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Burke on Burke's Political Philosophy

Tim Burke: Hoisted from the Comments: Burke talks about Burke:

Comment on: Jacob Levy Hates People Who Are Intolerant!: One objection I have here is that I read another point in Burke in the Reflections, rather similar to what Bruce Moomaw describes above. There's a selectivity about what Burke regards as an admirable tradition, certainly. But there's also a theory of directed change over time in Burke which suggests that the more ambitious and wide-reaching a desired progressive or emancipatory change might be, and the more sudden the time scale of proposed change is, the less likely it is to achieve its aims.

Burke, as I understand him, is suggesting in part that progressive or emancipatory politics has to derive from the organic substrate of a given society, and not deviate in some startling or disjunctive manner from those organic precedents.

This is the aspect of Burke's thought that I think could properly be called "conservative liberalism" rather than reactionary conservatism per se. It would be correct to point out that most contemporary American conservatives are anything but Burkean in this respect, certainly.

I see two strands in Burke relevant to Burke's comment here. The first is that Burke argues that the means you choose shape the ends--not the ends you aim at but the ends you obtain. Call on a society's own internal traditions of justice, fairness, solidarity, mutual prosperity, and liberty, and you will attract to your side those who like justice, fairness, solidarity, mutual prosperity, and liberty. Call on your faction's superior ability to use organization, terror, and violence, and you will attract to your side those who like to boss, to frighten, and to kill. The first road produces a system in which your predominant politician is likely to be someone similar to James Madison. The second road produces a system in which your predominant politician is likely to be someone like Napoleon Bonaparte. This strand in Burke is, I think, very wise.

The second strand in Burke relevant to Burke's comment is, I think, much more problematic. The way I think of it, it starts off from Machiavelli's declaration in Il Principe that it is good to be the (hereditary) king--in the particular example he chooses, it is good to be Ercole I or his son Alfonso I d'Este, hereditary Dukes of Ferrara:

Machiavelli: The Prince - Chapter II: Concerning Hereditary Principalities: I will... discuss how such principalities are to be ruled and preserved. I say at once there are fewer difficulties in holding hereditary states, and those long accustomed to the family of their prince, than new ones; for it is sufficient only not to transgress the customs of his ancestors, and to deal prudently with circumstances as they arise, for a prince of average powers to maintain himself in his state, unless he be deprived of it by some extraordinary and excessive force; and if he should be so deprived of it, whenever anything sinister happens to the usurper, he will regain it.

We have in Italy, for example, the Duke of Ferrara, who could not have withstood the attacks of the Venetians in '84, nor those of Pope Julius in '10, unless he had been long established in his dominions. For the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves the toothing for another...

But in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke is not advising Louis XVI Bourbon on how to maintain his hereditary state, he is advising a "young gentleman" patriot of Paris. Now neither Burke nor the Young Gentleman are "conservative": neither of them wishes to preserve France's true political past, the corrupt and over-bureaucratized absolutist monarchy established by Richelieu, Colbert, and Louis XIV. So what is Burke's advice to the Young Gentleman? It is to think hard about what a good governmental structure for France would be, think hard about what elements of the French past can be ripped from context, and think hard about a structure as close as possible to the ideal can be sold, sell the result as France's "true" traditional historical institutions, and thus gain as much as possible of the advantages of traditional authority while avoiding as much as possible of its downside--which is, of course, that France's real traditions suck.

This second strand is, I think, best characterized as a form of Marxist political philosophy . Groucho Marxist, that is. As in: "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing... If you can fake that, you've got it made!"

IIRC, when Michael Walzer lectured in Government 106b, he mused about whether Burke was engaged in political philosophy or political prestidigitation before reading this extended passage aloud:

Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in — glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.

THIS mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe. It is this which has distinguished it under all its forms of government, and distinguished it to its advantage, from the states of Asia and possibly from those states which flourished in the most brilliant periods of the antique world. It was this which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power, it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance or in any way gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons, so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems is equally true as to states: — Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-informed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely...

The problem is, of course, that Ancien Regime France was not a particularly lovely regime, and the court at Versailles not a particularly noble and chivalrous institution. Burke's pretense that it was is... disturbing. As Tom Paine wrote, Burke "pities the plumage and forgets the slaughtered bird." (Of course, Paine wrote that before he had to flee France before his revolutionary comrades separated his head from the rest of him.)