Edmund Burke was the nexus among the classical, medieval, and modern worlds, and the best answer to contemporary ideology. It is worth considering the Burke of Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Russell Kirk in order to fully understand his importance to the rise of conservatism in academia after World War II.
The somewhat radical (relatively speaking) Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania recorded the following moment in his journal, April 27, 1790.
This is a day of no business in the Senate. Before the House formed, Mr. Adams, our Vice-President, came to where I was sitting and told how many late pamphlets he had received from England; how the subject of the French Revolution agitated the English politics; that for his part he despised them all but the production of Mr. Burke, and this same Mr. Burke despised the French Revolution. Bravo, Mr. Adams!
Maclay held no love for Adams, and Adams had just affirmed this intensely personal dislike of the man from Braintree even more by embracing the latest ideas of Burke and the opponents of the French Revolution. The “bravo” in the diary record served the purpose of a frustrated sarcasm. To be fair, Senator Maclay fails to transmit the image of a genial and liberal soul across the ages. We remember him more for his bitterness than for anything else.
Still, the connection between Burke and Adams should not be treated lightly. Most Americans of the Revolutionary generation possessed a deep fondness for Burke if for no other reason than he had never lost faith in the American cause. Indeed, no single person in all of the United Kingdom did more for the American cause than did Burke. Sadly, modern scholars of the left and the right—as well as those above, below, next to, near, etc.—almost always forget the absolutely crucial role Burke played in supporting the American rebellion. Not surprisingly, the affection Americans felt toward Burke was more for the person than for the thinker.
But, I do believe we in 2020 must still be very, very careful about our views on Edmund Burke. It would be quite easy to fall into the debates of the 1950s on the role of Burke. After all, the three greatest figures not on the left—Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Russell Kirk—each tried to claim Burke as a symbol for a certain way of interpreting the world.
For the conservatism of the 1950s—of whatever stripe, from traditionalist to libertarian—wanted Burke as its own, along with Alexis de Tocqueville. And, of course, it was not just Hayek, Strauss, and Kirk who vied for this. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, figures as diverse as Robert Nisbet, Peter Stanlis, Ross Hoffman, Francis Canavan, and Harvey Mansfield studied the grand Anglo-Irish statesman as philosopher and as political thinker. In many ways, the very legitimized existence of conservatism of today owes its immediate origins to the debates following the Second World War.
It is worth considering the Burke of Hayek, of Strauss, and of Kirk to understand his importance to the rise of conservatism in academia after the war.
The Hayekian Burke
Hayek’s Burke is the easiest to grasp, as Hayek loved the Celtic qualities of the man. That is, Hayek tied together the work of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke together. Each, in the way only the Scots and Irish of the eighteenth century understood, embraced theories of spontaneous order, the process of discovery, and the “evolution” of societal institutions. Contrary to accepted academic myth (throughout the academy, regardless of political inclinations), Burke strongly endorsed the notion of natural rights, he simply refused to believe that any one man or any one generation could identify such rights in a list or as a program. “The natural rights of mankind are indeed sacred things,” he argued in 1783. To claim an exact understanding of them, he feared, would be playing God, giving man a power that was not his to know. In this belief, these Celtic Enlightenment thinkers seemed almost Roman. One could know that Justice existed while radically disagreeing about how that Justice might apply to any immediate situation, locked in a specific time and place. Additionally, Burke held an almost anarchic notion of politics when it came to the relationship of government and economy, far surpassing his close friend, Adam Smith. In 1795, Burke wrote in what was to become—but never did—an answer to The Wealth of Nations: “The moment that Government appears at market, all the principles of the market will be subverted.” Further, he argued, anticipating the Austrian economists of a century later, “Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other’s wants.”
