mankind are not ignorant, but their knowledge is a kind of collective possession, the sum of the slow accretions of generations. This abandoned, they are thrown back upon their “own private stock of reason”; and that stock is very small, hopelessly inferior to the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages.” Even the wisest and shrewdest of men are ridiculously conceited if they presume to set the products of their reason against the judgment of the centuries. “You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.”27

Burke was not the first English philosopher to respect prejudice and prescription. Hume, for all his boldness, was aware of their social utility; and a writer whose ideas Burke generally disliked as much as Hume’s, Chesterfield, praises prejudice nearly as eloquently as does Burke himself. In The World, Chesterfield has observed:

A prejudice is by no means (though generally thought so) an error; on the contrary, it may be a most unquestioned truth, though it be still a prejudice in those who, without any examination, take it upon trust and entertain it by habit. There are even some prejudices, founded upon error, which ought to be connived at, or perhaps encouraged; their effects being more beneficial to society than their detection can possibly be. . . . The bulk of mankind have neither leisure nor knowledge sufficient to reason right; why should they be taught to reason at all? Will not honest instinct prompt, and wholesome prejudices guide them, much better than half reasoning?28

Yet Burke’s onslaught upon new-fangled Reason clashed with the great fashionable intellectual current of his time, with the whole principle of the Encyclopedia. Courage was required for such declarations in support of prejudice; in a lesser man, this stand would have been dismissed with scorn by the literate public. Burke, however, they could not scorn. It is some indication of the strength of Burke’s belief in Christian humility that he, with his acute and far-ranging mind, could be the partisan of the instincts of the race against the assumptions of the man of genius.

Men are by appetite voracious and sanguinary, Burke thinks; they are held in check by this collective and immemorial wisdom we call morality, prejudice; reason alone never can bind them to their duties. Whenever the veneer of prejudice and prescription is cracked at any point, we are menaced by the danger that the crack may widen and lengthen, even to the annihilation of civilization. If men are discharged from reverence for custom and usage, they will treat this frail world as if it were their personal property, to be consumed for their immediate gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, of their own contemporaries, and indeed their very own capital:

One of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would, be broken. No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.29

Prejudice and prescription, despite their great age—or perhaps because of it—are delicate growths, slow to rise, easy to injure, hardly possible to revive. The abstract metaphysician and fanatic reformer, intending to cleanse, may find he has scrubbed society clean away:

An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance, and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers. Men think little how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill.30

Then is alteration of any sort undesirable? Do prejudice and prescription compel mankind to tread perpetually behind their ancestors? No, says Burke; change is inevitable; but let it come as the consequence of a need generally felt, not out of fine-spun abstractions. Both prejudice and prescription are altered by the newer experiences of humanity. This process should not be stifled, since it is a natural and providential means of prolonging life, quite like the physical renewal of the human body. But change should be considered as the manifestation of divine purpose, not simply as a mechanism for men to tinker with. The course of change is not truly a conscious process; some might call it a blind process. Our part is to patch and polish the old order of things, clothing ancient form with new substance, fitting recent experience and need into the pattern of the wisdom of our ancestors. We must try to distinguish between a profound, slow, natural alteration and some infatuation of the hour. Here again the instrument of expedience is required for the wise reconciliation of prescription with necessary alteration.

We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation. All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees. This has all the benefits which may be in change, without any of the inconveniences of mutation. Everything is provided for as it arrives. This mode will, on the one hand, prevent the unfixing old interests at once: a thing which is apt to breed a black and sullen discontent in those who are at once dispossessed of all their influence and consideration. This gradual course, on the other side, will prevent men, long under depression, from being intoxicated with a large draught of new power, which they always abuse with a licentious insolence.31

Prescription and prejudice are themselves subject to change, and the man who obstinately rejects even such innovations as are manifestly the improvements of Providence is as rash as the devotee of Reason.

Prescription and venerable precept never have received a more consistent and courageous defense than Burke’s championship of the wisdom of our ancestors. Yet Burke has very little to say concerning the greatest social quandary of our time: once prescription and prejudice are violated, once the mass of mankind have been cast adrift, with only miscellaneous scraps of custom and tradition left to mingle with their private stock of reason, how is society to be kept from disintegration? “Burke was sincerely convinced that men’s power of political reasoning was so utterly inadequate to their task,” comments Graham Wallas, “that all his life long he urged the English nation to follow prescription, to obey, that is to say, on principle their habitual political impulses. But the deliberate following of prescription which Burke advocated was something different, because it was the result of choice, from the uncalculated loyalty of the past. Those who have eaten of the tree of knowledge cannot forget.”32

“Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature”—thus Burke.33 Can prejudice and prescription, once shattered, be restored? Wallas thinks not; and probably Burke would agree with him. Yet Wallas and other recent writers have come to agree with Burke that a private stock of reason is wholly inadequate to guide man and society. Perhaps Burke’s confidence in the purposeful design of Providence would have prompted him to answer that out of the confusion of our century will be resolved a fresh set of prescriptions and prejudices remarkably like those his age knew; for prescription, he declared, has its true origin in the nature which God bestowed upon man.

Notes

[1] Buckle, History of Civilization in England, I, 424–425.

[2] Letter to a Noble Lord, Works (Bohn edition), V, 141.

[3] P. P. Howe, The Life of William Hazlitt, 60.

[4] See Alfred Cobban’s chapter “Burke and the Heritage of Locke” in his Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century.

[5] Hicks, Figures of Transition, 271–272.

[6] MacIver, The Modern State, 148.

[7] “You who despise humanity and the rules of arms, remember: the Gods keep count of your transgressions.” —Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneid, bk i, 539–43 (19 BC)(S.H. transl.)

[8] Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Works, III, 79.

[9] John MacCunn, The Political Philosophy of Burke, 127.

[10] Reflections on the Revolution in France, Works, II, 370.

[11] Ibid., 363–364.

[12] Ibid., 305.

[13] Woolf, After the Deluge, 177.

[14] Tracts on the Popery Laws, Works, VI, 22.

[15] Ibid., 32–33.

[16] Ibid., 21–22.

[17] Reflections, Works, II, 412–413.

[18] Speech previous to the Election at Bristol, Works, II, 167.

[19] Burke was quoting from Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, chapter 69.

[20] Buckle, The History of Civilization in England, I, 424–425.

[21] Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians, Works, VI, 112–113.

[22] Reflections, Works, II, 359.

[23] Speech on the Reform of Representation, Works, VI, 149.

[24] Tracts on the Popery Laws, Works, VI, 32.

[25] Reflections, Works, II, 422.

[26] Speech on the Reform of Representation, Works, VI, 146.

[27] Reflections, Works, II, 359.

[28] The World, No. 112.

[29] Reflections, Works, II, 366–367.

[30] Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old, Works, III, 111–112.

[31] Letter to Sir Hercules Langrische on the Catholics (1792), Works, VI, 340.

[32] Wallas, Human Nature in Politics (4th ed., 1948), 182–183.

[33] Reflections, Works, II, 359.