Skip to comments.The Conservative Mind: Burke & The Politics of Prescription (An Excerpt)
Posted on 10/17/2002 6:48:21 PM PDT by William McKinley
Liberty, Burke knew, had risen through an elaborate and delicate process, and its perpetuation depended upon retaining those habits of thought and action which guided the savage in his slow and weary ascent to the state of civil and social man. All his life, Burke's chief concern had been for justice and liberty, which must stand or fall together-- liberty under law, a definite liberty, the limits of which were determined by prescription. He had defended the liberties of Englishmen against their king, and the liberties of Americans against king and parliament, and the liberties of Hindus against Europeans. He had defended those liberties not because they were innovations, discovered in the Age of Reason, but because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immemorial usage. Burke was liberal because he was conservative. And this cast of mind Tom Paine was wholly unable to appreciate.
With the eighteenth-century political life touched upon here, Burke was substantially content. Being no meliorist, he preferred this epock of comparative peace and tranquility, whatever its failings, to the uncertain prospect of a society remoulded by visionaries. With all the titanic power of his intellect, he struggled to protect the chief lineaments of that age. Yet it is one of the few charges that can be preferred successfully against Burke's prescience (to digress for a moment) that he seems to have ignored economic influences spelling death for the eighteenth-century milieu quite so surely as the Social Contract repudiated the eighteenth-century mind. He was thoroughly acquainted with teh science of political economy: according to Mackintosh, Adam Smith himself told Burke, "after they had conversed on subjects of political economy, that he was the only man, who, without communication, thought on these topics exactly as he did." But what is one to say about Burke's silence upon the decay of British rural society? Innovation (as Burke, and Jefferson, knew) comes from the cities, where man uprooted seeks to piece together a new world; conservatism always has had its most loyal adherents in the country, where man is slow to break with the old ways that link him with his God in the infinity above and with his father in the grave at his feet. Even while Burke was defending the stolidity of cattle under the English oask, wholesale enclosures, the source of much of the Whig magnates' power, were decimating the body of yeomen, cotters, rural dwellers of every humble description; as the free peasantry shrank in numbers, the political influence of landowners was certain to dwindle. "To what ultimate extent it may be wise, or practicable, to push inclosures of common and waste lands," wrote Burke, "may be a question of doubt, in some points of view; but no person thinks them already carried to excess." His misgivings went no further.
This is an excception, however. Burke did not often leave important material influences out of consideration; he was eminently, almost omnisciently, practical. "I must see the things; I must see the men." He elevated political "expedience" from its usual Machiavellian plane to the dignity of a virtue, Prudence. "I heaved the lead every inch of the way I made," Burke once said of his political practice.
Heaving the lead is not a practice for which Irish orators are renowned; Burke's flights of eloquent fancy everyone knows, and surely Burke did not seem at Hastings' trial, to frightened Tory spectators, a man sworn to cautious plumbing of the depths. Yet Burke spoke accurately of his general policy as a statesman, for he based his every important decision upon a close examination of particulars. He detested "abstraction"-- by which he meant no principle, but rather vainglorious generalization without respect for human frailty and the particular circumstances of an age and a nation. Thus it was that while he believed in the rights of Englishmen and in certain natural laws of universal application, he despised the "Rights Of Man" which Paine and the French doctrinaires were soon to claim invoilable. Edmund Burk believed in a kind of constitution of civilized peoples; with Samuel Johnson, he adhered to the doctrine of a universal human nature. But the exercise and extent of these rights can be determined only by prescription and local circumstances; in this Burke read Montesquieu much more faithfully than did the French reformers. A man has always a right to self-defense; but he does not have, at all times and all places, a right to carry a drawn sword.
Nearly sixty years old when the French cauldron commenced to bubble, grown gray in opposition to the government, denied office except for two fleeting periods during his whole parliamentary career, Burke must have seemed to Paine and Mirabeau and Cloots the most natural leader imaginable for making a sweep of the old regime in Britian. For decades he had been denouncing men in authority with a vehemence which no one in France, not even Voltaire, dared imitate: Burke had called the king of England a scheming tyrant and the conqueror of India an unprincipled despoiler. But what Paine and Mirabeau and Cloots forgot was that Edmund Burke fought George III and Warren Hastings because they were innovators. He foresaw in the Age of Reason a scheme of innovation which was designed to turn society inside-out, and he exposed this new menace to permanence with a passion of loathing that exceeded all his invectives against Tories and nabobs. For the great practical spokesman of the Whigs knew more of the wants of mankind than did all the galaxy of French economists and men of letters. "Burke has endured as the permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea." It was not Churchill who said this, nor Taft, but the late Harold Laski. To Burke's analysis of revolutionary theories, philosophical conservatism owes its being.
