What Would Burke Think?

There is an article about Russell Kirk by Scott McLemee in the current Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve meant to read some Kirk for awhile, but haven’t gotten around to it. I’ve also meant to read some Burke, but haven’t done much of that either. (Yes, I know; just never mind. I’m studying 7th century vaudeville, and that takes time.) Kirk was a Burkean conservative, not a libertarian cheerleader for capitalism nor a neoconservative.

What Kirk extracted from Burke’s thought — and found embodied in the work of British and American figures as diverse as John Adams, Benjamin Disraeli, and T.S. Eliot — was a strong sense that tradition and order were the bedrock of any political system able to provide a real measure of freedom…The “reason” that Kirk found so objectionable, writes Mr. McDonald, caused liberals to define themselves “as enemies of authority, prejudice, tradition, custom, and habit.”…By contrast, Kirk’s “moral imagination” enabled people to see their lives as part of, in Burke’s words, “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.” The obligation to preserve old institutions and ways of life — and to change them, if at all, only very slowly — was not a matter of nostalgia. “The individual is foolish,” wrote Kirk in The Conservative Mind, “but the species is wise.”

An interesting idea, but I must say I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t see any reason to think the species is all that wise, for a start. And as for old institutions and ways of life – well, like most if not all of us, I’m the product of a time that got rid of some pretty undesirable and unjustifiable institutions and ways of life, and also saw some re-imposed on other people. Imagine being an urban educated woman in Kabul and seeing the Taliban arrive. ‘Oh good,’ you think, ‘the old institutions and ways of life are coming back, hurrah hurrah. I’ll be locked in the house, I’ll be beaten up if I go outside and accidentally show a toenail, I’ll have to obey my male relatives – I can hardly wait.’ Ideas like Burke’s may sound okay to people who do well out of the old institutions and ways of life, and who don’t mind being surrounded by other people who don’t do so well, but to people who don’t fit that description, the appeal is doubtful. So I’m curious about how Kirk made a case for them.

Hazlitt has many interesting things to say about Burke in this essay.

He constructed his whole theory of government, in short, not on rational, but on picturesque and fanciful principles; as if the king’s crowns were a painted gewgaw, to be looked at on gala-days; titles an empty sound to please the ear; and the whole order of society a theatrical procession. His lamentations over the age of chivalry, and his projected crusade to restore it, are about as wise as if any one from reading the Beggar’s Opera, should take to picking of pockets: or, from admiring the landscapes of Salvator Rosa, should wish to convert the abodes of civilized life into the haunts of wild beasts and banditti. On this principle of false refinement, there is not abuse, nor system of abuses, that does not admit of an easy and triumphant defence; for there is something which a merely speculative enquirer may always find out, good as well as bad, in every possible system, the best or the worst; and if we can once get rid of the restraints of common sense and honesty, we may easily prove, by plausible words, that liberty and slavery, peace and war, plenty and famine, are matters of perfect indifference.

There is a live online colloquy with the author of the book on Kirk at the Chronicle site tomorrow (Thursday) at 11 a.m. my time (US, Pacific) which is 7 p.m. UK time. I sent a question yesterday; you should send questions if you’re inspired to.

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