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Whose Statesmanship? Which Burke?

Mark Blitz reads Harvey Mansfield as closely as Mansfield reads Edmund Burke. For this, and for his excellent Liberty Forum essay on Mansfield’s Statesmanship and Party Government, we are in Blitz’s debt.

The book’s simultaneously ambivalent and appreciative reading of Burke endures 50 years after its publication, and will rank among the definitive texts on the Anglo-Irish statesman well past half a century hence. Mansfield pays Burke the compliment of a meticulous reading that encompasses several works and whose precision reveals multiple insights. He breaks wholly new ground in Burke exegesis that, even after a half century, still feels innovative: Burke as a modern rather than an ancient, partisanship as a taming alternative to statesmanship.

Similarly, Blitz does readers the considerable service of applying Mansfield’s analysis of Burke to our contemporary condition, showing how the Burke that emerges from the book might light the way out of today’s difficulties. Blitz’s exegesis, like Mansfield’s, does not just reconstruct. It reveals.

The question is whether Mansfield reads Burke so closely that the pixels obscure the portrait. The particular risk is that statesmanship—associated on Mansfield’s account almost solely with executive action, but on Burke’s with prudential judgment—becomes more ominous than honorable.

Mansfield’s statesman is the man of exploits and—the word is unavoidable—change. Notice how, in the following passage, statesmanship mutates from phronēsis to something like daring:

Statesmanship is the capacity to do what is good in the circumstances, a capacity in which men, as individuals, are variously accomplished. Since they are variously accomplished in this, they are unequal; and statesmanship is essentially an unequal capacity. As such, it must be defined by its best example, not by an average sample; for we cannot know what a statesman can do unless we know the limit of human capacity, that is, what a great man would do. The study of statesmanship is therefore chiefly the study of great men, and reliance on statesmanship is a reliance on the performance and example of great statesmen. [Burke’s] replacement of statesmanship by party is an attempt to avoid dependence on great men.[1]

Thus Burke, a legislator, ranks as a statesman—“a great man”—for Mansfield only insofar as he founded the new regime of party politics. As Blitz says, that act, whose purpose Blitz and Mansfield argue was to substitute partisanship for statesmanship, “goes beyond the ordinary prudence of seeing a particular remedy for a particular difficulty or discontent. It looks at the whole.”

But this opposition of prudence and statesmanship is unknown to Burke (and, initially, to Mansfield, whose first definition of statesmanship is “the capacity to do what is good in the circumstances”). For Burke the statesman exercises judgment. His efforts, for example, to conciliate the American colonies were an act of statesmanship. So were Henry Clay’s compromises and Daniel Webster’s defense of union. Churchill did not suddenly become a statesman on his ascension to 10 Downing; his eloquent warnings in the darkness about the rise of Nazism made him one, too.

Lincoln, among the statesmen Mansfield cites, warns of the danger in his Lyceum speech, an address that was, incidentally, statesmanlike. The temptation of a statesmanship conceived solely in terms of change rather than prudence is that historical circumstances do not always warrant, indeed they sometimes punish, dramatic change. Conversely, as Lincoln said, the pursuit of glory in times that do not require it conduces to tyranny. Change is not inherently good; change that conduces to the public good is. Thus if, as Mansfield suggests, statesmanship were tied to change, statesmanship could not be an inherent good. Certainly it would not be a conservative one.

Thus to the extent that greatness is measured only in terms of founding new modes and orders or attaining impressive historical deeds, it would both be true that Mansfield has Burke right and that Burke has prudence right. Parties operating within constitutional forms are preferable to a dependence on great men. But it is far from clear that Mansfield has greatness right—or, with it, Aristotle, a thinker whom Mansfield and Blitz counterpoise to Burke.

On this reading, Burke is a thoroughgoing modern, ancient’s opposite in a Manichean dichotomy. In the same manner, Aristotle is pressed into the service of a great-man theory of politics.  According to Mansfield, “absolute monarchy” is “simply” Aristotle’s ideal regime, “that ‘form’ (if we can properly so describe it) which takes the fullest advantage of the virtue of a great man by giving unlimited discretion to his statesmanship.”[2]

To be sure, Mansfield’s great man is beholden to the common good. But Mansfield understands Burke to substitute partisanship for statesmanship insofar as he is more interested in constitutional forms than in great individuals. This is certainly true of Burke, even if the opposition between partisanship and statesmanship may not be as stark as Mansfield asserts.

