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who was Edmund Burke the man?
July 17, 2012 4:41 PM   Subscribe

The Right Honourable Mr. Burke: "The right wing trumpets Burke, who excoriated the murderous rebellion in France; the left wing salutes Burke, who excoriated his imperial colleagues for their overweening and rapacious greed in India and America; Christians celebrate Burke, who considered religion a crucial and indispensable pillar of civic life; the Irish savor a native son who became, as Hazlitt noted, “the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons”; the English honor the writer and orator of “transcendant greatness,” as Coleridge wrote, with his usual casual attention to spelling. … Everyone claims Edmund Burke, except me. I merely savor and celebrate him…"
posted by the mad poster! (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
There really hasn't been much left-wing embracing of Burke since the publication of the Reflections on the Revolution in France.
posted by yoink at 4:55 PM on July 17, 2012


and his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is famous for its eloquence and heat but is essentially a political call to arms by a social conservative leery of rebellion

Essentially a political call to arms! Blasphemy! Reflections offers what is likely the greatest argument for conservatism in the Western cannon, namely that progress makes it difficult for citizens to plan a future for themselves (you can't make plans if there is a revolution afoot, after all), and a people unable to make plans is not truly free at all but enslaved by doubt and anxiety about the future. Therefore, oppression in stable conditions is actually more free than seemingly progressive freedom under unstable conditions.

But I digress. That was a very interesting read. I knew nothing of Burke's personal life, but he seems sort of as sad and curmudgeonly as I pictured him.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:56 PM on July 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


(not saying I agree with Burke there, just that it is a very interesting argument)
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:57 PM on July 17, 2012


yoink, as someone who considers himself vaguely 'left' (certainly by US standards) I think that's not true. Most non-revolutionary left wingers aren't exactly trying to guillotine their version of the Queen and so forth, and Reflections seems especially prescient in retrospect about the excesses of that movement. And the point about Burke's criticism of empire is very true and still vital in the face of revisionist history, and indeed still a good argument given current governments worldwide exercising jurisdiction over peoples without integrating them representative government. I wouldn't be so quick to cede basic liberal principles he endorsed over to standard political thought when the implementation of these principles had to be fought for, from the left.
posted by the mad poster! at 5:04 PM on July 17, 2012


that progress makes it difficult for citizens to plan a future for themselves

That's not really the argument of the Reflections. Indeed, only a tiny fragment of people in late C18th Europe "planned" their futures in any meaningful sense. It wasn't a world where you went off to college and chose a career, after all. The vast majority of people were born with a pretty firm destiny laid out for them. The central argument of the Reflections is that we cannot have a society based on rational calculation, because in the end that becomes a society based on violence ("at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows")--if everyone participates in society on the basis of a private calculation of how it benefits them, the only thing that will keep society functioning is the threat of punishment for those who betray the social contract.

Burke says that, rather, society must be held together by something rooted in "the affections"--and this, of course, is his great originality and his great contribution to Western political philosophy (he was, among other things, enormously influential on Hegel). He says we must see the state not as a "contract" that we participate in to our mutual advantage but as a living organism of which we are a part:
the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes 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. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primæval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles.
This is the beating heart of Burke's argument--that for the state to survive at all, for it to be have a meaningful existence in the minds and hearts of its citizens, it must be understood as an organic totality that gives meaning and significance to the lives of those temporary beings who are born into it and play their role within it.
posted by yoink at 5:08 PM on July 17, 2012 [13 favorites]


Reflections seems especially prescient in retrospect about the excesses of that movement

Reflections is not an argument that this particular revolution has gone a bit too far. It's an argument that defines any and all radical political change as a kind of suicide. It is essentially and to its very core a "conservative" argument.
posted by yoink at 5:13 PM on July 17, 2012


It's hard to imagine the "leftist" of any description who could get behind, for example, this passage from Reflections:
You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
This is the essence of the conservative philosophy.
posted by yoink at 5:19 PM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Conservative in the sense of preferring moderate changes to the status quo to mass upheaval, but not conservative in the totalitarian pre-1700s sense. In a way I'd conceive of Burke and his philosophical predecessors are the origins of a split in original liberalism. You can't just say, French & American revolution = Left, anything else = Right. The Right of his day made even fewer concessions than he did.

edit: I do believe in Nations and Ages! And Culture. My leftism is not a technocratic drawing-board approach to human affairs. And indeed, many 'left' movements have a similar approach to the masses ("vanguard" anyone?)

