On Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke is one of those classic writers which should be read in every home in the World, (unfortunately, it is not so), here, I shall attempt to give a synopsis of Edmund's ideas. While it might appear volumious, Burke was a prolific writer and orator, his works are composed of many volumes, so what is here is effectively a condensced version, while trying to maintain at least a generous sampling of what the real man was saying.
The examples that I use when I paraphrase Burke are adapted from Edmund Burke's ideas, but I choose to use more contemporary examples to make the points which he does. Before starting, an interesting point. One of Edmund Burke's most famous quotes is kind of like one of Sherlock Holmes most famous quotes. Sherlock Holmes supposedly was famous for saying, "Elementary, my dear Watson", but was never actually said by Holmes. Similarily, the most famous quotation of Edmund Burke is "All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." While that is a fantastic quote, Edmund Burke never said that, the quote was misattributed. What Edmund said was, (In the House of Commons on April 23, 1770):
'When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.'
Vindication of Natural Society:
Burke's most confusing piece of work is doubtlessly his Vindication of Natural Society, due to its two-fold nature. On the one-hand, it's a satire meant to expose the fallacies of prominent thinking in the current era, on the other, it's more than a satire, it aims not just to criticize the popular ideals, but to suggest certain things which would further mankind. In that sense, it is not a pure satire, but most of the elements are correctly identified as being parody or satire elements. One confusion over this work is that Burke hated theory and speculation. That's false, what Burke hated was theory which failed to take into account practical realities. "This is the touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men. Does it suit his nature in general? Does it suit his nature as modified by habit?" (May 7, 1782, Speeches, III: p. 48). Remember that Burke inherently saw man as flawed, and thus, any idea which does not take man's flawed nature into account is a theory devoid of any real meaning. He expresses that with his sentiment:
"I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the subject as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind."
Burke was more disposed to being vengeful towards the modes of reasoning that his "free-thinking" contemporaries employed, moreso than with their "dangerous" conclusions. He believed this mode of reasoning was connected to the nascent radicalism of his age, a "preposterous way of reasoning", that ultimately was abstract and unhistorical. He attacks this with his satire in Vindication, by what is "natural" is good, and by what is "artificial", is bad. He mimicks the first at the beginning, by stating that "error and not truth of any kind is dangerous; that ill conclusions can only flow from false propositions, and that to know whether any proposition be true or false it is a preposterous method to examine it by its apparent consequences." This work was assumed to be a posthumous contribution of Bolingbroke, (the original was released without disclosing who the author was), and, of all ironies, a satire taken to be a true work of genius inspired Godwin to write some of his ideas.
Of course, being a satire, the real position Burke had on it was just the opposite. Burke believed that political consequences should be the foremost consideration of any policy. In his later writings: "Political problems do not primarily concern truth or falsehood. They relate to good or evil. What in the result is likely to produce evil, is politically false: that which is productive of good, politically is true."
In his bold and completely unsubstantiated words in Vindication, he writes that:
"Nature... if left to itself were the best and surest guide" in human affairs, and "every endeavor which the art and policy of mankind has used from the beginning of the world to this day, in order to alleviate or cure them [the 'inconveniences' of the 'state of nature'] has only served to introduce new miseries or to aggravate and inflame the old."
In this work, Burke is distinguishing the difference between "natural" and "artificial", (artificial is a code name for "political") society and putting the blame of mankind's problems squarely upon the politics which arise from society. In real life, Burke didn't see any natural-artificial dichotomy, (Robert Wright holds a similiar opinion), and the true purpose of Vindication was "to demonstrate what an absurd conclusion (that is, that we should abandon political society and return to a state of nature) could be reached by starting from such abstractions as 'natural' and 'artificial' society."
As part of his satire, he blasts all forms of "political" society, and then, after blaming everything that has befallen mankind because of "artificial" society, he says that the way "political" society had even arisen was because human nature itself was flawed, hardly a strong reason to return back to nature. The transition between the "natural" society and the "political" society is placed squarely on man's shoulders: "Thus far nature went, and succeeded; but man would go farther." Burke would go on to write that:
"The great error of our nature is not to know where to stop, not to be satisfied with any reasonable acquirement; not to compound with our condition, but to lose all we have gained by an insatiable pursuit after more." (To Hobbes', an absolute government was the only recourse because "a war...of every man against every man," was produced because of "a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.")
