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Was Burke a Burkean Conservative?

by Daniel Foster
Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics, by William F. Byrne (Northern Illinois, 246 pp., $40)

Ben Franklin wrote in 1787, a year of some moment, that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” In many ways, avoiding the latter consequence was the central preoccupation of the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, a Franklin contemporary. It is also the preoccupation of William F. Byrne’s new study of Burke’s moral and political thought.

From Burke’s time to ours, he has waxed and waned and, with the caprices of intellectual fashion, waxed again in the estimation of conservatives — at the mean, a kind of patron saint of stodgy, staid, cautionary politics more about process than about substance. But Burke was not so easy to pin down even in his own day. A reform-minded, pragmatic British MP, he had expressed sympathy for the American Revolution, worked on behalf of the oppressed Catholics in Ireland, and stridently opposed the Crown’s imperial policies in India. So Thomas Paine, who’d assumed he had a natural ally in Burke, was perhaps understandably taken aback by Burke’s pique at the revolution in France in 1789, and his famed Reflections on the same. Similarly, though Burke was a Whig during most of his parliamentary career, he counted no less a figure than Samuel Johnson — who had called Whiggism “the negation of all principle” and japed that “the first Whig was the Devil” — as his good friend and admirer. Burke despised the programmatic fixity of “metaphysicians,” but wrote a treatise on aesthetics that influenced the young Immanuel Kant. 

And while he has been read by many as a Natural Lawyer of one stripe or another, he’s also been accused, per Byrne, of being “some sort of utilitarian, or proto-progressive, or historical determinist, or pragmatist, or even nihilist.” The muddle is such that there is a growing segment of scholarship that concludes Burke had no coherent philosophy at all, that he was a politician who dealt with questions à la carte.

Byrne, a political scientist at St. John’s University, means with this book to push back against this conclusion. He argues that Burke’s writings contain the elements of a rich and robust system of thought that can accommodate Burke’s seemingly scattershot judgments, one centered on a respect for tradition, for caution, and for the place of both reason and sentiment in human intercourse as ingredients for a society both publicly virtuous and politically free. It’s a familiar picture of Burke, if also a subtler one with some novel elements. As the title suggests, Byrne also promises a usable Burke, a Burke “for our time.” This the author delivers as well, though perhaps not in the way he intends.

Behind Byrne’s scholarship is the sociological fact that he is a working, presumably tenure-tracked academic offering a full-throated normative defense of canonical conservative thought. This makes for some fairly pained attempts to distance both the author and his subject from the kind of right-wing politics that are anathema in faculty halls everywhere. (Often as not, the word “conservative” appears in scare quotes, and the fear is palpable.) Nor would I be surprised to learn that Byrne’s slim book had a previous life as a doctoral dissertation. Like the conscientious graduate student, Byrne zeroes in on his thesis statement early and then spends each subsequent chapter hammering it from a different oblique angle, frequently falling into the trap of telling us what he’s going to argue, arguing it, and then telling us what’s he’s just argued. With the exception of these stylistic tics, however, Byrne’s prose is highly readable, and his reading of Burke both plausible and illuminating.

Byrne invests much (perhaps too much) of his reading of Burke in a phrase — “moral imagination” — that though Burke appears to have coined, he used only once, in a famous passage from the Reflections. It is worth quoting in full:

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 superadded 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 ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

There is much going on here. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Burke saw the substitution of a cold and unmoored rationalism, novel in the worst sense of the word, for the body of mores and morals that had long held French civil life together. Byrne’s Burke understands our moral faculty as an admixture of reason and sentiment. Healthy judgments of right and wrong come from an application of what he repeatedly calls “prejudices” — instincts, habits, virtues culturally inherited — aided by reason. White papers, economic models, and graduate seminars get you only so far. The rest requires the wisdom of “nations and . . . ages” (Burke’s words) that is all too often dismissed as (our words) “the conventional wisdom.”

We thirst for this conventional wisdom, for the common sense that can’t be gleaned from an Ivy League education but comes only from participation in a multigenerational order greater and more enduring that any passing ideological fad. (How else to explain Sarah Palin?) “Prejudice,” Burke wrote, “renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts.” He placed so much stock in the power of our manners, sentiments, and habits to underwrite our political order that, in a kind of counter-Marxism, he argued that “even commerce and trade and manufacture, the gods of our economical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures, are themselves but effects which . . . we choose to worship.” In other words, it takes a people with the right sort of habits — the right moral imagination — to create a functioning capitalist society. (And how can we doubt this, as Americans grow shyer of work and increasingly expect the government to vouchsafe a middle-class living?)

What, in particular, furnishes this “moral imagination”? Family and community, for starters, “the little platoon[s] we belong to in society” that are “the first principle . . . of public affections.” Religion, too, which Burke calls “the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort,” and which Byrne reads as important to Burke not only (and perhaps not even primarily) for the literal truth of its doctrines, but for its “rites, narratives, and other trappings.” The trappings of power are a big deal for Burke, and he doesn’t apologize for it. Indeed, as Byrne shows, there is a deep agreement between Burke’s writings on politics and his treatise on aesthetics on this score. Burke’s treatment of “the sublime” in art and nature focuses on our appreciation of the awe-inspiring: those objects and ideas that, in their sheer scale, complexity, and power, dumbfound and awe us. Likewise, he understands that part of what is required for real political order is a sense of — strange as it may sound — terror, an appreciation for our part in a whole that is itself beyond our comprehension. So, for Burke, the Catholic Church must be catholic. Her Majesty must be majestic. There is a real connection between this idea and Burke’s recognition of the fundamental viciousness of political programs that assume in principle that every problem is solvable, all points of view worthy of consideration, and each man the equal of every other.