The Straussian Burke
Not surprisingly, Leo Strauss offered a much more complicated picture of Burke. He concluded his 1953 masterpiece, Natural Right and History, with an analysis of Burke’s noble failures, as he saw them. Well understanding the ancients, respecting their pursuit of virtue, and consistent in his advocacy of rights for Catholics, the Irish, Indians, and Americans, Burke too readily embraced and combined two dangerous thoughts, Strauss contended. First, he took too much thought from the greats of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith. Of course, this is exactly what Hayek liked about Burke. The “sound political order for him, in the last analysis,” Strauss wrote, “is the unintended outcome of accidental causation. He applied to the production of the sound political order what modern political economy had taught about the production of public prosperity: the common good is the product of activities which are not by themselves ordered toward the common good.” Burke maintained enough classicism, Strauss held, to resist the Enlightenment thought of his day completely. Still, Burke so feared the systematic that he embraced a romantic notion of the individual, freeing man from the restraints of virtue. “The natural is the individual, and the universal is a creature of understanding,” Strauss wrote of Burke. Burke, thus, embraced the irrational, the particular, the dogmatic, and the irregular, thus obviating much of his classicism and its desire for symmetry. Related to this, indeed as his Celtic view of spontaneous order was little more than a secularized version of medieval divine providence, according to Strauss, was Burke’s understanding of the limits of man and the overwhelming mysterious ways of God. “According to the classics, the best constitution is a contrivance of reason, i.e., of conscious activity or of planning on the part of an individual or of a few individuals. For Burke, though, the best government reflected not the will of man but the order of history and nature, understood slowly through and across time. It emerged or grew, Burke claimed, rather than being manufactured or designed. Through this misunderstanding, Strauss taught, the well-intentioned Burke “paves the way for ‘the historical school.’ ” By embracing the will of Providence, even if Providence decreed an age of slow and corrupting evil, Strauss feared that “it is only a short step from this thought of Burke to the supersession of the distinction between good and bad by the distinction between the progressive and the retrograde.” With no other conclusion offered in Natural Right and History, the reader comes away with the impression that the noble and brilliant Burke, misguided by the thoughts of his time (thoroughly historical), opened the door to progressivism in Western Civilization.
The Kirkian Burke
Again, not surprisingly, given his own love of myth, symbol, and poetry, Russell Kirk recognized the potential of the Burkean “historical moment” a full year before his own The Conservative Mind had been released. Though little known by the present band of conservative academics, Russell Kirk and his closest academic ally, Peter Stanlis, did everything possible throughout the 1950s and 1960s and even into the late 1980s, to secure the thought of Edmund Burke as THE conservative. Much of this history remains unknown in current academic scholarship, but it would not be an exaggeration to claim the successful revival of both Burke and Tocqueville as persons and thinkers in the second half of the twentieth century rested on the shoulders of Kirk and Stanlis. Their plans were as detailed as they were spirited. In his 1994 retrospective on Kirk, Stanlis first revealed the impressive extent and scope of these meetings. Not only did they plan out a series of books and articles, but they also discussed how to present ideas at academic conferences and how to plant the seeds of Burke in even the shortest of book reviews. Stanlis often researched for Kirk, especially if the latter had a national appearance on radio or television and needed information not readily available in Mecosta or Scotland. They agreed to promote each other’s work in America and throughout Europe, and they enlisted existing and potential allies, noting how best to recruit them to a common cause. While Stanlis would remain in academia, Kirk would write as a scholar from the outside. How far to take this last point, remains unclear. It is worth noting, however, that the two had certainly anticipated Kirk’s resignation from Michigan State and possibly even planned it out, or, at the very least, planned out how to capitalize on it. As early as March, 1953, a good five months before Kirk revealed his plans to anyone else, he wrote to Stanlis: “Probably I shall resign from Michigan State College soon; a progressive lowering of standards is being arranged, and I shall protest against it by my resignation.” Kirk could promote Burke from outside of the academy more easily than from the inside.
