Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Our conference is subtitled “equality and the survival of heroism.”  My concern is the survival of prudence amid the longing for heroism—in particular, the misalignment between ambition and circumstance, the persistent pursuit of legacy, especially by presidents.  We live in a democratic age.  Whence greatness if it is also an ordinary age?  In that case, I would argue that Edmund Burke offers a way forward: prudence as a form of excellence.  The problem of greatness to which my title refers is the confusion of greatness with change and the equation of change with power.  This formulation leaves inadequate room for what Burke called the queen of political virtues—prudence.  The beauty—the excellence, I would argue—of Burkeanism, like baseball, often consists in the negative space, the prudent prevention of action, or in the careful calibration of action to circumstance, rather than in the volume of activity alone.  This is difficult to capture and, crucially, to communicate.  Historians do not write books about what did not happen; prudence is not the stuff of which legacies are made.  It is easier simply to celebrate the daring man of action, the hitter who racks up the runs.

Yet there are limits and risks to this conception of excellence.  I want to suggest that the manner in which we often calculate or celebrate greatness today stands in tension with Burkean prudence.  Burke’s prudence emphasizes caution, gradualness and rootedness in the concrete.  Greatness, by which I mean the contemporary standard of greatness, emphasizes daring, suddenness and sweeping abstraction.  Yet there is an excellence to prudence.  It requires excellent qualities: self-discipline, self-knowledge, humility.  The difficulty lies in the fact that we celebrate these qualities in private life but tend to repudiate them as failure in political life.  In politics, we glorify hares but have little use for tortoises.  We remember Presidents who stretched their power to its breaking point and sometimes beyond; those who declined to exercise it out of prudential or constitutional concerns are stigmatized as failures.  Greatness, meanwhile, is inextricably linked with crisis: Our great statesmen are those who lead us in times of disaster or war.  We ought not therefore to be surprised if leaders ambitious for greatness are also in the market for crisis.  Whether the times present one or they manufacture one is an ancillary question.

Burke presents an alternate model: prudence as a form of excellence.  If that seems like an oxymoron—prudence is associated with moderation and excellence with superlatives—I will take that as simple confirmation of the problem I hope to diagnose.  If we are to hear Burke, we must become accustomed to looking not merely for greatness but for excellence, for if prudence is a form of excellence, then excellence and greatness are not necessarily the same thing.

I take the contemporary standard of greatness to be something like that proffered by Hippodamus, whose proposal that the laws should honor those who discover something new for the city is evaluated in 2:8 of Aristotle’s Politics.  Greatness values the new, and the speedier it can get it the better, a phenomenon I have expressed elsewhere as a formula for historical evaluation of Presidential success: success equals change divided by time.  But Burke, like Aristotle, warns against the incentive that such glory might provide for needless and rapid change.  What is truly great, according to Burke, is organic.  It grows over generations, and consequently cannot be attributed to the glory of an individual.  On the contrary, there would seem to be little room for glory in the following humbly grounded portrayal of British attitudes toward politics in the Reflections:

We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.

Contrast this with Burke’s sarcastic evocation of the French defense of their revolutionary constitution, which reeks of the impudence of glory, of the “Men of Letters” whom, Burke separately said, “fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation.”

What!  Alter our sublime constitution, the glory of France, the envy of the world, the pattern for mankind, the master-piece of legislation, the collected and concentrated glory of this enlightened age!  Have we not produced it ready made and ready armed, mature in its birth, a perfect goddess of wisdom and war, hammered by our blacksmith midwives out of the brain of Jupiter himself?

The key phrase here is “mature in its birth.”  It is the suddenness of the innovation that makes it conducive to individual glory and the gradualness of the British constitution’s evolution that renders it inhospitable to the making of heroes.  There were nonesuch in Burke’s presentation—perhaps a skewed one, but skewed in a significant way—of what was, for him, the paradigm of responsible political change: the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  We do not encounter the name of a single statesman in all of Burke’s account of that event.  It was bereft of heroes whose greatness we remember precisely because, on his account, it was defined by its caution and limited goals.  The defining feature of the Glorious Revolution for Burke was exactly what it did not change.  Its “glory” lay in its restoration of an antecedent state rather than its attainment of a new one.  “[T]he nation, after the Revolution, renewed by a fresh compact the spirit of the original compact of the state …”  Burke writes elsewhere of “the spirit of caution, which predominated in the national councils [during the Revolution] … the anxiety of the great men who influenced the conduct of affairs at that great event, to make the Revolution a parent of settlement, and not a nursery of future Revolutions.”

Compare this with his archetype of disastrous change.  Burke says of the revolutionary French in the Reflections:

With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one.  As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.

