Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

The 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. We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice. On the contrary, the force of all the pacts which we enter into with any particular person or number of persons amongst mankind depends upon those prior obligations. In some cases the subordinate relations are voluntary, in others they are necessary,—but the duties are all compulsive.—Edmund Burke, Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs

Anyone who takes seriously this crucial passage from Burke can pretty much count on being told “if we believed that, we never would have rebelled against the British and African-Americans would still be slaves.”  Which is a bit odd, actually, because Burke opposed the British actions that brought on the War for Independence and wanted to allow the colonies to secede, in addition to which he condemned chattel slavery and promoted a plan for reforms intended to hasten its demise by enforcing respect for human dignity and natural human attachments.

What brings this up is some recent commentary on an old book of mine (Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism, a book which, if nothing else, manages the not insignificant feat of garnering dismissive reviews twenty years after its publication—perhaps I will address the commentator more directly some other time).  Of course, in that book I made matters worse for my egalitarian friends by commenting on our each having an actual station in life that we should accept, be it high or low, and the duties of which we should seek to fulfill.

Two points at the outset:  first, Burke was writing within and for a still-largely aristocratic society, so in describing his thought it was and is necessary to speak explicitly in terms of station; second, the analogy between aristocratic stations and stations in a democratic society is far from perfect, but much more relevant and robust than liberal democrats today would like to admit.

No one who has read Burke and taken him seriously can doubt that he held those in high stations to a high standard of conduct and was willing to prosecute them for failing to live up to it.  His years spent pursuing Warren Hastings for his abuses as Governor General of India, his public “Letter to a Noble Lord” excoriating ungrateful hypocrites like the Duke of Bedford who blithely accept unearned station and preferment while undermining the society that provides them, both show his insistence that all stations in life bring responsibilities as well as benefits.  Still, to deny that stations existed and were enforced, often quite unjustly, in aristocratic societies would be silly.  The question is whether they should have been defended or abolished.  The French Revolutionary Jacobins sought to abolish them, first by “outlawing” feudalism, then by using the guillotine in the murderous Reign of Terror.  Burke, of course, sought to defend the institutions of his aristocratic society.

The third option always preferred today is “reform.”  The question is “reform how, and through what means?”  Burke sought throughout his career to support a balanced constitution (king, lords, and commons) rooted in a conception of society as made up of communities with their own rules, hierarchies, and roles to play.  He consistently sought to address particular abuses and uphold the standards inherent in any decent society.  Such “reform” he recognized to be aimed at upholding humane treatment and fostering common feeling and cooperation.  It was and is quite different from the “reforms” of those who seek to achieve radical, Jacobin ends through slower and less violent—though often still authoritarian—means.  Burkean reform aims at peace and happiness (the term “felicity” may be old-fashioned, but captures the flavor, here) where liberal reform aims more at breaking down and rebuilding society to make it suit the fancies of the reformer—with more (or less) attention paid to the inconveniencies and injustices thereby visited upon actual people.

The very idea of living within an aristocratic society makes the vast majority of Americans cringe—as it should.  Our tradition is different from the British, though significantly derived therefrom, and our society has developed in its own way on the basis of its own circumstances, history, and national character.  But claims that our society is not rooted in status are more often hypocritical than mistaken.  The pretense among liberals in the United States that attendance at certain schools is not both significantly dependent on one’s parentage and very closely correlated to one’s station in life thereafter is a fiction useful for ideological reasons, but one that serves no cause better than that of ingratitude.  That a certain cleverness also helps has proven problematic, at best, both for our institutions of higher learning and for a society, like all others, dependent more on virtue than on the capacity for sharp dealing.

Still, it is useful and perhaps necessary to translate the Burkean understanding of place into American terms for Americans.  The French philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville went far in this direction in his discussion of the township.  For many decades America, as Tocqueville observed, was dominated by life in small, localized communities.  Here “place” was measured in a variety of ways, including one’s job, faith, virtue and wealth.

That one’s calling, be it as a farmer, lawyer or tavern keeper would go far toward establishing one’s place in one’s community should neither surprise nor outrage.  One’s job reflected and developed character traits and functions within the community denoting particular callings to virtue and service.  Likewise, one’s faith (or lack thereof) marked one as a member of a particular sub-community, with its own ties, traditions, and means of public participation.  That uncharitable and even unjust opinions rooted in religious distinctions (and of course, other distinctions, such as race) were all too common was and remains the inevitable result of human sinfulness—to be opposed and ameliorated but not properly an excuse to condemn the community as a whole.  As to the last two distinctions—of virtue and wealth—of course virtue should be the most important of all.  As Tocqueville emphasized, a great advantage of the township was its small-scale, which necessitated a multitude of small services to make interactions pleasant, thereby developing virtuous habits in most people most of the time.  As to wealth, the accumulation of money has for many centuries been the means of rising through social ranks, for both good and ill.

The British aristocracy was revitalized time and again by members of the rising merchant class who bought their way in, keeping the system going and giving hope to those with high ambitions that they could rise beyond the station of their birth.  In America, a like service could be provided by the desire for wealth as society benefitted from vast improvements in the quality of life brought about by those seeking profit as well as the opportunity to serve.  But Tocqueville foresaw the dangers of an “aristocracy of manufactures” and the emptying out of social mores it would bring in the name of material “progress.”

Sadly, as the United States has “progressed” toward its particular form of equality, the pursuit of money has driven the pursuit of virtue to the edges of our public life.  Its only challenger in terms of status has been the pursuit of status itself—something that, like an Ivy League education, can be bought if the price is right.

The question for any society is not whether it shall have a social hierarchy, for hierarchy is inevitable.  The question is whether a given society’s hierarchy relates to and encourages service to the common good.  This is always and everywhere a difficult calculus, particularly given the dangers of meddling with tradition and inherited institutions.  Thus, Burke’s life and career were hardly smashing successes, despite his brilliance and the clear importance of his writings and ideas.  But no society can afford to let its elites rule without question.  The problem for the United States is that the “questioning” of our elites tends to come only from within, and only in the nature of a Duke of Bedford, undermining the society that provides the privileges its members deem their right.

Whether it is Warren Buffett, a Harvard don, or just some lawyer in a $2,000 suit at a conference saying, in essence “we run the country, so we have a duty to be fair about it,” our Dukes of Bedford remain what they always have been and show it by their rhetoric and conduct.  It is all-too common to hear those with money, power, and prestige define “fairness” as government programs paid for by people without good enough accountants, whose life chances are stunted by various types of official quotas.  “Let us have fairness,” these Bedfords say, “I will happily pay whatever my accountant cannot get me out of paying, and even let some of the admissions slots at my university—those not belonging to my own children, of course—go to people chosen by the government for their deserving nature.”

Every one of us lives in subservience to a higher person—beginning with the three persons of the one God.  Failure on the part of those in power to recognize this subservience to persons and laws higher than themselves constitutes hubris and brings horrors upon us all.  Recognition of our subservient place allows all of us to hold ourselves, along with out “betters” to a standard beyond themselves, helping us pursue the common good of felicity while eschewing revolutionary destruction.  Hypocritical denials of hierarchy and place only make it harder—much harder—to speak truth to real power.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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