Burke was slyly using the "unintended" implication of his position to show that man is more than a "natural" being, and that entering into a political society is something which will naturally occur, something held by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Locke. The dualism between "natural" and "artificial" simply didn't exist to Burke. Burke dismissed it with a single memorable phrase, "Art is man's nature", and added that a political society is more in-line with man's true heritage and disposition than a "state of rude nature." Indeed, the "state of civil society...is a state of nature; and much more truly so than a savage and incoherent mode of life."
His first attack on artificial/political society is that enmity, war, and destruction are not simply the side effects of a political/artificial society, instead, they constitute the very core of that society. Edmund chronicles history as a tirade of nothing but inhumane slaughter and sacrifice, based upon the division of people into artificial societies. Burke was here being serious, the numbers and figures he draws up are not satirical, (indeed, Burke would lash out against those who would mock serious events, by saying that "The strongest proof of a depraved mind is the being able to break a wicked jest upon the most grave and important matters. It stands forward as a proof that the wickedness of a nation is rooted, and that notions of propriety and decency, are lulled to a lethargy.")
It's only when he gets to the end of his diatribe that he begins to show the satirical elements of it. He says the "whole of these effects on political society," which "is justly chargeable with much the greatest part of this destruction of the species." Maintaining that dual standpoint that man's nature is characterized by a "haughtiness and fierceness", he still goes further and state that political regulations are the main culprit for making conflicts "so frequent, so cruel, and attended with consequences so deplorable."
Within context, he is making a circular argument. While acknowledging that it was human nature that drove men to become 'political' societies in the first place, it is nature then, by proxy, which much be faulted with the destructions so rampant. This makes the formation of a political society inevitable, but another question must be asked from this. If artificial societies are inevitable, then are they all the same in terms of humanity towards others? Not so according to Burke, he writes of Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Judea, Greece, Rome, the barbarian kingdoms, and the modern nation-states as one heap of injustices against humanity. Burke was too well educated to disregard the wide discrepancies between the rules of these nations, Rome could never be compared to Assyria in terms of brutality. Nor does Burke catalogue the advancements of society, the benefits and achivements which these societies brought forth, as showing any difference between the crimes of organized people and their respective societies formed by this. This is where the parody of Vindication is shown in a less subliminal way, the abridged history that Vindication gives is so blatantly one-sided that it could only come from a satire.
Burke further shows the parody elements by his assessment of governments. He says that these political/artificial bodies ought to be assessed based upon God-given principles of "ideas, axioms, rules of what is pious, just, fair, honest...." He initially suggests that some of these political societies may, in fact, have been like this, but he later destroys this notion. Assessing regime-types was done first among the ancient Greeks, such as in Herodotus. Plato and Aristotle had a systematic approach, making analysis of regimes a political science. Vindication parts ways with any traditional mode of analysis.
In Plato's republic, he details that the "rule of the best" devolves into timarchy, oligarchy, democracy, anarchy, and finally, tyranny. In Statesman, he constrasts regimes which governed on the basis of law; monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with their opposites; tyranny, oligarchy, anarchy. In "The Laws", Plato introduced the notion that the best state, (the law state) will have an intermediary position between different regimes. Such a state "will form a mean between a monarchical and a democratic constitution, and our constitution should always stand mid-way between these." Building on Plato, Aristotle conducted a detailed analysis of actual regimes, but retained the basic taxonomy developed by his teacher. He maintained that the best state in practice show a blend of oligarchic and democratic principles, forming a mixed constitution.
For Burke, distinguishing a system based upon conformity to the law and constitutional principles is abstract, he blasts them all as being the same thing. "Monarchy", "aristocracy", and "democracy" are really just different words for their covalent equal in reverse terms, "tyranny", "oligarchy", and "anarchy". Even a mixed government, hailed as being better than one of simple modes, is condemned as being little better than a tyranny. Burke completely ignores the distinguishment of a democracy to an ochlocracy, and some very narrow approaches to social criticism. He informs us that ancient Athens did not turn into a tyranny by foreign conquest or accident, but instead, "by the very nature and constitution of a democracy."
