Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism

I’ve been reading, since it became available the other day, The Great Debate by Yuval Levin. I won’t attempt a review until I’m finished with it. For the time being, let me use a particular point as a jumping off point.

Levin, in introducing the lives of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, writes (Kindle Location 163):

IT MAY SEEM STRANGE to seek philosophical arguments in the words of two men so deeply involved in day-to-day politics. We are not used to political actors who are also political theorists. Such actors were certainly a bit more common in Burke’s and Paine’s era— when in both Britain and America we encounter some politicians who wrote and thought like philosophers— but they were still very much a rare breed even then. And because nearly all of Burke’s and Paine’s pamphlets, speeches, letters, and books were written with some immediate political purpose in mind even as they made larger arguments, scholars of both men’s views have battled over some very basic questions through the centuries.

Part of the problem is that both of these people were political actors rather than political philosophers. Both were seeking to change the social world around them. This seems even more central for Burke who was first and foremost a life-long professional politician. Raised by a father who was a lawyer for the Irish government, Burke was raised in a political family. Burke never had to learn a trade like Paine, never personally experienced poverty, homelessness and hunger like Paine. Burke wasn’t part of the English aristocracy, but he was very well off compared to most British people at that time.

One major point is that the worlds in which Burke and Paine were living were vastly different. Levin makes a false portrayal when he claims that, “Each was a man of humble origins” (Kindle Location 239). To Burke, the prospect of revolution threatened his class privilege and socio-political position. To Paine, the prospect of revolution offered him rights and freedoms he was being denied. They were hardly responding to the same situation and so it is unsurprising that their responses were so different.

As I explained it in a comment to a review of this book:

Historical context is everything.

A person would be entirely clueless about Paine’s position if they didn’t know this historical context: the Commons (as it relates to the Charter of the Forest, common law, the rights of Englishmen, and pre-Lockean land rights) and land enclosures (privatizing the benefits of public resources while externalizing the costs); populations being pushed from their homes and communities in the countryside and forced into concentrated cities where they experienced desperation and rampant disease; growing rates of unemployment, homelessness and poverty; protests and the formation of the first labor unions in London; starvation and food riots while the poor were being hung for simple crimes like stealing a loaf of bread; massive numbers of the destitute being imprisoned, put in workhouses and sold into indentured servitude; et cetera. All of that was what was the background to what was going on when Paine came of age.

Before Paine was a revolutionary, he was a civil servant of the British government seeking gradualist reform within the system. Understanding the historical context that made Paine a revolutionary would also help one understand why Burke transformed from a moderate progressive who supported revolution to a reactionary conservative who opposed revolution. It wasn’t necessarily inevitable that these people would become who they became. Paine was no more inherently a revolutionary than Burke was inherently a reactionary. They were products of their times and of specific environments, especially large rigid class divisions with Paine coming from the working class and Burke coming from the upper class.

When Paine was growing up and becoming and adult in England, the government wasn’t open to being reformed. If it had, Paine might have lived a long contented life as a civil servant. The British government only took reform seriously after it was humbled from its loss during the American Revolution. It is unfair and unreasonable to compare Paine’s response to a reform-resistant pre-revolutionary British government and Burke’s response to a reform-accepting post-revolutionary British government.

Unfortunately, Levin apparently (from what I can tell by my reading of his book so far) doesn’t discuss this historical context and doesn’t give evidence that he understands it.

So, they were both political actors. However, they were acting in response to and toward very different life experiences. If Burke like Paine had been raised working class and had been treated dismissively by the British government, he wouldn’t have developed into the same person. That is an important thing to keep in mind, assuming one desires genuine understanding of historical figures instead of trying to force them into ideological boxes.

As Levin continues (Kindle Location 169):

In Burke’s case, the leading question has been whether he had a consistent set of views throughout his life or whether the French Revolution transformed him somehow. As we will see, Burke spent the first two decades of his political career championing various sorts of reform: of the British government’s finances, its treatment of religious minorities, its trade policy, and more . He spent much of this time pushing against the standing inertia of English politics. But after the revolution in France, which he was concerned might be imported to Britain, Burke was above all a staunch defender of Britain’s political traditions. He strenuously opposed all efforts to weaken the power of the monarch and the aristocracy and warned against fundamental political reforms (like moves toward greater democratization) that might unmoor the nation from its long-standing traditions. He has sometimes been accused, therefore, of changing his most basic views and turning against his former co-partisans and friends. The charge could first be heard in his own lifetime (voiced by Paine, among others) and has been repeated by some of Burke’s biographers and interpreters ever since.

Consistency is more of an issue of theory than of subjective human nature in the context of the messy details of living. Both Burke and Paine changed over their lifetimes. And so neither, in that sense, is ‘consistent’. Understanding why Burke changed is not unlike asking why Reagan switched loyalties from the New Deal Progressivism of the Democratic Party to the Neocon-ruled movement conservatism of the Republican Party. Burke, like Reagan or like Paine, changed because the social and political conditions changed around him.

Few if any people remain unchanged during drastically changing times. Furthermore, no one knows who they might have become under different life conditions, with different events and experiences, in response to different opportunities or oppressions. We all have endless lives not lived, potentials not manifested, roads not taken.

Still, we all want to think we are consistent, that we are morally principled rational actors. So, we try to make sense of what we have become. It is hard for us to know what is genuine insight and what is mere rationalization.

This is also something Levin doesn’t consider, instead taking Burke at his word (Kindle Location 177):

But such a charge miscasts both Burke’s earlier and later views, neglecting the arguments he offered both as a reformer and as a conserver of Britain’s political tradition. Those arguments were always about finding a balance between stability and change— the quest that, as we will see, was at the core of Burke’s ambitions. In the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, clearly foreseeing the coming charge of inconsistency, Burke described himself as “one who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.”

This image of the man seeking to balance his ship—or to balance his country in a sea of troubles—against various threats to its cherished equipoise, is fitting, in light of Burke’s varied causes and arguments throughout his eventful career. He was a reformer when some elements of the English constitution threatened to suffocate the whole. He was a preserver when it seemed to him, as David Bromwich has put it, “that revolution is the ultimate enemy of reform.” Equipoise, for Burke, is not stagnation, but rather a way of thinking about change and reform, and about political life more generally. As we will see, it was a central metaphor of his political thought.

Of course, no person, especially no professional politician, wants to be seen as inconsistent. That is the dreaded waffling and flip-flopping for which conservatives like to blame liberals. Conservatives pride themselves on supposedly being principled whereas liberals get characterized as moral relativists. As such, Burke the father of conservatism can’t be a moral relativist. God forbid! Burke was more noble than that. He was seeking ‘balance’ and ‘equipose’. Could you imagine a politician today trying to rationalize away charges of inconsistency with such highfalutin language and getting away with it?

I don’t know Burke’s writings all that well. From Levin’s explanations, Burke seems to have been, if anything, a bit wary of being too principled for in that direction lies radicalism (Kindle Location 312):

Burke argues that human nature relies on emotional, not only rational, edification and instruction— an idea that would become crucial to his insistence that government must function in accordance with the forms and traditions of a society’s life and not only abstract principles of justice. “The influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed,” Burke writes. 5 We are moved by more than logic, and so politics must answer to more than cold arguments.

Having “stark and fundamental principles” (Kindle Location 499) from which one reasons toward political action is what a radical like Paine does, not Burke. “Universal principles” (Kindle Location 543) are dangerous for all worthy values must submit to and serve the social order rather than the other way around. The danger of being too principled is that way lies the extremes of revolution (Kindle Location 120): “the French Revolution launched in earnest the modern quest for social progress through unyielding political action guided by uncompromising philosophical principle.”

This Burkean conservatism sounds like moral relativism to me. Indeed, Levin argues that Burke was fundamentally a utilitarian in that he supposedly didn’t believe humans could know natural law. Moral principles were only to be invoked as they were useful or, as I’d say, when convenient to his purposes.

Even so, Burke wasn’t even consistent in this. When it was inconvenient to limit himself to tradition and established order, he would invoke abstract universal principles as needed (Kindle Location 1453):

Because he had very little positive law to appeal to in making his case, he grounded his passionate and powerful appeal in a higher law. “I impeach him,” Burke told the lords regarding Hastings, “in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed, in both sexes, at every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.”

The accusation of the radical left by the likes of Burke was that they were essentially too principled; yet the left, radical or otherwise, continuously gets accused of being unprincipled. Which is it? Talk about inconsistency. We can’t even determine the problem, much less the proper stance that would offer a solution. It seems to be that this Burkean stance allows for whatever is convenient at the moment, convenient that is for maintaining the social order and maintaining the power of those who already have it. Burke, in justification, uses yet another fancy term — ‘prudence’ (Kindle Location 1573):

Prudence is not the opposite of either principle or theory. Prudence, rather, is the application of general experience to particular practical problems. In Burke’s view, the prudent person believes that the experience of our society generally points to underlying principles of justice (and of nature) and so offers more reliable, if less specific, guidance than do abstract theories like the natural-rights liberalism that Paine would import wholesale into practical politics.

“History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles,” Burke writes; it does not offer us direct knowledge of precise or abstract rules. But it does give us general rules, which are certainly good enough most of the time.

Prudence isn’t immoral. It is just morality that is relative to human experience (i.e., moral relativism). The practice of prudence doesn’t deny theory. Rather, it is the theory of the practical (i.e., utilitarianism). I guess it was relatively moral and practical for a conservative like Burke to support monarchy and anti-democratic oppression and yet conservatives today would find that less relatively moral and practical. That is as close to consistency as this kind of conservatism gets.

The descriptive is the normative and hence the prescriptive, or in the words of Levin: “For Burke the resort to history is the model of nature’ (Kindle Location 1623).

The problem with this was explained by the author of another book I was reading the other day — Racecraft by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields (p. 128):

All human societies, whether tacitly or overtly, assume that nature has ordained their social arrangements. Or, to put it another way, part of what human beings understand by the word “nature” is the sense of inevitability that gradually becomes attached to a predictable, repetitive social routine: “custom, so immemorial that it looks like nature,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote.

An additional problem is that even conservatives like Burke don’t consistently seek to defend all traditions and in fact they will even actively attack traditions when they don’t like them. Their vision of tradition is dependent on cherrypicking. Liberals like Paine, on the other hand, often find themselves in the position of defending tradition against the attack by conservatives:

Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.

So, is there anything consistent to conservatism besides, as Corey Robin argues, reaction? If the seemingly inconsistent Edmund Burke is the father of conservatism, then what is this conservatism?

Let me lead into my conclusion with one last quote from Levin (Kindle Location 824);

Paine’s book was the most significant reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, though it was by no means the only one. Indeed, dozens of counter-pamphlets soon appeared, mostly from English radicals and dissenters accusing Burke of abandoning both Whig principles and his own principles. They charged him with a profound inconsistency, given his support for the American Revolution and his earlier assertion (in his 1770 pamphlet Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents) that the deep disgruntlement of an entire population is proof that the state requires serious reform. Thomas Jefferson spoke for many when, upon reading the Reflections, he remarked that “the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.” 56 This theme of inconsistency would follow Burke for the rest of his life and indeed well beyond his life, among historians.

This charge of inconsistency, with Burke as their ideological father, continues to plague conservatives to this day. As far as I can tell, they have no better justification to offer to refute this charge. Conservatives barely even acknowledge it, much less try to explain it.

Maybe conservatives need to look for a better foundation.

27 thoughts on “Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism

  1. This post came off sounding dismissive. This is because I was feeling frustrated while reading Levin’s book.

    Burke came off as someone full of rationalizations of his own behavior while criticizing others. So often it seemed his rationalizations were overly convenient and not very deeply considered. His rationalizations could just as easily be used to justify the positions of those he disagreed with. Meanwhile, his criticisms of others easily could be turned against him.

    It was hard to tell if there was anything of substance to Burke’s writings. Was it all just the rhetoric of a professional politican?

    Even his seemingly core stance about change seemed extremely subjective. As far as that goes, Burke was quite the Progressive Whig for is time, especially when he was younger. Many of his opponents thought his reforms were pushing change that was either unecessary, risky or too fast. He offers no objective standard for judging why the change he wanted was good and why the change he didn’t want was bad.

    I get the sense that his final defense was: “Trust me. I’m a wise leader, one of the enlightened elite. I’m a trained professional. I know what I’m doing. Don’t try this at home, kids.”

  2. I was really hoping for more from this book. I wanted to discover some new insight about Burke or about Paine or about some fundamental distinction of views during the revolutionary era. Instead, the book felt somewhat superficial. Maybe halfway decent for an introductory text, but that is about it.

