Not swayed by popular enthusiasm, Edmund Burke was the first substantial thinker to address the full-blown entrance of radical ideas into the political sphere and the first to express a truly conservative umbrage at the imposition of abstractions onto a world of particular, distinctive circumstances.
Juniors at Wyoming Catholic College have just read in Humanities a number of documents from the French Revolution, including A Declaration of the Rights of Man, as well as Edmund Burke’s great response, Reflections on the Revolution in France. It will be news to no one, I suspect, that the differences between contemporary progressives and conservatives were foreshadowed in those turbulent years. For partisans of the Revolution, it seemed a momentous overturning of the oppressive past. William Wordsworth has a poem called (a bit clumsily) “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement” in which he describes his own response:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! Times …
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress—to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
“Reason,” personified in Wordsworth’s lines, is of course a charged word in this context, because after those first heady days, some of the worst mob passions in human history were loosed upon the world when all power centered in one body, the National Assembly, and cancel culture resorted to the guillotine.
The intent, of course, was to “change the world,” an attitude that Greg Weiner of Assumption University questions in the current weaponizing of education. In a recent article, he writes that one reigning premise “is that the world permanently needs changing, never conserving. Another is that our concern is ‘the world,’ an abstraction that stands in explicit contradistinction to a concern with the concrete institutions and relationships in front of us.” Weiner does not cite Edmund Burke in his article, but (having written a book on him) he surely has him in mind. Not swayed by popular enthusiasm like the young Wordsworth, Burke was the first substantial thinker to address the full-blown entrance of radical ideas into the political sphere and the first to express a truly conservative umbrage at the imposition of abstractions onto a world of particular, distinctive circumstances. Burke cannot praise “anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” Why? Because “Circumstances… give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances,” Burke writes, “are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”
As Roger Scruton points out, there was no such thing as conservatism until the hunger for change came into being with the modern scientific project and the Enlightenment. What does Burke try to conserve? Primarily, the traditional understanding of inheritance. Enlightenment thought attempts to strip away inherited tradition and custom in order to find the kind of “clear and distinct ideas” favored by René Descartes. For Burke, the imposition of abstractions on real circumstances does obvious violence to the practice of following nature. Consider institutional marriage, for example. Even for those who do not consider it a sacrament, marriage follows nature in uniting men and women and giving their families legal standing for purposes of inheritance. But if Reason thinks of the unity of the political order in the abstract, would it not be better if children owed their primary allegiance to the state rather than to parents? Since individual parents might not hold the state uppermost, the “prime Enchantress” might suggest that everyone have spouses in common—in other words, she might forbid private marriages and cancel any use of the pronoun “my” when it comes to children. Such a practice would lessen private “ownership” or “rights” with respect to spouses and children and direct otherwise selfish affection toward the state.
For Burke, solutions like these have a violent absurdity, whereas inherited custom hews closely to proven solutions. Praising the English constitution “as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity,” he argues that everyone inherits it. “This policy,” he writes, “appears to me to be the result of profound reflection; or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it.” How could there be a wisdom above reflection? Perhaps the analogy is to following the will of God. To follow nature means to submit to a given order that exceeds the reach of reflection—for example, the order implicit in the natural division into sexes, which does not suit most progressives.
Following nature does not imply mere submission to passion or instinct, nor does it mean patterning human behavior, say, on the observed practices of other species. Rather, it means giving careful attention to what custom has taught over long generations. Custom is charged with the intelligence that has been exerted in particular circumstances over time, and so is the development of the best political order. “By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature,” writes Burke, “we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives.” The emphasis here is on working after the pattern of nature, which derives from the “stupendous wisdom” of God and which Burke clearly opposes to revolutionary thought. He sardonically calls the Enlightenment thought of the Revolution “this work of our new light and knowledge.”
Burke by no means advocates repetition, generation to generation, that allows no change. “A state without the means of some change,” he writes, “is without the means of its conservation.” An institution like Wyoming Catholic College, which works on a daily basis to conserve the great heritage of the past, needs to avoid saying either that our students will “change the world” (in the vapid sense that that Greg Weiner decries) or that nothing in what we teach or how we teach it can change. Real conservation requires the same discerning attention that the greatest books demand and the same willingness to improve our reading. Restoring all things in Christ is the change that truly conserves what is lasting.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is a statue of Edmund Burke, one of the American Revolution Statuary, uploaded by Steven Christe, and is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.