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An Ambigious Conservative

For some conservatives, the value of tradition lies in its tendency to reflect an eternal order, a natural law of which tradition is but an approximation. For others, long-established practices and institutions are valuable because they provide the stability societies need for their well-being. The first sort of conservative is liable to advocate a departure from tradition if it too imperfectly reflects the natural law. The second is more likely to favor preserving tradition, even when this might entail a compromise on moral principle, in the interests of maintaining continuity with settled expectations and respect for precedent. Whereas conservatism of the first sort often rests on a robust metaphysical conception of human nature and systematic moral theory, the second type is commonly associated with skepticism about the possibility of metaphysical and moral knowledge.

Edmund Burke is interesting for many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is that he appears to straddle this divide between conservatisms. On the one hand, he clearly regarded those traditions he sought to preserve as deriving from a divine order to which we are duty bound to submit ourselves. On the other hand, he was highly suspicious of abstract theory of any sort. The essays in Ian Crowe’s important new anthology reflect this tension and thereby illustrate how the conflicts that often arise among contemporary conservatives may well have their origin in the thinking of their common spiritual father.

Joseph L. Pappin III favors a reading of Burke as essentially a conservative of the metaphysical sort, and in an essay on Burke’s relationship to the Thomistic natural-law tradition he argues that, contrary to the common reading of Burke as a kind of empiricist, utilitarian, or pragmatist, he was in fact more or less in agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas concerning matters of philosophy. (Here Pappin follows Burke scholar Peter Stanlis, himself the subject of an essay in this volume by Jeffrey O. Nelson.) In defense of his interpretation, Pappin points out that Burke was hostile not so much to abstract theory per se but rather to skeptical conclusions in metaphysics and excessively rationalistic approaches in ethics. He also notes that Burke believed that God could be known through His works, rejected Hume’s doubts about causality, and believed in natural human inclinations.

Nevertheless, it seems a stretch to conclude from all this that Burke was more or less committed to the sort of ambitious metaphysical project associated with Scholasticism. That one refuses to embrace skepticism does not entail that one has embraced Aquinas; and as Crowe indicates in his introduction to the volume, the Scottish “Common Sense School” of thought associated with Thomas Reid is more likely to have influenced Burke’s thinking. In fact, there seems to be little in the philosophical views Pappin attributes to Burke that would differentiate him even from, say, John Locke, and Locke was definitely no Thomist. Locke was also not exactly a conservative, so it isn’t clear that Burke’s philosophical views have any essential connection to his conservatism.

F.P. Lock’s account of Burke’s religious views seems a likelier representation of Burke’s actual philosophical position. As Lock notes, Burke’s tendency was to look for the foundation of religion in psychology rather than in metaphysics—and in particular in instinctive human impulses rather than in the sort of theistic proofs favored by the medieval philosophers. He also tended to de-emphasize the importance of miracles and to doubt the reality of eternal punishment. He was, in general, latitudinarian in matters of doctrine and stressed religion’s moral and social utility over its metaphysical content. Indeed, he even seems to have been highly sympathetic to the idea that Hinduism was just as suitable a religion for the Indians as his own Anglican Christianity was for the English. (Burke’s attitudes toward India and Indian culture are treated at greater length here in an essay by Frederick Whelan.) None of this is meant to imply that Burke was ultimately a skeptic: he had an unshakeable belief in divine Providence and loathed atheism. But it is striking how modern—indeed, how unconservative—were his theological beliefs. As Lock notes, while Burke was certainly no deist, his “description of ‘true religion’ is one to which many deists could have subscribed.”

If this seems to indicate that Burke’s conservatism really was of the more flexible and pragmatic sort, that impression is only reinforced by David Bromwich’s treatment of Burke’s conception of human nature. On Bromwich’s view, “Burke’s philosophical idiom resembles Hume’s in addressing a human nature that we know by observation and acquaintance,” a methodology more beholden to the weighing of empirical and historical considerations than to classical metaphysical speculation. And while a look at Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in France might give the impression that he took the institutions he wanted to preserve to be rooted in an inflexible natural order, in his Thoughts on French Affairs “Burke appears to concede that all progress in society is a result of human adaptation and that the result may change the character of morality itself to the point of annulling what had once seemed permanent truths.” Indeed, Burke wrote, “they, who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.” If the Reflections present us with the classical image of Burke as the upholder of eternal truths against the purveyors of untested novelties, the Burke of the Thoughts, Bromwich tells us, “defers to nothing but the habits of thought that historically come to dominate a society.”

At the same time, there is no denying that Burke would have had nothing but scorn for the notion that we could loose ourselves from our fundamental human obligations by writing them off as something historically contingent. Bromwich reminds us that the same Burke who penned the Thoughts also held that our “social ties and ligaments … in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will” and that society is 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.” Bruce Frohnen’s essay on Burke and human rights offers a way of reconciling these apparently conflicting aspects of Burke. On the one hand, Burke held that all men “have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death.” On the other hand, he emphasized that the manner in which these rights get their determinate content is conditioned by particular historical and cultural circumstances and that any responsible defense of these rights must be sensitive to these circumstances. Prudence rather than abstract theory must guide the defender of human rights, and reform rather than revolution must be his program.

And yet when the status quo involves a defilement of institutions and norms that are absolutely essential to the order the conservative wants to conserve and a systematic violation of the most basic human rights, it can be hard to see how anything less than revolutionary change is called for. As Harvey C. Mansfield puts it in his essay on Burke’s conservatism:

[T]he bias of conservatism in favor of tradition compels it to depart from the good and often leaves conservatives at a disadvantage and on the defensive. As we have seen, conservatives do not know whether in any particular case the wish to follow tradition will lead them to go back in order to recover the past or to go slow in order to maintain continuity between present and past. ‘Traditional’ can have either of these two opposed meanings.

Strictly speaking, these two conceptions need not be utterly opposed: one can consistently favor upholding timeless principle come what may while striving to do so in a manner that causes as little disruption as possible to existing institutions. Still, where upholding principle might ultimately entail a very radical disruption indeed, the conservative must decide which sense of “traditional”—a return to changeless norms or deference to the status quo—he is going to put in the driver’s seat.

In the world in which conservatives now find themselves, the need for such a decision seems more pressing every day. There will be many conservatives whose choice is to preserve the moral heritage of the West against those who would abort and euthanize the weakest members of our society. And as these conservatives come increasingly to clash with those who see in federalism and the preservation of liberal legal precedent the be-all and end-all of conservative principle, they will need to revisit Burke. They may find that for all his insight and eloquence, the father of modern conservatism is no less ambiguous than many of his spiritual children—and that it is perhaps to their spiritual grandfathers, the unambiguous and metaphysically robust thinkers of the medieval period, that conservatives should ultimately look for surer guidance in what threatens to be the darkest of Christian centuries. 

Edward Feser is the author of On Nozick and the forthcoming Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction.

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