    The most interesting analysis I’ve so far come across is that of Corey Robin. He paints him as the father of reactionary conservatism with emphasis on the reactionary part. Levin’s book, in my reading of it, ends up confirming Robin’s conclusion.

    I don’t mind the inconsistency in itself. As has been said before, consistency can be the hobgobblin of small minds. But then again, inconsistency can be the hobgobblin of a lazy or unprincipled mind. The inconsistency combined with self-serving righteousness and overly convenient rationalizations didn’t win me over.

    I honestly don’t get why one would criticize someone for being too consistently principled and too consistently logical in the application of their principles. No one is ever perfectly consistent, but I think people should be given credit when they at least try to be consistent. Turning a caricature of ‘Reason’ into a bogeyman and wrshipping unreason seems like a strange wa to go about politics, especia0lly someone like Burke who uses intellectual reasoning to make his argument against intellectual reasoning.

    This kind of reactionary conservatism just plain boggles my mind. Most strangely of all, as Robin points out, such conservatives if that is what we are to call them are no less reactionary to traditionalism than they are to progressivism.

    This political position arose in response othe perceived failures of the traditional order. They want to replace the old order even as they want to fortify their own sought after hierarchical power and authority. This is why reactionary conservatives can so easily dismiss ancient traditional social orders such as the pre-Lockean land rights of the Commons in their pursuit of the new destabilizing force of capitalist plutocracy.

    Burke didn’t seem to care even slightly about the modernizing forces that were ripping apart this ancient social order. I assume he didn’t care because this process of privatization was harming only the lower classes hile benefitting the upper classes. As Burke wasn’t a part of the lower classes, he had no self-interest in moderating or slowing down such drastic changes.

    Burke’s proclaimed concern fo the past was just a story he told. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that he knew about this past that so concerned Paine. In Agrarian Justice, on the other hand, Paine goes into great depth about this past and its relevance to the present. Contrary to Burke’s strawman arguments, it is Paine who genuinely seeks moderation and envisions social restraints placed upon the worst elements of change.

    In Burke’s reactionary stance, there is desire for power and fear of losing it. Is there anything more to it beyond these base motives?

    Earlier he was a reform-mined progressive or at least saw that as being conducive to his political career at that time. Was he always a reactionary waiting for some major events to bring this out or give an excuse for him to express it? Or did he have potential for being something else altogether? How genuine was the progressivism of his early career? Was he like Reagan in that he was a progressive when it was easy and convenient but reactionary when political resistance developed among the elite?

    What makes someone into a reactionary? What is the motivation or purpose to it?

  3. My own take on Burke, after reading a decent amount of him, is as a guy who was ‘prudent’, making an attempt to balance various moral impulses. As he says, this approach can appear reactionary, progressive, and in between in any given situation. I agree with him, though it’s an easy agreement to make, because such a statement covers just about any meandering between principles one cares to dream up, yielding an unpredictable and usually confusing solution. I also agree that he seemed enamored of royalty, and that his respect and occasional fawning toward them bears a scent of self-interest. I’m not sure how much effect such a thing had on his thinking, though, how much of his viewpoint was guided thus. I do think it fair to account that he took a lot of whacks on the nose politically in defense of causes he thought right, and was not known to be a slithering politician at the feet of his masters. He also did something I find distasteful, if understandable given his goals: he wasn’t likely to describe two sides of an argument with any degree of clarity, preferring to grind away making clear his side’s logic and motivations, his case. I wouldn’t say that of Paine, or of many others on the left at the time: their’s would be the case of presenting one side because that was the only side they saw, the only principles with a dog in the fight. I’m struck with the left’s neglect of carefully discussing risks associated with a general anarchy, presumably because they didn’t see that as a risk, or even as an important problem; far more time talking about freedom, rights, etc. So in a sense, I agree with your argument that Paine was more principled, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment. I tend to be more Burkean in the sense that I experience that principles betray as easily as they serve; that every situation requires an assessment of the conflicting principles involved; and that principles I have little patience for can be in a given situation can end up being paramount in providing guidance. That sympathy I have for Burke’s task to re-balance principles, if you will, helps me be more patient with Burke’s ‘prudence’, wary as I am that it’s a completely open field, as you explained well. Here’s a bit of his thinking that sheds light on just how cooly pragmatic he could get:

    “…institutions savor of superstition in their very principle; and they nourish it by a permanent and standing influence. This I do not mean to dispute; but this ought not to hinder you from deriving from superstition itself any resources which may thence be furnished of the public advantage.”

    and this almost cynical equating of reactionaries and progressives alike:

    “Wisdom is not the most severe corrector of folly. They are the rival follies, which mutual wag so unrelenting a war; and which make so cruel a use of their advantages, as they can happen to engage the immoderate vulgar on the one side of the other in their quarrels.

    I like to think, like to hope, that in a world where Burke wasn’t trying to prevent a specific revolution he might’ve spoken more about the valid complaints against that monarchy, and monarchy in general. He’d done so before, and in conditions where it was not good for him personally to do so. As he got older, though, he may have gotten more conservative, more seeking of certainty, as most do. We can’t know how much of his position on the Revolution was contingent on shifting principles and how much was driven by the comfort and station derived in his work.

    I choose to think of him as a moderate, threading his way through in a necessarily personal and contingency-soaked way. You spoke recently about seeing these men in the context they were raised, and in which they fought. Here’s what I come back to again and again with Burke- he was so right about how the French Revolution would play out. When I read his thoughts on the revolution, I’m not struck by his arguments, or his goofy praise of the monarchy, or the tin ear for democracy, or even the talk of prudence and the metadata behind his decisions. I’m in awe of how well he called not just the mob psychology, but also the kinds of psychological patterns and terror and unpredictability and despots that would play out of it, and how quickly it would happen. I like to give him a wide berth because of that. I think he answered quite well the question of whether the Revolution was a tragic upending of something that might well have gone much more positively, or whether it was doomed to occur the way it did. His prescience makes the former much more doubtful to me. That single example of observation and explication has made me listen and imagine more when conservatives make the clay-feet type arguments they are prone to.

    I must close my petite defense of Burke by making clear that modern conservatism has little Burke in it. The only part I can see of Burke in modern conservatism is recognizable when Burke spends a page highlighting the beauty and whatnots of a French princess, as he foists his cause on his readers. All our conservative presidential candidates would do equivalent shit, no problem, in the service of their slightest arguments. The notion that American conservatives are in the business of re-balancing principles actively with the times is laughable. Decades of Log Cabin Republicans didn’t do shit to change attitudes about homosexuality within conservatism: the heavy lifting was from the outside, forcing sense on them through the courts and through aggressive activism. The President they most admire…well, never mind. We are still in the post-1979 age when conservatives don’t even speak of balance- yet any hope for conservatism to be useful, for the moderation that can turn it practical, lies in precisely the ability to frame their thoughts around principles in tension effectively, darting about like Burke. The fact that that approach has fallen off the platform completely is quite disturbing.

    • Nice to see you around again, Scott!

      “My own take on Burke, after reading a decent amount of him, is as a guy who was ‘prudent’, making an attempt to balance various moral impulses.”

      I’ve only read a little bit of his writings. I’d like to read more by him, along with more by other writers of that era. Just never enough time.

      “As he says, this approach can appear reactionary, progressive, and in between in any given situation. I agree with him, though it’s an easy agreement to make, because such a statement covers just about any meandering between principles one cares to dream up, yielding an unpredictable and usually confusing solution.”

      I just call this liberalism in its broadest form. I’ve come to believe that conservatives are simply liberals in reactionary form. Many liberals probably switch between reactionary and progressive throughout their lives, but sometimes people become stuck in one mode.

      “I also agree that he seemed enamored of royalty, and that his respect and occasional fawning toward them bears a scent of self-interest. I’m not sure how much effect such a thing had on his thinking, though, how much of his viewpoint was guided thus.”

      I don’t know either. This part of his attitude does seem clearly reactionary to me. But the French Revolution came late in his life. Many people become more reactionary as they grow older, as the world changes around them and they come closer to death. There are few times in history when so much was changing so quickly. Those conditions can bring out the reactionary in even some of the most progressive of liberals. Research shows that happened with 9/11, where liberals who watched the videos of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s militarism.

      “I do think it fair to account that he took a lot of whacks on the nose politically in defense of causes he thought right, and was not known to be a slithering politician at the feet of his masters.”

      I’ve often pointed out that Burke had a strong progressive side. That is most clear with his early political career. But it can even be seen when he was older.

      “He also did something I find distasteful, if understandable given his goals: he wasn’t likely to describe two sides of an argument with any degree of clarity, preferring to grind away making clear his side’s logic and motivations, his case.”

      My main argument is that Burke was, first and foremost, a professional politician. With that in mind, his positions make more sense. He was more focused on everyday politics. His main concerns weren’t in formulating a consistent and coherent political philosophy.

      “I wouldn’t say that of Paine, or of many others on the left at the time: their’s would be the case of presenting one side because that was the only side they saw, the only principles with a dog in the fight.”

      I haven’t given that much thought. The purpose of pamphleteering is to persuade. Two evenhandedly present all sides is weak rhetoric, specifically in terms of pushing major social and political changes. But it might be interesting to survey the writings of that era that weren’t pamphleteering and related political writings, such as private correspondence.

      “I’m struck with the left’s neglect of carefully discussing risks associated with a general anarchy, presumably because they didn’t see that as a risk, or even as an important problem; far more time talking about freedom, rights, etc. So in a sense, I agree with your argument that Paine was more principled, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”

      I actually consider Paine to be one of the most evenhanded of people around at the time. He attempted to be a voice of reason and balance when in France. He was extremely concerned about the risks and spoke out about them. He tried to push for a democratic constitution, but there was resistance.

      “I tend to be more Burkean in the sense that I experience that principles betray as easily as they serve; that every situation requires an assessment of the conflicting principles involved; and that principles I have little patience for can be in a given situation can end up being paramount in providing guidance.”

      My issue is that there is no escape from ‘principles’. It’s just some are conscious about their beliefs and others less so. None of us escape from ideology. The person I trust least is the one who claims to be free of ideology, because they are either trying to hide their ideology or are oblivious to the power of ideology.

      “That sympathy I have for Burke’s task to re-balance principles, if you will, helps me be more patient with Burke’s ‘prudence’, wary as I am that it’s a completely open field, as you explained well.”

      My criticism of Burke is basically the same as my criticism of so many moderate, mainstream liberals.

      There is a kind of middle-of-the-road liberalism that waffles. There is some good to the ability to shift perspectives, but there are also immense dangers to it. Oddly, it is the waffling liberals that end up giving so much power to the dogmatic ideologues by their refusal to stand on principles and fight back. The strength of liberalism, it’s ability to shift, is its Achille’s Heel.

      That is precisely what makes Burke so typically liberal, in this basic sense.

      “I like to think, like to hope, that in a world where Burke wasn’t trying to prevent a specific revolution he might’ve spoken more about the valid complaints against that monarchy, and monarchy in general. He’d done so before, and in conditions where it was not good for him personally to do so. As he got older, though, he may have gotten more conservative, more seeking of certainty, as most do. We can’t know how much of his position on the Revolution was contingent on shifting principles and how much was driven by the comfort and station derived in his work.”

      That expresses well my own views. It is also interesting to consider what Burke’s defenses of the rights of Americans might have been like, if the American Revolution had never happened. Burke wanted to avoid that conflict, but he ultimately would maintain his loyalty to his British homeland, even though he wasn’t English.

      “I choose to think of him as a moderate, threading his way through in a necessarily personal and contingency-soaked way. You spoke recently about seeing these men in the context they were raised, and in which they fought. Here’s what I come back to again and again with Burke- he was so right about how the French Revolution would play out.”

      I disagree. Here is what I concluded elsewhere:

      “His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.”

      To continue with your comment:

      “When I read his thoughts on the revolution, I’m not struck by his arguments, or his goofy praise of the monarchy, or the tin ear for democracy, or even the talk of prudence and the metadata behind his decisions. I’m in awe of how well he called not just the mob psychology, but also the kinds of psychological patterns and terror and unpredictability and despots that would play out of it, and how quickly it would happen.”

      My point was the American Revolution was more deadly than the Reign of Terror. Even man of Britain’s own military actions were far more violent. It is easy to see the violence in others, while excusing the violence of your own government and society. That is what Americans do today while criticizing foreign terrorists and then supporting far worse state terrorism as a response, killing even more innocent people than any terrorist group could ever accomplish. It’s a moral blindness that I find repugnant.

      There is nothing that Burke saw that Paine didn’t know even better firsthand. Paine wasn’t just complaining about others. He put his life on the line to try to promote democracy and prevent those who would thwart it, both those within and without any particular revolution.

