All profound political movements draw their strength from some earlier body of belief: twentieth-century socialism from the Marx of the middle of the nineteenth century; Russian revolutionary violence from French Jacobinism; radical liberalism from Rousseau, whom Burke had called “the insane Socrates of the National Assembly.” Kirk’s source of wisdom was Edmund Burke.
—Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (1995)
No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other. The same danger approached the same man from different directions and in different forms, and the same man turned to face it with incomparable weapons, drawn from the same armoury, used in a different quarter, but for the same purpose.
—Winston Churchill, “Consistency in Politics” in Thoughts and Adventures (1932)
Now and again, Burke praises two great virtues, the keys to private contentment and public peace: they are prudence and humility, the first pre-eminently an attainment of classical philosophy, the second pre-eminently a triumph of Christian discipline. Without them, man must be miserable; and man destitute of piety hardly can perceive either of these rare and blessed qualities.
—Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953)
No student of the thought or statesmanship of Edmund Burke can ignore the contribution of Russell Kirk to the renewal of Burkean wisdom in the twentieth century. As Kirk freely acknowledged, Burke was largely the source of Kirk’s own political wisdom, and Kirk, from the early 1950s onward, did much to draw out the conservative resonances of Burke’s thought and action. Kirk first wrote about Burke in the summer of 1950 in a Queen’s Quarterly article tellingly called “How Dead is Edmund Burke?” Kirk very much believed that Burke was relevant to addressing modern discontents and that the Anglo-Irish statesman’s wisdom and “moral imagination” (a Burkean phrase from Reflections on the Revolution in France much beloved by Kirk) could play a central role in renewing Western and Anglo-American civilization. This was at the beginning of the Burke revival marked by the scholarship and advocacy of Ross J. S. Hoffmann, Thomas Copeland, Francis Canavan, Peter Stanlis, and Robert Nisbet, among others. Kirk was at the center of this Burkean constellation even if he was less a Burke scholar than a learned and eloquent partisan of Burke’s contribution to the sustenance and renewal of the conservative mind. Kirk’s own writings on Burke are particularly sparkling and have their share of Burke-like aphorisms and bon mots. They are memorable and eminently quotable and are among the part of Kirk’s work that will surely endure.
Like Winston Churchill, himself a profound admirer of Burke, Kirk fully appreciated the unity and consistency of purpose underlying Burke’s thought and action. As Kirk writes near the beginning of The Conservative Mind, Burke was at once a liberal as well as a conservative—“the foe of arbitrary power, in Britain, in America, in India” (and, one might add, in Ireland, where the Catholic majority of the late eighteenth century was still subject to brutal repression under the increasingly archaic Penal Laws). Kirk reminds us in several places that in 1789, Paine, Mirabeau, and others expected Burke the liberal, the critic of arbitrary power, to lead the fight for a regime of pure popular sovereignty in England and to express robust sympathy and support for the French Revolution as it attempted aggressively to destroy all remnants of the old regime.
They did not understand that Burke, the conservative-minded liberal, adamantly opposed the intrusion of abstract theory into practice (like the “little catechism of the rights of men” that dominated French Revolutionary doctrine and rhetoric with increasingly destructive results), and the brutal assault on the inherited wisdom of the ages. Burke did not hesitate to defend sound “prejudice”—the reason inherent in tradition and collective wisdom. He was a friend of political reason or prudence (“the god of this lower world,” as he called it in the “Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol”) but the deadly enemy of every form of abstract Rationalism. He denounced the excesses of King and Court, as well as the marauding and brutal Warren Hastings of the British East India Company, precisely for their “innovations” and their disregard of old and well-established liberties and customs. At times, Burke would appeal to “common humanity” and “the eternal laws of justice” (as in the decade-long impeachment of Hastings).
Burke, the conservative-minded liberal, adamantly opposed the intrusion of abstract theory into practice and the brutal assault on the inherited wisdom of the ages.
But in doing so he was appealing to what Kirk suggestively calls the “universal constitution of civilized peoples”: respect for tradition and inherited morality, support for equality under God but only under God, and fierce opposition to “doctrinaire alteration” of the rules of civilized existence. Burke abhorred slavery and injustice but did not try to remake long-established societies in a stroke. He supported reform as a means of conservation as long as the changes promoted by reformers were largely so gradual as to be insensible and therefore not destructive of the continuity of society. Burke thus carefully kept his conservatism and liberalism in balance, each reinforcing the other. Paine and Mirabeau (among others) initially mistook Burke for a doctrinaire man wholly at home in the Enlightenment. This was a mistake they would come to regret, as Burke became their fiercest and most gifted rhetorical enemy. Like Churchill, Kirk appreciated that conservative ideas underlie even Burke’s liberalism and his accompanying struggle with arbitrary power in all its forms. It is these “conservative ideas” on which Kirk puts particular stress in The Conservative Mind and in his 1967 biography of Burke, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (which was republished by isi Books in 1997).
