The works of Edmund Burke, an 18th-century British politician and political writer, are no longer as widely read as they should be. Here’s hoping a fine new biography by Jesse Norman, an academic philosopher and a Conservative member of the British Parliament, will help put that right.
As Norman explains in “Edmund Burke: The First Conservative,” his subject was not just an engaging man and an unusually deep thinker for his time. He has good answers to questions that politics still poses two and a half centuries later.
You couldn’t call Burke’s political career a success. He spent decades in Parliament, but held executive office only briefly. He’s remembered for a series of essays, letters and pamphlets on the great issues of his day. He argued in support of the American colonists on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Most famously, he warned that the French Revolution carried the seeds of social and moral ruin. Events proved him right on both counts, and on many others as well.
In his own time and down the years, Burke has often been accused of inconsistency. Take his support for revolutionary thinking in America but not in France – what sense does that make? Burke argued that they were different kinds of revolution. The American colonists were resisting “a wrongful and arbitrary assertion of power by the British government,” as Norman puts it. Their grievance was specific, and their demands measured. Above all they were acting to defend, not overthrow, American society and institutions.
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The French revolutionaries, in contrast, devoted themselves to total revolution. They wanted to smash French society and institutions and build them anew. The French Revolution, Burke argued, was an assertion of absolute power in the name of abstract principles. He opposed both, especially in combination.
His suspicion of absolute power gives modern readers no pause: that value is embedded in Western political thinking, even if different systems have different ways of expressing it. But Burke’s suspicion of abstract principles is more troublesome today. In contemporary politics, above all in the United States, people of every ideological stripe claim constantly to be upholding abstract principles – the principle of individual liberty, of the sanctity of life, of fairness in distribution, of property rights, of equality before the law, of free speech, of national security. Each of these principles, according to circumstances, is elevated to precedence over all the rest, and failure to acknowledge its pre-eminence puts dissenters beyond the pale.
Burke was the prototypical political moderate – and his moderation followed from his view that these and other abstract principles are inevitably in tension. That this insight should be controversial seems odd, yet it was and still is. Politics, in Burke’s view, ought not to be about one principle simply prevailing over others, even if it commands majority support. It should be about balancing countervailing principles. No abstract rule can determine how this balance should be struck.
People disagree partly because their values differ, and that kind of disagreement may be irreducible. The solution is not a simple matter of “let the majority rule” (which is a form of absolute power). It’s deliberation, compromise and accommodation based on intellectual modesty.
“It seems as if it were the prevalent opinion in Paris,” Burke wrote, “that an unfeeling heart, and an undoubting confidence, are the sole qualifications for a perfect legislator. Far different are my ideas of high office. The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself.”
In Burke’s thinking, individuals can flourish only as members of a flourishing society. Even though he was a social reformer, the modesty he advocated demanded respect for established norms and institutions. That’s what makes him, in Norman’s estimation, “the first conservative.”
It’s true that this mindset can sometimes resist instant redress of grievous wrongs. During the Civil War, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s highest priority, as Norman notes, was not to end slavery but, echoing Burke, “to preserve and sustain his nation – that is, to save the Union.” He infuriated abolitionists with what they saw as his too-measured approach.
Even Lincoln’s argument about emancipation rested on conservative principles: In his Cooper Union address of 1860, he went through the voting records of the Founding Fathers who served in Congress to make the point that most had voted to assert the federal government’s right to control slavery in federal territories. “If we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case,” Lincoln argued, “we should do so on evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand.” Norman argues that “in celebrating Lincoln’s leadership we are celebrating an ideal of the statesman given canonical expression by Burke.”
Patience and restraint don’t come easily to modern politics. Nor, in some quarters, does suspicion of technical expertise – another Burkean trait that follows from his views on abstract principles and embedded social wisdom. Norman cites U.S. involvement in Vietnam, its policy toward Russia in the 1990s, the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the creation of Europe’s single currency as expert projects gone wrong. The Burkean perspective, he says, “offers an intellectual context within which to analyze and understand the deeper currents of ethnic, religious or ideological alliance.”
He’s right. Burke has a lot to teach us. Norman’s splendid book is a good place to start.