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.