From his earliest writings to the end of his days, Edmund Burke was attentive to the question of the ultimate intelligibility of the human condition, especially in relation to the foundations of law and political community. In an unpublished essay written in his twenties on “Philosophy and Learning,” for instance, he mused, “Perhaps the bottom of most things is unintelligible; and our surest reasoning, when we come to a certain point, is involved not only in obscurity but contradiction.”
Yet he was no skeptic about the existence of moral order. In the opening speech of the Warren Hastings impeachment, he would declare that “We are all born in subjection, all born equally, high and low, governors and governed, in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existent law . . . by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we cannot stir.” Burke’s greatest contributions to political thought come from this tension between mankind’s transcendent moral context and a man’s inevitably limited and historical existence.
Burke’s views on this question of ultimate intelligibility manifested—on matters of religion—in a defense of revealed and established religion against the teachings of “natural” religion, which held that all we could know of God comes from reason alone, and that revelation, if valid at all, must always be made to conform with reason. In politics, it manifested in what would come to be thought of as his conservatism—a belief that the moral order of the universe is primarily discerned through real, established institutions and traditions, rather than through speculative philosophy to which such institutions must answer.
All these themes converged in Burke’s first major publication, A Vindication of Natural Society, a handsome edition of which was put out by Liberty Fund in 1982, edited by Frank Pagano. The Vindication is a satirical work taking aim at the advocates of natural religion—especially Lord Bolingbroke—and designed to show, as Burke said in the preface to the second edition, that “the same Engines which were employed for the Destruction of Religion, might be employed with equal Success for the Subversion of Government; and that specious Arguments might be used against those Things which they, who doubt of every thing else, will never permit to be questioned.”
Our reason—and especially our sense of justice—can present to our minds pleasing images of what man could be (and of what God could be), and then proceed to assault man’s actual state (or the God of revealed religion) for its failure to meet our expectations of purity, consistency, or philosophic coherence. Dangerously, such arguments, even when not fully convincing, are pleasing, in that they draw us along by the pleasure we take from debunking (or at least seeming to debunk) what once was revered. “This,” he says, “is a Fairy Land of Philosophy” that—by building new worlds in our minds—distracts us from the moral obligation to preserve and improve the world in which we live.
The work takes the form of a letter from “a late Noble Writer” to a “Young Lord.” (The Noble Writer is modeled roughly on Bolingbroke, but is not meant to be a straightforward caricature. He utilizes the argumentative style of Bolingbroke’s critique of established religion to formulate political arguments of which Bolingbroke would not have approved.) The letter is a continuation of a previous conversation between the two in which they “laid open the Foundations of Society” but which the Young Lord cut off, fearing that what they may uncover would undermine all sources of social order.
The Noble Writer accordingly pushes the Young Lord to follow the argument wherever it may lead, regardless of the consequences. Truth, after all, can only be found out by reason, not by examining consequences. He proceeds to present a lengthy demonstration of the evils that “artificial,” “political” society has perpetrated—violence, war, death, and oppression (an argument, one cannot help noticing, that relies mostly on consequences). In the style of Bolingbroke, his account sweeps across the globe and through history in a way that gives the impression of great erudition. He also attempts to buttress his assessment with the iron proof of statistics (though they turn out to be no more than wild guesses). The presentation puts one in mind of a particular type of social media post we often see today: a clever looking graphic with (usually unsourced) statistics, presented as if it settles some contentious issue beyond any doubt—often paired with a self-satisfied comment like “let that sink in.”
The Noble Writer then turns to domestic politics, again relying on broad generalizations backed by specious examples, showing that all regimes, even the vaunted mixed constitution, are nothing more than despotism, and law nothing more than extravagant dissimulation that allows the rich to dazzle the poor while robbing them.
He concludes by presenting his position as the simple voice of natural reason, which would merely show us how to satisfy our basic needs and instincts. It is able to see through the illusions of the modern world designed to convince us that we need things like courts and legislatures: “The Abetors of artificial Society,” he says,
form their Plans upon what seems most eligible to their Imaginations, for the ordering of Mankind. I discover the Mistakes in those Plans, from the real known Consequences which have resulted from them. They have enlisted Reason to fight against itself, and employ its whole Force to prove that it is an insufficient Guide to them in the Conduct of their Lives.