While allowing that the Roman republic handled its affairs "with greater wisdom and more uniformity," but it only did "so far as related to the ruin and oppression of the greatest part of the world .... " Carthage, Sparta, Athens, Florence, and Venice, all these regimes were irrelevant, for they are "all alike in effect; in effect...all tyrannies."
For those who still haven't caught onto the fact that this is a parody, Burke pauses to pronounce the certainty of his claims, as that they are iron-clad.
"After so fair an examen, wherein nothing has been exaggerated; no fact produced which cannot be proved, and none which has been produced in any wise forced or strained, while thousands have, for brevity, been omitted; after so candid a discussion in all respects; what slave so passive, what bigot so blind, what enthusiast so headlong, what politician so hardened, as to stand up in defense of a system calculated for a curse to mankind?"
The mockery takes its full flight here, as the author has over-exaggerated much, proved little, omitted a great deal, and been far less than revealing. The fact that this work is not a full parody is taken in light of the fact that there is a strong dose of truth in his attack on the government. However, the reader is compelled time and again to see that it is abuse of power, not the government by default, which is responsible for the problem. Yet, Burke denies this distinction, claiming, "In vain you tell me that artificial government is good, but that I fall out only with the abuse. The thing! The thing itself is the abuse!" Such an "incomparable force of reasoning and luster of eloquence" may have bouyed Godwin's anarchism, but it is poorly calculated to move more sober minds to that position.
Burke continues that because he has overcome his "prejudice" for "this last contrivance of policy," he denies that "the errors of the several simple modes are corrected by a mixture of all of them, and a proper balance of the several powers .... [S]uch a government must be liable to frequent cabals, tumults, and revolutions, from its very constitution." Far from being a stabilizing force, a mixed constitution will only give rise to greater conflict over the use of authority, and this will cause:
"all manner of abuses and villainies in officers remain unpunished, the greatest frauds and robberies in the public revenues are committed in defiance of justice; and abuses grow by time and impunity into customs .... the several parts of this species of government, though united, preserve the spirit which each form has separately. Kings are ambitious, the nobility haughty, and the populace tumultuous and ungovernable."
Instead of serving to restrain one another and preserve a balance, the "government is one day arbitrary power in a single person, another a juggling confederacy of a few to cheat the prince and enslave the people, and the third, a frantic and unmanageable democracy." The core problem of these mutations, "and what infuses a peculiar venom into all of them," is the spirit of "party"; "the spirit of ambition, of self-interest, of oppression, and treachery." So destructive and pervasive is this spirit, that it "entirely reverses all the principles which a benevolent nature has erected within us; all honesty, all equal justice, and even the ties of natural society, the natural affections." While we think despotism as the worst government, "such oppression from party government [is such] as no tyranny can parallel." Of course, Edmund Burke didn't believe that, and his famous saying later was that "simple governments are fundamentally defective."
Burke also parodies Bolingbroke by questioning one of his claims about religion. In his posthumous works, Bolingbroke argues that diesm reconciled the problems caused by religious sectarianism. Bolingbroke blames organized religion, and therefore their political bodies that are connected to disputes, for discord and social problems. The superstition and collective enthusiasm of religious matters and sects caused a break in the pristine logic of the political life. Hobbes and David Hume take this viewpoint as well. To Bolingbroke, a religion based solely on natural reason eliminates these difficulties.
The first problem that Burke poses is that if religious association is the key problem, then have the effects of political society, without religion, been any different?
"If pretended Revelations have caused Wars where they were opposed, and slavery where they were received, the pretended wise Inventions of Politicians have done the same. But the slavery has been much heavier, the wars far more bloody, and both more universal by many Degrees."
Just because religious association has been known throughout history to endanger political liberties proves neither that it will do so in all cases, nor, more importantly, that a society in which the seeds of such religious association were eliminated would prove able to maintain political liberty in their absence. In Burke's later writings, he shows a heavy degree of leaning towards keeping Church and State seperate, meaning he at least partially shares an opinion with Bolingbroke.
