Practical politics, Edmund Burke knew, is the art of the possible. We cannot alter singlehandedly the climate of opinion, or the institutions of our day, by a haughty adherence to inflexible and abstract doctrines…
Edmund Burke and Ireland, by Thomas H.D. Mahoney (Harvard University Press, 1960)
The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, edited by Lucy S. Sutherland, Volume II (University of Chicago Press, 1960)
“The wardrobe of a moral imagination”: this phrase of Edmund Burke’s has been rediscovered in the twentieth century, and is widely employed in paraphrase. But, as with much else in Burke, the positivists who still are very strong in twentieth-century education and discussion simply do not understand what Burke could have meant by “moral imagination.” To them, this is mere “rhetoric.” It is rhetoric, of course: great rhetoric. The true rhetorician is a man who seeks to lead others to the truth through the art of persuasion, beautiful and just. With Cicero, Burke was a statesman of high imagination and deep learning, aware that the logos is at once the word and the truth: Rhetoric is the instrument of right reason, not a means for evasion or bafflement.
Yet, though Burke was a master of style, some very curious misinterpretations of his speeches and writings have persisted. During the past four years, however, more than a dozen new books concerned with Burke have been published. Most of this scholarship—for all of this work is learned and thorough—happens to be American. For people who really desire to know what Burke thought and did, the information now is available. Boulton’s definitive edition of Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful; Stanlis’s Edmund Burke and the Natural Law; Hoffman’s Edmund Burke, New York Agent—such specialized studies, models of their kind, are restoring Burke to the eminence in philosophy, politics, and letters which he enjoyed until late in the nineteenth century.
One of the most lively recent disputes over the meaning of Burke has arisen from the question of whether Burke was primarily a man of enduring principles, or a champion of empiricism and expediency; whether he stood in the “great tradition” of classical political thought, or was a Romantic irrationalist; whether he enunciated Christian views of Providence at work in men’s affairs, or should be classified as a forerunner of the historicists. This controversy seems to have been stirred up chiefly by a passage in Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History. “Burke comes close to suggesting that to oppose a thoroughly evil current in human affairs is perverse if that current is sufficiently powerful,” Professor Strauss wrote; “he is oblivious of the nobility of last-ditch resistance.” Although Dr. Strauss is an admirer of Burke, this observation of his has been carried by others to a general denunciation of Burke as a guide in this time of troubles.
The concluding paragraph of Burke’s Thoughts on French Affairs (1791) is the source from which Strauss derives his view in this matter. “If a great change is to be made in human affairs,” Burke says, “the minds of men will be fitted to it, the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they, who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”
In this grand passage, several critics have concluded, Burke tended toward the notion that whatever happens in history must be right; that lost causes are lost forever; that we must ride the crest of the Wave of the Future. The vogue of Toynbee’s A Study of History is related to this controversy about Burke’s meaning. Professor Toynbee coins the term “archaist” to describe men obdurately devoted to a past or passing mode of life; his chief example is Cato of Utica. Apparently with Toynbee’s scorn for Cato the “archaist” in mind, Strauss remarks of this paragraph of Burke’s, “We are here certainly at the pole opposite to Cato, who dared to espouse a lost cause.”
Mr. Donald Davidson, who shares Dr. Strauss’s admiration for the younger Cato, powerfully attacks Toynbee in an essay, “Futurism and Archaism in Toynbee and Hardy,” included in Still Rebels, Still Yankees. Toynbee’s “Archaist” and “Futurist” types really are confused representations of the opposition between the Traditional and the Antitraditional, Davidson writes. I concur in Professor Davidson’s judgment. Now no one would classify Burke as a “Futurist” or an enemy to Tradition; but Strauss suggests, and others roundly insist, that Burke held a view rather like Toynbee’s latter-day-liberal attitude: in short, that principles change with times, and morals with climes; and that (anticipating Hegel) we ought not to oppose futilely the March of History.
But I think this criticism of Burke is unjust. Anyone interested in the matter ought to re-read Thoughts on French Affairs. In this celebrated final paragraph, Burke is not hinting that perhaps the champions of religion and things established ought to let themselves be swept away by the current of the French Revolution. Quite to the contrary, he is saying that effectual opposition to the Revolution must be the work of many people, acting intelligently together; he professes his inability, as an old politician now retired from Parliament and separated from his party, to do more than to state the evil. The “mighty current” for which he hopes is an awakening of the men with “power, wisdom, and information” to the peril of the Revolution; he is asking for a surge of public opinion in support of Tradition. Providence ordinarily operates through the opinions and habits of men, Burke had said years before; and if mankind neglects the laws for human conduct which are made known through revelation, prescription, and the study of history, then a vengeful Providence may begin to operate.
True enough, Burke in 1791 was in the clutch of gloom, almost of despair, at the successes of the Revolutionaries; and a suggestion that his own cause might be lost may be read into the last paragraph of Thoughts on French Affairs. Yet, at most, Burke is only saying, as Walter Scott said in the next generation, “Sed transeat. It is vain to mourn what cannot be mended.” Of all men in his time, Burke was the most vehemently opposed to any compromise with the principles of the French reformers. He would have preferred the guillotine to submission; and he broke with friends and party, sacrificing reputation and risking bankruptcy, rather than countenance the least concession to the “peace” faction in England. Such a man, on the face of things, seems much more like Toynbee’s Archaist than Strauss’ compromising liberal.