Political and religious establishments, it is assumed, are the product of human contrivance springing from a desire to attain more than what is actually good for us. By recovering natural reason, we can see the errors of these systems under which we live. Notably missing from this contrast is the form Burke’s political analysis would take later in his career: finding and explaining the latent wisdom of the institutions that have developed in response to the needs of communal life.
The Error of Nature
The Noble Writer’s flaws are brought out most explicitly in his discussion of this human nature to which he appeals. His entire discourse hinges on the idea that he would return us to “natural” society. Yet he seems uncomfortable even with nature itself. He observes that man appears to have an incurable drive to constantly seek more, inventing new desires through the “Rovings of our Minds.” As he surveys this tendency, he remarks that “I have sometimes been in a good deal more than Doubt, whether the Creator did ever really intend Man for a State of Happiness. He has mixed in his Cup a Number of natural Evils.” (So though the letter’s subtitle promises to demonstrate the “Evils” of “Artificial Society,” the first use of the word evil actually describes nature!) Burke is presenting to the reader a picture of a mind that does not believe in the Fall puzzling over the results of the Fall. The deist inevitably spends his life asking incredulously, “Why has thou made me thus?”
More importantly, these comments on “the great Error of our Nature”—our desire for more—raise broader questions about the Noble Writer’s project, for they reveal that human nature is a complicated thing, though his approach demands simplicity. In order to move past his doubts and continue to make his case, he identifies natural society not with this “error” (despite its being part of our nature), but with the ability to overcome it—a society “founded in natural Appetites and Instincts” (except for that bad one, of course) generally reflecting Rousseau’s animalistic state of nature.
The ultimate irony, then, is that the “natural” man and “natural” society that the Noble Writer describes are, even by his own account, not fully natural at all, but a contrivance of the author’s “roving mind”: the kind of creature he has determined we should be and could be if only we would suppress a certain element of our nature and embrace another one.
One of the more humorous passages of the work is worth considering in this light. In showing that the long history of human violence cannot simply be attributed to human nature, but actually results from the establishment of government, the Writer offers a less-than-convincing proof: “It is an incontestable Truth, that there is more Havock made in one Year by Men, of Men, than has been made by all the Lions, Tygers, Panthers, Ounces, Leopards, Hyenas, Rhinoceroses, Elephants, Bears, and Wolves, upon their several Species, since the Beginning of the World.” (The comically long list of animals makes one wonder if there is a reader who would be unconvinced by the comparison to lions and tigers, but eventually comes around when you add in the Rhinos.)
But the ridiculousness of the comparison brings to the reader’s attention something that has been running under the surface the whole time. His constant insistence that we are merely going back to a more peaceful and satisfying human nature has obscured just how radically the Noble Writer is distorting our baseline expectations. Would we rather live the life of the Rhinoceros than that of the 18th-century Briton, living under law and worshiping God under the forms that had been preserved for centuries? In his Philosophical Inquiry, written a year later, Burke would call custom, habits, and tradition a kind of “second nature” which refines and elevates the human animal to what we actually are. But rather than take our bearings from what we can observe human beings to be—creatures capable of greater destruction, yes, but also social and religious animals of much higher attainment than beasts—the Noble Writer has created in his own mind a man that does not exist, but that he thinks should.
We are struck, then, with just how easy it is to critique reality to death if we are inclined to do so, and just how easy it is to pretend that there is some viable alternative just around the corner. This ease Burke called in the preface “a sort of Gloss upon ingenious Falsehoods, that dazzles the Imagination, but which neither belongs to, nor becomes the sober Aspect of Truth.”
Indeed, Burke constructed the Noble Writer’s arguments in a way that they often seem plausible enough to carry the reader along for a page or two before throwing in the more ridiculous parts, alerting him to how he has been duped. Real arguments, which are generally a bit stronger than the ones made by the Noble Writer (but are still poor), can have an even more powerful effect.
Reason and the Law
The kind of political leveling the Noble Writer promotes was not Burke’s primary target in 1756, but rather a result he takes to be patently ridiculous, serving to discredit the parallel religious argument. It is hard to read the Vindication without thinking primarily of politics, though, not only because it is the Noble Writer’s topic, but also because Burke would later confront the previously ridiculed political position head-on. Some political observations, therefore, are justified.
