Have you ever read books in totally anomalous contexts? I remember, for example, reading Plato’s Republic in a hotel in Las Vegas. I also read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, at the Wild Wadi Waterpark in Dubai. This week, I found myself sitting on a beach in Costa Rica, reading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Burke is that rare thing — a conservative philosopher. Not an egomaniac, like Ayn Rand, or a Whig economist like Adam Smith. A genuine conservative, who sings the benevolent power of tradition, custom, precedent, and conventions and the rashness of revolutions. He is also a terrific writer, and his book is a wonderful buttered scone of British culture, full of passages like this:
Because half a dozen grasshoppers make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak chew the cud & are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make noise are the only inhabitants of the field
Strange to read it as a traveller thousands of miles from home, in a country about whose traditions I know practically nothing. Burke swims in the ocean of deep history, while the tourist splashes in a shallow present.
Unlike most Enlightenment philosophers, Burke was appalled by the French Revolution. He wrote his book as a response to an ecstatic sermon by a radical priest, who championed the triumph of Liberty across the Channel. Liberty, Burke responds, is an abstract principle, not a God. Let us see how ‘Liberty’ plays out in practice before we genuflect before it.
When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface.
His book lays out, perhaps for the first time, the English sense of their pragmatism in contrast to French philosophes’ love of theory and abstract utopian designs:
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate, but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.
it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
Burke’s conservatism is a politics of sentiment, manners, customs, imagination and the heart. It’s a politics of the local and particular rather than the abstract and universal. He writes, in a famous passage:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.
He defends tradition through an appeal to people’s natural feelings, which he opposes to abstract rationality — he is, cleverly, making a conservative case but using the terminology of Enlightenment philosophers (who often ground their arguments with appeals not to the divine, but instead to human feelings):
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 the 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.
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, skeptical, 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.
Burke condemns the French Revolution through an appeal to our sentiments, via a vivid description of the storming of the palace, the murder of the palace guard, and the carting away of the King and Queen. ‘The age of chivalry is dead!’ he weeps. It’s dramatic stuff, designed to get you right in the guts (he would also write a famous book on ‘the Sublime’, and how the arts affect us somatically).
Again, this sort of ethics is quite typical of Enlightenment moral philosophy — Adam Smith’s ethics are also quite theatrical. He often asks himself ‘how would this act look to an impartial spectator?’ But the spectator that Burke has in mind is our ancestors. He writes of British people’s respect for their ancestors:
Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity…
That sentence really struck me. Living one’s life as if in the presence of one’s forefathers. I admit the idea slightly appals me. If my forefathers saw what I got up to! And yet what could be a more conservative, traditional sentiment than this idea of living in constant relationship with and in constant view of one’s ancestors.
Respect for our ancestors makes us greater. We share in their greatness, Burke suggests. They expand our aspiration. If Enlightenment philosophers are right and the state is a ‘social contract’, then it is a contract not just with the living, but also with the dead, and with the yet-to-be-born. It stretches out, beyond the shallow present, into the deep past and deep future.
He contrasts this sense of a sacred connection to one’s ancestors with the French Revolution, whose leaders sought to destroy the past, to smash all custom, to tear down all statues — to wipe the slate clean and declare a totally pure Year Zero.
they have wrought underground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of Parliament. They have “the rights of men.” Against these there can be no prescription; against these no argument is binding: these admit no temperament and no compromise: anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.
He is appalled by ‘the total contempt which prevails with you, and may come to prevail with us, of all ancient institutions, when set in opposition to a present sense of convenience, or to the bent of a present inclination’.
This contempt for the past is a fatal mistake, a psychic severing, a coarsening of the imagination:
You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you. You set up your trade without a capital. If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom beyond the vulgar practice of the hour; and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as a people of yesterday, as a nation of low-born, servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789.