Early modern political thought from Machiavelli onward have stated that without religion's palliative effects, those lacking morals otherwise would resort to a more primitive behavior. The flip-side to that is the question usually posed by atheists, and even by Burke, if various divisions all disagree on what is moral, then how is that any better than being amoral? (Burke didn't pose it exactly like that, he questioned the use of reason by looking at all the Protestant branches that varied and stating that if reason alone was how they formed, which is what they claimed, then reason was more ambiguous as a deciding factor than was thought.) Burke takes the viewpoint of those believing in a more moderate standpoint, that Christianity, as a social institution, provides a basis for morals.
"The Christian statesmen of this land would indeed first provide for the multitude, because it is the multitude, and is therefore, as such, the first object in the ecclesiastical institution, and in all institutions."
Burke doesn't just stop there, he goes on to say that religion can never be regarded as "a mere invention to keep the vulgar in obedience." Moreso than the masses is the political elite, those who have power, who need a moral basis from religion:
"They are sensible that religious instruction is of more consequence to them than to any others--from the greatness of the temptation to which they are exposed; from the important consequences that attend their faults; from the contagion of their ill example."
In Vindication, Burke uses Locke in condemning "tyranny", and his idea about the better nature of a natural society. Locke reasoned in his Second Treatise of Government that the pre-political society was benign, but lacking an impartial arbiter of disputes, started to form a more "political" society, a society based upon laws. Burke states that this may be true, (a non-political society having many and great inconviences), but Burke doesn't believe in a cure. He says that man, not knowing when to stop, could find no bond beyond family. Thus, the new political society had to invent laws, but these were illusionary, the first judges became corrupt. In order to deal with these corrupt judges, man made laws written, so that there would be more certainty. Burke says, however, as soon as this happened, the only thing now was the interpretation of these laws changed.
With this, more laws were made to give the old ones more clarity, but with new laws came new opportunities of corrupting them. Debates would rage over the old text or new text, is law based upon the original intentions of the authors, or is it available for the newest interpretators to figure out? Thus, the law, even when written, would not be able to help us in this case. His charges against the law contain too much truth to be outright dismissed, yet too little truth to totally persuade. Burke himself wasn't a big fan of law, leaving it in spite of protests by his father, himself a lawyer, to stay in it. However, Burke believed in the law as a form of social interaction which grew in complexity, so that laws were not so much made by a person as by people. His view would have been that the original intentions of the authors was sufficient ground for keeping it the way it was.
The final thrust of Vindication is one which shows the true intention. Bolingbroke had argued against artificial religion, but didn't see the same methodology could be used to completely undermine all religion, "natural" or otherwise. Burke thus shows that there are certain dangerous consequences of natural reason, and would later warn against "agitating those vexatious questions, which in truth rather belong to metaphysics than politics, and which can never be moved without shaking the foundations of the best governments that have ever been constituted by human wisdom."
The problem with Vindication, or indeed its strength, is that it is mostly negative in what it hopes to achieve. By fully using the faulty reasoning and making absurd conclusions from his main points, Burke hoped to create an argument against those making the same charges. However, he made no attempt to present a constructive viewpoint on law, nature, society, Church and State, and so forth, and constructive viewpoints must be gleened from the text rather than put into a systematic pattern.
The teaching of the Letter, the teaching of Burke, is that there are no easy or settled answers to these perennial concerns; that the "science of government" is "a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be"; that "[t]he nature of man is intricate; that the objects of society are of the greatest complexity"; that "the constitution of a state and the due distribution of its powers [is] a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill"; that it "requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions." Accordingly, "no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his affairs;" and so "it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes." In defining the totality of involvement between this generation and those past, he wrote in 1790 that:
"Society is indeed a contract. ... It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."
Reflections on the Revolution in France, and later writings
Burke's writings in "Reflections on the Revolution in France" are among the top of any political science/philosophy writings ever put into action. Burke had an uncanny clairvoyence for what would happen, and the title of his book demonstrates it. What's important to note is that it is not, as has sometimes been misquoted, called "Reflections on the French Revolution". The title was indicating that Burke believed that if not oppressed, the movement would spread from France into other areas, and would become a total state of anarchy, ultimately resulting in tyranny.
According to Burke, liberty must be "combined with government, with public force.., with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too, and without them liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long." "[T]o temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful and combining mind."
