Image from page 402 of "William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, and the growth and division of the British Empire, 1708-1778;" (1901)

Edmund Burke was, and still is, a provocative thinker—a provocation in his own day, as in ours. At a time when most right-minded (which is to say, left-inclined) English literati were rhapsodizing over the French Revolution—Wordsworth declaring what “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”—Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a searing indictment of the Revolution. He was accused then, as he often is now, of being excessive, even hysterical, in his account of the Revolution:

a ferocious dissoluteness in manners, an insolent irreligion in opinions and practices, … laws overturned, tribunals subverted, industry without vigor, commerce expiring … a church pillaged … civil and military anarchy … national bankruptcy.

All this, one must remember (it is sometimes hard to remember), was said in November 1790, three years before the Reign of Terror, which Burke was so presciently describing.

While others were witnessing what they took to be a natural and much needed political revolution, the transformation of an absolute monarchy into a limited monarchy, Burke saw nothing less than a total revolution—a social, religious, and economic revolution as well as a political revolution. And beyond that, a cultural revolution, “a revolution,” he said, “in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.” This was well before the momentous events: the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of the republic; the execution of the king and queen; the declaration of war against much of Europe (and England); the confiscation of the property of dissidents and emigrés; the imprisonment, expulsion, and assassination of more moderate (and not so moderate) revolutionaries; and, finally, the establishment of the Reign of Terror. Three years before Robespierre came to power, Burke took the measure of the man and his regime.

Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit, public benefit would soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end; until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge could satiate their insatiable appetites.

This was the Revolution Burke described—or, rather, predicted—in his Reflections on the Revolution in France—an extraordinary feat of political imagination. Burke’s critics have never forgiven him for that “premature” account of the Revolution, for recognizing the seeds of the Terror so early and so dramatically. Nor can they forgive him for revealing the flawed philosophy and the temper of mind that had inspired the Revolution and had made it so total. In this sense, the Reflections was even more provocative than it seems on the surface, for it was an indictment not only of the French Revolution but of the French Enlightenment, which was even more revolutionary, aspiring to create nothing less than an “age of reason.” This is why so much of the Reflections went well beyond the Revolution itself, reflecting upon the nature of man, society, politics, religion, and much else—reflections, I may add, that are as provocative and challenging to conservatives as to liberals.

distinguished professor of literature, I’m told, used to open his lecture on Hamlet by telling his students, “This play is full of quotations.” So, I would say, the Reflections is full of quotations. And so is this essay, not only because no paraphrase could do justice to the original, but also because these quotations make for a reading of the Reflections and a view of Burke rather different from the familiar one. I shall also take the liberty of quoting from an earlier essay I wrote, to highlight the contrast between the two views of Burke.

That early Burke (the subject of my first published essay) appeared under the title “Edmund Burke: The Hero as Politician”—the word “hero” obviously meant ironically, because the Burke I then described was a politician lacking any claim to philosophical seriousness or substance.1 The characteristic words in his vocabulary, I said, were “convenience, expedience, prudence, and accomodation.” For philosophers—“metaphysicians,” he called them derisively—he had nothing but contempt, accusing them of applying to politics, with disastrous consequences, the abstract principles of philosophy and morality. “Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician,” I quoted from a letter by Burke. “It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man.”

As evidence of Burke’s animus toward philosophy, I cited his praise of prejudice and superstition. “I had rather remain in ignorance and superstition,” he wrote in another letter, “than be enlightened and purified out of the first principles of law and natural justice.” And then there were those other twin words, “prescription and presumption,” which he took to be the basis of all government and authority—the prescription of ancient laws and authorities, and the presumption that what exists probably should exist. Finally, there was Burke’s glowing account of the beauty and innocence of Marie Antoinette and the charms of an age of chivalry, which I derided as reminiscent of “the magnolia-and-old South” school of rhetoric.

That was my early Burke. Almost two decades later, after several rereadings of the Reflections with students—and perhaps, prompted by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which recalled that “revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” Burke had attributed to the French Revolution—I wrote a reprise of that early essay. “The Hero as Politician” of the first essay became, in the title of the second, “The Politician as Philosopher.”2 Each of the items in my earlier indictment was turned on its head. What had been cause for criticism became an occasion for praise, or at least for amplification that put it in a quite different light. Now on yet another rereading of the Reflections, I go further, finding in it evidence not, to be sure, of a sustained philosophical treatise, but of reflections worthy of serious philosophical consideration.

