Edmund Burke's Perennial Liberty

Books reviewed in this essay:

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin. Oxford University Press.

The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk, by André Gushurst-Moore. Angelico Press.

The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give It Back, by David Willetts. Atlantic Books.

Amidst the recurring question of whether Edmund Burke is relevant to contemporary politics, we are presented with three volumes that approach this vital issue in different ways, and with varying levels of scholarly and popular perceptiveness. All the books under review attempt to connect the witness and insights of the great statesman to ongoing conflicts in society and politics. Perhaps the disparate assessments of Burke alone could suggest the resiliency of his legacy; however, the importance of Burke the political theorist dictates a closer examination of these critical works.

The Reactionary MindCorey Robin’s ambitious effort to reassess the historical development of conservatism is the most unsatisfactory of the books under review. Rather than offering an integrated study of conservatism as one would anticipate, the collection possesses eleven previously published essays, a disconnected introductory essay, and an overly succinct conclusion. Robin has a solitary goal: to dismiss conservatism and conservative thinkers as models of political thought, a mission that fails due to his ideological bias and lack of scholarly circumspection (p. 34). However, Robin excels as a prooftexter of a wide and interesting variety of tomes. In this enterprise, Robin provides a mélange of conservative views, always without appropriate academic synthesis and clarity of thought.

Against the Burkean idea of prejudice as constituting philosophical discernment, Robin’s book is a statement of contemporary prejudice, or the inability to engage in the pursuit of higher criticism or philosophical exposition. In other words, Robin fails to adequately access the conservatism tradition. Stylistically, Robin’s prose often regresses into the use of colloquial language, frequently using the first person pronoun “I” to denote his alleged ability to discover the hidden tenets of contemporary conservative thought that were apparently not available to other observers. More generally, the text is often repetitive and misleading.

At the heart of the book is an attempt to define conservatism as political resistance to the “challenge from below,” the purported disenfranchised mass of society (p. 28). Conservatives want unequal power (p. 4) and submission to their ideological objectives (p. 7). The entirety of his eleven vignettes against conservative personages, ideas, or movements, with a special focus on Edmund Burke, is devoted to this myopic pursuit. Robin’s mode of reflection is consistent throughout the book, although his emphases change without contributing to the logical progression of his argument.

For Burke, the French Revolution was a civilizational tumult, but for Robin it was “an inversion of deference and command,” as conservatives always seek “liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders” (p. 8). Robin’s Burke is not only the progenitor of class-based repression, but also of the radical right (p. 20). Instead, Burke defended a tradition of ordered liberty, opposing overly abstract notions of natural goodness, society, and government. Burke hoped for the continued development of the higher potentialities of humankind. Change was possible, but not always immediate or even plausible at a given historical juncture. Humans were capable of transferring the rudiments of a humane social and political order as a compact shared between the ages, and all citizens were permanently subject to the law and civil authority. The proper role of the state was to restrain the citizen only to such a degree as to promote such a society.

Robin’s disdain for religion, especially the role of faith in the life of Burke, and in many theories of conservatism, also suggests the limits of the author’s ability to accurately interpret theories of conservatism beyond that of contemptuous dismissal. For Burke, in contradistinction to Robin’s depiction of him, the great questions of existence could be answered by the “Church of England’s catechism,” suggesting the fundamental and enduring importance of his personal faith and the role of religion in his life. To Robin’s credit, he does emphasize those thinkers on his alleged “right” who dismiss Christianity and other manifestations of faith, although his reliance on the anti-religionist Ayn Rand, and his misinterpretation of contemporary television personality Glenn Beck, demonstrates the limitations of his approach (pp. 92-96).

The book convincingly evinces the author’s disdain for conservatism in all forms. Unfortunately, his purported effort at critical scholarly amalgamation does not work. Many other important conservative figures are also assessed, including John Adams, John C. Calhoun, William F. Buckley, Joseph de Maistre, Antonin Scalia, and many more; however, Robin’s critiques never allow the thinkers to be viewed in their historical context or with the felicity of thought that a proposed study of the “reactionary mind” would require.