      “I like to give him a wide berth because of that. I think he answered quite well the question of whether the Revolution was a tragic upending of something that might well have gone much more positively, or whether it was doomed to occur the way it did. His prescience makes the former much more doubtful to me. That single example of observation and explication has made me listen and imagine more when conservatives make the clay-feet type arguments they are prone to.”

      I’m less forgiving of him, as I’m less forgiving of those like him today. Many people predicted violence, on all sides, and all were right. The French Revolution was violent, but a lot less violent than what was going on elsewhere in the world.

      The violence that Burke feared was not the loss of life, as the French monarchy was brutal toward human life. What he feared was those who would challenge the social order. It’s the same reason he turned his back on Americans as soon as they became revolutionaries. For Burke, the established status quo and the entrenched hierarchy was everything, because without it there would be the kind of large-scale changes he didn’t feel comfortable with. He didn’t want an empire that was too oppressive and unjust, but he most definitely wanted an empire to ensure rule and law.

      “I must close my petite defense of Burke by making clear that modern conservatism has little Burke in it.”

      I would agree. Then again, I don’t see the distance between conservatism and liberalism as being as great as some believe. This is because I tend to take a psychological view of things.

      “The only part I can see of Burke in modern conservatism is recognizable when Burke spends a page highlighting the beauty and whatnots of a French princess, as he foists his cause on his readers. All our conservative presidential candidates would do equivalent shit, no problem, in the service of their slightest arguments. The notion that American conservatives are in the business of re-balancing principles actively with the times is laughable.”

      We are most definitely on the same page here.

      “Decades of Log Cabin Republicans didn’t do shit to change attitudes about homosexuality within conservatism: the heavy lifting was from the outside, forcing sense on them through the courts and through aggressive activism.”

      I’ve made the argument that liberals, both reactionary and progressive, need radical left-wingers. It’s not just those outside of conservatism that have forced change. It’s those entirely outside the mainstream left-right spectrum. We would not have the freedoms today that we have if not for Paine and his ilk who have forced Americans to live up to their ideals.

      If it were up to the likes of Burke, we’d still be party of the British Empire and monarchy. I don’t think that is an overstatement. The defenses of neo-imperialism today aren’t all that different than the defenses of imperialism from the past. That shouldn’t be overlooked.

      “The President they most admire…well, never mind. We are still in the post-1979 age when conservatives don’t even speak of balance- yet any hope for conservatism to be useful, for the moderation that can turn it practical, lies in precisely the ability to frame their thoughts around principles in tension effectively, darting about like Burke. The fact that that approach has fallen off the platform completely is quite disturbing.”

      Where I agree with you is the need for a psychological attitude of balance. But I would argue that, at this point, you’d have to look to supposed ‘radical’ politics to find anyone defending genuine balance. In mainstream politics, both parties support the same extremism of corporatism, militarism, and neo-imperialism.

      What goes for moderate doesn’t, to me, seem moderate even in the slightest. I don’t see the problems we face as being an excess of principles or at least not stated principles. There are principles behind our present plutocratic system, but they are hidden. I’d love to have more open discussion of actual principles.

      All of that said, I am more forgiving of Burke than his contemporary equivalents. He lived at a much earlier time. There was genuine reason to feel uncertain about all kinds of things back then. But when a conservative today defends some of those old positions, they are being a reactionary of an even more extreme variety. We will never know what kind of person and politician Burke would be if he were alive today.

    • I do consider the possibility that I’m being unfair to Burke.

      I’ve changed my mind about him over time. As I read more of and about him, I changed my mind in that I now firmly consider him a liberal, even if he isn’t the variety of liberal I prefer. I reserve the right to possibly change my mind about him again in the future.

      For now, I feel great reservations toward him. I honestly don’t see him as having predicted anything about the French Revolution. It was a violent era on all sides and in many places, including his own beloved Britain that was in the process of violent oppression at home and abroad. It would have only been surprising if he had predicted non-violence.

      I do favor the principles of balance and moderation, even if Burke doesn’t see them as principles. What I don’t fall in line with is the idea that Burke was the best example and defender of those principles. Based on those principles, it would be possible to argue he was a hypocrite… but it would also be possible to argue that he was balanced and moderate for the time he lived in, which was decidedly imbalanced and immoderate to the extreme, including the government in which he was a politician.

      Was he a sane man in an insane world? Or was he just a little bit less insane than the other madmen in power of a brutal empire? Does he get bonus points for trying to moderate that brutality instead of trying to stop it entirely like Paine? Is trying to stop brutality immoderate and imbalanced?

      I realize it’s a loaded question, as I phrase it. But that is the point. I phrase it as I see it and as Paine saw it. My point is that I don’t think principled morality and plainspoken directness without equivocating has to be in opposition to moderation and balance. The question is: Moderating what? And seeking balance between what? These are rather nebulous ideals, which as rhetoric can lead to lots of deviousness, moral failures, and rationalizations.

      I realize, as a politician in an violently oppressive empire, Burke was maybe in an impossible position in seeking genuine moral results. Then again, he chose to be a politician in a violently oppressive empire. He could have resigned in protest, but he didn’t. I guess it is a matter of judgment whether or not one considers him complicit.

      It is a serious issue to consider. It is where we still find ourselves. We live in a country that is playing the role of an empire and is doing so on a greater scale. The British Empire could commit genocide and enslave people, but they didn’t have the aircraft carriers, drones, and nuclear bombs. The US has greater power, control, and influence than the British Empire ever had or could dream of having. The US military can entirely wipe out a government like Hussein’s Iraq with barely any effort. All it takes is a massive barrage of bombs, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. The rulers of the British Empire would have been envious.

      What does an imperial subject do? Burke wanted to change the empire from within. Even Paine sought reform when he was a civil servant in England, as a tax collector. Paine wasn’t born a radical and revolutionary. It was immense poverty and sickness, suffering and struggle that made him into what he became. How much should one take before trying a different method? Some think it is the very definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

      I’ve always wondered what Burke would have thought of what the British Empire later did to his homeland in Ireland. In violently putting down the Irish, they killed way more than died in the French Reign of Terror. If not for all the revolutionaries who fought injustice (American, French, and Irish), would the British Empire ever felt forced to finally reform itself out of fear of the consequences of not doing so? I doubt it. The only language the powerful understands is that of force. Without real threat, the powerful have no motivation to change. The problem with Burke is that he wasn’t sure he wanted change, as he had a rather comfortable life among the ruling elite, even with disagreements he had.

      It seems to me that Paine has been vindicated. In this much more peaceful world of democracy we live in, it is Paine’s vision that has been manifested, not Burke’s. I’d hate to live in the world that Burke was hoping to save from democratic changes. I’m sure you agree with me on this basic point. You may like the ideals of balance and moderation, but I doubt you’d ultimately be happy if you were to fully experience Burke’s application of them. As for me, I’m still not convinced that he necessarily even believed in those ideals. I know he spoke of them as a politician, but professional politicians say all kinds of things.

      On the other hand, as I initially stated, maybe I have him all wrong. I’ll continue reading writings that are by and about Burke. I’m sure I’ll have further thoughts that will go in new directions. I must admit that I’m not the most forgiving person toward what I perceive as gross moral failure. I realize we all don’t perfectly live up to the highest of moral standards. Failure is par for the course. But I think some people go much further in trying to do right. I respect Paine for refusing the lesser of evils, no matter the personal risks. If there had been more people like him on all sides of these conflicts, the revolutions could have been avoided entirely or else at least the revolutions would have been far more peaceful as democratic transitions.

      That is my opinion for the time being. I’m open to any counter-arguments. It’s easy for me to be judgmental, but I try to avoid being dismissive. If you think I’m being dismissive, please tell me. That is the last thing I want to do.

    • I have some further thoughts to add. But first let me point to some of my earlier posts that are relevant. I’ve noted that the American and French revolutions are much more similar and related than many would like to admit, as there is a long history of influence and close relationship between the two countries:

      In another post, I added this comment:

      “Let me try to make it a fair comparison. I’m going to only use the above population numbers for the thirteen colonies, since most of the British population wasn’t actually involved in fighting in the American Revolution. For that reason, I will only include the deaths of Americans (i.e., the colonial rebels and loyalists) and not the total casualties of all the British and non-British who fought.

      “The French population during the French Revolution was about 10 times larger as the American population during the American Revolution. However, the casualties during the French Revolution were only 5 times larger than the casualties of the American Revolution.

      “So, per capita, the French Revolution was far less deadly than the American Revolution. This is true no matter which numbers are used, whether the lowest or highest casualty counts for both revolutions. Plus, the violence of the French Revolution tended to be concentrated only in particular areas while some regions saw few deaths whereas the American Revolution was more evenly violent across all of the thirteen colonies.”

      In a post continuing my thoughts, I explained further:

      “The early years of the French Revolution were more about political reform than the revolution we know from the Reign of Terror (the revolution began in 1789 and the use of the guillotine didn’t begin until 1793). Even so, keep in mind that more people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. Also, keep in mind that more people suffered oppression and died because of the results of the American failure to abolish slavery than did with the entire French Revolution.

      “Originally, the revolutionaries were pushing for a constitutional monarchy and that would have worked out just fine except King Louis XVI didn’t want to have his power constrained, as neither did King Charles I when facing the English Civil War, and so likewise regicide followed. The revolutionaries also weren’t trying to get rid of the aristocracy, take their land or take their wealth. They simply wanted the aristocracy to be treated like everyone else with no special privileges. Also, the revolutionaries had no desire to get rid of the church. The clergy were among the strongest supporters of the early revolution.

      “This early period of reform lasted for several years.”

      Then I got a bit snippy with Burke’s cavalier indifference to the mass suffering and oppression of others (he literally had Cavalier ancestry on one side of his family—and it does make one wonder about Burke’s sympathy to British aristocracy, since the Cavaliers were the very people who brought French Norman aristocracy to England—might that relate to why Burke’s family was of the upper class or at least professional class with his father working for the government):

      “When a clueless asshole like Edmund Burke complained about the French Revolution, what would he have preferred? Should the French just accepted their fate by starving to death and allowing themselves to be continually killed and imprisoned by an oppressive government? The British Empire later on killed more Irish than the number of people killed in the Reign of Terror. As an Irishman and defender of the British Empire, what answer would Burke have for that? Would he have suggested the Irish to have just taken it and not to have fought back? Of course not.”

      Irritations aside, I have grown more sympathetic to the likes of Burke or at least some aspects of some of his views. In making comparisons with Paine, Burke maybe has more than a few similarities to John Dickinson:

      “All in all, I side more with Dickinson in his resistance to revolution because he seems to have foreseen many of the problems that ensued. Dickinson, like Burke, wisely emphasized slow reform. Paine also was for reform, but once he got the idea of revolution in his head he ran with it like no other.

      “Once the revolution was begun and even moreso once independence was gained, I think Paine’s insights gained the upperhand on Dickinson’s pre-revolutionary wisdom. Paine probably had the best understanding about the promise of America. He also had the most uncompromising vision of morality and justice. Paine makes most of the founding fathers look pathetic in comparison. That is because Paine grasped that moment of history and went far beyond self-interest in fighting for what was right.

      “So, Dickinson was the better advocate of reform and Paine the better advocate of revolution. But I’ll give them both credit for having the ability to seek moderation among extremes. Dickinson was a true statesman when he sought balance with the Articles of Confederation, our country’s first constitution. As for Paine, his attempt at being a moderate in immoderate revolutionary France was beyond heroic.

      “A point I’ve made before is that America’s failure is twofold. Early Americans didn’t heed Dickinson’s warnings about revolution. Nor did the elite heed Paine’s call for justice. So, we didn’t get the best possible benefits of reform or revolution, but instead we became stuck somewhere in between. The losers on both ends outnumbered the winners.”

      It is interesting to note that Burke went to a Quaker boarding school, Paine was raised by a Quaker father who ensured he received a Quaker-style education, and Dickinson was raised a Quaker. All three were powerful writers, although Paine most strongly expressed the plainspoken Quaker way of writing and so was most able to connect to the commoner. Quakers were all about moderation and balance, values that all three fought for in their own ways (don’t forget that Paine didn’t just initially seek peaceful reform within the British system and didn’t just seek non-violent change in France through a democratic constitution, for he also defended the life of the French king at the risk of his own life—he was a radical in defense of moderation).

      If we consider that interpretation, these values aren’t Burkean but instead maybe of the Quaker tradition or else of dissenting tradition more broadly.

      As a side note, I wanted to point that Paine, like Burke, had connections to Ireland.