Burke had a great distaste for abstract concepts and precepts, and a high regard for prudence and expediency in the practical affairs of government. Not “metaphysical abstraction, [but] circumstances … give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect.” This is often quoted to suggest that Burke made of “circumstances” the whole of politics, the be-all and end-all of political theory and activity. But what he clearly said was that circumstances—that is, particular situations—give shape and form to “political principle.” There is “principle,” then, behind those “circumstances.” And more than principle. There is, for Burke, something like a great chain of being, an overarching contract, that gives legitimacy not only to politics but to all aspects of human life.

In my earlier essay I had casually dismissed, as inconsistent with the pragmatic, political Burke, his much quoted statement declaring the state to be “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.” In context, that statement may seem less paradoxical. The passage opens with the assertion “society is indeed a contract”—a contract, Burke went on to explain, that contains many subordinate contracts, some of which, like a partnership for the trade of pepper or coffee, are occasional and can be dissolved at will. But the state cannot be so dissolved, because it is a partnership “not only between those who are living but between those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” And beyond that, it is a partnership with nature itself, so to speak—that “great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world”:

Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of politic[al] institution, aiding the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are … necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure, Man.

Burke’s state, one might say, like Aristotle’s polis, is rooted in the very nature of man, man being a political, as well as a social, animal.

The key words in this account of the “primeval contract” are “linking” and “connecting.” The lower and the higher natures, the visible and the invisible worlds, the rational and the natural, the human and the divine, the moral, the civil, and the political, the past, the present, and the future—are all linked together, all come together to create man. The dominant image I find here, and throughout the Reflections, is that of a continuum, a relationship among seemingly contrary or disparate elements that somehow converge, making sense of what otherwise would be paradoxical or incongruous.

It is just such a continuum, the linking of past, present, and future, that explains Burke’s view of liberty—a liberty that is not an absolute right inherent in the individual, but is rather the product of time and circumstance. Just as property has to be acquired and then secured—that is, preserved and perpetuated—so does liberty have to be acquired and secured. And both are secured by the same means, as an “entailed inheritance”:

The idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. We secure our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It has a pedigree and illustrious ancestors.

The image of a continuum also clarifies what otherwise may seem perverse in Burke, his defense of superstition and prejudice. In my early essay, I had quoted derisively his remark “superstition is the religion of feeble minds.” But that bald statement is preceded by the warning that an excess of superstition is a “very great evil.” And it is followed by the assertion that an “intermixture” of superstition and religion is desirable, “else you will deprive weak minds of a resource found necessary to the strongest.” This idea, of an “intermixture” of superstition and religion, seemed to many at the time (as it still seems to many today) demeaning to religion, and, worse, demeaning to those in need of religion—religion pour les autres, for children, or servants, or others with “weak minds.”

As if anticipating that criticism, Burke went on to say that religion is not “a mere invention to keep the vulgar in obedience.” On the contrary, it is a “resource” for the “strongest” as well as the weak. Indeed, religion is of the very nature of man: “Man is by his constitution a religious animal.” To deprive man of his religion would be to create a void that could only be filled by “some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition,” a superstition that would not complement and support religion but rather subvert and degrade it.

As religion and superstition are a part of a continuum, so are reason and prejudice—by “prejudice” he meant not what we mean by it, hostility against particular people or races, but rather all those conventional beliefs and popular opinions that do not meet the strict test of reason. It is in this sense that he spoke of the church establishment as “the first of our prejudices.”

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Thoughtful men [instead of exploding prejudices] … try to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them, [and] think it more wise to retain the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

This was an audacious idea to present to enlightened men in an enlightened age—a challenge to those French philosophes who would indeed leave men with nothing but their “private stock of reason,” their “naked reason.” It was all the more audacious because Burke’s continuum of reason and prejudice—prejudice with the “reason involved,” with the “latent wisdom” in it—had the effect of creating a commonality among human beings. It was the “common feelings,” the “natural feelings” of men, the “wisdom of unlettered men,” that permitted him to speak so confidently of “the true moral equality of mankind.”

This is also why he could invoke so confidently and frequently the two words that are a refrain throughout the Reflections, “wisdom” and “virtue.” Prudence is the “first of all virtues”; prejudice “engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue”; our ancestors provide a “standard of virtue and wisdom”; the church establishment “is a prejudice … not destitute of reason, but involving in it profound and extensive wisdom”; and “there is no qualification for government, but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive.”

