Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics, William F. Byrne, Northern Illinois University Press, 227 pages

Edmund Burke occupies a premier place in American conservative thought. Russell Kirk’s foundational 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, bore the subtitle From Burke to Santayana, and from the mid-1950s Burke was a right-wing touchstone in the Cold War. Peter Stanlis’s 1958 Burke and the Natural Law inserted the Whig statesman into the philosophical school of Thomas Aquinas. On this view, Burke had a developed epistemological system based on appeals to transcendent principles derived from what Stanlis described as “right reason.”

Kirk and others in that first generation took Burke’s career to be a model of nuanced conservative thought. In his opposition to the French Revolution, Burke was the great adversary of ideology; in his defense of Britain, the great spokesman for tradition and hierarchy; and in his support for Irish Catholics, American revolutionaries, and the oppressed peoples of India, a master of mixing politics with principle. But not all conservatives agreed with this view: some considered his invocations of tradition and custom only a cover for a baser utilitarianism. Most famously, Richard Weaver favored Lincoln’s “argument from principle” against Burke’s “argument from circumstance” as a model for conservative thought.

Burke’s legacy now stands in disarray. The conservative movement has chosen other heroes, who more closely fit its current self-conception based in the creative destruction of global capitalism and endless foreign adventures. The Burke who thundered against the corruption bred by the East India Company finds little support in the age of Halliburton and Abu Ghraib. And of the natural-law Burke, there is nary a sound—his arguments seem the fossilized remnants of a generation past. His claims for tradition are invoked more than practiced, and the importance he placed on the non-political conditions of political life finds little traction on the right except when fulminations in the “culture wars” prove useful for fundraising.

In his new book, William F. Byrne, a professor of government and politics at St. Johns University, wants to rescue Burke from those who would claim him for either the natural law or utilitarian movements. In Byrne’s view, Burke believed in universally applicable principles but did not, contra the natural-law crowd, believe they could be expressed in eternal cultural forms. How Burke walked that line, Byrne believes, holds lessons for contemporary politics.

Burke lived in a time when an old order was collapsing; in that sense, he confronted problems similar to those of us living in the postmodern age. Liberal certainties about reason, culture, and politics—derived from the Enlightenment, which replaced the order in which Burke grew up—are themselves dissolving. The question that confronted Burke was the crucial one of how to preserve a relatively stable political order when the bases of that order were no longer taken for granted. The same difficulty confronts us: “under liberal pluralism there is little assertion of a common ethos, but without a common ethos, liberal society disintegrates,” writes Byrne. His Burke is not the placid political thinker deriving abstract truths through the application of rational theorems, but a deeply engaged partisan trying to make sense of a changing political and social climate.

Byrne’s interpretation centers on the concept of the “moral imagination,” a phrase used first by Burke that, while much quoted since, has received “relatively little explication or philosophical development.” The term appears in a key passage in Reflections on the Revolution in France that refers to the “wardrobe of the moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies” being “rudely” torn off by the new ideas coming from France. This phrase embodied all the elements of the old order that Burke saw coming apart: education, habit, custom, the rule of law, and what he described as “the spirit of religion” and the “spirit of a gentleman” at the root of Western civilization.

Byrne investigates Burke’s neglected English History, specifically his commendation of Pope Gregory’s policy of allowing pagan customs to exist alongside Christian ones in order to speed England’s conversion to Christianity. Byrne uses this example to challenge the usual understanding of Burkean conservatism as one that endorses gradual change simply for the sake of its gradualness. “Burke’s focus is not on the objective problem of whether or not the innovation is ‘good,’ or even whether the change is suitable for the circumstances at hand. His focus is on the subjective experience of the people. This emphasis on subjectivity is one key to Burke’s approach to fundamental problems of order, meaning, and the good.” Seen from this perspective, Burke’s support for Indians, Americans, and the Irish Catholics, and his opposition to the French revolutionaries, takes on a unifying character. In each instance, the subjective experience was wrenching, as a new order was placed upon a people, destroying in the process the “experiential” view of the world that Burke considers crucial to a stable civil order.

Byrne relocates Burke’s aesthetics as a central feature of his moral imagination. Burke knew that culture affects the quality of one’s judgment, and he believed that our experience of beauty or the sublime was an important component of that culture. This is not romanticism or elevation of the individual will. Burke’s aesthetics “did not point to the sort of expansive, undisciplined willfulness that is commonly associated with some forms of romanticism. Instead, Burke’s perspective points in the opposite direction: toward humility, toward reverence, toward a sense of order and of moral values,” rooted in the mystery of human experience.

Earlier thinkers, especially those who saw a natural-law Burke, were uneasy with his aesthetics since it clearly invokes non-rational feelings like dread and reverence as a basis for moral judgments. But Byrne explains that these feelings, and the imaginative effort used to form judgments, are the link between Burke’s aesthetics and his politics. Human experience is too varied and subtle, too mysterious, to be completely accounted for by political theory or metaphysics. To avoid the temptation to do so, Burke turned to tradition, for “paradoxically, the best way to set standards above the vagaries of human society is to anchor those standards firmly in that society.”

Yet society must itself be informed by sensitivity to the effects of its cultural components and attuned to the ways politics can destroy those components. Right-wing ideology can be just as destructive as the left’s, and Byrne does a good job in explaining that Burke is opposed to abstract assertions of “rights” from either side for the same reason: such demands allow too much expression of will and arbitrariness to enter political debate, when what is needed is humility and order.

The example of the East India Company is instructive. That imperial episode combined military force, arbitrary authority, and extractive capitalism, and Burke saw the whole project as not only inimical to India but dangerous for England on account of the culture that such an experience created when young colonial Englishmen, some newly enriched, returned home. The parallels to our foreign entanglements and their cultural risks could not be clearer.

Edmund Burke for Our Time advances an effort engaged in by some conservative writers to position the conservative tradition as a postmodern reaction to the end of Enlightenment modernity. Russell Kirk, perhaps the foremost exponent of this school, was adamant that the reductionist ideologies of both the left and right were giving way to a time more amenable to the imagination, and he shared with Burke a reverence for existence that should, he felt, inform political thinking. Byrne usefully separates Burke from the pure natural-law school without diminishing Burke’s convictions, and shows him to be still, as Kirk saw five decades ago, the beginning of a conservative reconstruction.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.