In early political thought, there were two basic camps for "civil society". The first being that of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which treat a civil society as a synonym with political society. In trying to correct the inherent flaws of natural society, a political association came into being. In this contractual view, "civil society" is made by solitary individuals who enter into a civil compact which permits them to form nonpolitical attachments.
In the second meaning, "civil society" refers itself to a much narrower meaning, that being nonpolitical attachments like family, church, party, and enterprise associatins. While not originally intended, it has come to employ the opposite qualities of the "political society", and treats nonpolitical attachments as more natural than political unions. These attachments are outside of the political sphere, and by their very nature, should be completely free from political interference. There are variations of this in Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Paine, and other eighteenth-century moralists, as well as in the descriptive tradition of contemporary social science.
Edmund Burke writes that nonpolitical attachments serve chiefly as the "first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind" and "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections."
These links to family, religion, property, class distinction, level of education, etc., are what we need in order to link to abstract political order, which we cannot directly understand or experience. Burke writes that "No man ever was attached by a sense of pride, partiality, or real affection to a description of square measurement." He writes that "Society is indeed a contract," which has a need for "pleasing illusions, decent drapery, mild majesty and sober pomp," which societies rely upon to preserve its very nature.
The danger of these nonpolitical attachments is that our natural fascination, and respect, for them causes us to place them above a level too high, one in which the political elements of a society are totally denied. Instead, the nature should always be understood as the two of them being mutually compatible:
"we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars."
This view is one of a unique standpoint, Hobbes saw intermediary associations as inevitably divisive "lesser commonwealths", analogically as "wormes in the entrayls of a natural man." For Hume, these "factions" inevitably "subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection." Locke, who did allow an intermediary stage between society and nature, viewed this as a transitional stage. He left ideas on the political role of church and family untouched, however.
Burke's midway position between civil society and political society may prove an asset, as Burke calls attention to its conceptual indeterminacy. Rather than stating that there's an inflexible barrier between political and natural society, like Paine, Burke is, or assuming that natural society is the subordinate of political society, he knows that there is tension between these distinct forms of human association.
Burke believes that the contractual view of society has three faults to it. First, a model of individuals rationally consenting and withdrawnig from political society does not accurately describe the history of English liberties. Second, to imply that individual consent is all that holds a society together, (via the Lockean method taken to the extreme), is to dissolve any basis for that union. Third, and his best objection, is that a society formed upon active consent is one in which toleration is the least active, because a society formed by active consent is one where political "others" come into play who are seen as not actively consenting, and hence, disrupting the entire balance of that society. Whenever an Englishmen has a problem with the government, they "not only entertain ... opinions, but entertain them with a zeal for propagating them by force, and employing the power of law and place to destroy establishments."
Any society which demands full conformity to their roles and rules is one where ones active and complete acquiescense to the government is the primary concern, that causing a new reason in the political sphere for destruction of the dissenters. Comparing this to France, Burke observes that any deviation from the totality of committed citizenship of France results in violence, some of which included destroying priceless works of art. "They think everything unworthy of the name of public virtue, unless it indicates violence on the private." Moreover, "Carried on with much greater fury.... In such a popular persecution, individual sufferers are in a much more deplorable condition than in any other."
Intermediate bodies are not harmful to Burke, because unlike other thinkers, he believed that "the love to the whole is not diminished by this subordinate partiality," meaning that one could have devotion to many parties without lessening their devotion to another. The attempt to strip relationships down to one subserviant position of the State was to strip an individual of any life or locality, in effect, simply to make everything a devotion to the whole. The French Revolution was too zealous in its assault of all intermedaries, and it caused a loss of any "pride, partiality or real affection."
Burke was also one of the first people to defend political parties, which were looked down upon by Hume and others. Hume saw political parties as people with too much "zeal" who would subvert any good constitution by the violence of their factions. Burke doesn't defend what Hume considers to be fanatical statesmen, but rather, he defends political knowledge that can only be gained by collective knowledge in intermediary institutions. Free government was linked to party government, as "Party divisions, whether on the whole operating for good or evil, are things inseparable from free government."