In an article written around the same time he edited the Liberty Fund edition of Vindication, Pagano describes the work as an attack on political theory in favor of political practice. This seems correct, at least insofar as we have in mind a political theory that conceives of itself as separate from and above political practice—one that would demand a politics that answers to theory.
Richard Bourke stresses in his treatment that, in addition to revealing Burke’s interest in the debate between “freethinkers” and the Church of England, Vindication reflects the lessons he learned from reading law at Middle Temple a few years earlier. The corpus of law was more reasonable than the conclusions reached by the philosopher who prides himself on his removal from common life, for the law was “contextual, incremental, evolving and empirical”—emerging gradually and cautiously from the reality of human life. The Noble Writer thought he was imparting wisdom gleaned from the actual experience of man, but in reality, he was constructing a new world from his own mind. But in law and tradition, we have a source of knowledge that actually springs from that experience.
Burke saw that, far from being capable of grounding politics, reason itself needed to be grounded in the experience of mankind. Abstract musing about the ultimate good of man and the laws that would seem best to attain it substitutes the reason of individuals for “the collected reason of ages” (Burke’s description of jurisprudence in Reflections)—or for the often unfathomable reason of the Almighty. In this sense, the Enlightenment promise to make the world Reasonable was actually a narrowing of reason—one that lowered the world to meet our mind’s fallen capabilities.
The detachment of Enlightenment reason—which would sweep away the cobwebs of both politics and religion—also made it destructive: The claim to understand all things, separate and apart from the world in which we actually live, is a claim to command and refashion that world.
This didn’t mean there was no place for reason in human life. Burke criticized the tendency to rely too absolutely on established ways and on law nearly two decades later in his “Speech on American Taxation,” where he gently chided the late George Grenville: “He was bred in the law, which is, in my opinion, one of the first and noblest of human sciences; a science which does more to quicken and invigorate the understanding, than all the other kinds of learning put together; but it is not apt, except in persons very happily born, to open and to liberalize the mind exactly in the same proportion.”
In the colonial crisis, Grenville’s legalism had prevented him from seeing the prudential question that accompanied the legal question of who possessed legislative authority over Americans’ internal affairs. Burke saw the need for the statesman and lawmaker to look beyond legal answers when some unique circumstance impressed upon him the necessity of doing so. Since this wisdom was “collected” over “ages,” it did not necessarily speak directly and clearly to every circumstance. There were times, in other words, when the law should change. But the statesman and legislator did not approach such situations like the Noble Writer—with only his own cleverness. Rather, he went beyond the customary and legal only with “a Sense of his own Weakness,” holding as close to the established ways as is practicable and making necessary reforms in a manner consistent with the broader social edifice.
For “when we must go out of the Sphere of our ordinary Ideas,” Burke cautions in the Vindication’s preface, “we can never walk sure but by being sensible of our Blindness.”
A Better Guide than Reason
The “Philosophy and Learning” essay was probably written around the same time or shortly before Burke was preparing the Vindication. There, he wrote,
A man who considers his nature rightly will be diffident of any reasonings that carry him out of the ordinary roads of Life; Custom is to be regarded with great deference especially if it be an universal Custom; even popular notions are not always to be laughed at. There is some general principle operating to produce Customs, that is a more sure guide than our Theories.
What he says of funeral ceremonies might reasonably be applied to his understanding of custom broadly understood as the established ways of acting: it often “throw[s] a decent Veil over the weak and dishonourable circumstances of our Nature. What shall we say to that philosophy, that would strip it naked?” This imagery, which he would use again in Reflections, is a nice contrast with the Noble Writer’s incredulity about fallen man. He sought to find the passage back to Eden. Burke gratefully accepts the coat of skins which covers and softens our imperfection.
Perhaps the most ironic passage of the whole Vindication is the first sentence: “Shall I venture to say, my Lord,” the Noble Writer opens his letter to the Young Lord, “that in our late Conversation, you were inclined to the Party which you adopted rather by the Feelings of your good Nature, than by the Conviction of your Judgment?” (emphasis added). The letter was written to convince the Young Lord to give up his child-like reverence for the society and laws around him in favor of nature. But as the Noble Writer inadvertently suggests from the very beginning, that instinctive attachment is more natural than anything dreamt of in his philosophy.