How Dead is Edmund Burke?

By Russell Kirk

Walk beside the Liffey in Dublin, a trifle west of the dome of the Four Courts, and you come to Number 12, Arran Quay. This is a brick building of three stories, which began as a gentleman’s residence, some time since became a shop, and now is a governmental office of the meaner sort—symbolic of changes on a mightier scale during the generations since 1729. For here in that year Edmund Burke was born. Across the river you see what once was the town house of the Earls of Moira and is now the office of a society for suppressing mendicity; and beyond that, the great Guinness brewery. Back of Burke’s house, toward the old church of St. Michan in which, they say, he was baptised, stretch tottering brick slums where barefoot children scramble over broken walls. If you turn toward O’Connell Street, an easy stroll takes you to the noble façade of Trinity College and the statues of Burke and Goldsmith; to the north, near Parnell Square, you may hear living Irish orators proclaiming through amplifiers that they have succeeded in increasing sevenfold the pensions of widows, a mere earnest of their intent. And you may reflect, with Burke, “What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!”

Since Burke’s day there have been alterations in Dublin. Yet to the visitor, Ireland appears a refuge of tradition amidst the flux of our age, and Dublin a conservative old city; and so they are. Burke might not be pleased with the state of his native place; but were his ghost to rise from under the stones of the church at Beaconsfield, that spirit would be trebly vexed at the spectacle of modern England—though not, perhaps, greatly surprised. A world that damns tradition, lauds equality, and welcomes change; a world that has clutched Rousseau, swallowed him down, and demanded prophets yet more radical; a world scarred by industrialism, standardised by the common man, consolidated by government; a world harrowed by war, trembling between the colossi of East and West, and peering over the brink into a gulf of dissolution. So Burke would see us, and know he had failed.

Burke failed. During the greater part of his career, he stood among the opposition—stood grandly, but in opposition, not in power. In the hour of his death, 1797—“a terrible moment in the history of England and of Europe”, Morley writes—he beheld the triumph of his denunciations of the Revolution, but only a triumph of dubious battle. The passing of a mere fifty years was to bring the Communist Manifesto. And from the day of his death onward, history was to record the trampling of Burke’s society beneath the feet of our epoch.

We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving, dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same

Thus Burke himself. It might be unwise to summon up the reflection of a defeated politician and his followers renewing old quarrels interred by time. But Burke was more than a defeated politician. He was the founder of modern conservative thought; and most of what genuine conservatism survives among us, in the English-speaking world, is the shadow of Burke’s creation; and so he is not wholly dead. We have had an interesting succession of radicalisms since 1797; but none of them seems to have satisfied the mind of man. It is time to ask what Burke’s conservatism is, and whether we have anything to learn from it.

Men of conservative impulse are numerous in every society; they are among us to-day, but most of them are perplexed for guidance, the popular prophets of this century being advocates of change. Many of them are looking for a conservative’s decalogue—groping in this twilight hour. If ever they find it, it may be in the pages of Burke. Spend some hours in a bookshop frequented by young men, and you observe that some of them are after The Book—the book which holds the clue to life with principle, particularly social principle. Many have ceased to search, having found Freud or Marx or some other mighty name. But some go on browsing, turning over Spengler and Berdyaev, Ortega and Belloc, dissatisfied. Prejudice, interest, conscience have told this remnant that their Idea resides elsewhere. But where? Not many come upon Burke.

For in North American bookshops, at least, little of Burke is in stock; and there are few teachers or preachers or intimates who tell them even the name of the great liberal conservative; he is recorded, respected, ignored. John Morley prophesied more than half a century ago that Burke “will be more frequently and more seriously referred to within the next twenty years than he has been within the whole of the last eighty”; Paul Elmer More, a quarter of a century ago, remarked that Morley had been in error; and certainly Burke’s fame has not increased since More wrote. A scholar of German birth recently observed to me that among literati in the United States exists a curious ignorance of Burke—who, with his beauty and power of style, the varied aspects of his genius, and the breadth of his intellect, might be supposed to attract the attention of those circles which pride themselves upon their grasp of modern thought; and my German friend attributed this condition to a vague popular impression that Burke “was wrong about France” and somehow not quite the right reading for a Liberal. Of course ‘liberal’ has been the word to conjure with in American academic circles, until very recently. But it is interesting to observe, in 1950, how Mr. Lionel Trilling doubts the efficacy of liberal ideas, and how Mr. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., confesses, “We find Burke more satisfying to-day than Paine, Hamilton or Adams than Jefferson, Calhoun than Clay or Webster.”

