At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Conservatism’s “Patron Saint,” Edmund Burke, and the GOP

posted by Jack Kerwick

As the members of America’s “conservative” party struggle to get a hold of themselves following this past election, they should revisit—or visit—the thought of modern conservatism’s “patron saint,” Edmund Burke.  

If anything distinguishes conservatism from other brands of political thought it is its affirmation of tradition.  This Burke makes clear.  This attachment to tradition, in turn, is inseparable from its disavowal of “metaphysical abstraction.”  Radicals of all types think that they can surmount their cultural traditions—their civilization—by bringing them before the tribunal of their own intellects.  Burke is having none of it.

“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason,” Burke famously wrote, for “we suspect that this stock in each man is small [.]”  Human reason, far from preceding tradition, is actually dependent upon it. Thus, rather than rely upon their own reason, individuals “would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages”—i.e. tradition.  

This lofty conception of Reason for which radicals are known—F.A. Hayek called it “the fatal conceit”—gives rise to a morality of ideals or principles.  For example, the radicals of the French Revolution upon whom Burke set his sights touted the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.  Radicals in other times and places have centered their attention on Human Rights, say, or Virtue, Piety, Democracy, and the Will of the People. 

There is nothing wrong with ideals and principles as such.  The problem sets in when they are treated as if they were timeless and self-evident truths that can be effortlessly grasped by people everywhere.  It is when we ignore the fact that these ideals and principles are meaningful only within the context of the specific traditions within which they developed that trouble promises to ensue.   

As Burke says, we must guard against “the metaphysic sophistry” and “delusive plausibilities” of radicals who would divest our ideals of “every relation” so that they are left standing “in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.”  We must take care to remember that it is “circumstances” that “render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

Those who follow a morality of ideals aspire to be something like “citizens of the world.”  Those who recognize that morality is rooted in tradition, however, know that “charity starts at home,” as we say.  They recognize, in other words, that it is our families, churches, and local communities—our “little platoons,” Burke called them—that make us into the moral beings that we are.

Given that the family is the quintessential “little platoon,” it is with the imagery of the family that Burke chose to drape the relationship between the citizen and his state.  The English, he wrote, “claim and assert our liberties,” not as deductions from abstract principles, but “as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity [.]”  

Burke explains that in giving to “our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood,” the idea of an inheritance conjoins “the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties” while “adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections [.]”

The turn from a morality of ideals toward a traditional morality that Burke urged has been heeded by many a conservative.  The same, unfortunately, can not be said of Republicans.  Neither do they seem to share his skepticism of Reason.

But if the members of America’s “conservative” party did listen to Burke, maybe they would realize a few things.

First, because the best intentions of even the brightest of folks often have wildly unpredictable consequences, top-down societal schemes for which Big Government is known must be resisted at every turn.

Translation: a genuinely federal, or constitutional, government of the sort mapped out by the Founders must be the goal for which every conservative works.

Second, national defense is one thing.  International crusades or wars for Freedom or Democracy or any other ideal are something else entirely.  Every conservative must recognize them for the utopian, and inevitably destructive, fantasies that they are.   

Third, massive third-world immigration of the kind that America has been promoting for nearly a half-of-a-century conservatives must strive to end.  The morality embodied by our institutions generally, and our constitutional institutions particularly, is culturally-specific.  That is, it is Eurocentric.  The vast majority of today’s immigrants are strangers to Western moral norms, when they aren’t outright hostile toward them.  And in any event, not only are there no institutional arrangements in place to encourage them to become literate in our ways.   The spirit of our times encourages non-Western immigrants to resist assimilation.

Familiarity with Burke is necessary if the members of our conservative party are going to start acting like conservatives.      

 

  

 

 

 

 

 



Previous Posts

Political Correctness and Ebola
That there is a sensationalistic dimension to the Ebola coverage is something of which I have no doubt. Sensationalizing events is what the media does best. There may even be a sense in which it can be said that sensationalism is intrinsic to mass media.  Sensationalism serves the interests of t

posted 10:26:30pm Oct. 16, 2014 | read full post »

Capital Punishment Revisited
For a discussion of capital punishment, with no thinker is there a better place to begin than Ernest van den Haag. It is with justice that the latter’s seminal analysis of this topic is a staple of textbooks in college ethics courses nationwide: the author addresses the thicket of issues that are

posted 9:11:40am Oct. 14, 2014 | read full post »

Abortion Reconsidered III
Dan Marquis contends that except in “rare cases,” abortion is immoral, and it is immoral, he further argues, because the fetus has a “FLO”—a “future like ours.” Before arguing that abortion is wrong, Marquis first attempts to show what makes killing in general wrong. Killing is wron

posted 6:30:13pm Oct. 12, 2014 | read full post »

The Left, Columbus, and Why This Day is Still Worth Celebrating
Few holidays are as “politically incorrect” as is the day that Americans reserve to commemorate the birthday of Christopher Columbus. Such is the ferocity of the smear campaign to which Columbus has been subjected for decades that he has been made into a villain among villains in the rogues’ g

posted 6:11:01pm Oct. 12, 2014 | read full post »

Abortion Reconsidered II
John T. Noonan, a Catholic jurist whose work on abortion regularly features in ethics textbooks, contends that the traditional definition of a human being remains rationally superior to its competitors. A human being, Noonan insists, is anyone who has been conceived by human parents. The most com

posted 10:13:20pm Oct. 01, 2014 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.