"Burke Was Liberal Because He Was Conservative"
- Showing that Burke developed a coherent body of ideas is a harder task. Summarising what he sees as Burke’s chief themes, Norman writes: “He is effectively making a series of rather sophisticated and challenging philosophical points: that absolute consistency, however desirable in mathematics and logic, is neither available nor desirable in the conduct of human affairs; that universal principles are never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation; and that it is a deep error to apply concepts from the exact sciences willy-nilly to the messy business of life.” There is nothing particularly original in any of this. Aristotle said much the same when he observed that it’s a mistake to look for a greater degree of precision in a subject than the nature of the subject allows. Where Burke is distinctive is in the political conclusions he draws from this insight.
While theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and, later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought social institutions could be rebuilt on the basis of a set of principles, for Burke, institutions are the basis of our knowledge of society. His key insight was not that applying principles with strict consistency is destructive in politics, though he believed this to be the case. For him, principles were abstractions constructed from practical life, which meant participation in institutions. Giving priority to abstractions is inherently destructive because it gets things the wrong way round: principles have no authority aside from practice, he believed.
This wasn’t to say that reform is impossible or unnecessary. Burke was an active reformer, attacking British rule in India for damaging Indian traditions and impeaching the first governor general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, for corruption in a long but ultimately unsuccessful trial. However, for Burke, reform involved using standards that were already embedded in institutions. If he was a reformer who hated revolution, it was because he was first of all a traditionalist.
Burke’s view of reform as a type of immanent criticism has clear affinities with the ideas of later conservative thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990). Both were sharp critics of political rationalism – the view of politics in which it consists of projects aiming to reconstruct society on some kind of ideal model. These parallels are acknowledged by Norman, who comments that Oake - shott may have taken more from Burke than he admitted.
Oakeshott didn’t acknowledge such a debt – he mentions Burke only rarely in his writings, usually in negative terms, and in conversation was dismissive of Burke as a thinker. The two were at odds on some fundamental issues. Whereas Burke was a lifelong practising Anglican and a firm religious believer, Oakeshott was a religious sceptic – a difference with wide-ranging implications for how they understood politics. Burke viewed history in Whig terms as the steady advance of liberty and believed human progress was divine providence at work in human affairs. Oakeshott shared the view of Burke’s more perceptive contemporary David Hume, who saw the rise of liberty as a succession of accidents. For Oakeshott, as for Hume, history couldn’t be the story of liberty, for history had no author and no plot.
Burke was horrified by the French Revolution because the victory of what he regarded as, in essence, malign and regressive forces challenged his faith in providence. Curiously, religion is almost absent from Norman’s account of Burke’s thinking. Towards the end of the book, there is a brief discussion of the utility of religion in countering the spread of anomie and promoting an ethic of community. Yet for Burke, religion wasn’t something to be evaluated in terms of its benefits to society – it supplied the categories through which he understood the world. Without providence, there might still be moral advance in particular societies; but history would have no overall significance. It’s a result that Oakeshott was happy to accept but few conservatives today share his sangfroid.
The central role of religion in Burke’s thought tends to undercut some of the more extravagant claims Norman makes on his behalf. He writes that Burke is not only the “hinge or pivot of political modernity, the thinker on whose shoulders much of the Anglo-American tradition of representative government still rests”, but also “the earliest postmodern political thinker, the first and greatest critic of the modern age, and of what has been called liberal individualism, a set of basic assumptions about human nature and human well-being that arose in the 19th century, long after Burke’s death, in reflection on the Enlightenment, and that govern the lives of millions, nay billions, of people today”.
It’s true that Burke anticipated some of the pathologies of individualism and (while being in many ways himself a product of the Enlightenment) identified important weaknesses in Enlightenment thinking – but the earliest postmodern political thinker? Come off it. The grand narrative of human progress that Burke inherited along with the idea of providence and, despite the French Revolution, never renounced clearly rules him out. If you are looking for the first postmodern philosopher, the sceptical Michel de Montaigne is a much better candidate.