Possibly the people who neglect Burke are right in assuming that his system is a world away from theirs. Yet many of them are discontented with their own principles, and Burke’s ideas should interest anyone, even men bitterly opposed to his conclusions. It would be more courageous to refute Burke than to ignore him. Most conservatives of the twentieth century are no more fit to combat intelligent advocates of the Left than were Falstaff’s recruits to meet the Percys: but most radicals are in no better discipline, and both schools can profit from an examination of Burke’s concepts. Serious debate requires preliminary definition. If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone, and if radicals want to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke. Having done this, some conservatives may find that their previous footing is insecure, or that they are not sterling conservatives at all; while some radicals may admit that the position of traditionalists is tenable or that Burke, too, was a liberal—if liberalism be in any degree associated with liberty.

Our age ought to make these inquiries: What is the nature of Burke’s thought? Why was his conservatism vanquished by the forces of change? And what meaning has it for our guidance? Although there never was a formal school of Burke, great names are found in the list of Burke’s British followers: Coleridge, Scott, Macaulay, Disraeli, Stephen, Maine, Bagehot, Lecky. Although America never has admitted to the existence of a conservative party (and almost no American politician acknowledges the influence of any political thinker but Jefferson) we find the mark of Burke on Americans of several persuasions: the Adamses, John Randolph, Calhoun, Lowell, the New Humanists. And although Burke has been in his grave these hundred and fifty years, we hear his disciples raising their voices from out the Comus’ rout of twentieth-century politics. Though the odds seem opposed, when Time has given the historical kaleidoscope another twist Burke’s name may eclipse those of Rousseau and Bentham and Marx.

What a spin the kaleidoscope of history has had from Burke’s declining years to our passionate hour! A decade before Reflections on the Revolution in France came from the press, American troops at Yorktown had greeted Cornwallis with the tune of The World Turned Upside Down; and that air, mingling now and then with the Carmagnole, has been blaring ever since. The gloomy vaticinations of Burke, which seemed to liberals of Buckle’s generation the follies of a deranged old genius, have come to pass; the gods of the copybook headings with fire and sword return. Nations dissolving into mere aggregations of individuals; property reapportioned by the political power; great European states ground into powder; tranquil Britain transformed into a socialist commonwealth; the ancient beauty of the Orient ravaged and the empire of India gnawing at her own vitals; the colonial world vomiting out its Europeans, although already metamorphosed by them; the rising on the eastern confines of Europe of a levelling frenzy fierce enough to make Jacobins pale; the passing of riches and might to the Western republic Burke aided—but prosperity acquired in haste and linked with arrogance. Where is the divine guidance Burke discerned in history? Beheld, perhaps, in the punishment of disobedience: “The Lord made all things for himself—yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.” This horror may have been inevitable; but the last decade of the eighteenth century resounded to Burke’s warning, and we still hear its echo, and, perhaps, can profit. We can salvage: salvaging is a great part of conservatism.

To be sure, not all men found in the modern conservative camp are the intellectual heritors of Burke. Some hold by the old ways because of religious orthodoxy—a movement of origins largely independent of Burke, although sometimes tinged with Burke’s ideals. Some are descendants of the Utilitarians, driven by the fortunes of war within the conservative ramparts. Some come from Herbert Spencer. Some in America retain a trace of Federalist or Old Republican ideas. Yet throughout the nineteenth century and this, when the intellectual struggle between new and old was most fierce the ablest partisans among the conservatives were of Burke’s lineage. Many of the adherents of tradition since Burke have been men of thought rather than of action. This may help explain their failure to win the vast public of our times, so different in its impulses from Burke’s solid, propertied public of a few hundred thousand men; but it is not per se a just reproach. Action and conservatism are by nature often inconsonant; moreover, the world of thought endures. The idea of Marx, not the power of Moscow, is the sword of modern communism; imagination, Napoleon tells us, rules the world.