The Irishman represented the single best nexus among the classical, medieval, and modern worlds, Kirk and Stanlis believed. Who better to answer the ideologues of the twentieth century than the man who understood the existence of ideology before anyone else had or before the term had even come into existence? Through the symbol of Burke, they could present arguments on current problems, but, equally important, they could also lay claim to the humanist heritage found in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More, all of whom shaped the thought of Edmund Burke. Burke, in other words, became the culmination of all of the best of the Western tradition. A sort of living, breathing Great Book. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis wrote in 1994. With Burke, Kirk and Stanlis could promote not only a just and humane conservatism but, perhaps more importantly, a vibrant, living Christian Humanism. “This meant that in every historical epoch in Western civil society there have always been some conservatives.”
It would be difficult to exaggerate their success in promoting the thought of Burke. The overrated Peter Gay (Columbia University) complained: “The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a fig leaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance.” Gay and Maclay would have been good friends.
Edmund Burke, Honorary American
As my final point, though, I would like to stress the importance of Edmund Burke to the very existence—or at least acceptance and legitimization of America by non-Americans—of an independent America. Edmund Burke had led the British opposition to the war against the American colonists in Parliament. From his opening speech in Parliament against the Stamp Act, calling for immediate repeal, to the end of the conflict, Burke regretted the war against men and women who so clearly—at least to his mind—defended the proper notions of the English tradition. From the opening of hostilities in the spring of 1775, Burke thought of the conflict as a civil war with little hope for the restoration of a peaceful empire. He sympathized with the colonists that Parliament had innovated against them, thus depriving them of their ancient liberties. “These things depend on conventions real or understood, upon practice, accident, the humour or Genius of those who Govern or are governed, and may be, as they are, modified to infinity,” he wrote in July 1775. “No bounds ever were set to the Parliamentary power over the Colonies; for how could that have been but by special Convention. No such convention ever has been; but the reason and nature of things, and the growth of the Colonies ought to have taught Parliament to have set bounds to the exercise of its own power.” A month later, Burke held his own people in contempt. Most Englishmen, in and out of power, despised the conflict in North America, but none would stand up against the king. It was, Burke argued, a “collective madness.” In this madness and attack against Englishmen in North America, the English in the mother country had forgotten all proper political decorum. “The despair that has seized upon some, and the Listlessness that has fallen upon almost all, is surprising, and resembles more the Effect of some supernatural Cause, stupyfying and disabling the powers of a people destined to destruction, than anything I could have imagined,” a bewildered Burke wrote in August of 1775. “The people seem to have completely forgot the resources of a free government for rectifying publick mismanagements and mistakes.” Burke held feasts and parties when the king declared fast days to support the war in America, and he even briefly seceded from Parliament in protest. Perhaps, most surprisingly, in a speech before the House of Commons, Burke equated the King, as the head of the Anglican Church, with the king of the fallen angels.
In this situation, Sir, shocking to say, are we called upon by another proclamation, to go to the altar of the Almighty, with war and vengeance in our hearts, instead of the peace of our blessed Saviour. He said ‘my peace I give you;’ but we are, on this fast, to have war only in our hearts and mouths; war against our brethren. Till our churches are purified from this abominable service, I shall consider them not as the temples of the Almighty, but the synagogues of Satan. An act not more infamous, as far as respects its political purposes, than blasphemous and profane as a pretended act of national devotion—when the people are called upon, in the most solemn and awful manner, to repair to church, to partake of a sacrament, and at the foot of the altar, to commit sacrilege, to perjure themselves publicly by charging their American brethren with the horrid crime of rebellion, with propagating ‘specious falsehoods,’ when either the charge must be notoriously false, or those who make it, not knowing it to be true, call Almighty God to witness, not a specious but a most audacious and blasphemous falsehood.
Given the time period and cultural norms of the eighteenth century, it would be hard to label Burke as either a monarchist or a conservative after his actions and words during the American Revolution. He continued to hope against hope for a reconciliation and a move toward a more “federal” empire than a centralized one. England had been moving in this direction during the reign of George II, William Pitt, and Lord Newcastle, but George III had favored a much stronger empire. When, after the spring of 1778, Burke realized no reconciliation was possible, he defended America’s right to be independent.
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The featured image is “The Three Singers” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.