As Kirk was careful to note, Burke never made natural right the direct foundation of political life and political judgment. That was too revolutionary and too doctrinaire, and it risked separating the rights of man from one’s equally important duties as a human being and member of the social order. But he defended a traditional system of morals indebted to Aristotle, Cicero, the Fathers of the Church, and Hooker and Milton. Burke claimed no originality in this regard, as Kirk points out. But through his eloquence and fiery Irish spirit, he “put new warmth into their phrases, so that their ideas flamed above the Jacobin torches.” He thus renewed old and enduring wisdom, what Kirk, following Eliot, called the “permanent things.” It is in this limited sense that Burke’s politics of prudence perfectly coheres with the “natural law,” understood as moral verities that largely transcend historical change and cultural variation. As Greg Weiner argues in an impressive forthcoming book on Burke’s and Lincoln’s views on prudence, Burke believed that political judgment was essentially circumstantial but that moral truths came closer to reflecting unchanging truths about human nature and the divine and natural “constitution of things.” So understood, Burke is both a partisan of prudence (not to be confused with fearful timidity or “the false, reptile prudence” that Burke denounced in the Letters on a Regicide Peace) and the moral law as articulated by the moral traditions of the Christian West and by other civilized peoples. This moral consensus is related to “the universal constitution of peoples” mentioned above. To affirm a politics of prudence is not to deny a common “moral constitution” that belongs to man as man. In that limited sense, Burke is as “universalist” as Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. And Burke adds, as Kirk is right to observe, a note of Christian humility before the moral inheritance which is among the great gifts of classical and Christian civilization.
Kirk made two additional contributions to Burke studies, both of some significance. Kirk stressed that Burke was among the first to see the limits, all the limits, of social contract theorizing. Choice and consent play some legitimate role in politics (guided by humane and prudent judgment), but they should never obscure obligatory duties that are not a “matter of choice.” Parents, citizens, neighbors, and children all have “burdensome duties” (as Burke puts it in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs) that they are obliged to carry out with grace and a sense of responsibility. Likewise, Kirk noted, Burke believed that every member of a political community was “obliged to obey the laws and sustain the state.” Choice plays an important role in politics (and marriage), but it cannot be the basis of every aspect of life. Duty is as fundamental as consent. Kirk stresses the multiple ways in which Burke’s conservative liberalism was decidedly un-Lockean: while defending the rights of property, Burke never believed that civil society arose from a pre-political “state of nature.” Men and women are not truly born “free and independent,” and the only true social contract is “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” That is the great primeval contract that Burke so eloquently invokes in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. In the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, he sides with the classics and the Christians against full-blown modern “individualism.”
Kirk is surely right that such a “conservative” basis of the social tie would unnerve classical Whigs from John Locke in the seventeenth century to Thomas Babington Macaulay in the nineteenth. Unlike Burke, they were blind, or at least inattentive, to what I have called, in a book of that name, “the conservative foundations of the liberal order.” This is especially true of John Locke. In his most “reactionary” moments (I do not mean this formulation as a criticism), Kirk hopes for the restoration of a “society guided by veneration and prescription.” That is too much to hope for societies profoundly transformed by the individualist premises at the heart of Lockean liberalism. There is seemingly no going back to the world of prejudice, prescription, and presumption, all understood in the elevated Burkean meaning of those terms. Burke and Kirk are right: the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of the gentleman” were in large part responsible for the greatness of Western civilization. As Harvey Mansfield has compellingly argued, modern bureaucrats, technicians, and ideologues are no substitute for the noblesse oblige and the humane and prudent judgment of the gentleman at his very best. But the moral capital represented by religion and the gentleman is fast eroding and cannot become the explicit foundation of Western societies, at least in a world consumed by the “acids of modernity,” to borrow a phrase from Walter Lippmann. Yet Lockean premises remain woefully inadequate for understanding the sources of the Western spirit and the true grounds of moral and political obligation.
Kirk argued, not wholly convincingly, that Burke is “not Outside the American experience.” There is something vaguely un-American about Burke: he emphasizes tradition and duty to a degree that is not palatable to rights-obsessed Americans. Yet Kirk is certainly correct to argue in his biography of Burke that “to seek political wisdom from Burke is no more exotic for Americans than it is to seek humane insights from Shakespeare or spiritual insights from St. Paul.” Burke embodies that paradox: the theorist of the limits of doctrinaire or abstract theorizing who nonetheless articulates the enduring features of a politics of prudence. All defenders of the arts of prudence ought to draw on his wisdom. And as Kirk repeatedly argued, Burke became particularly relevant in the age of ideology, when new forms of “armed doctrine” threatened the bodies and souls of human beings in a truly unprecedented way. The Communists and Nazis made the Jacobins look like amateurs, a mere dress rehearsal for a much more thoroughgoing totalitarian assault on decency, liberty, and human nature. In some profound way, Burke saw it all coming.