What is conservatism? The term is not Burke’s. It does not deserve some of the epithets pinned upon it by reformers, nor yet the fealty of certain influences leagued with it. It is not big business nor bourgeois supremacy; it is neither Toryism nor Whiggery; it is not autocratic power and feudal privilege. It is a belief in saving—preserving features of society and spirit that have long held the affection of man. Most conservatives are such through prejudice, not through persuasion—which would not perturb Burke—and they cannot tell you clearly for what they stand. Perhaps the words of Randolph of Roanoke may help us here: “This is a great cardinal principle, that should govern all statesmen—never, without the strongest necessity, to disturb that which is at rest.” Or as Falkland put it: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

We may be more specific, without presuming to enter deeply into definition, and draw up a summary of the chief articles in the creed of Burke and his disciples—these:

(1) A belief in a divine intent ruling society as well as conscience, which purpose it is the duty of man to venerate—an eternal chain of duty linking great and obscure, living and dead—

As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher nature, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

(2) A faith in prescription and a distrust of “sophisters and calculators”—

Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts.

(3) A conviction that civilised society requires orders and classes—

You would have had a protected, satisfied, laborious, and obedient people, taught to seek and to recognize the happiness which is to be found by virtue in all conditions; in which consists the true moral equality of mankind, and not in that monstrous fiction, which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality, which it never can remove; and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in an humble state, as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid, but not more happy.

(4) A persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably linked, and that economic levelling is not economic progress—

In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.

(5) A recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring flame more often than it is a torch of progress

By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country, who are promptly rash to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution and renovate their father’s life.

These passages are drawn from Reflections on the Revolution in France, but they will serve for our generation. We need not consider these canons absolute. All the same, the odds are that an alleged conservative who cannot subscribe to most of these declarations is in the wrong camp, and that a radical whose sympathies are aroused by some of them should inquire into the state of his conscience.

Our age has beheld the literal disintegration of the notion of irresistible social progress—gone in a vortex of blazing dust. Even the dogged confidence of the Marxist begins to look in upon itself. “It’s not a question of whether you believe communism is right,” says an acquaintance of mine; “it’s simply that you have to go along with the stream.” But after this Hegelian dictum he hesitates oddly, as if a doubt had occurred—perhaps the reflection “that even the weariest river winds”—why, to the great deep. For a man in a small boat, the sea is death. If progress appears to have led to a precipice—and such quavers as my friend’s are becoming daily more frequent—perhaps it is time we began to conserve rather than to covet. Against the overweening assurance of modern man, Burke fought. He failed; but as Burke himself tells us, the past is not truly dead. If ever we are to learn from it, we had best now descend, Ulysses-like, to query the shades; otherwise we may he numbered among them. Burke can be our Tiresias.

Conservatism begins with Burke. Upon the basis of the conservative canons listed above, we must reject Bolingbroke and Hobbes as conservatives, for they were theological and metaphysical radicals; the true conservative believes in Providence. Montesquieu, among modern thinkers, influenced Burke more than any other philosopher he read; but half of the Frenchman’s mantle went to Rousseau. Similarly, Locke was a philosophical innovator. Whether or not there might have been an earlier founder for conservatism, it was left for a man of versatile genius, who reached the height of his powers just as industrialism, democracy, and nationalism loured, to build Whiggery and Toryism into a rampart against radicalism. Burke was a modern man, and his concern was with our modern perplexities. “The gift of prophecy,” a recent reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement observes, “Burke possessed in abundance.”

There is no Age of Burke. In literature, we call Burke’s period the Age of Johnson; in philosophy and politics, we ought to call it the Age of Rousseau.