Burke seemingly takes a more ambiguous position later. While noting that faction and political combinations are limiting conditions to politics, he acknowledges, like Hume, that their zeal for their party faction leads to unfavorable conditions. Burke states that "I admit that people frequently acquire in such confederacies a narrow, bigoted, and proscriptive spirit; that they are apt to sink the idea of the general good in this circumscribed and partial interest." However, Burke also puts forth a second piece to the puzzle, that these institutions are what causes a free government to exist, because it is their very support of that government which even gives it the ability to sustain itself. The fact that political power, like religious power, can be abused in no means that there is no possibility of good that can arise. Whereas the flip is true, if political life is abandoned all together, the bad will combine and they will persevere. This is where his famous misquoted statement comes into play: 'When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.'
First, Burke makes a point that Adam Smith would as well, that the individual person is pretty much innoculous. "(W)hen they lie dispersed, without concert, order or discipline, communication is uncertain, counsel difficult, and resistance impracticable."(Adam Smith was speaking of the poor though, who, because they lack the ability to have any power, cannot destroy a market because they lack the money and finances to ruin it. For Smith, it was those not engaged in productive labor, yet who had vast sources of money, who destroyed an economy. These elite, when combining market power without any actual labor, cripple a society.)
Burke has the exat opposite attitude that Hobbes and Hume did, who associated collective enthusiasm as the most destructive force in a society. Burke believes it is the solitary individual who is irrational.
"No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens."
This view has it that the individual wants to be a reformist for the singular benefit of disdain for sharing glory of success and spoils of victory with others. In addition, outside from a psychological reason, the biggest danger is that mutual faction means one is submitted to peer review. The designs, plans, and true intentions of a lone individual are only known to himself, wihle party politics mean that his peers know what the person's agenda is.
Burke takes his ideology of individuals from the same place he gets his ethics from, Aristotle, by taking his Aristotle's maxim of politics, that whoever is outside of the political community must be either reckoned as a beast or God. Burke writes that:
"When I see in any of these detached gentlemen of our times the angelic purity, power, and benificence, I shall admit them to be angels. In the mean time we are born only to be men. We shall do enough if we form ourselves to be good ones."
(Francis Canavan makes a similar statement: "We must take men as they are, neither as angels nor devils, and provide legitimate channels for their pursuit of wealth.")
The party government serves as a collective restrainment on people's hidden wishes, but it also is "the principal ground of friendship and attachment ... capable of forming firmer, dearer, more pleasing, more honourable, and more virtuous habitudes." He relates this as well to intermediary positions, stating that "and we may as well affirm, that our natural regards and ties of blood tend inevitably to make men bad citizens, as that the bonds of our party weaken those by which we are held to our country."
To Burke, even those who are well-meaning can inflect massive harm without the practical knowledge that the party government controls. "(T)he science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori" thus, "new power in new persons" has a special problem for us. Because the French Revolution was built upon new government classes that dismissed any voices of reason or political savvy, as being disloyal or hindrances, they ultimately failed.
The "unsteady and precarious contribution of individuals" is problem for any social institution, including politics. Adam Ferguson took a similar route, and while he praised modern methods, he also found himself wary that after "repressing the civil disorders in which the activity of earlier ages chiefly consisted... they employ the calm they have gained, not in fostering a zeal for those laws, and that constitution of government, to which they owe their protection, but in practising apart, and each for himself, the several acts of personal advancement, or profit, which their political establishments may enable them to pursue with success. Burke believed that unique circumstances evoked unique responses in the histories of different communities. But, like Montesquieu, he was also convinced of the underlying identity of the historical structures of European societies. 'Men are not tied to one another by papers and seals. They are led to associate by resemblances, by conformities, by sympathies. It is with nations as with individuals. Nothing is so strong a tie of amity between nation and nation as correspondence in laws, customs, manners, and habits of life.'
Burke's attention to institutions and intermediaries is because he is addressing a uniquely modern problem at his time that hadn't been seen in earlier days, that individualism brought forth by complete revolution was also the cause of the centralization of political power into a small group that caused the breakdown of pluralism and resulting in a monolithic ideology of oppression. Ferguson, Burke, and Tocqueville commented on this problem. Extreme forms of rigid distinction between the intermediary and social organizations causes an extreme denial of the political character of man, so that "The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false."