      “Paine had a huge impact on Ireland and many close links with it. The Belfast volunteers toasted Thomas Paine in 1791: “May his principles of common sense establish the rights of man.” In that year alone ten thousand copies of Rights of Man were distributed throughout the country, replacing the Psalter and the prayer book in Cork. Wolfe Tone called the book “the Koran of Belfast.” In Ulster the British assessed the situation, Brigadier General Knox writing the Duke of Abercorn: “There is great alarm here as to the state of the country. The north is certainly inoculated by Paine, who persuades every man to think himself a legislator and to throw off all respect for his superiors.” After the United Irish were proscribed, some went to America, others to Paris. There in 1793, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who cast away his title in exchange for Citizen Edward, lodged with Paine, saying “there is a simplicity of manner, a goodness of heart, and strength of mind in him, that I never knew a man before possess.” Paine’s American publisher was an Irishman who promoted Irish invasion plans. On a personal level Paine’s trajectory followed that of these revolutions, suffering defeat with the counter-revolution. With the failure of the French invasion of Ireland Paine drank away his sorrows with the Irish exile, Napper Tandy. Before leaving for America Paine met the brilliant young Irish revolutionary, Robert Emmet, whose speech in the dock in 1803 was memorized by the young Abraham Lincoln. Reportedly, Paine was Lincoln’s favorite author.”

      It is telling that Paine was almost certainly more popular among the Irish at the time. The Irish were unlikely comforted by Burke’s defense of empire, even as he also argued for greater religious freedom in Ireland. Burke’s moral imagination nor his praise of prejudice could justify the colonization of Ireland. There simply was no possible moral interpretation of such oppression, even Burke’s preferred more ‘moderate’ imperial oppression.

      Burke’s aspirations for reform were noble, taken at face value. But some forms of moral wrong can’t be reformed. It’s similar to the US state governments reforming capital punishment in order to make it more humane by using injections. Nonetheless, capital punishment remains barbaric. Moderation and balance simply don’t apply to such extremes of injustice and inhumanity.

      I’m not sure if Burke ever attempted to respond to that charge, which is essentially the same as the criticisms made by Paine and others. I don’t doubt that Burke struggled with his own conscience. But would he have had the courage to admit that he was wrong about such things? Or had he become too politically polarized in his older age?

    • Your comment has got me thinking. I was already in the middle of reading some books on imagination and how it applies to the larger society, as part of my ongoing contemplations on radical imagination, empathic imagination, and symbolic conflation. That brought me to reading more about Burke again, specifically about his “moral imagination.” So, your comment fed right into where my thoughts already were.

      In the above post, Bromwich is mentioned. He is quoted as saying, “that revolution is the ultimate enemy of reform.” Paine might respond, based on his personal experience as a civil servant in the British government, that failure or refusal to reform is the ultimate enemy of reform and hence, if denied for too long and too oppressively, the ultimate cause of revolution. Making reform into an abstract ideal and then using it to excuse the lack of reform is useless and dangerous rhetoric. American and French revolutionaries weren’t dealing with issues of reform as a rhetorical exercise from the position of safety and comfort, as was Burke. Both Americans and the French had been seeking reform for quite a while. More radical action only followed after the continuous and egregious failure of reform. In the case of France, the king refused to deal honestly with reformers and so played a game of deception and manipulation, a game that he lost.

      I’ve been reading Bromwich’s book of essays, Moral Imagination. The title essay explores Burke’s views on the matter and how it applies to later thinkers and leaders. It should be of interest to you, as Bromwich is a liberal Burkean who wishes to deny any false Burkean claims by American conservatives. I must admit that he does make a good case for Burkean liberalism, but then again I’m already convinced that Burke was a liberal. Sadly, Bromwich doesn’t consider any of the points I bring up and so his defense of the morality of Burkean liberalism remains on a weak foundation. Still, it is an interesting defense and makes me consider what can be salvaged from the wreckage of Burke’s later political career.

      By the way, I wonder if Bromwich was influenced by Lionel Trilling. I noticed that, in The Liberal Imagination (another book I’ve been reading), Trilling mentions moral imagination a number of times. He also makes the famous argument that the US has no real conservative tradition, at least not on the level of ideas. Some statements made by Bromwich sound very close to the much earlier statements by Trilling, and indeed Trilling had wide influence on American thought.

      As for your views, I can see where your interest in Burke comes from. The issues of balance and moderation fit directly into Haidt’s liberal-minded criticisms of liberalism. These criticisms make conservatives think that Haidt is ultimately on their side, but as I’ve previously pointed out reading between the lines can lead one to suspect otherwise. This might relate to conservatives, through a narrow and superficial interpretation, seeing Burke as their ideological ancestor. Haidt is essentially a Burkean of the liberal variety. Conservatives can’t comprehend this for all they know of Burke are his reactionary views to the French Revolution.

      From a different perspective, Corey Robin partly agrees with conservatives on the issue of Burke’s politics. He sees Burke as an early and clear example of a conservative in terms of his theory of the reactionary mind, even in Burke’s early life before politics. But if one combines Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind with the views of Domenic Losurdo’s leftist view, that liberalism is so broad as to include conservatism, one can interpret Burke as a fairly standard liberal that more or less falls in line with the reactionary mind.

      I do see a tendency of ‘moderate’ liberals in being attracted to reactionary politics, during times of stress and uncertainty, economic problems and social unrest. My theory is that conservatives are those, for whatever reason, for whom a reactionary attitude has become dominant and maybe even permanent. A conservative is just a liberal who has lost or else never fully developed the ability to shift back and forth between progressivism and reaction, instead having their fear/anxiety/disgust sensitivity stuck on high mode.

      Let me respond directly to one part of your comment:

      “I’m struck with the left’s neglect of carefully discussing risks associated with a general anarchy, presumably because they didn’t see that as a risk, or even as an important problem; far more time talking about freedom, rights, etc. So in a sense, I agree with your argument that Paine was more principled, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment. I tend to be more Burkean in the sense that I experience that principles betray as easily as they serve; that every situation requires an assessment of the conflicting principles involved; and that principles I have little patience for can be in a given situation can end up being paramount in providing guidance. That sympathy I have for Burke’s task to re-balance principles, if you will, helps me be more patient with Burke’s ‘prudence’, wary as I am that it’s a completely open field, as you explained well.”

      I take your views of on anarchism seriously. But the label of anarchism is too vague in mainstream thought. I don’t know that there is much social science research that confronts anarchism fully and directly on its own terms. As far as I can tell, someone like Haidt has never done research on anarchists, even as he postures about the dangers of anarchy, which is odd as he has studied libertarians and there is much overlap between libertarians and anarchists. We simply don’t have a whole lot of data on anarchists, and apparently few social scientists willing and able to seek that data. That is maybe understandable, as I’ve explained before, since some anarchists might resist being studied; and maybe less interested in entering the field of social science. But there are plenty of anarchists, such as anarcho-syndicalists like Chomsky or even anarcho-capitalists like Murray Rothbard, who could more easily be studied, for those who would bother to do so (I list some links further below).

      This, however, might challenge the mainstream assumptions about anarchism. Anarcho-syndicalists are strongly communitarian and anarcho-capitalists seemingly lean toward (privatized) plutocracy. They are of course against state governance, but not against self-governance and social order. Anarchists of different varieties talk about non-statist ways to implement law, contracts, policing, and military. More than any other broad ideological group, anarchists are those most concerned with non-violence and even pacifism, and hence on how to maintain peaceful social order that makes unnecessary states and the state-sanctioned violence that inevitably follows. It is true that there have been violent anarchists, but far fewer than there has been violent statists and certainly less wanton and wide-scale in their violence.

      Opponents attacked Jefferson and Paine as anarchists and atheists (Godless radicals!), even though both charges were false to an extreme degree. What they were was democratic republicans and deists. Paine even criticized atheists as strongly as he criticized fundamentalists, both seen as extremists in his mind, and so he staked his claim to moderation and balance in his religious views. As for anarchism, if you want to discuss the real deal, you’d have to look to Godwin, the father of modern anarchism. It should be noted that Godwin was an aristocrat and had no desire for the breakdown of society.

      Jefferson and Paine, on the other hand, were social democrats which has nothing to do with anarchism. They sought a strong government, but one that was the least oppressive. Paine essentially argued for a welfare state with citizen’s dividends, old age pensions, income taxes, etc; and to a large degree Jefferson was of a like mind on these kinds of issues. Burke talked about reform, but the social democrats didn’t just want to reform the empire. Instead, they wanted to create a political system that made reform possible, a political system that would allow reform from within as part of its normal functioning, a political system that would hopefully make all future violent revolutions avoidable and unnecessary.

      To return to Haidt’s views, Lawrence Blum offers a critique that is surprisingly similar to what I have previously written. He points out that plenty of liberals emphasize binding values. Haidt doesn’t see them because based on his assumptions he ignores them, and thus he seeks to prove his preconceived conclusions.

      “Let me also give myself as an example. On the short-list choices I would pick‘liberal’ or ‘extreme liberal.’ But a designation I think more accurately expresses my political stance is ‘social democrat’. This is a standard political designation in Europe, less familiar to Americans, but it better captures for me than does ‘liberal’the idea that government has to be a counterweight to market forces in providing a strong safety net with regard to healthcare, education, occupational safety,unemployment and the like. ‘Social democrat’ also better expresses the idea of a national society as a solidaristic or communitarian unit, a conception that is foundational to my understanding of social justice, which is central to my political identity.

      “This distinction bears strongly on Haidt’s conception of liberalism. Some of the self-ascriptions available to those on the left side of the spectrum involve more of the ‘binding’ character and less of the purely individualizing ones than Haidt attributes to liberals. For example, ‘social democrat’, ‘progressive’, ‘communitarian liberal’, (Dionne’s) ‘social justice Catholic’ and ‘socialist’ all evoke binding, communitarian or solidaristic values. (Let me provisionally refer to this umbrella of ‘binding’ forms of political ascription as ‘communitarian’.)

      “If Haidt had allowed for the long list, including various forms of communitarian self-ascription, among those on the left side of the political spectrum, he would likely have found affirmation of ‘binding’ values among the communitarian leftists that he would not have found among those who prefer ‘liberal’ to the communitarian options. (I think short-list liberals differ in their commitment to binding values.)

      “A related methodological point here is that Haidt subjects the right side of the spectrum to a nuanced analysis that he does not attempt for the left. Subsequent to his initial set of experiments, he and his colleagues decided that libertarians have a different value set than what we would now call social conservatives (Haidt, 2012, pp. 170–176). And yet, from a self-ascription point of view, libertarians are almost always ‘conservatives’ on the short list (and often on the long list also)——they strongly claim the ‘conservative’ label. Haidt and his associates no longer claim that libertarians, although self-ascriptively conservative, subscribe to the binding values. Indeed, they now say that libertarians are less likely to do so than are self-ascribed liberals. So they no longer count libertarians as ‘conservatives’.

      “I am suggesting an analogous move on the left——a recognition that there are many liberals of a communitarian stripe, who are substantially concerned with binding values as well as individualistic ones, although perhaps not exactly the same binding values as those Haidt puts in that category. So Haidt’s overall contrast between liberals and conservatives as between those who don’t much care about binding values and those who do, does not hold up, because of libertarians on the right and communitarian liberals on the left. […]

      “Haidt implies that short-list liberals attach little value to loyalty or authority. I find this difficult to believe. Perhaps this is true of anarchists (at least in the case of authority). But I would be surprised if such a wholesale questioning or rejection were shared by a large segment of short-list liberals. Most would likely be troubled by a child’s saying ‘Fuck you’ to his father, an example from Haidt’s (2012) book (p. 142); by students’ routinely disrespecting their teachers; or by a rejecting of professional authority, as when scientists’ warnings about global warming are unheeded as if they were just an arbitrary personal opinion rather than a sound professional one. Similarly with respect to loyalty. I would be surprised if liberals did not think it appropriate to be loyal to friends and family (when they warrant that loyalty) and to institutions to which one is attached and of which one approves their ends and purposes.These are admittedly common sense observations, not the findings of empirical study. But since Haidt’s apparent finding that‘liberals’ do not care much about authority and loyalty was set in a context of studies about moral values as they relate specifically to political identity, it could be argued that his subjects were not asked whether they cared about loyalty and authority in general.”

      I would only disagree a bit with part of his last point:

      “Haidt implies that short-list liberals attach little value to loyalty or authority. I find this difficult to believe. Perhaps this is true of anarchists (at least in the case of authority).”

      Actually, anarchists are only against statist and other forms of authoritarian authority. It would be strange to imagine that those are the only kinds of authority. Chomsky explains that,

      “That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.”