An Archaist, nevertheless, Edmund Burke never was: no more Jacobite than Jacobin. Practical politics, he knew, is the art of the possible. We cannot alter singlehandedly the climate of opinion, or the institutions of our day, by a haughty adherence to inflexible and abstract doctrines. The just and prudent statesman, in any era, must deal with prevailing opinions and customs as he finds them—though he ought to act in the light of enduring principles (which Burke distinguished from “abstractions,” or theories not grounded in a true understanding of men and nations as they actually are).
Burke’s understanding of the power of Providential design in social movements may be made clearer if one turns to Tocqueville, Burke’s disciple. Democracy seems to be ordained of God for modern societies, Tocqueville declared. He was no democrat by temperament; he saw much that was dangerous or even necessarily wrong in democracy, along with much that was good. But the triumph of democratic doctrines and manners clearly seems to be the work of Providence; we are foolish to resist the design of the author of our being; and the intelligent man of influence should endeavor to lead democracy aright, rather than to lament the passing of what cannot possibly be restored. Tocqueville, like Burke, was no man to cast away principle from timidity. At most, then, Burke—in the Thoughts on French Affairs and elsewhere—is saying simply that on occasion a man may be mistaken, and ought not to set up in opposition to God; he has no intention of drifting with a “thoroughly evil current.”
These three newest Burke publications tend to support the view that Burke was a thinker and politician in the great tradition, a true heir to Cicero, attached to the natural law in its ancient sense (as opposed to the “rights of man”), profoundly influenced by Christian doctrine; not an empiricist, though certainly recognizing the claims of historical experience; not an irrationalist, unless positivists enjoy a monopoly of reason; not a pre-Hegelian, but a champion of Tradition—tradition illuminated by the moral imagination.
In the second volume of the admirably-edited Correspondence (the only complete edition ever published) we have to do with Burke from 1768 to 1774—the period of the celebrated Conciliation speech and endeavor, and of Thoughts on the Present Discontents. The attentive reader will find that the Burke of those years was identical in first principles with the Burke of 1790; as Woodrow Wilson wrote once, “Burke was himself, and was right” when he denounced the Revolution in France; detesting revolutions in general, Burke sought unsuccessfully to persuade England to adopt a generous American policy, calculated to preserve the real benefits of close association, as distinguished from the abstract claim of Parliament to make laws for the colonies. And in the Present Discontents, one may discern the genuine principles of politics which animated Burke from his first connection with the Rockingham interest to the fearful days of the Regicide Peace.
Dr. Mahoney’s detailed examination of Burke as the consistent friend of his native Ireland reveals a politician with a high sense of duty and a strong practical grasp of affairs—a man willing to sacrifice much for the sake of justice, but not to sacrifice enduring moral or political principles. It is not the description of a man afraid to espouse “lost” causes. Surely Roman Catholicism in the British system must have seemed a lost cause in the eighteenth century; a century later, indeed, W.E.H. Lecky (Burke’s pupil in much) looked upon the Church as doomed to imminent dissolution—no menace to anything, but only a pathetic and senile archaism. Himself an Anglican, Burke had little to gain by his advocacy of Catholic emancipation, and considerable to lose even in the Whig party, “invincibly suspicious of parsons.” From a sense of justice, and of tradition’s claims, Burke took up the unpopular “lost” cause—which only in remote sense was his own cause. “That the Catholics won the franchise in 1793,” Mahoney writes, “together with the removal of many of the remaining penal laws was due in no small measure to Burke. The completion of Catholic emancipation occupied him in the last years of his life more fully than his crusade against the French Revolution.”
The general argument of The Political Reason of Edmund Burke I have outlined already. A lucid writer, Father Canavan engages in a friendly controversy with Dr. Strauss and his school. “Burke does not imply that tradition is the final and self-sufficient standard of social and political judgment,” Father Canavan writes in his chapter on “Legitimacy.” “But he does say that in a healthy society tradition is the mould in which the rights and duties derived from nature are formed and the vehicle by which they are passed on to men. That is really all that Burke means. Later theorists may have found the seeds of historicism in these and similar passages of his writings, but not because Burke planted them there.” And Canavan, turning to the First Letter on a Regicide Peace, reminds us that Burke implicitly denied the possibility of governing a nation by alleged predictions of Providential intent. “Providence appears here,” as Father Canavan writes in summary, “not as the source of the intelligibility of history, but rather as the ultimate but mysterious reason for precisely that which is unintelligible in history.” Men may “counteract the order of Providence,” as Burke said during the trial of Hastings; they may rebel against the eternal constitution of order; but when they do, they work their own ruin.
Neither an irrational devotee of the archaic, nor an apostle of the utilitarian society that was dawning, Edmund Burke seems to loom larger every year, in our time, as an intellectual and literary figure of the first rank. (Despite this, he—with Cicero and Newman—is omitted altogether from the Adler-Hutchins Great Books program.) Providence has been Burke’s friend, after all. If Burke’s reputation, supported by such studies as these, continues to grow, the classical discipline of rhetoric may cease to be a lost cause.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published in The Sewanee Review (January-March 1961) and is republished with gracious permission from The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.