You are caricaturing Burke, a complex thinker, by forwarding this quote about Prejudices as the sum of his social thought. He also works past prejudice to policy. It's a balance.
posted by the mad poster! at 5:24 PM on July 17, 2012


Further, yoink, I think that there can be a dividing line drawn between the value of his thought to social leftists and civic leftists. A social leftist, dedicated to individual autonomy/liberty and progressive inclusion, would rightly jettison that whole tract on the value of prejudice. But for any contemporary civic leftist because this is the ground that has been foisted upon the American Left, his ideals on the purpose and value of The State ought to be, if not lauded, at the very least shouted at all Reactionary/Rightist intellectuals. The radical change we're experiencing now is that the "Modern American Conservative" and her party has become so feal to Late Capitalism's fetishization of rational calculation and the contract that all government action is viewed through that lens. Society exists in connection to the past with a duty to the future, and our committment to art, science, education, enviromental and welfare policy ought to reflect that. But the civic views of the Right are explicitly Anti-Burkean -- the free pass for Job Creators, a radical dissolution of social institutions under the guise of privatization and reform, and a view that violence, impoverishment and incarceration are the earned lot of protestors, minorities and the lower class because of the "infinite superiority" of the monied class and its corporations. It is one of the more eloquent attacks of the Republican world-view i've read to say that in sum they believe the Free Market has granted them the right to be "morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles."

In this way the radical march of the right has forced Democrats and even Occupiers to argue from a conservative place civically, for a conservation of the institutions we wish to improve is now the large fight, not the improvement themselves.
posted by Chipmazing at 6:23 PM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


The original reply to Burke:

A Vindication of the Rights of Men,

in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occaisioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France

Mary Wollstonecraft (1790)

posted by moorooka at 6:33 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read a book a few years back, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain, by Nicholas Dirks. One of the central narratives of the book is Edmund Burke's impassioned speeches against Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India under the East India company, during the (prolonged) parliamentary trial of the latter for corruption. Burke has indeed been read as a kind of proto-anti-colonialist, accusing Hastings of subverting ancient Indian political traditions (echoes of Burke's critique of the French Revolution?) for his own ends.

Dirks, however, argues that Burke's moralizing speeches actually furthered the cause of British imperialism by essentially turning the story of the British takeover of much of India's governance into the story of Hastings's personal flaws rather than a systemically exploitative relationship. Thus, the "scandal" surrounding Hastings actually allowed Britons to feel better about their imperial undertaking -- Hastings was one bad apple, and through his punishment (though he was actually acquitted by the House of Lords) any of the problems of the British Empire were expiated.

I am not sure to what extent I buy this argument (while I am a historian, neither South Asia nor imperial Britain are my field of specialty), but it does seem to turn the narrative of Burke as a moralist anti-imperialist on its head.
posted by dhens at 6:58 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


PS: This literally appeared on MeFi as I was grading my students' responses to a short selection of Reflections on the Revolution in France. Spooky.
posted by dhens at 8:10 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


What a fantastic essay about a man of whom I knew little. Thank you.
posted by Errant at 10:42 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like your original quote from the Reflections yoink: 'the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence.'

Lefties like me can disagree with much of what Burke said - particularly that the 'lower' classes are constrained by the consent of previous generations to being eternally excluded from the decision making processes of society. Nevertheless he did present a rounded view of the obligations of the privileged to maintain an organic society. It is clear that modern privilege has abandoned that obligation and turned the state into nothing but a trade in pepper and calico (or the modern equivalents of course) into which they enter for a few years to strip money from the system and then withdraw, indifferent to the destruction and suffering they have brought about.

And I think this shows the danger in the conservative project. Like an unequal marriage or a powerful church, rule by the privileged can be free of abuses, can even aid the weak, if the people with power are self-sacrificing and conscientious. But there are no checks and balances. So while political change has many risks, the alternative - the conservative project - institutionalizes deeper problems, and leads to this inevitable decay and corruption which we see around us today.