      That implies burden of proof is well within the realm of possibility. It just isn’t to be taken for granted. Authority can’t authorize its own authority by fiat, without it being an act of oppression or even violence. However, anarcho-syndicalists accept the authority of collective ownership, consensus decision-making and direct democracy; and anarcho-capitalists accept the authority of private contracts and privately agreed upon institutions to enforce them. When a New England town hall meeting is used to put the budget up for vote, does social chaos follow as Burke feared would happen? Of course not. Yet many anarchists favor that kind of direct democracy.

      Like Burke, Haidt has a near inability to comprehend so much of liberalism and leftism, which is striking as both are fundamentally on the political left. This is made clear in the following response in an interview:

      “The great insight that I’ve gotten from conservatism is the need for constraint, structure and order. Liberals generally resonate to John Lennon’s song “Imagine” (“Imagine there’s no countries / it isn’t hard to do / nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too / Imagine all the people / living life in peace”). But conservatives since Edmund Burke argue that knocking down all the constraints and traditions will get you anarchy, not bliss. It’s no coincidence that having children makes people more conservative. Imposing structure, order and clear consequences has a miraculous effect on the behavior of young children, whereas reasoning with them, yelling at them or threatening them has much less effect. That’s why I say in the book that I think the great blind spot of the left is what I call moral capital. You can’t create a society just by fostering more love, trust and empathy. You’ve got to build morality into the surrounding institutions, laws and norms. And if you understand the other side better, you’ll tone down the demonizing.”

      Those on the political left aren’t against constraints and traditions. It’s just that they focus on different constraints and traditions (e.g., Paine’s concerns about the tradition of the Commons, along with the rights of commoners and the constraints upon private behavior that went along with it). Burke and Haidt are blind to the very things that have been central to so many liberals and leftists for centuries.

      In defending Burke, you say that:

      “I choose to think of him as a moderate, threading his way through in a necessarily personal and contingency-soaked way.”

      Well, that is not all that different than how I chose to think of someone like Paine. To my mind, it is Burke’s defense of imperialism and monarchism that seems extremist, even with his occasional criticisms of aspects of it. It is strange how genuine moderation and balance can seem radical in an era when extremism has become dominant and mainstream, has become the status quo. In the end, my leniency toward Burke has clear limits. I’m less willing to choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. But that isn’t to say that Burke was wrong about everything. I believe in learning from even those I disagree with.

      As I was thinking about your comment, I decided to go back to your own writings to reacquaint myself with your views. There was one post that stood out to me, in relation to this post.

      In that post, you wrote:

      “But the problem with an overemphasis on culpability of the rich is that the math simply doesn’t work, unless you inject a lot of magic efficiency into the whole business with greater “equality”: doubling or tripling taxes on, say, the top 10% doesn’t come close to taking care of a problem that is perhaps best defined in some of the statistics you quoted, or my favorite, that about 50% of Americans either pay no taxes or gain net positive transfer payments. Not a sustainable model, especially with an aging demographic that will bring that number to 60% and beyond in our lifetimes.”

      By the way, Paine was among the first Americans to suggest an income tax. When it finally was implemented, it was only directed at the wealthy, where of course the wealth had become concentrated during the Gilded Age. The lower classes paid no income tax initially. For the early history of the income tax, the upper income bracket always paid more, to an extreme degree. This is how was built modern public infrastructure and public welfare, cheap housing and education, and the broad growing middle class. The idea was that inequality was dangerous to the public good and so concentrated wealth should be used to fund the public good. This goes back, not only to Paine, but also to Adam Smith. There was an old wariness in classical liberalism toward inequality, specifically as it related to corporate capitalism. Burke was also wary about this, which is why he finally took to task the British East India Company—as he saw it, a corrupting force in British politics and society.

      Recent research has proven that wariness correct, as I know you know. I’ve written about how countries or areas within countries that have lower economic inequality tend to have fewer social problems, specifically in relation to poverty, economic mobility, economic growth, externalized costs, etc; and studies have been done to show causal relationships. I’ve also written about how this even plays out in partisan politics, even though I’m not a partisan. You’ve seen some of my posts on inequality and such, but let me link to them again as a reminder of where I’m coming from, and why Paine’s demand of greater equality (or rather simply less inequality) still matters, involving practical real world issues far beyond a mere abstract ideal.

      From that same post about, you offer a nuanced view in stating that:

      “Being liberal, even far left, does not mean one has to be anti-authoritarian, nor does it mean one has to be a fiscal fantasist.”

      That is a major point I’ve been making. I see ideologies as more complex than most people, more complex than even someone like Haidt and he sees ideologies in a much more complex way than those in the mainstream. Most analyses on ideologies are useless or even misleading… or else simply too limited. There aren’t just many varieties of liberals and leftists, anti-authoritarian and otherwise. There are also many varieties of anti-authoritarianism, along with varieties that emphasize communitarian and binding values, even with deep roots in various cultural traditions and well-established values, ‘prejudices’ if you will. Consider the example of the highly successful Mondragon Corporation, something akin to anarcho-syndicalism, founded by the Basque who have an ancient tradition of republicanism.

      You then go on with the observation that:

      “One of the many ironies of politics is liberalism’s occasionally simplistic approach to complexity.”

      I sort of agree, although in a different way than you mean. This is one of the central weaknesses and failures that I see in thinkers like Burke and Haidt. There is a whole lot more going on, historically and psychologically, than in standard accounts. This is why I’ve come to argue that (moderate) liberals need (radical) left-wingers, to keep them honest by forcing them to acknowledge the larger complex realities, systemic problems, and confounding factors.

      Immediately following that, you add:

      “Another is the tremendous feeling of justified anger generated toward Mr. Big in the name of compassion (with respect to Dr. Haidt, I think it can be more useful sometimes to think of the correlated 3 liberal foundations primarily as incarnations of our emphasis on compassion). Who causes all this suffering we liberals sense and see everywhere we turn? Can’t be the little guy- they’re heroes. Can’t be that suffering is inherent in existence- unacceptably negative. Can’t be much about issues of efficiency, or planning/design, or execution. Must be those with the power then, of course, acting through their sheep-like followers. Has to be…hence anti-authoritarianism. There is some truth in that framing- abuse by the powerful is almost axiomatic, to some extent- but to me, legitimate complaints are lost in the bias and misplaced energy the framing drowns in. There is a conspiracy component to the ire as well, and the common nonconscious liberal dictum that power=evil.”

      You are mostly criticizing mainstream liberalism. I too would criticize mainstream liberalism and mainstream thought in general. But I don’t think this goes very deeply into liberalism and certainly it barely skims the surface of leftism. The fundamental issues are systemic and structural, which is ignored by mainstream liberals, but is ignored to an even greater extent by mainstream conservatives, the latter being entirely clueless in this area.

      In that post, your conclusion isn’t obvious to me. You state that:

      “…this over-emphasis on anti-authoritarianism is toxic like the famed right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) of long, storied research- and where is the anti-authoritarian research?”

      I sense a basic confusion here that comes with the vagueness that clings to such terminology.

      We must distinguish anti-authoritarianism as mere rhetoric, especially as used by demagogues, and anti-authoritarianism as practical politics and lived worldview. An anarchist like Chomsky, the most well known defender of anarchism I might add, is the very personification of balanced moderation. He doesn’t call for violent overthrow of the state or romanticize the collapse of civilization. He simply, quietly, and dispassionately advocates for gradual democratic reform. We must distinguish is between genuine anarchists like Chomsky from those who want to get rid of one concentrated authoritarian power, only to replace it with another. The latter obviously isn’t genuinely anti-authoritarian. As Corey Robin makes clear, some of the most reactionary and conservative of right-wingers will often use the liberal rhetoric of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought, for purposes quite contrary to what the rhetoric may seem to imply (e.g., racists hiding behind the language of political correctness).

      To answer your question with a question, how does one research all of that? It’s hard to know. Anarchists themselves often are critical of mainstream psychological theories and research, and so there seems to be a bit of antagonism between anarchistic values and non-anarchistic social science, but I know that some people have explored this area. It makes me wonder what would be anarchistic social science research of anarchists, since anarchists would be less interested in trying to categorize themselves as a psychological personality type or whatever. I would like to look into this more sometime. For the present, I did a brief web search and found some possibly interesting stuff.

      You also ask:

      “Who in liberal academia has bothered to dissect Che Guevara, for instance, in political psychology terms? Is it an irrelevancy of history that this man we plaster on our t-shirts, who was so gentle to the villagers he loved, declared it his duty to use nuclear weapons on America- or is that a terrible distortion of our anti-authoritarianism?”

      I don’t see Che Guevara as obviously a genuine anarchist, not that I have extensive knowledge of his life or a strong opinion about him. He was an ardent Stalinist and spoke badly of Cuban anarchists. If anything, he had authoritarian tendencies, no matter what rhetoric he may have used at times. I’m not sure what his politics possibly could say about contemporary anarchists in the US (I’d point out that left-wingers from former Soviet countries measure high on authoritarianism, whereas American left-wingers measure low). I wouldn’t even attempt to guess how many American anarchists perceive him as an anarchist and as representative of their own anarchism. But at least some anarchists doubt his relevance and value to their cause.

      Either way, there has been plenty of analyses and criticism of Che Guevara in academia and on the political left, including from a social science perspective.

      If we wanted to get really serious about these issues, it would require a lot of effort. There is info out there about all kinds of things, assuming one has the determination to look for it and look through it.

      Anyway, my comment has gone far afield, but I thought that necessary to put in context the issues at hand. This discussion interests me greatly. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t have spent most of the day writing this comment. Despite all my efforts, I’m not sure that the moral defense of Burkean liberalism is more clear to me. I understand and appreciate the values proposed, i.e., balance and moderation. I’m more than curious about moral imagination. Still, I don’t feel any more drawn to a Burkean worldview, even ignoring my confusion about what Burke stood for.

      In the end, I’m an American social democrat like Paine, not a British monarchist and imperialist like Burke. I simply can’t separate Burke’s beliefs and values from the process of thinking that brought him to those beliefs and values. Maybe that is the limit of my own thinking (at present). I’ll try to keep an open mind. I promise to read Burke’s writings more fully and carefully. The liberal defense of Burke presented by you and Bromwich does make me wonder what I might be missing.

    • I came across this article:

      I’ve read about the just world hypothesis many times before. But seeing it now I realized that it fit right into Burke’s thinking. It is moral imagination based on prejudice and superstition that makes possible the injustice of the just world hypothesis.

      There is one strange thing. Like the Burkean moral imagination, the just world hypothesis is highly selective.

      A cop kills an innocent poor minority and it is just. But cop gets shot and it is injust, no matter the circumstances, even if the cop shot first at an innocent person, because that is how the mainstream media will spin it. Terrorists kill a few thousand innocent people on 9/11 and it is injust. But the US military in response kills a few hundred thousand innocent people and it is just.

      Whatever maintains the status quo of power and hierarchy is just. Whatever challenges it is injust. This is why Edmund Burke thought it perfectly fine for the French king to violently oppress, starve, imprison, torture, and execute French citizens while it was injust for those French citizens to fight back to stop the suffering and horror.

      Take another example from Burke’s political career. He initially was against government interference in the British East Indian Company. He thought it would be injust for the government to involve itself in a business that had a corporate charter. The injustice against the Indians wasn’t his concern. It was only when the British officials, at the behest of the British East India Company, tortured the Begum of Oudh (princesses) that Burke suddenly thought it was injust.

      Once again, Burke was most able to clearly see injustice when it threatened the upper classes, most especially royalty. That is rather morally narrow moral imagination.

    • The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
      By Corey Robin
      pp. 243-245

      “Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

      “Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.”

      Fear: The History of a Political Idea
      By Corey Robin
      Kindle Locations 402-406

      “It might seem strange that a book about political fear should assign so much space to our ideas about fear rather than to its practice. But recall what Burke said: It is not so much the actuality of a threat, but the imagined idea of that threat, that renews and restores. “If the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person,” then, and only then, do we experience a “delightful horror.”1 The condition of our being renewed by fear is not that we directly experience the object that threatens us, but that the object be kept at some remove move from ourselves.”

