The Corner

Re: Food for Thought

Very interesting thoughts from your Voegelin guy, Jonah. I’ve never read Voegelin on Burke, but it sounds like I should look it up. And if our patient Corner readers will allow one more round on this on a slow news weekend, I’d have to say that if your correspondent’s summary is right, then I think Voegelin really isn’t right at all about Burke. It’s true that Burke tends to think of politics in terms of setting the bounds that make private life possible, rather than taking over the functions of private life. But as I read him Burke does not then think of private life as simply consisting of “each man pursuing and controlling his own destiny.” He argues (especially in the “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs” and the “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly”) that ‘choice’ is vastly overrated by the liberals, and that some of the most important facts about life are unchosen obligations and attachments, which we do not form by our will yet which define and shape our lives. Burke worries that if politics were employed to sever or undo these obligations, as he believed was happening in France, all social order would crumble, and he thinks politics ought to strengthen and build on them instead. He argues at times that government ought to be limited in order to allow these social relations to thrive, not in order to allow individuals to undo them. But it’s certainly true–which I take to be what your correspondent or Voegelin himself is getting at–that Burke generally does not argue, as some of the great philosophers have, that government is the ultimate means by which we achieve our human potential. In that sense it’s true he’s a kind of classical liberal. Lots there to think through, and this is a very crude summary, of course.

In any case, I’ll look this up. I find Voegelin very difficult, I have to say, but when I understand him it’s worth the effort.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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