I am not arguing with anyone here but Burke himself of course, and he can't hear me.
posted by communicator at 11:41 PM on July 17, 2012


The view of one notable left-winger:
After this, one can judge of the good faith of the “execrable political cant-monger,” Edmund Burke, when he called the expression, “labouring poor,” — “execrable political cant.” This sycophant who, in the pay of the English oligarchy, played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution, just as, in the pay of the North American Colonies, at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the Liberal against the English oligarchy, was an out and out vulgar bourgeois. “The laws of commerce are the laws of Nature, and therefore the laws of God.” (E. Burke, l. c., pp. 31, 32.) No wonder that, true to the laws of God and of Nature, he always sold himself in the best market. A very good portrait of this Edmund Burke, during his liberal time, is to be found in the writings of the Rev. Mr. Tucker. Tucker was a parson and a Tory, but, for the rest, an honourable man and a competent political economist. In face of the infamous cowardice of character that reigns today, and believes most devoutly in “the laws of commerce,” it is our bounden duty again and again to brand the Burkes, who only differ from their successors in one thing — talent.
Only read snippets of Burke myself, to my shame, despite his significance and being the proximate cause of the writing of Rights of Man, as noted above. Thanks for the link.
posted by Abiezer at 1:00 AM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Audio Burke:
BBC: Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time episode introducing Burke
Philosophy Bites: Bourke on Burke
posted by K.P. at 3:36 AM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Re. Burke and colonialism, with the present mindset it is very difficult to understand that, from the late XVIII century until the early XX century, colonialism was a quintessentially "liberal" idea, pushed by the upwardly mobile trading classes and industrialists and often linked to the anti-slavery movement. This made many stick-in-the-mud "Ancien Régime" conservatives thoroughly sceptical, if not openly hostile to the idea.
posted by Skeptic at 4:07 AM on July 18, 2012


the writer and orator of “transcendant greatness,” as Coleridge wrote, with his usual casual attention to spelling

Except that: (1) the quotation comes from Coleridge's Table Talk, which wasn't written by Coleridge but copied down from his conversation by his son-in-law Henry Nelson Coleridge, so tells us nothing about Coleridge's spelling; (2) a glance at the OED would have shown that 'transcendent' and 'transcendant' were used interchangeably in the nineteenth century; and (3) the passage as a whole is far more critical of Burke, noting that despite his 'transcendant greatness' there are 'many half truths in his speeches and writings', so this is hardly a case of Coleridge trying to 'claim' Burke as his own.

An engagingly written essay, Mr Doyle, but stronger on style than substance. Please work on your research skills. Beta query minus.
posted by verstegan at 9:19 AM on July 18, 2012


That's not really the argument of the Reflections.

This is the beating heart of Burke's argument--that for the state to survive at all, for it to be have a meaningful existence in the minds and hearts of its citizens, it must be understood as an organic totality that gives meaning and significance to the lives of those temporary beings who are born into it and play their role within it.

I agree with you to a point, but the issue of individual freedom, or the sense of freedom, within oppression because of consistency is indeed an elephant, a metaphysical elephant, which Burke would have certainly been aware of, lurking in the shadows of his argument. Of course people didn't plan their lives in an equivalent fashion as they do in our own society, but hermeneutics aside, people did certainly expect or at least desire certain future things, and such expectations and desires are at the very heart of our sense of choice which is in turn at the heart of our sense of freedom. Among the most basic of the requirements for the illusion of freedom to exist for the individual is participation within a state were individuals can have a reasonable sense of security in the future which is what breeds loyalty to a state and perpetuates things like traditions, which is turn secures the future from sudden revolts, and around and around.

This is precisely why Burke speaks of the importance of 'prejudices' in a state, the notion that a degree of loyalty to the whole, regardless of the 'rightness' of the actions or values of that whole, is paramount for a functional society (i.e. a society free from sudden or violent changes), and that valuing morality over consistency or tradition breeds violence (or at least it does when not addressed at the proper pace). Perhaps 'plan' was a poor choice of language on my part; perhaps I should have chosen a phrasing that limited itself more to the illusion of free will for the individual based in the traditions of the state, even if those traditions are not morally founded (of course, an illusion of free will has much to do with the illusion of predictable consequences of one's actions, so you can see where I get on about the planning bit).

