Brooks & Burke

by John O'Sullivan

Prompted by Yuval Levin’s article, I read the David Brooks column on Burke’s dispostional conservatism versus the GOP’s ideological kind (and Jonah’s more modest criticism in The Corner.)

First, Burke: I share Yuval’s view that Burke himself was a principled conservative as well as a dispositional one. The quotation he unearths where Burke distinguishes between (necessary) principles and abstract theories alone wins the argument.

In addition Burke’s life that shows that he often took adamantine positions that would have had David’s colleagues on the Times reaching for words like “rigid” and “shrill.” His far-sighted opposition to the French Revolution–his “Reflections” predates the Terror by three years–was thought by contemporaries to be so exaggerated as to call his judgment into question. He advocated what would now be called an ideological war against the “armed doctrine” of Jacobinism. In a famous parliamentary scene, he broke off a long friendship with Charles James Fox over the latter’s support for the Revolution (and against Fox’s personal pleadings.)

As to Burke’s attitude to “liberty” we have Adam Smith’s assurance that Burke was “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do without any previous communication having passed. . .” My guess is that a resurrected Burke–yes, yes, I know this is an illegitimate exercise–would lean towards Milton Friedman rather than towards some corporate CEO.

And when I was checking the date of the publication of the Reflections, I came across this judgment from Churchill. Okay, quoting Churchill is alway a bit unfair, but surely this particular passage cries out to be quoted not only in relation to Burke but in relation to David’s overrall thesis too:

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

Finally, is Andrew Sullivan a Burkean? This question does not invite an easy answer. But on the topic with which Andrew is now most associated, for better or worse, namely gay marriage, ask yourself this: Which attitude to gay marriage strikes one as more authentically Burkean: that it is required by the ideal of civil equality or that it is a well-meaning destruction of a civil and religious institution that is by its very nature heterosexual?

Burke was certainly The “the only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote.”

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