Education is another furnisher of moral imagination, and Burke saw in revolutionary France a prefiguring of our present cult of self-esteem when he admonished that “instead of forming their young minds . . . to an admiration of famous examples, and to an averseness to anything which approaches to pride, petulance, and self-conceit,” the revolutionaries “artificially foment these evil dispositions, and even form them into springs of action.”

He cites as well “the theatre” (read today: music, television, film), and believed that a society and its arts could either provide a base of mutual support for a healthy society, or chase each other in a vicious cycle. Although Burke himself authored a long-form satire, he believed strongly that some subjects were not laughing matters. He wrote of his concern about “Players, who daily more than burlesque by their vile Alterations, the Authors from whom they have their daily Bread; and, not content with the many Pieces they have already of that Nature . . . turn all that we have, great or noble, to Farce.” Think of the transition from Edward R. Murrow to Stephen Colbert; from Pride and Prejudice to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

As Americans — Left and Right — we’re prone to sniff at a conception of political order that has more do to with submission than with choice, with emotion than with reason. So it is perhaps important to stop here and realize that Burke is not defending the French crown per se, and that his own political tradition, which the Reflections seeks to protect against the dangers of Jacobinism, is itself a fairly liberal constitutional monarchy that took its then-current form only after a violent revolution and restoration. Burke’s very point is Benjamin Franklin’s, that free societies as such cannot exist without these virtues and sentimental ties.

Byrne spends roughly the first two-thirds of his book on Burke’s concept of moral imagination. This constitutes an argument about the how of political order: How, for Burke, is a stable, functional social-political order built? The latter third of the book Byrne spends attempting to answer the question of what the ultimate good is, at which politics should aim. The answer involves the doctrine most often ascribed to Burke qua Burkean conservative: the doctrine of gradualism.

While it is prominent throughout Burke’s works, Byrne finds the earliest evidence of this gradualism in an unfinished history of England Burke undertook at the age of 28. In it, Burke praises Pope Gregory I and his successors for converting the pagan Anglo-Saxons slowly, allowing them to retain — in certain cases right up to the Reformation — those native customs and festivals compatible with Christianity, “in order that the prejudices of the people might not be too rudely shocked by a declared profanation of what they had so long held sacred.”

Burke was himself a pious Christian, so he must see the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons as a good thing. But this is supposed to be problematic, since Burkean conservatism as it is typically understood assumes that traditional practices are, ipso facto, good and worthy of retention. But Byrne suggests that passages like the above show that Burke cares less about whether a standing order is objectively good and more about how it is subjectively perceived by a people: The old “prejudices” of the pagans are to be preserved only so as not to rock the societal boat, smoothing and stabilizing the transition to the new prejudices provisioned by Christianity. But this reading, in turn, raises the question of whether Burke is at root a relativist — or, at best, concerned with order simpliciter, while being agnostic as between particular orders. (There is other evidence of this, such as Burke’s apparent 180 on the concept of natural rights, from generally for to generally against around the fulcrum of 1789, and more generally the muddle and dissonance of his political positions over his career.) Byrne’s answer is nuanced, but it amounts to a kind of “yes, but.” The idea is that Burke believes in something like natural law and an objectively good order authored by Providence, but that we can grasp it but faintly, and our politics must grope toward it humbly, not make bold sallies under the inspiration of grandiose theories.

That Burke can be read as relativist or instrumentalist — whether or not he actually is one — gets to the core of the doubt that Burke should be considered a figure of the Right at all, and opens up space for his appropriation by liberals as well as conservatives (as we understand those terms today). When President Obama is described as “temperamentally conservative,” we may snicker, but in fact it is quite possible for a committed political progressive to prefer his progress gradual. The organizing principle of Fabianism, the late-19th- and early-20th-century social-democratic movement, was the slow, piecemeal introduction of socialism to the United Kingdom. It is hard not to see Burke’s fingerprints.

There is now a debate on the right that is not usually described in Burkean terms, but perhaps should be. It centers on the following question: If, the Reagan revolution notwithstanding, American political discourse has become prejudiced, in the Burkean sense, toward progressivism and statism by the consolidation and entrenchment of the New Deal and the Great Society, does that make the Right’s political program itself radical? Does it make progressives in Washington conservative? (Consider the popularity of such books as Rules for Radical Conservatives.)

Why is fear-mongering on Social Security and Medicare reform such a potent tool for opportunists on the left? Is it because the idea of a world in which senior citizens rely even slightly less on the machinery of the state is now alien to people’s political prejudices? Or, to put it more forcefully: Is it because the old American political prejudices, including the emphasis on industriousness and self-reliance, and on a safety net that is at least as much familial and civil-societal as it is governmental, have been vitiated by the slow, steady progress of progressive liberalism?

And if this is the case, what of Burke’s usefulness to “conservatives” on the right? Byrne flutters in the general vicinity of this question only briefly, in a concluding section titled “Burke and the Twenty-First Century,” in which he wonders whether we have come to a point where we must choose between a “liberal order” in the sense Burke would have venerated, and “the sort of radical Enlightenment liberalism that undermines meaning and . . . exists in opposition to its cultural heritage.” But again, fear of “the C-word” prevents him from saying much of use here. So we must ask: Would Burke venerate the status quo and argue for a slow, cautious evolution? Or would he see the vitiation of our moral imagination at the hands of “this new conquering empire of light and reason” and call for something more drastic? If Burke’s legacy is as the Cassandra of Jacobinism, we may ask: What if the Jacobins have already won?