Burke says that "power, of some kind or other, will survive the shock in which opinions and manner perish." It's not a question if power exists, but rather, who is controlling it? The only way that this power can be controlled is if it is broken up, diverted, or checked and balanced by tradition, habit, and institutions with prescriptive roots in civil society. This is similar to Aristotle, Montesquieu, (and even some of the Church fathers) doctrine, as well as the Madisonian maxim that ambition is needed to check ambition. From this balance of polarized groups, we find that a cohesive society will be formed.
Burke's faith in the great wheel of circulation, by which the profits of the rich were naturally dispersed among the population, might, as Canavan is prepared to admit, have condemned thousands to abject poverty, but has it really been the expansion of the public power that has alleviated this problem today? There may be more to Burke's faith in the inherent drive to harmony that he found in unequal property holding than wishful thinking or a slavish service to aristocratic masters.
For Burke, and indeed, most conservatives, the point of politics could be summed up as this, (from Russell Kirk's work on Burke):
Inclined toward the Burkean view was a significant group of Americans, including Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and John Adams. For Hamilton and Morris, writes Dunn, "the strength of American democracy lay in its continuity with its colonial past and English institutions. Experience and practical wisdom were purely positive values; neither man thought that experience dulled the mind with routine, stale formulae, or worn ideas."
Another important Founder, James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, held a more nuanced view. He saw both experience and theory as flawed forms of human understanding.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed observer of Democracy in America (1835-40), was no less horrified than Burke at what France's revolutionary intellectuals had wrought, but he insisted that abstract ideas do have a role in politics. In monarchical France, he argued, the kinds of "wise and practical men" Burke admired lived an insular royal existence, ignorant of changing social and political conditions. "Only the interplay of free institutions can really teach men of state this principal part of their art," he wrote in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856). As noted earlier, this is kind of false, Burke did believe in good common sense in politics, and in a upbringing that taught it. France's intellectuals were more attuned to the changes in French society, but they were barred from the practical experience in politics that would have tempered their theories.
Thomas Jefferson was closer in spirit to the French philosophes than most of the other Founding Fathers. Always a contradictory mix of the pragmatic and the idealistic, he favored the latter toward the end of his life. By 1824, he had come to see the American Revolution as very like the French, a blank slate for the abstract ideas of the Founders: "Our Revolution...presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased," he wrote.
Yet Jefferson, like Tocqueville, grasped an essential truth. For modern societies, the choice was no longer between preservation and revolution, as Burke believed, but between evolution and revolution. "A healthy polity, they suggested, would always turn to its men and women of experience and theory, courageous, farsighted, and hopeful, for perpetual renewal, the key to its survival."
The overall point to understanding Burke can best be explained in his work about manners. Manners are not something we think about deliberately, nor do we plan them out. Yet, they serve to make us interact sociably, and to make us interact comfortably. Burke went so far as to say that good manners indicate good morals, he would be at least partially right as those with good manners tend to have higher I.Q.'s and better upbringing than those without. However, if we were to take manners and try to consciously change them, it would be disasterous. The very strength of manners is that they are unwritten, and unconscious, Burke pointing to the fact that it is the many unconscious elements of a society which run it, and to destroy them is disasterous. Rather than seeking to destroy a social progress, Burke argued for learning how to amend it so that it would be better. He made an analogy to a friend advising a judge on a decision, the friend does not seek to destroy his friend's job, but rather to help him do it in the best way possible, even if he doesn't agree.
Burke was hinting at the dangers of his contemporary intellectuals who believed they could cause social change without any negative reprocutions, and that social change could be calculated and predicted. Burke wanted people to realize the superiority of the cumulated knowledge rather than the individuals.
Was Edmund Burke an Ethical Man?
One point that those with the unconstrained viewpoint tend to lampoon those of the constrained view is that they lack morals and ethics. Burke, as we have already seen, was greatly influenced by Aristotle. Like him, Burke emphasizes the habitual nature of virtue, and acting within circumstances. Let's look at that now.
The right frame of mind:
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that "[m]oral virtue ... is formed by habit ... none of the moral virtues is implanted in us by nature, for nothing which exists by nature can be changed by habit.... Thus, the virtues are implanted in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature: we are by nature equipped with the ability to receive them, and habit brings this ability to completion and fulfillment." Acts are virtuous only if the doer "knows what he is doing; .... he must choose to act the way he does, and he must choose it for its own sake; and ... the act must spring from a firm and unchangeable character." One must choose to act virtuously, but one's character determines one's actions.