 Yet exactly these qualities—innovation, haste and abstract principles of sweeping scale—are the stuff of which greatness today is made.  Burkean prudence, by contrast, operates on measure, moderation and rootedness in the concrete.  He writes:

Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.  Metaphysics cannot live without definition; but prudence is cautious how she defines.  Our courts cannot be more fearful in suffering fictitious cases to be brought before them for eliciting their determination on a point of law, than prudent moralists are in putting extreme and hazardous cases of conscience upon emergencies not existing.

From the same source, again in anti-heroic terms:

Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or any political subject.  Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters.  The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics.  They are broad and deep as well as long.  They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications.  These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence.

This is not to say Burke—a conserving reformer who crusaded for the rights of American colonists, the people of India and Irish Catholics against British abuses—would always choose the path of caution.  It is to say he would not often choose the contemporary routes to greatness.  On the contrary, the excessive reflex to change imperils one’s ability to advert to it when actually necessary: “This distemper of remedy, grown habitual, relaxes and wears out, by a vulgar and prostituted use, the spring of that spirit which is to be exerted on great occasions.”  One imperative of prudence is to calibrate one’s conduct to the times in which one lives.  There are moments that surely demand greatness.  But other moments do not, and it is the mismatch between extraordinary ambition and ordinary times that poses the most serious problem for prudence.

It is in this context that I would turn to a young Abraham Lincoln addressing the young men of Springfield in his Lyceum Address.  Lincoln, speaking in 1838, argues that the nation enjoys conditions of relative peace and prosperity, not far from how I would characterize ours today.  The only threats to liberty in that environment, he argues, can come from within—and their source, he fears, will be the pursuit of glory in historical circumstances that do not require it.  The founders, he says, have already reaped all the glory American history has to offer.  “This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated.”  Thus the problem:

But new reapers will arise, and they too will seek a field. It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion as others have done before them. The question then is, Can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. … Towering genius disdains a beaten path. … It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.

Lincoln warns that men of “ambition” will inevitably arise.  When such a man does, “Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm, yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

This is the problem—I would not say the inevitable end, but the problem, the risk—of the celebration of greatness and heroism if we conceive of them solely or primarily in terms of political power and do not calibrate them to the necessity of historical circumstance.  But Burke in combination with Lincoln offers an alternative model.  We can conceive of prudence itself as a form of excellence worth celebrating too.  Contemporary politics has lost the vocabulary for celebrating statesmanship outside the exercise of power—the last President to use the word “prudent,” George H.W. Bush, became a Saturday Night Live punchline—but that does not mean we cannot reclaim it.

In my American Government courses I assign students to read a campaign speech then Senator John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 outlining his vision for the Presidency as a constitutional office. In it, referring derisively to President Eisenhower, he declared, “Nor can we afford a Chief Executive who is praised primarily for what he did not do. . . .”  To which my reply is: Why not?  Why are we unable to celebrate as requiring excellence, discipline and self-knowledge the principled choice not to exercise power?  Lincoln says that when a man of ambition arises, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”  But surely Lincoln’s message is delivered to the ambitious man too, including, one is tempted to say, to Lincoln himself—a 29-year-old, doubtless having entertained visions of greatness without being able to anticipate that circumstances would someday require it.  This message is one of self-discipline.  While the Revolution supplied an outlet for passion, he says, our task now is to turn to reason.

Passion has helped us, but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason — cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason — must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and laws; and that we improved to the last, that we remained free to the last, that we revered his name to the last, that during his long sleep we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting-place, shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our Washington.

Notice the Burkean overtones—I do not mean to claim a genealogical link, although Lincoln did describe himself as an “old Whig,” rarely as a “Whig” simply: gradual “improvement,” “sound morality.”  These are the essence of prudence.  They are, in their way, excellent.  They deserve to be celebrated too.  We have two models: Burke and Lincoln themselves.  The Lyceum Address can be read as a self-exploration; the Reflections as the manifesto of a philosopher-statesman’s well-lived life.  They are the qualities Burke has in mind when, writing of the Revolution to William Elliot May in 1795, he says: “The great must submit to the dominion of prudence and of virtue, or none will long submit to the dominion of the great.”  He continues with Horace: “Dis te minorem quod geris, imperas.”  “It is because you hold yourself inferior to the gods that you rule.”[1]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Adapted from remarks at “Epic Excellence in a Democratic Age,” a colloquium at Assumption College in Worcester, M


1. Translation: Hans-Christian Gunther, ed., Brill’s Companion to Horace (Leiden: The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013), 404.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email