I somewhat agree that Burke is saying that for the state to have meaning for the people (and therefore to survive), it must be understood as this 'organic totality,' (which is a bit ambiguous). But the real question is why this should be the case. Why does tradition and a degree of blind loyalty to the state benefit the individual to the degree that it oppresses violent revolution and gives meaning to the lives of individuals? And the answer to that I think has everything to do with the perceived sense of free will and reasonable foresight into the future - even if that simply means freedom from the worry that tomorrow could find you in the midst of a violent uprising. As this pertains to planning the future is yes, perhaps a bit too much of a 21st century extrapolation, at least in the way we use that language. But there is a metaphysical heart to Burke's argument, beyond the mere statecraft business, that drives the system that Burke is trying to lay out.

At least this is how I understand it. It has, admittedly, been some years since I read Revolutions.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:37 AM on July 18, 2012


from the late XVIII century until the early XX century, colonialism was a quintessentially "liberal" idea, pushed by the upwardly mobile trading classes and industrialists and often linked to the anti-slavery movement. This made many stick-in-the-mud "Ancien Régime" conservatives thoroughly sceptical, if not openly hostile to the idea.

I would agree with this to some extent, in that many of the proponents of imperialism tended to be from the nouveau riche class that stood to gain economically from it, which is one reason why Burke was worried about it: He was concerned that men like Warren Hastings ("nabobs") would bring their new-found wealth back to Britain and wield "unwarranted" influence, as opposed to the older elites.

As for imperialism being anti-slavery, I don't know to what extent that was a motivating factor for imperialists; I think it would be more correct to say that abolitionists saw imperialism as a way to further their cause, and imperialists accepted the new moral fig leaf for their endeavors.
posted by dhens at 5:57 PM on July 18, 2012


A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution
Bowles and Gintis consider how a genetic predisposition to internalise norms could have evolved: there is an interplay here with the resulting norms themselves. Some simple models for gene-culture coevolution and socialization (with "oblique transmission") suggest ways an individually fitness-reducing norm can increase the average group fitness: the cultural transmission of altruism can evolve and persist, supporting a proportion of altruists in the population.

Social emotions such as guilt and shame have the "ability to enhance the present motivational salience of future punishments" and "may function in a similar manner to pain", averting damage, avoiding impossibly complex calculations, and helping balance impatience and other short-term goals. They are important in sustaining cooperation and a guide to how that may have evolved. Shame would have reduced the costs of strong reciprocity, with disapprobation or shaming much less costly than violence.

A brief conclusion steps back again to consider cooperation in the context of the development of linguistic capacity and cultural transmission. The social preferences that probably coevolved with our ability to cooperate remain hugely important, but Bowles and Gintis warn: "It would be wise to resist drawing strong conclusions about cooperation in the 21st century solely on the basis of our thinking about the origins of cooperation in the Late Pleistocene".
cf. Extortion and cooperation in the Prisoner's Dilemma (via) - "Robert Axelrod's 1980 tournaments of iterated prisoner's dilemma strategies have been condensed into the slogan, Don't be too clever, don't be unfair. Press and Dyson have shown that cleverness and unfairness triumph after all."
The two-player Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma game is a model for both sentient and evolutionary behaviors, especially including the emergence of cooperation. It is generally assumed that there exists no simple ultimatum strategy whereby one player can enforce a unilateral claim to an unfair share of rewards. Here, we show that such strategies unexpectedly do exist. In particular, a player X who is witting of these strategies can (i) deterministically set her opponent Y's score, independently of his strategy or response, or (ii) enforce an extortionate linear relation between her and his scores. Against such a player, an evolutionary player's best response is to accede to the extortion. Only a player with a theory of mind about his opponent can do better, in which case Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is an Ultimatum Game.
viz. Munk Debate on China (via)
posted by kliuless at 2:02 PM on July 19, 2012


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