Our Present Discontents, Then and Now

I’m deep into the weeds of Edmund Burke these days, in part for a recent lecture at Yale (video to come) and a series of seminars I’ll be doing soon on Burke (podcasts to come, I think), but even reading this great judicious man from more than 200 years ago can’t draw me away from our current catastrophic political scene. One of Burke’s famous essays was “Thoughts on Our Present Discontents,” and we could use a Burkean restatement on that theme just now.

There are many passages in his most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, that perfectly describe the temper and disposition of the left today. One of the salient traits of the left today, often remarked upon, is how angry and humorless they are. I think it goes beyond rage and a perverted and immature sense of injustice, and explains the categorical loathing of Western civilization itself that goes beyond mere “liberal guilt”—leftists actually loathe themselves. In speaking of the revolutionaries and Jacobins who thought they could and should tear down everything, Burke writes:

You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you. . .

Compute your gains; see what is got by those extravagant and presumptuous speculations which have taught your leaders to despise all their predecessors, and all their contemporaries, and even to despise themselves, until the moment in which they became truly despicable . . .

They would soon see that criminal means, once tolerated, are soon preferred. They present a shorter cut to the object than through the highway of the moral virtues. 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 . .

Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years . . .

His speech in 1793 on a bill in response to a petition by the Unitarian Society speaks to the worry of the moment about whether the United States might actually be drawing into a pre-civil war condition:

If you ask whether I think the danger urgent and immediate, I answer, Thank God, I do not. The body of the people is yet sound, the Constitution is in their hearts, while wicked men are endeavoring to put another into their heads. But if I see the very same beginnings which have commonly ended in great calamities, I ought to act as if they might produce the very same effects. Early and provident fear is the mother of safety; because in that state of things the mind is firm and collected, and the judgment unembarrassed. But when the fear and the evil feared come on together, and press at once upon us, deliberation itself is ruinous, which saves upon all other occasions; because, when perils are instant, it delays decision: the man is in a flutter, and in a hurry, and his judgment is gone.

UPDATE—Behold, as I am preparing this post, I get the notice that my lecture on Burke from Yale last Thursday is now up on YouTube (an hour long):


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