Finally, there is the most controversial part of the Reflections, the paean to Marie Antoinette and the idea of chivalry she symbolized, which occasioned Burke’s boldest reflections about the relation of culture to politics. The ideas and “pleasing illusions” of chivalry—honor, reverence, sentiments, manners—are the product of “the moral imagination,” an imagination necessary to “cover the defects of our naked shivering nature.” Because those ideas and illusions are shared by everyone, to one degree or another, they have the effect not only of elevating everyone as individuals, but also of uniting everyone in a common spirit, thus contributing to the “moral equality of mankind.” And that moral equality, in turn, promotes something like a social equality and even a measure of political equality.

It was this idea of chivalry which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this which … mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings, … obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, … and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners.

This age of chivalry, as much as the old regime itself, was a casualty of the Revolution. If the old manners and morals— and, yes, illusions—were dissipated, Burke warned, if power were stripped of “its own honor and the honor of those who are to obey it,” there would be no redress against tyranny: “Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle.”

Even a sympathetic reader of the Reflections may dismiss these passages, as I did in my early essay, as a “fanciful flight of rhetoric.” Indeed, one might dismiss much of the Reflections, as I did,as mere rhetoric, using that word in its pejorative sense, as the obfuscation or prettifying of reality. It was because Burke was such a “supreme rhetorician,” I had then said, that he managed to appeal to so many people of such different persuasions—to liberals like Macaulay, who pronounced him the greatest man since Milton; or socialists like Harold Laski, who said he was England’s greatest political thinker; and, of course, conservatives like Disraeli, who spoke of his “divine effusions.” I could have added scores of others, like Woodrow Wilson, who was pleased to call himself Burke’s “disciple.”

What impresses me today about Burke’s rhetoric (in the non-pejorative sense) is how much of it, so far from trying to be ingratiating, was deliberately harsh and provocative. The defense of prejudice and superstition, of prescription and presumption, of chivalry and “pleasing illusions,” are hardly words intended to endear him to his enlightened readers, for whom these words were (and still are) red flags. He might have used more agreeable, more palatable terms —belief, tradition, convention, opinion. Instead, he deliberately chose to shock his readers, to oblige them to confront the issues more boldly by expressing them more starkly—to confront not only the French Revolution, but the inevitable cultural revolution that he believed to be even more subversive than the political revolution.

More subversive, indeed, for England as well as France, which is why so much of the Reflections is a vigorous critique of those Englishmen who were reinterpreting their own revolution a century earlier in the spirit of the French, as if their revolution had given the people the right to select (in effect, to elect) their king and depose him at will. On the contrary, Burke insisted, that “glorious Revolution” was designed to secure the dynastic succession by restoring legitimate government after the illegitimate usurpations of James II, thus preserving those “ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government” which are “the only security for law and liberty.” The French, Burke argued, could have reformed their government in the same manner, but chose instead the fatal path of revolution—total revolution.

It is this Burke, the author of the Reflections, who is often pilloried as reactionary—quite wrongly, I obviously believe. No one could attach that label to the Burke who, as a Whig, not a Tory, sided with parliament and party against the King and his ministers. Nor does it apply to the Burke who was a friend and disciple of Adam Smith, who is reputed to have said that Burke was “the only man who, without communication, thought on these topics [a free economy] exactly as he [Smith] did.” Nor does it apply to the Burke who defended John Wilkes, the radical Member of Parliament who was expelled from the House of Commons for libeling the king. Nor to the Burke who conducted a long campaign against Warren Hastings and the East India Company for abusing their charter and exploiting the people of India. Nor to the Burke who joined William Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. Nor, most notably, to the Burke who was an eloquent champion of America before and during the American Revolution.

There was a time, not so long ago, when American schoolchildren memorized and recited parts of Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies,” delivered in March 1775. Today that speech is sometimes interpreted, by conservatives as well as liberals, as an equivocal defense of American—an argument for “conciliation” with the colonies, not the independence of the colonies; for a policy of “wise and salutary neglect” intended to preserve the British Empire and only incidentally to relieve the grievances of the colonists; and certainly not an argument for anything like those “self-evident truths” and “inalienable rights” asserted in the Declaration of Independence. This interpretation of the speech presents us with the familiar Burke, the practical, canny politician.

What Americans read at the time, however, and what generations of schoolchildren proudly recited, were the stirring tributes to the Americans—“descendants of Englishmen,” Burke described them—who treasured not “abstract liberty,” but “liberty according to English ideas and on English principles.” Indeed, the Americans had a more “fierce spirit of liberty” than the English because that spirit was nurtured by their religion, a form of Protestantism that was “not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it.” All Protestantism, he observed, was “a sort of dissent,” but the religion prevalent in America was the most protestant form of Protestantism, the very “dissidence of dissent”—hence the most enamored of liberty. (It is interesting to find Burke at various times—under different “cicumstances,” as he might say—defending the Catholic establishment in France, the Anglican establishment in England, and the disestablished Dissenting churches in America.)