      Kindle Locations 1061-1066

      “Whether they have read The Spirit of the Laws or not, these writers are its children. With its trawling allusions to the febrile and the fervid, The Spirit of the Laws successfully aroused the conviction that terror was synonymous with barbarism, and that its cures were to be found entirely within liberalism. Thus was a new political and literary aesthetic born, a rhetoric of hyperbole suggesting that terror’s escorts were inevitably remoteness, irrationality, and darkness, and its enemies, familiarity, reason, and light. Perhaps it was this aesthetic that a young Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote, two years after Montesquieu’s death, “To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”52”

      Kindle Locations 1608-1618

      “As she set about establishing a new political morality in the shadow of total terror, however, Arendt became aware of a problem that had plagued Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville, and that Burke-not to mention makers of horror films-understood all too well: once terrors become familiar, they cease to arouse dread. The theorist who tries to establish fear as a foundation for a new politics must always find a demon darker than that of her predecessors, discover ever more novel, and more frightening, forms of fear. Thus Montesquieu, seeking to outdo Hobbes, imagined a form of terror that threatened the very basis of that which made us human. In Arendt’s case, it was her closing image of interchangeable victims and victimizers-of terror serving no interest and no party, not even its wielders; of a world ruled by no one and nothing, save the impersonal laws of motion-that yielded the necessary “radical evil” from which a new politics could emerge.S8

      “But as her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers was quick to recognize, Arendt had come upon this notion of radical evil at a terrible cost: it made moral judgment of the perpetrators of total terror nearly impossible.59 According to Origins, total terror rendered everyone-from Hitler down through the Jews, from Stalin to the kulaks-incapable of acting. Indeed, as Arendt admitted in 1963, “There exists a widespread theory, to which I also contributed [in Origins], gins], that these crimes defy the possibility of human judgment and explode the frame of our legal institutions.”60 Total terror may have done what fear, terror, and anxiety did for her predecessors-found a new politics-but, as Arendt would come to realize in Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was a false foundation, inspiring an operatic sense of catastrophe, that ultimately let the perpetrators off the hook by obscuring the hard political realities of rule by fear.”

      Liberalism at Bay, Conservatism at Piay: Fear in the Contemporary Imagination
      By Corey Robin

      “For theorists like Locke and Burke, fear is something to be cherished, not because it alerts us to real danger or propels us to take necessary action against it, but because fear is supposed to arouse a heightened state of experience. It quickens our perceptions as no other emotion can, forcing us to see and to act in the world in new and more interesting ways, with greater moral discrimination and a more acute consciousness of our surroundings and ourselves. According to Locke, fear is “an uneasiness of the mind” and “the chief, if not only spur to human industry and action is uneasiness.” Though we might think that men and women act on behalf of desire, Locke insisted that “a little burning felt”—like fear—”pushes us more powerfully than great pleasures in prospect draw or allure.” Burke had equally low regard for pleasure. It induces a grotesque implosion of self, a “soft tranquility” approximating an advanced state of decay if not death itself.

      “The head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are
      more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an
      inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and
      the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh;
      the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to
      the sides. All this is accompanied with an inward sense of
      melting and languor . . . relaxing the solids of the whole

      “But when we imagine the prospect of “pain and terror,” Burke added, we experience a “delightful horror,” the “strongest of all passions.” Without fear, we are passive; with it, we are roused to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Locke, 1959,11.20.6,10;11.21.34: 304-5, 334; Burke, 1990: 32, 36,123,135-36).

      “At the political level, modem theorists have argued that fear is a spur to civic vitality and moral renewal, perhaps even a source of public freedom. Writing in the wake of the French Revolution, Tocqueville bemoaned the lethargy of modem democracy. With its free-wheeling antimonianism and social mobility, democratic society “inevitably enervates
      the soul, and relaxing the springs of the will, prepares a people for bondage. Then not only will they let their freedom be taken from them, but often they actually hand it over themselves” (Tocqueville, 1969:444). Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king, Tocqueville believed that democracies might find a renew^ed confidence in the experience of fear, vk^hich could activate and ground a commitment to public freedom. “Fear,” he wrote in a note to himself, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty,” or, as he put it in Democracy in America, “Let us, then, look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep watch and ward for freedom, and not with that fiabby, idle terror which makes men’s hearts sink and enervates them” (cited in Lamberti, 1989: 229; Tocqueville, 1969: 702). Armed with fear, democracy would be fortified against not only external and domestic enemies but also the inner tendency, the native desire, to dissolve into the soupy indifference of which Burke spoke.”

      • I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.”

        What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.

        Burke apparently understood this well and applied it to politics. The moral imagination doesn’t just direct the mind, for it also constrains its focus and obscures the vision, while exciting the emotions.

        When Burke was discussing the French regicide, he probably was indirectly talking about the earlier English regicide. But that was too close to his English audience. The melodrama of the moral imagination could play out more easily and strongly with a foreign incident with which few English folk had direct and personal familiarity.

        I give Burke credit for his brilliance in recognizing that truth of human nature. But I simultaneously feel offended by what can seem like a cynical application of that knowledge. That said, a liberal or a leftist could and maybe should seek to learn from Burke’s depth of understanding, even if only as part of the development of what Chomsky calls intellectual self-defense.

    • Here is a concluding thought.

      I think Burke was right about some of his psychological and social insights about imagination, prejudice, supersition, fear, and other similar things. But I think he was morally wrong in thinking the ruling elite were justified in using these insights to keep the general public in the dark in order to manipulate them, something presentday authoritarian leaders and demagogues (or rather social dominance orientation types) have perfected—see the historical co-development of psychological research, propaganda, and advertising.

      To my mind, his fear of reason was unreasonable, and so was his admiration for unreason.

      Ignoring all of that, the most basic issue is balance and moderation. That is what most Burkeans seem to focus upon in their respect for Burke. To that extent, I too can find value. But do we need Burke to value balance and moderation?

      People were advocating for such values long before Burke. There is nothing inherently Burkean about those values, as they can be interpreted in diverse ways. Burke would not agree with many, probably most, of how those values have been applied since his time.

      Is there something unique about Burke’s worldview that is particularly of value beyond standard broad values? Or is it more that, at a key point in history, he gave voice to a tendency and so has become symbolic of it? If so, what is that tendency? Does it represent some kind of genuine ideology? Is it a psychological predisposition?

      I sense there are many threads that need untangling.

      • What is clear to me is that Burke did fall into reactionary positions at times. What isn’t clear to me is how dominant this was for his larger worldview and philosophy, as expressed in his politics and opinions across his entire life. The liberal defenders of Burke, such as yourself, seem to assume the reactionary elements can be ignored and that will leave much of value to take away. The good, in that case, can be separated from the bad.

        I generally admire that attitude. There are a number of of writers who I consider worthy, even though they may be idiots outside of their area of expertise, have politics I disagree with, or simply have annoying personalities. I’m able to, at least in some cases, to disentangle what is of value and focus on it. I don’t have to agree about everything, for that would be an unhelpful way of relating to the views of others.

        I’ll have to keep Burke in mind. I do see many potential dangers in his thinking. I just came across a book that made me think along these lines, about a sense of wariness. I’m wary for the precise reason I see Burke as having both strong liberal and strong reactionary tendencies. That can be a dangerous combination.

        Anyway, the book I came across is The Rhetoric of Reaction by Albert O. Hirschman. The author sought to analyze the reactionary rhetoric of conservatives. But in doing so he found that progressives would sometimes fall into the same reactionary traps of thinking.

        That fits into my own speculations. The difference between conservatives and liberals is a matter of degree. Reactionary views are problematic even for liberals, but it is most problematic for conservatives simply because they are more defined by it. To my mind, reactionary is the defining attribute of conservatives. Remove the reaction from the conservative and they would become liberals or something akin to liberals (liberal-minded of some kind). And if a liberal becomes stuck in reaction or it takes over too much of their mental space, they are then for all intents and purposes a conservative.

        The latter is what makes me worry about a liberal being drawn into the sphere of Burkean influence. I see Burke as having been lured into reactionary thought. It can happen to any liberal. Liberal flexibility of mind is a strength but also a weakness. I’ve seen too many liberals fall prey to reactionary thought. Even in its milder symptoms, conservative-minded liberals in large enough numbers will undermine the entire liberal movement for progress. Living in a region where this kind of liberalism is common, I feel particularly concerned.

        I’d love to take what is good from Burke. But we must handle Burkean thought like a bomb. It must be defused in order to take away what is of value in it.

      • I thought of a better simile. Burkean thought isn’t necessarily like a bomb, but like dynamite.

        With dynamite, one can mine for precious metals, build tunnels, and chisel away large faces on mountain sides as in Mount Rushmore. You can even use explosives to create beautiful firework displays. There is no end to what can be accomplished with such a tool. But dynamite can also be used to destroy, kill, and commit terrorism.

        That is what the moral imagination is like. I have immense respect for the power of imagination, in all of its forms and expressions. But by itself it is morally neutral or rather can serve any moral system. Moral imagination applies equally to monarchy and empire as to democracy and republicanism, as much to fascism and theocracy as to free markets and secularism. It is just the mental furniture out of which a society is built.

        As I was arguing, the danger is that liberalism is a broad category. Liberal rhetoric has been used even for reactionary and even authoritarian ends.

        You will find many liberal-minded and sometimes even progressive-minded people when you go looking through the blogosphere of right-wing libertarians, HBDers, and the Dark Enlightenment. Check out, for example, HBDers like hbdchick and JayMan. HBDers often praise Western civilization precisely for its liberalism, as they see that as what makes it unique and they see it as an expression of near genetic determinism, even as they deny the latter.

        The liberal moral imagination is covers vast territory. Not all of it is a pleasant place to visit.

  4. Burke has been caught in my craw. My mind has been revolving around this, some of my focus concerning moral imagination but much else besides. I was doing some web searches and wanted to share some of my finds. I don’t necessarily have clear opinions on much of it. As for now, it is just food for thought and this seems like a good place to put it.


    TO MY mind, one of the most compelling aspects of Robin’s book is that, by focusing on ideas rather than partisanship, he helps to cut through inherited distinctions of party labels. Unfortunately, Robin does not follow through on this when it comes to contemporary conservatism. This is because although The Reactionary Mind offers a sturdier and more meaningful guide to political differences than other exercises in ideological line-drawing, it only functions well in describing periods when the political struggle is well defined rather than chaotic and disarrayed. When the Left is weak and fractured, it will be equally unclear what a conservative is reacting against and thus what counts as conservative.

    Separating Left from Right, as Robin suggests, would require taking the same sharp intellectual scalpel to the current “Left” as he does to the Right and to separate the rotting flesh from the sturdy bones. For instance, in recent years, Burke has served as inspiration for ostensibly “left-wing” anti-imperialism, Heidegger as a springboard for “left-wing” critiques of technology, Carl Schmitt as a touchstone for a new “radical” theory of democratic politics. In addition, other, less heavily theorized segments of the Left proclaim serious doubts about progress, universality, and the value of human freedom. These are not sound ideological bases for the Left. Indeed, one hesitates to accept that they are left-wing views at all. These tendencies do just as much to suppress emancipatory energies as the cast of characters that make it into Robin’s book and at this point, there are plenty of reactionary minds on the so-called left, not just on the traditional right.

    One of the many lessons of Robin’s book is that what has made conservatism resilient is its willingness to learn from its enemies and to abandon rigid philosophical commitments when the to and fro of political battle requires it. But there is a deeper message in these pages. If he is right that conservatism runs on borrowed energy, then conservative strength measures the weakness of the real defenders of progress. In that thought lies, unexpectedly, a kernel of hope. Conservatives are not so omnipotent, and conservatism not nearly as hegemonic, as the Left sometimes thinks. The financial economy is not the only house of cards. If conservatives have been the “left’s best students,” Robin teaches the Left to become better students of the Right. It might learn a thing or two about its own power and possibility.


    ‘The mischievous ambiguity of the word poor’ – if there was a single theme dominating the discussion of poverty in the early nineteenth century, it was this. The phrase appeared in the Poor Law Report of 1834. But it had been anticipated almost forty years earlier by Edmund Burke when he objected to the ‘political canting language,’ the ‘puling jargon’ of the expression, ‘labouring poor.’ The issue was not semantic; it went to the heart of the conception of poverty and the image of the poor, of the ‘social problem’ as it was called, and of the social policies deemed appropriate to that problem.

    Burke’s objection was to the confusion of genres implied in ‘labouring poor,’ the confusion between those who worked for their subsistence and were properly known as ‘labouring people,’ and those who could not work and were dependent on charity or relief. It was for the latter, he insisted, that the word ‘poor’ should be reserved – ‘for the sick and infirm, for orphan infancy, for languishing and decrepit old age.’ The poor law reformers used other language to make the same point. By rigorously distinguishing, in theory and policy, between the ‘independent poor’ and the ‘dependent,’ between ‘labourers’ and ‘indigents’ or ‘paupers,’ they hoped to eliminate the ambiguity that had done so much mischief.