Whether it is true that Aristotle counsels a politics of great men is far less clear. It depends on how much hangs on that word “simply.” For while Aristotle does say in Book Three of the Politics that it would be better in some ideal sense to be ruled by the best man rather than the best laws—insofar as the best man can see all while the best laws cannot—such a relationship between ruler and ruled would be anti-political. Put another way, Aristotle’s absolute monarch is a mirage, a point clarified by his argument in the Politics 7.14 for rotation in office on the grounds that no rulers are so different from the ruled as to justify permanent authority.

It is questionable, then, whether the contrast between Burke and Aristotle ought to be so sharply drawn. Mansfield’s use of Aristotle does, though, clarify the distinction between Burke and Mansfield. Whereas Mansfield appears to see politics as driven, at least in its ideal form, by great executives, Burke sees it as driven by prudent judgment hedged in constitutional forms.

While Burke could certainly endorse Mansfield’s definition of statesmanship—“do[ing] what is good under the circumstances”—he would not warm to his interpreter’s application of it in the hands of action-oriented executives whose status as great men depends on the extent to which they drive change, not the extent to which they exercise prudent judgment calibrated to circumstance. Burke understands the necessity for power but also the likelihood of its abuse. The concentration of power in the hands of great men is an invitation to abuse, especially knowing the timber of which ambitious men are made.

On Mansfield’s account, even Burke’s method is less than statesmanlike. Blitz notes that “Burke’s writings were almost all occasioned by particular controversies—that is, the trial of men by events. None save his early (1757) Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of the Sublime and Beautiful is visibly theoretical.” Another way to render “occasioned” in Burkean terms is “anchored.” Abstraction is not the only manner of theory.

In other words, Burke made a theoretical choice to anchor his reflections in the concrete, using circumstance as an occasion for contemplation about the political. His writings about the French Revolution, most notably, reflect in the most fundamental way on the purpose of the political, the relationship between the theoretical and the practical, and the sources of political obligation. His speeches on the impeachment of Warren Hastings contemplate the deepest contours of natural justice.

In this sense Burke cannot be easily described as either ancient or modern. He certainly does not rate as a Hobbesian, though Mansfield does make that case. Mansfield argues—with, to be sure, compelling innovation—that Burke, operating from Hobbes’ assumptions about the state of nature, replaces the latter’s use of fear with natural feeling, the result of which is to untether natural law from limitation. (“Liberty, not obedience, is the chief quality of life according to Burke.”[3])

The magnificent soliloquy in the Reflections about the sins that French radicals commit in the “all-atoning name of liberty” speaks otherwise:

What is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.

Moreover, Burke’s appropriation of social contract rhetoric makes the polity sound far more ancient than modern in its purposes. It is not a partnership in brute survival. Rather:

It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

These quarrels, of course, do not diminish Mansfield’s achievement, or Blitz’s. Mansfield has constructed—or if one prefers, revealed—a new Burke. Call this an act of intellectual statesmanship. The question may come down to this: Which Burke do we mean, and whose statesmanship do we prefer?

Mansfield’s Burke is in some ways desiccated: intellectually interesting, and unquestionably a political leader, but also devoid of a certain richness in being shorn of attachment to permanent things. Burkean prudence is one of those things. Likewise Burke’s use of custom is in pursuit of the permanent things. He believes the repeated application of principle to concrete circumstance is simply likelier to locate them than the scholar contemplating his or her books in splendid isolation.

Thus Blitz’s diagnosis of society’s ills, and the prescriptions he offers, give one both encouragement and a certain pause. Blitz would have us restore appreciation of our “equal natural rights” by repairing to “the great books of modern political philosophy, well-taught,” and to “sensible discussion of our political founders and statesmen.”

On the one hand, great books of philosophy, especially under Blitz’s qualification of being “well taught,” are an essential part of any citizen’s education, especially when leavened with the lessons of founders and statesmen. On the other hand, as a manual for political reform abstracted from circumstance, such a program would seem to be precisely the kind of politics of theory and rights against which Burke—even Mansfield’s Burke—must be understood to warn.

To be fair, Blitz certainly does not call for abstracting “rights” or statesmanship from circumstances. But at the same time, citizens should not be taught to lionize the man of action simply for having taken action, or to deprecate the leader whose comparative quietude matched his or her moment. We should be taught to revere the leader of prudence and judgment. There are moments that call for daring deeds, but also circumstances that call for prudent governance. We have seen much, in recent administrations, of the quest for legacies based on an aggrandized view of statesmanship. A restoration of the politics of prudence would be an act of statesmanship, not a demotion of it.

[1] Harvey C. Mansfield, Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke (University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 17.

[2] Ibid., p. 125.

[3] Ibid., p. 236.

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