It is odd that although Burke’s speeches on America were well known in America, his name did not appear in one of the most important documents that came out of the American Revolution, the Federalist Papers. Nor did Burke ever mention the Federalist Papers—certainly not in the Reflections, although the Papers were by then available in England. (And odd, too, that in the Reflections he made much of the century-old English Revolution but never mentioned the more recent American Revolution.) Yet reading the two documents together, the Reflections and Federalist Papers, one cannot help but be impressed by the Burkean spirit in the Federalist: an approach to politics that is prudent and judicious; a devotion to liberty not as an abstract or absolute ideal, but as the product of carefully contrived and balanced policies; a non-utopian view of human nature that takes into account the passions and interests, as well as the ideas and ideals, of the governed and governors alike—and with it all, a moral purpose and seriousness that transcends policy and expediency.

It might have been Burke, in the Federalist Papers, observing that “a man must be far gone in Utopian speculations … to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” Or reflecting upon “the veneration which time bestows on everything … without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.” Or remarking that “the reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated” (and fortified, too, by “ancient” opinion as well). Or that “the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.” Or that experience is “that best oracle of wisdom.” Most telling, and most Burkean, is Alexander Hamilton’s advice in the last of the Papers:

I should esteem it the extreme of imprudence to prolong the precarious state of our national affairs, and to expose the Union to the jeopardy of successive experiments, in the chimerical pursuit of a perfect plan. I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.

If Burke could have penned those words in the Federalist Papers, Hamilton or Madison could have written that memorable passage toward the end of the Reflections—a passage that could well serve as an epigraph to the Federalist Papers:

To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience; and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government, that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.

A “sagacious, powerful, and combining mind”—Burke might have been describing the authors of the Federalist Papers, whohad collectively displayed just such a mind.

The genius of the Federalist Papers was to devise a constitution for the new republic which made the United States the most enduring and most successful republic in modernity. The genius of the Reflections was to provide a philosophical critique of that other revolution, so different from the American, which produced another republic, ill-conceived and ill-fated. “You chose to act,” Burke told the French, “as if you had never been molded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew.” The Americans never made that mistake.

I’ll conclude with another personal reminiscence. Some years ago, a young woman came up to me after class to apologize for having missed an earlier session because it was a Jewish holiday She also took the opportunity to tell me how much she valued the course and, particularly, how moved she was by the reading of the Reflections. It gave her, she said, a new understanding and appreciation of Judaism—of her Judaism, which was a rigorous form of Orthodoxy. What impressed her was Burke’s defense not only of religion in general, but of a religion, her religion, founded on traditions and authorities, rites and rituals, which did not always have an obvious basis in reason and which others might denigrate as obsolete and superstitious.

My student could surely have found a vindication of her faith in Maimonides or other Jewish sages, but Burke gave her a less parochial, more universal rationale. Where Burke challenged an Enlightenment that, in the name of reason, threatened to undermine the values and institutions of Christian society, she saw the rationalist, secular ideology of her own age threatening the faith and the very existence of her people. No religion is as tradition-bound and history-centered as Judaism. And Orthodox Judaism is all the more so. Of the six-hundred-thirteen commandments prescribed for devout Jews, some are moral principles binding on all civilized human beings. But others are unique to Judaism. To Christians and even non-observant, non-Orthodox Jews, some of these commandments seem arbitrary and irrational, relics of ancient customs and superstitions. For the Orthodox Jew, they carry the weight of law and morality because they have the mandate of authority—the authority of revered, although not divinely ordained, rabbis—as well as the sanction of tradition, the “pedigree,” as Burke said, of “illustrious ancestors.”

This is what spoke to my student so directly and powerfully. I can think of no greater tribute to Burke than that of this young woman. And I like to think that Burke would have appreciated it as well.

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  1. “Reflections on Burke’s Reflections” originated as a Bradley Lecture given at the American Enterprise Institute on October 6, 2008.
  2. “Edmund Burke: The Hero As Politician” appears in Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition (1968), which was reissued by Ivan R. Dee in 1995.

  1.  “Reflections on Burke’s Reflections” originated as a Bradley Lecture given at the American Enterprise Institute on October 6, 2008.
  2.  “Edmund Burke: The Hero As Politician” appears in Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition (1968), which was reissued by Ivan R. Dee in 1995.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 6, on page 4
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