    Both of them appealed to tradition to support their distinctions. But tradition told against them. What they took to be an unfortunate ambiguity had been the accepted and perfectly acceptable reality for centuries. It had not been an ambiguity for medieval churchmen who made the giving of alms to the poor – labouring or otherwise, ‘holy’ or ‘unholy’ – a sacred Christian duty. Nor for the Elizabethan statesmen who devised the system of public, compulsory relief known as the ‘poor laws,’ which were meant to provide for all the poor, including, in certain situations and under certain conditions, the ‘able-bodied poor.’ Nor for the justices of peace who administered the ‘laws of settlement,’ which gave every legal resident of a parish a claim upon that parish for relief in case of need. Nor for the mercantilists who devised ingenious means by which to convert the ‘idle poor’ into the ‘industrious poor’ for the greater benefit of the nation. Nor for the early Methodists who based their social gospel on the dictum, ‘The poor are the Christians.’ Nor for the philanthropists who founded scores of societies and institutions to minister to every kind of misfortune that could befall the poor. Nor for the poor themselves who assumed that they had a right to ‘fair wages’ when they worked and to parish relief when they did not.


    Also, the challenge of Ireland and the oppression of the Irish Catholics taxes Burke’s moral imagination and his politics of prudence, perhaps most particularly in the last years of his life. It is here that we see that the affective dimension of our lives may be insufficient for correcting, amending, or transforming the harsh treatment of Catholics as official policy, a policy supported from Westminster. Burke is reluctant to join Pitt’s move for substantial reform of Parliament in Britain, but matters are different in Ireland where the vast majority of the population is disenfranchised. While Burke argues in the “Tracts” that the oppression of Catholics, as well as of Protestant dissenters, is a violation of natural law, he concludes that they lack “a fair dispensation of justice, both criminal and civil.”52 At the same time, the affective dimension does lead Catholics to seek the “protection” and “security” they lack, as their “legal right.” Burke continues by acknowledging that the Catholics ask for their “legal right” by way of a “practical sense of the evils they feel by being excluded from it.”53 In Ireland the affective dimension does not confirm an existing state of affairs, but signals the almost desperate need to institute substantial change, even though, as he advised his son Richard, Jr., in 1792, the change should be done “leisurely, by degrees, and portion by portion.” This judgment of “leisurely” gradual change, ultimately for Burke slides into despair by 1795-96 over such a prospect in the face of the stranglehold on Irish affairs by the Protestant ascendancy, and the acquiescence and even preservation by the British government.

    The challenge mushrooms though when change not only is not forthcoming, but also is stymied by the interest of an unjust “Protestant junta” rooted in a large expanse of time. While Frohnen rightly points to the vice of Jacobinism, as revolution became an increasing possibility in Ireland in 1795 in the face of the intransigency of the “Ascendancy,” Burke cited an understandable, if not fully justifiable, Jacobinism that inflames the dispossessed Irish Catholics resulting from an enforced pecuniary helplessness and by desperate circumstances. So extreme was the situation in Ireland in 1796 that Burke disavowed the Catholic Bishops’ call for the Irish Defenders to abandon their arms; instead Burke urged the Defenders to remain armed in the face of the further extenuating circumstances they were enduring.

    The point of this digression on Ireland is to realize that there is a challenge to a Burkean conservatism seen as an affirmation of time immemorial, without seeing in Ireland that Burke’s emphasis upon “time immemorial” has not been rescinded in the face of the oppression in Ireland; rather, consistent with his argument against the calculating economists empowered by the revolution, Burke finds that it is the same type of self-serving petty, hoarding, calculating officials running the Irish government that had supplanted the immemorial customs and traditions at the core of Irish life throughout the centuries.


    There is one other component of empathy. I’ve not yet said anything about imagination. This is important because we may need to empathise with people whom we have no direct contact. The historian Benedict Anderson, in his work on nationalism, famously referred to the modern nation-state as an imagined community. In our globalised world, with our ubiquitous digital technology, we live not merely in imagined communities but increasingly in virtual communities.

    When we think of empathy, we are often thinking of what has been called moral imagination – the power “that compels us to grant the highest possible reality and the largest conceivable claim to a thought, action or person that is not our own, and not close to us in any obvious way.” The first writer to invoke moral imagination was the conservative thinker Edmund Burke. Writing in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke lamented what he saw as the passing of an age of chivalry and the emergence of a more demotic temper. This new condition of democracy would dissolve all the pleasing and benevolent illusions of the ancient regime:

    “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 a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

    For Burke, moral imagination was all about concealing our defects and decorating our manners. It was about honour and duty; it was about noblesse oblige. Yet it was always conventional. The wardrobe of a moral imagination may furnish the decent drapery of life – but the ideas are habitual ones, ones that sit on the rack, ready to be worn. As one recent scholar has explained, “there is nothing original or individual about moral imagination on this view … the moral imagination simply offers wisdom without reflection.”

    Burke’s notion of moral imagination stands some distance from the kind implied in the concept of empathy. If there is anything to which empathy is directed, it does appear to be wisdom with reflection. Empathy is about experience rather than convention, about emotional authenticity rather than courtly decorum.

    Here, we may contrast Burke with Dewey, who regarded routine behaviour as the antithesis of thoughtful action. In Dewey’s view, the routine “accepts what has been customary as a full measure of possibility and omits to take into account the connections of the particular things done.” It says, in effect, “Let things continue just as I have found them in the past.” Conventional routine can be as much an obstacle to responsibility as an enabler of fellow feeling.

  9. Here is where Burke was a bit disconnected from the social reality of so many of his fellow Brittains and fellow humans.

    “In a letter to his son he makes reference to “the new fanatical religion . . . of the Rights of Man, which rejects all establishments, all discipline, all ecclesiastical, and in truth all civil order. . . .”[60] In the final analysis, Jacobinism emerges as a kind of nihilism, since it undermines “all discipline” and “all civil order” by undermining those elements which equip a healthy moral imagination. What most stands against Jacobinism, and for civil order, is “prejudice,” that is, those acquired predispositions which provide moral stability and serve as a counterweight to seductive revolutionary rhetoric.”

    Paine was also against the Jacobins. It is easy to forget that Paine sat on the opposite side of the Jacobins, to the right of them, from which comes our notion of the political ‘right’. Paine did more to fight the Jacobins than Burke ever did. In this regard, Burke’s rhetoric is empty.


    One can read these essays, I think, as an attempt to provide a genealogy or diagnosis of America’s failings since the end of the Cold War. You argue that this is partly a failure of “moral imagination”. So I wonder if you could explain exactly what you mean by “moral imagination”. It seems to me that this is partly the language of the Enlightenment—or at least that part of the Enlightenment that was most hospitable to the first intimations of Romanticism. I’m thinking, for instance, of the relationship between Kant and Coleridge—the way Coleridge took up the Kantian category of the imagination. Or the relationship between Kant and Jena Romanticism.

    If you want to take Coleridge, for instance, both the Romantic and Enlightenment burden of the parable of the Ancient Mariner is someone marooned, isolated, cut off from the moral community of all human beings, and who acquires some self-knowledge through the recognition that he has been capable of wounding something outside himself just by a random act that was an assertion of power—the killing of the albatross. There, all nature, not just human nature, is taken to be the thing that I ought to unite myself with.

    But the phrase “moral imagination” comes from Burke, from a passage in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. He’s talking about the “wardrobe” of moral imagination and it’s knowing, so to speak, how to use clothing from that wardrobe that allows us to know that the Queen of France ought not to be subjected to humiliation. I think the best sentence that I can find to define the moral imagination comes from Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry”, where he talks about what he calls “love”: “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.” It’s that identification of ourselves with something quite radically not our own that I take as definitive of the moral imagination—as opposed to what people now like to call empathy (I feel for you because you’re just like me and I’ve been there) or what I call energetic fantasy, the idea that you and yours, your people, are out to do good for the world and therefore ought to be supported. This sort of fantasy is, I think, deep in the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which has stolen on my country over the past twenty years with a grip that now baffles and disturbs me very much.

    There are stronger and weaker versions of that exceptionalism aren’t there? One of the interesting points you make is that, over the last twenty years, what happened to American exceptionalism was that “being exemplary”, as you put it, got confused with being “evangelical”. And that’s something new.

    Absolutely. There is a famous statement about the exemplary status that America might have in the world of moral conduct by Lincoln in his speech on the Dred-Scott case. There he says that the idea that all men should be created equal was meant by those who signed the Declaration of Independence as a standard maxim for a free society, which should be “constantly looked to,” “constantly laboured for” and “constantly approximated.” That’s the way Lincoln talks about it. It’s in that setting that he says the United States ought to be exemplary. Lincoln was an anti-imperialist. He made a big speech against the Mexican war of 1847.

    You find this in Martin Luther King as well. I quote in the book his great Riverside Church speech of April 1967, exactly a year before he was assassinated, which closes with a wonderful quotation from James Russell Lowell: “Once to every man and nation/Comes the moment to decide,/In the strife of truth and falsehood,/For the good or evil side.” There King is, so to speak, putting his hand on the bible of American patriotism, but saying that this means that we should be judged against our best ideals; that it’s those ideals we should try to live up to. But the standard use of exceptionalism now is from people who are American treating the United States as the “indispensable country,” as Madeleine Albright called us, the sole superpower. This has roots in the Protestant, Puritan exceptionalism of the 17th century. And I talk about that a little in the book. But in those cases, it had not yet acquired its full nationalist weight and import.

    1967 was, as you point out, the year that King became fully conscious of the disaster that was unfolding in Vietnam. There’s a passage you quote in which King recognizes the Vietnamese people as “our brothers”. And that’s connected with one of the principal themes of the book isn’t it? Moral imagination interests you because it’s the faculty that governs relations with strangers, precisely. In other words, it’s the cosmopolitan faculty.

    I think that’s right. There’s a line in Burke’s “Speech on Fox’s East India Bill”: “It is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” And that’s what King as doing and for which he was denounced—not only by the liberal establishment (the New York Times, the Washington Post etc), but also by the civil rights establishment at the time. He was thought to be deserting his proper cause, which was equality for blacks in the United States. King was extremely sensitive to the fact that there was a disproportionate sacrifice by black soldiers in the army in Vietnam, but he didn’t pretend to weigh that most heavily in this remarkable speech. What counted most for him was the suffering of the Vietnamese under those bombing sorties, napalm, defoliation and all the rest. And that makes the speech for me one of the most remarkable gestures of all-round humanity that has ever come from an American.

  11. Here is what has drawn so many to Burke over the centuries, both admirers and critics. His mind was caught up in imagination. It was his god that he subordinated himself to. And he was a brilliant student of imagination’s force.

    Burke was simultaneously fascinated and entrapped by his own imaginings. From a critic’s perspective, as Paine put it, Burke had corrupted himself, which is just to say that he tended to get caught up in his own rhetoric and lacked a larger perspective beyond what he was capable of imagining.

    So, Burke was right on one point. The imagination is powerful and holds societies together. What he didn’t understand is that it holds together all societies, whether democratic or authoritarian, whether reactionary or revolutionary.

    The French understood their own shared imagination just fine with their own prejudices and traditions (Napoleon Bonaparte seemed to have understood such things better than the likes of Burke), but it wasn’t the British imagination, not the British mental wardrobe of beliefs and biases. Burke was wrong to think that his personal British imaginings were the defining principle of all human imagination.

    He was at times unable to see outside the window, for he was too often enamored with the window dressings.

    “If we look below these ideas of prejudice and privilege, time and subordination, for their one animating principle, we shall find it, I think, in the dominance of the faculty of the imagination. Nor did this imaginative substructure lying beneath all of Burke’s writings and speeches, from the early essay on the Sublime and Beautiful to his latest outpourings on the French Revolution, escape the animadversion of his enemies. Tom Paine made good use of this trait in The Rights of Man, which he issued as an answer to the Reflections. “The age of chivalry is gone,” Burke had exclaimed at the close of his famous tirade on the fall of Marie Antoinette. “Now all is changed. 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 …. ” To this Paine retorted with terrible incision. Ridiculing the lamentation over the French Queen as a mere sentimental rhapsody, he catches up Burke’s very words with malign cunning: “Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection, that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he has been to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

    “Now there is an element of truth in Paine’s charge, but there is distortion also. To say that Burke had no thought for the oppressed and the miserable is a wanton slander, disproved by abundant passages in the very Reflections and by his whole career. “If it should come to the last extremity,” he had once avowed in Parliament, with no fear of contradiction, “and to a contest of blood, God forbid! God forbid!–my part is taken; I would take my fate with the poor, and low, and feeble.” But it is the fact nevertheless, construe it how one will, that in the ordinary course of things Burke’s ideas of government were moulded and his sentiment towards life was coloured by the vivid industry of his imagination, and that he thought the world at large controlled by the same power. I doubt if analysis can reach a deeper distinction between the whole class of minds to which Burke belongs and that to which Paine belongs than is afforded by this difference in the range and texture of the imagination.