I am in the process of reading The Conservative Mind, and think that as I find particular passages of interest or relevance I will take a moment to type them in and share them.
Russell Kirk is without a doubt the most articulate, ideologically pure conservative I've read. The Conservative Mind should be second only to the Bible for our troops on the Right.
He, much more than Jefferson or any of the American founders, is our philosophical father. To those who claim conservatism started with Goldwater, I say "Bosh!" Read Kirk and you'll know the truth.
Goldwater stood on the shoulders of giants.
Nevertheless, I salute your noble project.
The people I have seen move on were merely those grew frustrated in that the could not make more people think like them and let their own failure drive them away or to self-Freeper-immolation.
This Principle of Prescription is one of the most important things that Kirk stesses throughout his life. In '92 he is still stressing it in the Politics of Prudence:
"Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription ["that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary"]. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time."It took me some time before I began to appreciate what he was driving at by its prominance.
Presciption was NOT abstract rights!
Prescription IS not abstract rights.
Now why did he say that because from his essays condemning the Woodrow Wilsonian "human rights" clap-trap, we know that he sees rights as adhering only to individuals...almost libertarian (he would dred that) in his rigor.
He and Burke condemned the metaphysical construct. The Rationalist, the nominalist. Seeing the real foundation of society and even the begining of government in Prescriptive right to property, he was loath to subject it to philosophical underpinnings when it was the underpinning of all of civilization and not to be weighted and measured against other "rights",P> Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions explains as well how those of the Constrained Vision see rights as they find them capable of being exercised in a free society, not as abstracts seperated from Order.
Hayek, as well, condemned the Totalitarian Rationalist Democracies that set up Logical and Philisophical schemes to replace the steady, evolutionary order of the ages.
Old Whigs, All!
If I turn my back on my own rationality and my own judgement, my own ability to weigh the facts and the reasons, and subjugate it to a blind adherence to some ideology, then I am doing nothing but turning my back on both of these gifts. The former because an ideology does not require thought but acceptance, the latter because an ideology cannot think and does not learn from the experiences of life.
Yet despite a spurning of ideology, I find that consistency is easy to attain for the most part, for while there may not be a true conservative ideology, there is absolutely a conservative mindset or way of thinking.
I've met his wife, Anette Kirke, dined in his house, Piety Hill they call it, saw his official certificate noting his membership in the Count Dracula Society, but I confess I haven't read this book. I did read Enemies of Permanent Things.
Now where have I seen that metaphor exercised very recently ...?
Good to see ya, KC.
It's true, I think, that most Freepers are not intellectuals and most discussions here rarely involve the deep consideration of ideas anymore. We are for the most part reliably conservative, but differ very widely in our definitions of conservative, ranging from libertarians and that ilk to ultramontagne religious conservatives who are probably properly regarded as reactionaries in that the social order they would be most comfortable with would a be a theocracy in which the Founders would not be at home.
See you all later.
The paucity of serious thought is highlighted by the way in which the universities have been filled over the past 30 years with fashionable leftists who have substituted jargon for thoughtful discourse and an ersatz marxism for intellectual inquiry. Although my own training was primarily in history and economics, I often feel more at home with the scientific types who have no patience with the nonsense that has overtaken the humanities in many places.
"Never think that you have made a reply, when you have only failed to remain silent. For there is nothing more loquacious than vanity." -St. Augustine
I will risk a little vanity now.
Thus it was that while he believed in the rights of Englishmen and in certain natural laws of universal application, he despised the "Rights Of Man" which Paine and the French doctrinaires were soon to claim invoilable.
I have taken to thinking of our constitutional rights as the rights of Americans, yet I worry that such an attitude is contrary to the universal spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Is Burkean conservatism then in tension with the American founding? Perhaps not:
Edmund Burke believed in a kind of constitution of civilized peoples; with Samuel Johnson, he adhered to the doctrine of a universal human nature. But the exercise and extent of these rights can be determined only by prescription and local circumstances
There seems to be something missing between these two sentences. I think both Burke and Kirk would eschew framing political involvement as merely the exercise of rights. But I'm not familiar enough with their thoughts to know if they avoid the similar trap of framing politics as the fulfillment of duties. Would they have followed classical political theory in viewing politics as part of the ethical quest for human excellence?