For Kirk, Burke was above all the prudent and humane advocate of ordered freedom. Liberty entails limitation, order demands respect for the liberty and dignity of human beings, especially those long rooted in the social and political life of a free people such as the English. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk makes clear what order is not for Burke. He quotes the Regicide Peace at some length: Burke forcefully attacks the Jacobin assault on individuality, its militarization of social life, and its “dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.” Kirk observes that this lucid and compelling description is even more true of the totalitarian “elites” of the twentieth century, the National Socialists and Communists. In his biography of Burke, Kirk has a splendid chapter on Burke’s war with the “armed doctrine” unleashed by French Jacobinism. Today, we call such “armed doctrine” ideological or utopian fanaticism. It was the scourge of much of the twentieth century, as Kirk fully appreciated. Burke’s prudence entailed a recognition that “politics is the art of the possible” and is incompatible with violent revolution and sweeping plans for political innovation. Modern-day utopians and ideologists succumbed to a brutal “Moloch of the future”: a belief in inevitable Progress that systematically wars with human nature as it is. Modern ideologists confuse fallible men with gods who are free to remake the world at a stroke. As Roger Scruton has written in his autobiographical Gentle Regrets, Burke is the wisest and most lucid critic of “the unscrupulous belief in the future that has dominated . . . and perverted modern politics.”
Above all, Kirk read Burke as a lover of liberty who was fully cognizant of liberty’s dialectical dependence on a traditional or classical moral order.
Since promethean impatience will always haunt modernity, Burke will remain our indispensable contemporary. We need his intellectual and moral resources, his exemplary mixture of courage and moderation, to resist new and unpredictable eruptions of the totalitarian temptation. Burke resisted the Jacobin threat to decency, moderation, and liberty with the same insight and determination that informed Solzhenitsyn’s resistance to Communist totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Leo Strauss, who otherwise profoundly admired Burke, once claimed (in the final pages of Natural Right and History) that Burke did not sufficiently appreciate the nobility of last-ditch resistance—“guns blazing and flags flying” against manifestations of true political evil. In his biography of Burke, Kirk countered that throughout the 1790s in England, Burke was the “last-ditch resistance,” a modern-day Cato crying in the night that the curse of Jacobinism must be erased from the face of the earth. On this matter, Strauss, like the proverbial Homer, nodded. Burke is the first and greatest enemy of the proto-totalitarianism that arose in France in the 1790s. He had nothing but contempt for excessive timidity or “false, reptile prudence” even as he honored the true moderation which remained faithful to the ample and humanizing moral and political resources of the Western tradition.
The great French political thinker Raymond Aron, half liberal and half conservative himself, spoke suggestively in a 1957 essay on conservatism in modern industrial societies about the two ways of reading Edmund Burke today. Burke’s polemics against the French Revolution
can be read as definitive condemnations of political rationalism—or of ideological fanaticism. As a defense and illustration of the hierarchy of the Old Regime in its particularity or as a demonstration that all society implies a hierarchy and only prospers in the reciprocal respect of rights and duties. Burke has either pleaded against democratic ideas, or for wisdom.
The French word sagesse (wisdom) is also synonymous with prudence in the high sense of that term. In which of these two ways did Kirk approach Burke? An argument can be made that he promoted him as more of a “traditionalist” than is wise or prudent in an essentially democratic society. At certain moments, there is something musty about his Burke. But that is not the dominant note in Kirk’s approach to Burke.
Above all, Kirk read Burke as a lover of liberty who was fully cognizant of liberty’s dialectical dependence on a traditional or classical moral order. Kirk certainly established that Burke provides powerful arguments and insights for opposing ideological fanaticism in all its forms. In any case, Kirk fully acknowledged that our world was much more explicitly and emphatically “democratic” than the liberalizing and modernizing world in which Burke lived. In a little-noticed passage in The Conservative Mind’s section on Tocqueville, Kirk argues that Tocqueville “excels his philosophical master,” Burke, in one crucial respect: in Democracy in America, the great French statesman and thinker gave “an impartial examination of the new order,” democracy, “which Burke never had time or patience to undertake.” Kirk may be going too far in stating that modern democracy had already “taken distinct form before Burke’s death.” Kirk thus prudently concedes that Burkean wisdom must adopt to a democratic world with which Burke had never fully come to terms. This is a most striking concession on Kirk’s part about the need for admirers of Burke to bring his old and enduring wisdom to a democratic world that he did not truly inhabit or explore. Of course, this would in no way entail a capitulation to the forces of radical democracy.
Almost twenty-five years after his death, Kirk remains the best guide to the conservative ideas that inspired Edmund Burke’s unsurpassed “politics of prudence.” To celebrate and honor Kirk is to celebrate and honor Burke, the greatest source of his political wisdom and moral imagination. Both thinkers remain indispensable to the sustenance and revival of a tradition of ordered freedom, an order at odds with every manifestation of moral nihilism, social anarchy, and ideological fanaticism. May the wisdom of Burke, as mediated by Kirk, long endure.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 8
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