    “And in this Burke had with him the instinct of his people, while in a way transcending it; for a good deal of what we regard as the British character depends on just the excess of imagination over a rather dull sensibility and sluggish intelligence. This, if we look into it, is what Bagehot signalized as the saving dulness of England and what Walpole meant by attributing to “the good sense [note the contrast of sense and sensibility] of the English that they have not painted better.” It was this same quality that inspired Burke’s great comparison of the French excitability with the British stolidity: “Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.” In its higher working, when sensibility and intelligence are also magnified, the imagination, no doubt, is the source of the loftier English poetry and eloquence, but in the lower range, which we are now considering, it is rather a slow, yet powerful and endearing, visualization of what is known and familiar; it is the beginning of that prejudice for existing circumstances and actual relations which Burke exalted as the mother of content. And with content it produces a kind of egotistic satisfaction in the pomps and privileges which pass before the eye, giving to the humble a participation in things wherein they have no material share. In the baser nature this evokes a trait which we condemn as snobbishness; in the higher it results in a fine magnanimity: “He feels no ennobling principle in his own heart, who wishes to level all the artificial institutions which have been adopted for giving a body to opinion and permanence to fugitive esteem. It is a sour, malignant, envious disposition, without taste for the reality, or for any image or representation of virtue, that sees with joy the unmerited fall of what had long flourished in splendour and in honour.” Thus, too, the imagination is an accomplice of time as well as of the law of subordination; indeed, its deepest and noblest function lies in its power of carrying what was once seen and known as a living portion and factor of the present, and there is no surer test of the quality of a man’s mind than the degree in which he feels the long-remembered past as one of the vital and immediate laws of his being. So it is that the imagination is the chief creator and sustainer of the great memorial institutions of society, such as the Crown and the Church and the other pageantries of State, which are the very embodiment of prescription, as it were the soul of tradition taking form and awful authority among the living. How deeply Burke felt this prescriptive right of the imagination no one need be told; nor is it necessary to quote the familiar passages in which he likens the British monarchy, with its bulwark of nobility, to “the proud keep of Windsor, rising in the majesty of proportion, and girt with the double belt of its kindred and coeval towers,” or calls on the Church to “exalt her mitred front in courts and parliaments.” There is the true Burke; he knew, as Paine knew, that the support of these institutions was in their symbolic sway over the imaginations of men, and that, with this defence undermined, they would crumble away beneath the aggressive passions of the present, or would remain as mere bloodless vanities. He thought that the real value of life was in its meaning to the imagination, and he was not ashamed to avow that the fall and tragedy of kings, because they bore in their person the destiny of ancient institutions, stirred him more profoundly than the sufferings of ordinary men.

    “It is perfectly easy for a keen and narrow intelligence to ridicule Burke’s trust in the imagination, but as a matter of fact there is nothing more practical than a clear recognition of its vast domain in human affairs–it was Napoleon Bonaparte who said that “imagination rules the world.” Burke is not dead; his pages are an inexhaustible storehouse of inspiration and wisdom. But it is true nevertheless, that his ideas never quite freed themselves from their matrix, and that in his arguments the essential is involved in the contingent. Though he saw dearly enough the imperfections of the actual union of a prescriptive and a natural aristocracy, he was not able, with all his insight, to conceive the existence of the latter alone and by virtue of its own rights. He cried out that the age of chivalry was gone; he saw that the age of prescription, however it might be propped up for a time, was also doomed, not only in France but in his England as well, and with that away there was nothing for his imagination but an utter blank. As a consequence the problem of government for us to-day in its fundamental aspects is really closer to the exposition of the Greek philosopher two thousand years ago than to that of the modern English statesman. We have the naked question to answer: How shall a society, newly shaking itself free from a disguised plutocratic regime, be guided to suffer the persuasion of a natural aristocracy which has none of the insignia of an old prescription to impose its authority? Shall the true justice prevail, which by a right discrimination would confer power and influence in accordance with inner distinction; or shall that so-called justice prevail–for no man acknowledges open injustice — which recommends itself as equality of opportunity, but in practice, by confusing the distinctions of age, sex, and character, comes at last to the brutal doctrine that might makes right, whether that might be the material strength of money or the jealous tyranny of numbers?”


    In her earlier Vindications of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft had picked up on this passage in Burke to question the sincerity of his feelings and attack him for allowing his emotional reactions to the Revolution to cloud his reason. She points out that despite his protestations about the horrors of this political drama, he is not a naive viewer:

    You have been behind the curtain, and, though it might be difficult to bring back your sophisticated heart to nature and make you fell like a man, yet the awestruck confusion
    in which you were plunged must have gone off when the vulgar emotion of wonder, excited by finding yourself a Senator, had subsided. Then you must have seen the clogged wheels of corruption continually oiled by the sweat of the laborious poor, squeezed out of them by unceasing taxation. (Vindications of the Rights of Men 43-44)

    For Wollstonecraft, this feigned shock at naked revolution by one who has already peeked behind the curtain of governmental power is hypocritical. But even more significant, Wollestonecraft accuses Burke of the same the type of emotionalism that he and Rousseau attribute to females. In thus callingattention to Burke’s ‘hysteria’ over political events, Wollstonecraft undercuts both the privileging of Burke’s position and the dramatic basis of his rhetoric

  13. This will help explain the hypocrisy of Burke.

    The first is a passage from a book I’ve been reading. It shows Burke’s attitude toward the lower classes. And it puts it into the context of the times.

    The second clearly demonstrates the double standard to which he held the lower classes. He would never apply that same standard to himself or to anyone else in the middle and upper classes.

    As such, we can judge Burke on the basis of failing his own moral imagination. It may have been prejudice that inspired his view of the world, but it is far from being obviously moral, at least by today’s standards.

    The Rhetoric of Reaction
    by Albert O. Hirschman
    pp. 20-21

    “Because of the frequent outbursts of civil strife of one kind or another in recent history, it is widely assumed that a close relation exists between such outbursts and the strength with which conflicting beliefs are held by opposing groups of the citizenry. Since a long, bloody civil war was fought in the United States over the slavery issue, everyone is convinced that the division of opinion over that issue was sharp and deep. Inversely, inasmuch as the extension of the franchise in Western Europe in the course of the nineteenth century was achieved in a fairly gradual and peaceful manner, the temptation is to think that opposition to that process was not particularly strenuous. Nothing could be farther from the truth. After all, Europe had long been a highly stratified society with the lower classes being held in the utmost contempt by both the upper and the middle classes. It must be recalled, for example, that an enlightened and not particularly aristocratic person like Burke wrote, in the Reflections: “The occupation of a hairdresser, or of a working tallow chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person … to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments … The state suffers oppression if such as they … are permitted to rule.” Later he comments in passing on the “innumerable servile, degrading, unseemly, unmanly, and often most unwholesome and pestiferous occupations to which by the social economy so many wretches are inevitably doomed.” 7

    “Such remarks, made in an offhand manner, suggest that Burke’s primary emotion toward the “lower orders” was not so much class antagonism and fear of revolt as utter contempt and feelings of total separateness, even of outright physical revulsion, much as in caste societies. This mood carried over into the nineteenth century and could only have been enhanced by the cityward migration of impoverished rural folk that came with industrialization. Shortly it was compounded with fear as Burke’s “wretches” took to staging violent political outbreaks, particularly in the 1840s.”

    “Some day someone should write an essay on the struggles of Edmund Burke in his final years to overcome his considerable debts—some £30,000—by securing a peerage and a pension from the Crown.

    “Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

    “So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he told a friend.

    “Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, in August 1795 Burke secured from Pitt two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

    “Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.””

  14. Burke’s moral imagination couldn’t even include the reality of British commoners. The French revolutionaries, both commoner and upper crust, were simply beyond his imagining other than as terrifying boogeymen. As for Africans and Native Americans, they were incomprehensible altogether. He barely could imagine that they possessed normal humanity, that they too had societies built on moral imagination.

    The Science of Sensibility: Reading Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry
    edited by Koen Vermeir, Michael Funk Deckard
    pp. 217-218

    “By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest the central role played by organized religion and the nobility, and therefore of the aesthetic principles of the sublime and the beautiful that they embodied, for Burke’s analyses of the politics of empire in America, India, and Ireland. While I cannot develop these arguments at length here, I have recently begun to do so elsewhere. In each of these cases, Burke’s approach to defending the British imperial project was tightly tied to his assessment of the degree to which the geographical locales in question were in possession of organised religion and governed by a noble, ‘natural aristocracy,’ and were therefore ‘a people’ in the appropriate sense of that term; that is, a sharply stratified hierarchy of ranks guaranteed by the necessary level of ‘habitual social discipline.’

    “In the New World, as we have seen, Burke was quite clear that the Native Americans lacked a recognisable organized religion, and suffered from an undue excess of liberty and equality. Consequently, in the absence of church and nobility, of either sublime or the beautiful, they remained rudimentary ‘savages’ within the civilizing process. As such, Burke fought mightily to keep the American colonies within the British Empire, with the important goal of using them to civilize the Indian ‘savages.’ After the Americans declared independence in 1776, Burke lamented this split in his Address to the Colonists (1777), and expressed sorrow that some in the British government had subsequently sought to foment insurrection among the African slaves and Native Americans, attempting to turn them against the colonists. He expressed that sentiment thusly:

    “We likewise saw with shame the African slaves, who had been sold to you on public faith, and under sanction of acts of Parliament, to be your servants and your guards, employed to cut the throats of their masters. You will not, we trust, believe, that born in a civilized country, formed to gentle manners, trained in a merciful religion . . . we could have thought of letting loose upon you, our late beloved Brethren, these fierce tribes of Savages and Cannibals, in whom the traces of human nature are effaced by ignorance and barbarity. We rather wished to have joined with you, in bringing gradually that unhappy part of mankind into civility, order, piety, and virtuous discipline, than to have confirmed their evil habits, and increased their natural ferocity, by fleshing them in the slaughter of you, whom our wiser and better ancestors had sent into the Wilderness, with the express view of introducing, along with our holy religion, its humane and charitable manners. 95

    “Alas, Burke’s political dream of keeping the British Empire intact, with its mission of civilizing the slaves and savages, evaporated with the American Revolution.”


    “This kind of the eighteenth-century social imaginary, tied to ontological dualism and built on the ideal of mental independence from the bodily life, is rarely noticed today. It can provide an alternative interpretive framework for reading the “sociological” discourse of the period, for instance, the conservatism of Edmund Burke, who famously defended against the onslaught of revolutionary radicalism and rationalism “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.” It is these illusions and ideas of “the moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies,” that rise as a superstructure over our animal existence and “cover the defects of our naked shivering nature.” Without them, in Burke’s view, power can be founded only on physical force; it can speak only to the tangible material interest or fear, and relies on the basic physical terror and such instruments as murder and confiscation. Burke’s condemnation of the rationalism of the French Revolution can be read as an excellent manifestation of the social and political imaginary that hinges on human feeling, on the sentiments and affections that permeate “private society.” But the causal links between human feeling and social existence are complicated. On the one hand Burke complains that, “[o]n the principles of this mechanistic philosophy” of rationalism and universal equality, “our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment.” Social attachments and “public affections” are essentially personal in nature, they take place between, or towards, particular people. On the other hand, particular people become objects of such attachment and affection as social creatures, social personas. When we are considered outside of our specifically social existence and abstractly stripped down to our elementary “natural” condition, our moral significance as subjects seems to recede, and our animal nature comes conspicuously into view. On the “scheme of things” proclaimed, according to Burke, by the apologists of the French Revolution, “a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order.” In the state of “natural” equality, the murder of a king, queen, bishop, or father is nothing but a common homicide, which in itself is pardonable if practically advantageous. Without social (and, note, familial) position, humanity itself dwindles away, becomes too weak to rise above the animal nature even in our own estimation. We are attached to other human beings, we naturally feel affection towards them, but our attachment is social, and our affection and respect towards men is an artifact of our social nature.699

    “Society certainly is a contract, notes Burke, but not one concerning “things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.” Rather, it is “a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection,” in science, in art, and in other achievements of the human mind. It is not a temporary and practical union of convenience. It unites human beings of all generations – dead, living, and yet unborn – and, one might conclude, is an essential characteristic of the specifically human nature. It integrates the temporal and the eternal in us into a coherent order mandated by Providence, or rather integrates the temporal into the eternal, because order belongs to the realm of the eternal: “Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval 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.”700”

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