The Age of Rousseau: the era of abstraction, feeling, emancipation, expansion, equality, the people absolute, the kiss bestowed upon the universe, the deity impotent. The system of Burke: prescription, experience, duty, old ties, social gradation, the reign of law, the love engendered by association, Jehovah omniscient. Rousseau and Burke stand at the antipodes, despite the curious theory of some writers that they are two peas in a libertarian pod. Though Rousseau cannot be credited, like Burke, with the foundation almost single-handed of an intellectual system, the movement of which he was the most influential representative can boast of the fealty of ten devotees for every one of Burke’s, perhaps: the romantic gaze of Jean Jacques darts out, at intervals, from behind a variety of masks—behind the flushed face of Paine, the grim brow of Marx, the scholarly visage of John Dewey. Indeed, the disciples of Burke himself, in the generation after his death, are the heirs of Rousseau as well—Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth. Let us confess that a knowledge of the mind of Rousseau is even more important than a comprehension of Burke’s, if one seeks to find the roots of modern ideas. Admit this, and ask who else, in Burke’s lifetime, eclipsed him in significance.

I do not find anyone else. Pitt, a man of practicality; Fox, a man of emotion—their names must perish before Burke’s, since he was a man of thought. Pitt and Fox have been more fortunate in their chroniclers, for each has several respectable biographies, while lives of Burke are scant. Having left us a long shelf of treatises, speeches, and letters, perhaps Burke has needed no biographer. During the past two years, however, we have seen a revival of the study of Burke—Hoffman’s and Levack’s Burke’s Politics, Copeland’s Our Eminent Friend, Edmund Burke, even a piece in Fortune. After all the accounts of Pitt and Fox and a great many others have crept down to the obloquy of booksellers’ bargain-tables, Burke will continue to exert the power of the word, the word upheld by principle.

Yes, the most influential man of his day, Rousseau excepted: and the most influential man of his stamp, down to our day. Of the terrors of sudden change, the Reflections endures as the best warning; of the duties of a popular representative, the speech at Bristol still is the best word; concerning price-fixing, Thoughts on Scarcity continues to be the most lucid retort of the advocates of free enterprise.

“See my pageant passing”, says the French dramatist apropos of the revolutionary torrent raving past his window. To attempt the unravelling of intertwined philosophical origins is a thankless task. Few statesmen acknowledge even to themselves the source of their prejudices. There are not many politicians so conscious of the guiding hand of Burke as was Disraeli, or of that of Jefferson as was Woodrow Wilson. All the same, a debt to Burke is confessed frequently enough from Canning to Churchill for us to know that Burke’s blood continues to flow in the body social. “Burke has endured as the permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea.” It was not Mr. Churchill who said this, nor Mr. Taft, but the late Harold Laski.

Edmund Burke was original. Foreseeing a pillaging of the world by the forces of flux and change, he determined to save the best of the traditional order within barricades of thought. He was the first conscious conservative, of our time of troubles. He endeavoured to perpetuate the ideas that have converted the brute into the civil social man, to ensure their conservation while the world blazes. To find his compeers, we must make our way back to Aristotle and Cicero, true conservatives both. In modern politics the function of saving begins with him. Mistaken an intelligent critic may honestly believe Burke to be; but to deny him the gift of originality is hardly possible.

In the keep of conservatism, Burke is sitting yet. Alive or dead? That depends upon the spirit of the age. For one partisan, the warder of the keep may be Giant Despair; for another, Barbarossa waiting the trump. Young truth lies just under the wrinkled skin of myth, and a trumpet-blast, or one of those flaming clouds which we deny to the Deity but arrogate to our own purposes, still can efface our elaborate constructions. The tocsin in the Faubourg St. Germain in 1789 was such a trump. We may hear another; there is a great deal in the old Greek concept of cycles. History, instead of being a kaleidoscope, may resemble a roulette-wheel; round again may come the number which signifies a conservative order. Both these similes would he repugnant to Burke, who knew history to be the unfolding of a Design; and Burke, could he see our century, would hardly concede that our consumption-society, so very near to suicide, is the end for which Providence has prepared man. If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know Burke’s thoughts that we may rebuild society; if it is not, we still ought to know them, that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization we can.