Burke warns the radical philosophers of his day: be careful what happens when you sweep away the past and break all conventions which hold in place the unruly passions in our breast. Yes, this may lead to a brief effervescent carnival of Fraternity, but what darker emotions will arise after that first initial party? Civilization, he suggests, relies on customs, conventions, even on illusions, and man is a poor bare forked animal without them:
All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which by a bland assimilation incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded, as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
When the Jacobins tore down the theatre of feudalist monarchy, what replaced it was not a Festival of Reason, but a theatre of cruelty and blood.
The worst of these politics of revolution is this: they temper and harden the breast, in order to prepare it for the desperate strokes which are sometimes used in extreme occasions. Plots, massacres, assassinations, seem to some people a trivial price for obtaining a revolution. A cheap, bloodless reformation, a guiltless liberty, appear flat and vapid to their taste. There must be a great change of scene; there must be a magnificent stage effect; there must be a grand spectacle to rouse the imagination, grown torpid with the lazy enjoyment of sixty years’ security, and the still unanimating repose of public prosperity. The preacher found them all in the French Revolution. This inspires a juvenile warmth through his whole frame. His enthusiasm kindles as he advances; and when he arrives at his peroration, it is in a full blaze.
Traditions, Burke suggests, are what shape and ground our minds and hearts. When they are uprooted, what takes its place? Not necessarily rationality. It may be instead chaos, psychosis:
When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us, nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.
Reading Burke made me think of the great social justice movements of our time, MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and the desire to cancel the past and erase all memory of anyone stained by racism or patriarchy. Just a few metres from the statue of Burke in Bristol (where he was MP) now stands the empty plinth once inhabited by Edward Colston, before he was dunked in the harbour. Well, he was a slaver, whose business drowned many thousands. Who would mourn him?
But the roll-call of cancelled ancestors goes on. David Hume, one of the great Enlightenment philosophers — statue removed and building renamed in Edinburgh University. Feminist icon Marie Stopes — name removed from the clinics she set up. Churchill? He’s allowed to stand in Parliament Square for the time being, but not without the occasional daubing.
If we examined all our ancestors in the harsh light of critical theory, who would scape whipping? But Burke says we should approach our ancestors carefully, like older members of our own family.
no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces
With Churchill I have myself felt conflicted over the legacy of the man regularly voted the greatest ever Brit. I only learned about the Bengal Famine — in which three million Indians starved in 1943 — a few years ago, when I visited India for the first time. I was appalled at the failure of our empire to defend its citizens, appalled at Churchill’s failure to care or act. I fear that failure stemmed in part from his racism, his belief that Indians over-breed like rabbits.
And yet, like a stopped clock, Churchill was very right for one particular moment — 1940, when Britain stood alone against the Nazis. What gave him the strength to stand up against a superior force, what gave him the belief that Britain would never surrender? It was his deep sense of the past, of his ancestors, a sense that what they achieved we might yet achieve again. I read the first volume of his history of World War II last month (subtitle: ‘I told you so’) and his sense of British history clearly nourishes and sustains him like a great oak tree.
We British people should be more aware of the pain and damage we wrought when our ancestors conquered and ruled a quarter of the globe. They inflicted a great psychic wound through their racism and self-inflation — making millions of people feel like sub-humans. And what a wound slavery inflicted on countless generations — to cut the spiritual cord that ties a people to its ancestors is like severing a person from his daemon.
But for that very reason, champions of social justice also need to keep in mind that our own relationship to our ancestors is something sensitive, familial, sentimental, even spiritual. We should be very careful how we prune this our family true. We should not rush in brandishing abstract principles like chainsaws.
The relationship with one’s ancestors shapes our sense of who we are, and of what we are capable — evil, yes, but also greatness. It is the tree in which our sense of self nests.
When radical progressives seek to cancel our past, they are attacking the spiritual ties of a people to their ancestors. These are family ties.
We can carefully explore the flaws of our ancestors, as we would gently discuss the flaws of our grandparents, bringing to light any mould that has infected the wood.
But don’t ask us to cancel them entirely. It’s asking us to saw the very branches on which we sit.