-William R. Brafford

Alasdair MacIntyre seems to reserve a special contempt for the work of Edmund Burke. This is largely because MacIntyre wants to put as large a distance as possible between Burke’s idea of a tradition and his own, but it seems to go a little further than necessary, and the animus seems to grow over time, to the point where it’s quite funny. Here, for example, is a passage from the 1977 essay “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”:

“[Conservative theorists], from Burke onwards, have wanted to counterpose tradition and reason and tradition and revolution. Not reason, but prejudice; not revolution, but inherited precedent; these are Burke’s key oppositions.”

I should mention here that tradition for MacIntyre can be broadly considered as a kind of rational conversation, embodied in actions and institutions and carried forward through successive generations. In 1981’s After Virtue, the same point is made, but the attack is stronger:

“Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead. . . . The individualism of modernity could of course find no use for the notion of tradition within its own conceptual scheme except as an adversary notion; it therefore all too willingly abandoned it to the Burkeans, who, faithful to Burke’s own allegiance, tried to combine adherence in politics to a conception of tradition which would vindicate the oligarchical revolution of property of 1688 and adherence in economics to the doctrine and institutions of the free market. The theoretical incoherence of this mismatch did not deprive it of ideological usefulness.” (222)

By the time we come upon Burke again in 1988’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,  he has become “an agent of positive harm” (353). MacIntyre argues that Burke’s writing “provided simultaneously a defense of the established order which appealed only to values already acknowledged within the exchanges of benefits and satisfactions which partially constituted that order as well as an attack upon any appeal to theoretically grounded principles purporting to have an authority independent of that conferred from within” (217).

This last bit is actually a very serious charge. Its context is a comparison between the English and Scottish cultures of the 1700s. Burke’s a-rational traditionalism simultaneously sums up the desires of the more Whiggish aristocracy and the other emerging moneyed classes and, if taken seriously, makes it impossible to protest on the grounds of any transcendent value. The Calvinist Scots, on the other hand, could make such protests easily: God’s commands transcended the authority of the state, so they only had to open their Bibles. MacIntyre makes the charge sting even more by noting that Burke, as an Irishman, had to create himself as a member of the English landed class in order to defend the English system.

This summer I read through much of Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, and I found it hard to believe that Burke wasn’t aware of his own rhetorical excesses. He must have known that he was creating a history of England more than he was recounting one. But perhaps Englishmen of his time could convince themselves that their history was not filled with strife, violence, and power grabs but rather with prudent statesmanship.

At any rate, if MacIntyre is correct about Burkean conservatives, then we should expect to see them having difficulty with justice claims that are not somehow rooted in the status quo. And at the risk of dredging up painful history, this is exactly what we see in the early responses of various traditionalist conservatives to the Civil Rights movement. I do believe that many of these conservatives (Buckley, Kirk) sincerely regretted the positions they took in the fifties. The point is not to vilify, but to remind those of us who keep a foot in the traditionalist camp to consider our blind spots.

I find MacIntyre’s traditionalism to be much more compelling than that of the various modern Burkeans. For someone like Russell Kirk, there is at the outset a list of The Permanent Things that we must find ways to uphold or defend. There seems to be a gap between the defense of these ideals and the exploration of them. For MacIntyre, the process of creating the list is also a process of defending it and exploring it. To put it differently, MacIntyre believes that a conception of the Good is necessary for rational behavior, but that we can’t specify that conception by participating in rational processes. It seems circular, doesn’t it? It’s not actually that bad: if we are reasoning well, we gain a little bit each time through the loop. And when an Aristotle or an Aquinas comes along, the rest of us get to take a leap.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of anyone who has read more Kirk, Burke, or MacIntyre than I have. Seriously: blast away.