RE: Five Best Conservative Books

by Yuval Levin

Jonah (and Dan and John), the unusual Burke suggestions on that conservative books list are in part my doing (as I was one of the contributors). My first suggestion was a Burke text, but it was the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs rather than the Reflections on the Revolution in France. This was in part frankly because I figured all the other contributors would suggest the Reflections so I could sneak another Burke choice on the list, yet none did. But in (larger) part it was because we were tasked with listing books that exemplify conservative thought, and the Appeal is in some important ways a more deeply conservative book (and a deeper conservative book) than the Reflections. (Strictly speaking both are pamphlets and not books, but anyway…)

The Appeal, written in 1791, was a response to critics of the Reflections—especially to Thomas Paine, and his Rights of Man. It’s an odd book in some ways, especially since Burke writes about himself in the third person in large parts of it. But the dispute with his critics forces Burke to go further than he does in the Reflections in laying out his vision of social and political life, and his critique of the radical liberal vision—particularly of its understanding of the nature of choice in political life. Burke argues that we must begin from an understanding of the limits of choice, limits that run to the very core of the human experience. In what may well be Burke’s best single paragraph, he writes:
Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. 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. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.
If there’s a better statement than that of the deepest foundations of Burkean conservatism, I sure don’t know it. Such a properly limited understanding of the nature and boundaries of choice, he suggests, points the way to a society that takes real human choice and freedom seriously, while the radicals’ simplistic (or they would say rationalistic) idea of total choice only paves (as another great book later put it) a road to serfdom. An important strand of conservatism begins with this insight.
So I think the Appeal is well worth the time of anyone who wants to better understand conservative thought—though without a doubt the Reflections on the Revolution in France is also an absolute must-read.
I did not, however, include Connor Cruise O’Brien’s biography of Burke, The Great Melody, on my own list. As I suggested around here after O’Brien’s death in 2008, The Great Melody is a very enjoyable and impressive book, but it is not really a biography of Edmund Burke, and it offers a rather distorted picture of his life and work. I completely agree with John Miller that we are badly in need of a good one-volume Burke biography. We have sorely needed one for a long time—the best one-volume biography (and really quite possibly the only good one) is still John Morley’s Burke, which was published back in 1887, long before most of Burke’s papers and correspondence were available to scholars. There have been some attempts since then (most notably, I think, by Stanley Ayling, and C.B. Macpherson) but none have really been worthy of their subject. A good Burke biography would certainly make my list of conservative books in need of being written.