The best things are not the things we buy, but those we inherit. In what Burke calls the age of “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” I am struck again by the superb phrase he uses to summon up the nobility and beauty that characterize inheritance: “the unbought grace of life”…
In the junior Humanities class this week, students grappled with the French Revolution and the response to it by the English parliamentarian and political philosopher, Edmund Burke. Burke has long been recognized as one of the pillars of conservatism, but encountering his ideas for the first time is disconcerting.
His book Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in 1790, responds to a political sermon given in London (and shared with the French) by a radical Unitarian of the time, Dr. Richard Price. Dr. Price rejoices so much in the French Revolution that he compares his exultation to Simeon’s Nunc dimittis at the Presentation of Jesu—a comparison that Burke finds offensive in the extreme. Burke cites the three main points that Price makes in his sermon: that we have a right “(1) to choose our own governors; (2) to cashier them for misconduct; and (3) to frame a government for ourselves.”
When Burke vehemently objects to all three, it’s shocking. Shouldn’t we be able to elect our own leaders and frame a government for ourselves? Doesn’t it make sense that we can impeach leaders for dereliction of office? The way that most of us think of conserving our freedom appears to fall on the side of Dr. Price. Burke, by contrast, argues that legitimate authority is inherited. Seriously? Should our leaders really have a hereditary “right” to rule rather than a mandate from the people themselves? What about a man like George Washington, who rose to the position of national leadership through his own merit?
To emphasize inheritance, in Burke’s sense, means to value stability above efficient responsiveness; it means to keep important offices immune from popular influence and the passions of the moment. As Burke puts it, “We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.” Most of our contemporaries instinctively shun the idea of inheritance (except of money), as though it were a way of binding the open future to a restrictive and superseded past. For Burke, it is quite the opposite. “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
Political questions aside, my way into understanding Burke’s point is threefold, and the first is personal. My wife and I own a good deal of furniture that has come down from her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. We would not have chosen most of these items had we been purchasing things for our living room. The Victorian whatnot, in particular, with its marble shelves and decorative brass flourishes, does not reflect our taste. But the chairs, the coffee table, the sofa—these things silently assert a claim prior to choice and in many ways more important. They are presences precisely because they are unbought. Subtly, we learn from them; they bring an air from another time, and treating them well establishes a mysterious continuity with the past, mysterious because we know their first owners only from a very few anecdotes and a few photographs.
The second way into Burke’s point is the Church, which conserves and passes on the body of doctrine that has come down for 2000 years. Changes and additions occur, of course, but these should come very slowly; the past fifty years amply demonstrate why—and often the changes began with the furniture. We do not shape the Church to fit the moment, but fit ourselves to its Mysteries.
The third way we inherit at Wyoming Catholic College, of course, is through our Great Books curriculum. These books stand among us, often translated, a little alien in their bearing toward us, their address. They were usually written in times very different from our own, but they draw us into those times and make us experience truths not so much timeless as timely. With each one, we accommodate ourselves to what we inherit, instead of accepting the conventions of the moment.
But a caveat: in his great essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot writes that tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.” I do not think that Eliot is arguing with Burke; his point is that receiving an inheritance cannot merely be passive acceptance. Rather, it requires what the contemporary writer Lewis Hyde calls “the labor of gratitude”—that is, the work necessary to receive a gift fully. Receiving it fully means becoming capable of it, which means being able to pass it on.
The best things, in Burke’s sense, are not the things we buy, but those we inherit, which are in Eliot’s sense those we earn by our loving labor. In what Burke calls the age of “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” I am struck again by the superb phrase he uses to summon up the nobility and beauty that characterize inheritance, rightly understood: “the unbought grace of life.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (March 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.