I disagree with the sentiment of "innovation" as an unworthy objective. Obviously, a conservative is against change for change's sake, but the idea that he should be against innovation, or that it is somehow nefarious, seems a bit of an insult. There is nothing wrong with learning and improving. Should I be against the innovations that resulted in this online forum? Should I be against the innovations that allow us to feed more people with less work? That allow us to cure disease, to allow my parents and my future (god willing) wife and children to live healthier lives?
Maybe I am misinterpreting someting, but the idea that innovation is the the result of an "uprooted man" seeking a "new world" seems a bit cynical and shortsighted.
I've been cultivating an idea in my head for a while now. As the requirement of a society's (or an individual's) physical (or practical) effort is lessened, so is their intellectual interest. Take the example of people's lack of historical knowledge. Most just assume the benefits of the Constitution, without bothering to understand why or how it gives them their freedoms and what it is meant to guard against.
As for the part about cities, it is merely a statement of a truism- that most innovation has tended to spring up from the cities. Perhaps the cause of this is not correct, but I do believe the assertion that most innovation comes from urban, not rural, areas to be valid.
There is nothing wrong with learning and improving.I have found a quote as I have read on further that I believe supports my supposition that you have read too much into Burke's criticism of innovation.
"We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation. All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees. The has all the benefits which may be in change, without any of the inconveniences of mutation. This mode will, on the one hand, prevent the unfixing old interests at once: a thing which is apt to breed a black and sullen discontent in those who are at once dispossessed of all their influence and consideration. This gradual course, on the other hand, will prevent men, long under depression, from being intoxicated with a large draught of new power, which they always abuse with a licentious insolence."
My brief observation is that I can't guess how Straussian Burke was! The long answer, well -- I'm going to my bookshelf -- is that if he was much read in Aristotle then the missing part must be found in other sentences, if not in Aristotle himself.
From the part that is missing there would be no demerit for his endorsement of duties, provided that he recognized that duties, or any law, must be in some way grounded in something outside itself--this is what Kant did not consider. In true Enlightenment style, he was enamored with the Deism of the a-priori grounding of all human endeavors, a deism which, needless to say, ended with the enthronement of Reason in the French Revolution. So it may be that Burke rather understood duties as Voegelin had, and even St. Paul had, namely that law or duty is a symbol grounded beyond the law itself. But I can't speak for Burke, this is merely a favorable conjecture based on Kirk's claim that Burke knew his Aristotle. But certainly, Burke's prime modus operandi was against the principles of revolution that threatened England from the Continent.
But, says Burke, "we must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature, and the mans perhaps of its conservation. All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees . . . " And then says Kirk, "All this is radically different from the "natural rights" of Locke, whose phraseology Burke sometimes adopts; and Burke's concept of natural right, obviously, is descended from sources quite separate from Rousseaus's. Rousseau deduces natural right from a mythical primeval condition of freedom and a psychology drawn chiefly from Locke; Burke's natural right is the Ciceronian jus naturale [Have you read Frederick's Wilhelmsen's Christianity and Political Philosophy? He treats Cicero on natural law--Voegelin dismisses Cicero] reinforced by Chrisitan dogma and English common-law doctrine. Now hume, from a third point of view, maintains that natural right is a matter of convention; and Bentham, from yet another, declares that natural right is an illusory tag. Burke, detesting both these rationalists, says that natural right is a human custom conforming to Divine intent
I suppose we could take Kirk's word for that.
The last two decades or so have seen a marked resurgence of interest in natural law thought. Russell Hittinger has been a major figure in this movement. The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World reveals the power and subtlety of Hittinger's philosophical work and cultural criticism. Hittinger first defines the natural law, considers its relationship to the positive law, and explains how and when judges are to be guided by natural law considerations. Then, in the book's second section, he contends with a number of controversial legal and cultural issues from a natural law perspective. Among other things, he shows how the modern propensity to make all sorts of "rights claims" undermines the idea of limited government; how the liberal legal culture's idea of privacy elevates the individual to the status of a sovereign; and how the Supreme Court has come to see religion as a potentially dangerous phenomenon from which children must be protected. Throughout, Hittinger convincingly demonstrates that to oppose freedom and law is to misunderstand the nature of both.
I also hope to read Hittinger's book. This passage particularly reminds me of Servais Pinckaers' The Sources of Christian Ethics, which traces the opposition between freedom and law back to medieval nominalism. I scribbled a few notes from Pinckaers' book online here and here.