For Aristotle, because a man with moral virtue is formed by conscious decisions and choices rather than by unconscious actions, no one is wholly with virtue. However, this does not mean that the habit which forms a person's character can be overlooked. To Aristotle, "a given kind of activity produces a corresponding character," and "moral characteristics are formed by actively engaging in particular actions." You become a careless person by acting carelessly as a habit, and a bad habit is formed by bad actions, likewise, someone can train themselves to act virtuously as a mode of their character, so that terms like "he is an honest man" is accurate.
The application of Prudence and Wisdom to social standing:
While Burke usually scoffed at intellectuals, he does take from the Aristotle paradigm that prudence and wisdom are necessary for being an ethical man. Aristotle writes that it is "virtue (which) makes us aim at the right target, and practical wisdom makes us use the right means." Practical wisdom is necessary if one is to judge rightly how one should respond to particular circumstances. And it is only with proper judgment that one may act virtuously; "virtue makes us aim at the right target, and practical wisdom makes us use the right means." To Burke, prudence is being able to know what natural law dictates. It is that which allows society to exist. Public service is especially in need of proper guidance, but it "ought to be circumscribed by the same laws of decorum, and balanced by the same temper which bound and regulate all the virtues.
To Aristotle, and though to a lesser extent Burke, nature forms a man's character by circumstance, which dictates how one should be treated. To Aristotle, it would be nonsense to treat a slave or a child as being equal to adults. He goes on to state that moral relationships differ based upon accountability of one's age, social and political station, gender, and other characteristics. Similarily, Burke believes that we all have stations in life which we should fulfill, and right and wrong action, virtue and vice, are determined by the service or disservice done for society. This station has it's own set of corresponding manners, religion, prejudices, and behavior.
Each person has a particular social position, with a duty to fulfill, and that person should accept the goodness and authority of it. Acceptance of one's prescribed place is the basis of civilization because society and natural law are based upon God's affirmation of hierarchy.
"[T]he awful Author of our being is the Author of our place in the order of existence,--and ... having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has in and by that disposition virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned Us."
On being Selfless:
A person should give their all to their community, and it's intermediary institutions, out of humility and piety, because a person's place in society is dictated by God. "True humility, the basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue." This type of attitude allows members of a society to live together peacefully, knowing their duties, limits, and rightful powers.
The nature of honor, duty, and public service:
Burke believes heavily in the virtue of public service, but this isn't based upon political service, or based upon arbitrary decisions. Rather, it is service based upon the existing order, and that service can be military, economic, religious, or political. Public service is doing things that further the public interest. While acknowledging that not all professions have honor to them, he does believe that those with true genius will rise and that all can be honorable in service to their country, as in times of war.
To Burke, that word means a lack of corruption or conformity by outside forces. Someone who is independant is someone who does not take bribes, does not choose a party out of mere personal loyalty, (Burke publically broke with one of his good friends, Charles Fox, because of this), not following the "friends out of door", and not being corrupted by honors from those in aristocracy. In short, independence is based upon principle, that being loyalty to party action which one believes in, for the betterment of public service. Burke defines these groups as "a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed."
On Local Loyalty:
Local Loyalty is a must for Burke, a man who serves is a man who loves something, and that forms the basis for public good. To Burke, Rousseau was despicable because he claimed to love the whole human race, yet sent his own kin off to a foundling home, to Burke, this putting Rousseau beneath an animal who protects its offspring.
As discussed earlier, Burke believes that we learn how to be political first through our intermediary bodies, then we learn to be political. If a society can promote the affections of people, out of love and not fear, then it is capable of having virtue, and worthy of conserving. Burke wasn't naive to believe that this would cause a utopia, he knew that society had very real, and very unfortunate limits. His solution was to be happy with one's own natural placement and accept that.
(These are miscellaneous quotes that I like on this subject:
All governmentindeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent actis founded on compromise and barter. Edmund Burke, speech (1775)
Custom reconciles us to everything. Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful
We are more sensible of what is done against custom than against nature. Plutarch, Morals