Getting Right With Burke

Listeners to the 3WHH podcast will know that “Lucretia” and I have long divided on the question of Edmund Burke. To paraphrase something William F. Buckley once said about Harry Jaffa, if you think it is difficult to argue with Lucretia, just try agreeing with her—it’s nearly impossible.

Don’t be fooled by that sweet smile. . .

Back in our grad school days we liked to make fun of the leftist pop psychology popular at the time that everything wrong with someone could be traced back to their defective potty training. But Lucretia had a simpler theory of the case, saying to me once: “The trouble with you, Steve, is that you watched too many Woody Allen movies in your teenage existentialist phase, while I, of course, only watched morally sound Chuck Norris movies.” At least that’s how I remember it. 

Anyway, I decided to give her the last word in this disputation especially for those who don’t take in our weekly podcast spats, as we’re going to move on to new topics—and new whisky—in our next episodes. (Shhh: not sure she’s entirely figured out that I wrote some of the passages in my recent Burke essay just to trigger her! Mission accomplished!)

Here goes:

Listeners to the Three Whisky Happy Hour Podcast know that Steve and I have been debating the relevance of Edmund Burke to our current political situation for months.  “Debating” is probably a nice way to put it: basically Steve has been getting creamed on a regular basis. (Why he seems to enjoy this I cannot say.) Steve, of course, is a Burke fanboy, asking in a recent American Mind review of Daniel Mahoney’s The Statesman As Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation whether Burke should be considered a “Philosopher King.”  Steve’s argument is that despite his manifest contradictions, Burke still somehow has something to offer to modern, American conservatives wondering how to face the relentless assault of the left on our institutions.  And failing that, Steve argues incredulously that Burke should be read “because of the quality of his prose and memorable turns of phrase that captivate the interest and attention of even the casual reader.”  I can imagine Steve snickering as he wrote that ridiculous statement, because he knows how I—and many of our listeners—find Burke’s prose boring and overwrought.  But don’t take Lucretia’s word for it: a commentator and editor of Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America remarks that

Like other great masters of a decorative style, he frequently becomes pompous and grandiloquent. His thought, too, is obscured, where we would expect great clearness of statement, accompanied by a dignified simplicity; and occasionally we feel that he forgets his subject in an anxious effort to make an impression.

In other words, the quintessential pretentious intellectual… sort of like someone else I know!

There is no doubt that Burke conducted himself with manly courage in the face of political and social headwinds throughout his career in British politics, especially in his contempt for and battle against British corruption in the exploitation of the colonies of India and America.  We could certainly use that kind of courage against the corruption of our ruling classes in the US today.  More often than not, however, Burke’s principled stands against the corruption of the Crown yielded nothing but failure—and often Burke’s ostracism from positions of power.  And of course, noble failure is always to be preferred to base and ignoble victory.

However, the real problem with this sudden and inexplicable fascination with Burke among conservatives is something Steve clearly acknowledges but tends to dismiss in his unseemly fawning over Burke’s prudence and “brave moderation.”  That is that Burke’s prudence is grounded in conservatism for its own sake, and explicitly rejects the natural law/natural rights foundation that must be the critical point of departure for “conserving” the American republic.  Indeed, Burke’s denunciation of the excesses of the French revolution cause him to reject any appeal to natural rights. He insisted that “government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect.”  

Steve argues, correctly for a change, that the “age of tyrannical revolutions did not end in 1989,” but his conclusion that Burke’s opposition to and warning of the “French virus” can be a model today for conservatives confronting the mostly successful onslaught of the ideological left misunderstands what is needed to save our political and social institutions.  At its foundations, the American Revolution of 1776 bears little in common with the French Revolution of 1789, not the least of which is the presence of political prudence in the American founding document.  However, prudence (like patriotism) in and of itself is not enough.  As Aristotle taught us, natural right everywhere has the same force or power, but it is everywhere changeable. Prudence is the virtue of the statesman who understands how to promote natural right in the discrete and ever-changing circumstances of a particular political regime. 

Steve is not alone in his wayward ways. Richard Samuelson, also in a recent review of Mahoney’s book, argues that Burke’s understanding of the unique circumstances of British politics in the 18th century required a rhetorical approach based on the historical rights of British citizens, not an appeal to natural right.  Samuelson hints that had Burke been an American, his statesmanship might well have embraced the founding principles of the Declaration. Whether this is true is certainly open to debate, but as Jean Yarbrough implies in her review of Mahoney’s book, why try to manipulate and massage Burke to make him a fitting model for American conservatives when we have Abraham Lincoln as our own, uniquely American, exemplar of the prudential statesman?  As Yarbrough notes, “The decision to highlight Burke seems especially fraught” when there are conservatives actively “seeking to supplant the natural rights foundation of the American republic and install the conservatism of Edmund Burke.”

Lincoln’s masterful appeal to the principles of human equality in the face of the South’s relentless push to make slavery both lawful and rightful throughout the entire union provides us with an articulate and accessible example of how the right can oppose the left’s assault on our republic.  Turning to Burke when we have the example of Lincoln is reminiscent of the Republican Party’s embrace of Stephen Douglas over Lincoln as their possible standard bearer in 1860. As Lincoln noted in the “House Divided” speech:

There are those who denounce us openly to their own friends, and yet whisper us softly, that Senator Douglas is the aptest instrument there is, with which to effect that object….But “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one. How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don’t care anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the “public heart” to care nothing about it.

Burke rejection of natural right makes him indeed a “caged and toothless” lion, at least in the context of the current American political state of affairs.  I can understand (even if I cannot appreciate) Steve’s penchant for Burke’s ornate and ostentatious prose, but his “impulse to settle out Burke’s contradictions and ambiguities” seems not only a waste of precious time but a complete misdirection when conservatives need desperately to understand not only what but how to conserve what needs conserving.

Glad to have Richard Samuelson sharing my misery. Perhaps I’ll just get out (for now) with a fresh quote from Burke—Solomon Burke:

It’s a danger zone
That I’m traveling through . .

You’re the kind of trouble
That’s hard to resist
I’d hate to think about
All the fun I’d miss

P.S. Richard Samuelson writes in: “I’ll bet Burke liked peaty, smoky whisky, too.” Also: “Is Solomon Burke going to offer “Letter on a Powerline Peace“?

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.