The Common MindAs a palliative to Robin’s rather imprecise criticism of Burke and others, André Gushurst-Moore’s The Common Mind provides an elegantly written and philosophically convincing survey of the worldview Burke inherited and that he helped transmit to posterity. The common mind, or Christian humanism, is understood from both the perspective of a philosophical inheritance and as a perpetual challenge to contemporary life as well; as a social and political tradition dependent on the ennobling of the good, the true, and beautiful; and, the exhibition of personal restraint, and an affirmation of the transcendent nature of existence.

Gushurst-Moore begins his defense of this tradition by engaging in a process of retrogression, examining the central figures who affirmed the common mind, beginning with Thomas More and concluding with Russell Kirk. Six central elements in the common mind are identified: the inheritance of the humane, self-government and law, common sense in the classical form, literature that encourages the imagination, education with a moral basis, and politics and religion (pp. 14-18). Even though six of the fourteen essays that comprise this volume were originally published in journals of opinion, the book is thematically coherent and the essays possess a lucidity atypical in such collections.

In each essay, the thoughtful reader is introduced to new and erudite insights about key figures who have contributed to the common mind tradition, or Christian humanism. The commentaries on Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Russell Kirk deserve special commendation. Instead of a rather normative survey of Swift the satirist, the faith-based and enduring insights of the writer, and his “underlying religious assumptions,” and “distrust of intellectualism, rationalism and enthusiasm” are brilliantly outlined by Gushurst-Moore (p. 46). Swift, as a contributor to the larger patrimony of the common mind and advocate of self-restraint, becomes comprehensible, including the Swift “who anticipates Burke in asserting that if liberty is anything to be valued at all, it exists as a consequence of authority rather than in spite of it” (p. 60).

In a similar vein, the essay on Johnson forces a reconsideration of the writer as a more thoroughgoing defender of the inherited tradition. The essays on Burke and Russell Kirk extol their respective contributions to Christian humanism. In effect, the essay on Burke refutes the arguments promoted by Robin by demonstrating that Burke was a defender of “traditional Christian humanism” (p. 82) premised upon a proper conception of the natural law. With Russell Kirk, Gushurst-Moore’s exegesis concentrates upon the thinker’s underappreciated fiction as a defense of the common mind.

Overall, Gushurst-Moore has advanced our understanding of Burke and the inherited tradition. The only weaknesses that would deserve emendation concern his criticisms of Luther, with an emphasis upon Luther’s view of transubstantiation (p. 33), and Gushurst-Moore’s neglect of important Protestant contributors to Christian humanism beyond T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis. In the first instance, his characterization of Luther (pp. 26, 28, 33, 34, and 37) is contradicted by recent scholarship.

A closer examination of Luther’s sacramental theology suggests that while he criticized the prevailing view of transubstantiation, he always believed in a real presence, and later Lutheran confessional statements also demonstrate support for an eucharistic theology that proximates transubstantiation. Secondly, the addition of essays on the eminent Protestant philosophers of the common mind like Lynn Harold Hough and Bernard Iddings Bell would have enhanced the volume by presenting a more complete survey of 20th century contributors to Christian humanism.

willetts.jpgThe last volume under review, The Pinch, authored by David Willetts, a British Member of Parliament, and Minister for Universities and Science, seeks to apply the contributions of Burke and others to the current issues. In assuming a distinctly Burkean approach to problems of generational nurture and obligation, Willetts cites Burke’s depiction of society as being contractual in nature, with each generation becoming part of a “partnership” among those members who “are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (pp. 262-263).

The myriad of ills that plague society are interconnected Willetts asserts, and require a stable “nationhood and family,” and, ultimately, community and inter-generational commitment, to resolve these issues. Willetts offers a practical guide to overcoming the limits resulting from the lingering impact of the social contract, including a criticism of the social contract’s reinvention by John Rawls. He also provides a sophisticated and readable account of how, by Burkean standards, we have departed from a tradition of social and political life that sustained the West for many generations.

These works suggest the enduring nature of Edmund Burke’s insights on the nature of social and political life. While scholars will dispute the philosophical trajectory and practical wisdom Burke offers, there should be little dispute regarding the need to confront Burke’s commentaries on the nature of politics. The persistent revival in Burke studies, as exemplified by these tomes, are indicators of sustained scholarly interest.