Edmund Burke believed that one must see the human being not for what he is, or the worst that is within him, but rather as clothed in the “wardrobe of moral imagination,” a glimpse of what the person could be and is, by God, meant to be.
Though we correctly remember Edmund Burke as the father of modern conservatism, we too often forget that he was also a pure and unadulterated radical when it came to promoting the dignity of the human person. In his own writings, speeches, and legislation, he never ceased to promote the rights of Irish, Americans, Roman Catholics, Hindus, and Africans (against the slave trade). One could only impossibly describe Burke’s life and purpose by ignoring the oppressed he sought to liberate and strengthen.
Contrary to much modern conservative and traditionalist misunderstandings, Burke embraced completely the concept of natural rights, though he feared that any attempt to define such rights as this or that would end in a disaster of abstractions. “I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society,” Burke wrote in 1790. “I think I envy liberty as little as they do, to any other nation. But 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 object as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” Properly understood, rights come from the laws of nature, Burke wrote, but they did so not as a direct line, but rather as refracted light. Rights must always and everywhere take into account the complex nature not only of man but, especially, of men. “The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned.”
Thus, when he challenged the French Revolutionaries, he shocked the contemporaries of his generation. What made the French so different from the Americans, the Irish, the Indians, or the Africans? The French and their allies—even those in England—“are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgot his nature.” They desire a gift without the giving, an advantage without a corresponding duty. “A cheap, bloodless reformation, a guiltless liberty, appear flat and vapid to their taste,” he charged.
Perhaps, most tellingly, however, the French Revolutionaries and their allies denied not just the complexity but the romance of human nature. Famously, Burke rallied against the supposed gentlemen of France who did not defend the queen. “Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and cavaliers,” he wrote. “I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.” Yet, Burke had to admit, such an age of honor had passed, and that of the utilitarians—those who would use man and men to their own advantage and, horrifically, as a means to an end—had arrived.
Not content merely to criticize, Burke also offered solutions to such dreadful actions and inactions by the French. First, one must see the human being not for what he is, or the worst that is within him, but rather, clothed in the “wardrobe of moral imagination,” a glimpse of what the person could be and is, by God, meant to be.
All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
As such, one would see the person as bearing what C.S. Lewis would later call “the weight of glory.” Even the tiniest sliver of pure grace—no matter how obscured by the corruption of this world and of poor choices—would blind us, were we to witness the human person as God created him for a life in eternity. For the French, though, “a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order.”
Second, Burke argues here and elsewhere that our true affection must begin at the most local and immediate level possible, recognizing what the Roman Catholics call subsidiarity, a manifestation of power at its most personal. We do not love abstractions such as nation, for example, but we do love our fathers, our mothers, our siblings, our uncles and aunts, our cousins, our friends, our mentors, and our neighbors.
We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.
Indeed, unless we love that which is near, we will never love that which is distant. And, if we do not love that which guides us, we will never love that which protects that which guides us. Once we love our neighbors, we might love our country (if our country is lovely), and, from there, all of creation.
It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. 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. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.
Caroline Roberts of the Acton Institute recently complained that conservative critiques of modernity have become cheap, a “dime a dozen.” She’s right, and we must focus not just on what is wrong with this world, but what can make it right again.
Burke, never merely a doomsayer, never forgot to give us possible solutions, no matter how romantic they might seem to our cynical selves. We must, indeed, clothe one another in the wardrobe of moral imagination and see with the eyes of grace and not the eyes of the diabolus.
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The featured image is “The Tax-Collector’s Office” (c. 1615) by Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564-1638), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.