Patriarch of the Permanent Things:
Edmund Burke as Christian Literary Mentor
James L Sauer
If a classic can be defined as a book that is often quoted but seldom read, then poor Mr, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is definitely a classic. The reason it is so often quoted is that it contains a wealth of sound sentiment and right reason The reason it is seldom read is the same. Our dull modern minds cannot digest quantities of moralistic prose. I know I have struggled to maintain my concentration while reading Burke; and found my hand stretching forth to the unenlightening Tube; there perhaps to glimpse the latest fashionable gown of Vanna White or to be lulled to sleep by Johnny Carson's guest host. Our inability to read Burke says more about us than about him. We live on intellectual fastfood; platitudinous English is too much for our palate. We waste too much time to spend it in learning. Besides which, Edmund Burke's picture seldom appears in People Magazine: an omission which makes him particularly irrelevant to our age.
My first encounter with Burke was as an undergraduate. In all honesty, I had a difficult time. We read him in conjunction with Tom Paine's The Rights of Mon. Now my immediate reaction to Burke was to find him alien to my American experience,: while my understanding of Paine was almost intuitive, Paine used the language of American democracy; Burke preached the defense of the Old World The great irony of this first encounter is that I now look upon the writings of Paine with their emphasis on rights autonomous from their Creator. and liberty which cannot hold itself from licence as so much twaddle, while I view the stuffy wisdom of Burke with its reliance on divine ordination, precedent, tradition, order, and natural aristocracy as the truest form of common sense. And it is just such pious, proverbial horse-sense which we now so commonly neglect, and which alone can preserve literature and society.
Little do most people realize the debt of intellectual heritage which we owe to Edmund Burke. He was a significant influence on our Founding Fathers which is no small thing. He is seen today as the spiritual progenitor of the race of Post WWII Conservatives--men like, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and William F. Buckley Jr, An unconscious Burkean heritage even shows its traces in George Glider's neo-conservative emphasis on faith, family, and work. And Burke would certainly have felt some kinship with the God - Country - Motherhood - Applepie New Christian Rightists whose organic conservatism springs from the Scripture and from the common sense of the chosen people through time.
The father of modern Conservatism could certainly string a chain of wise words or whatever subject he addressed. This was the general consensus for a century after his death; as his contemporary Arthur Lee wrote: "Mr Burke is sprung up in the House of Commons who has astonished every body with the power of his eloquence. and his comprehensive knowledge in our exterior and internal politics, and commercial interests "1
And Burke's contemporary, Cazales followed: "There never was a more beautiful alliance between virtue and talents All his conceptions were grand. all his sentiments generous. The great leading trait of his character, and that which gave it all its energy and colour, was that strong hatred of vice which is no other than the passionate love of virtue It breathes in all his writings; it was the guide of all his actions. But even the force of his eloquence was insufficient to transfuse it into the weaker or perverted minds of his contemporaries."2
The most thorough summary of Burke as a "Renaissance Man" comes a century later from J. B. Robertson. "He was well versed in Greek era Latin literature. was familiar with the great masters of his own language. and had read the best models of the French. Ancient and modern history he had deeply studied; he was an admirable connoisseur in art; and he was not unfamiliar with some of the natural sciences. To theology and philosophy he paid considerable attention. His acquaintance with English law astonished professional men themselves. while from the Roman jurisprudence he not unfrequently drew happy illustrations; and. as is said of Shakespeare. he loved to converse with laborers and mechanics about their trades. He was a skillful. practical agriculturalist; in matters of commerce and finance he was exceedingly well versed. and in the whole science of economics he was far beyond his age."3 Considering such testimonials, Burke stands out as a neglected Christian sage; a Church Militant offering us wisdom in the realms of literature and politics.
Reference works will give the standard biographical data on Burke. He was born in Dublin in 1729. His father was a solicitor, and theologically, an Anglican. His mother was a Catholic. Burke studied under Abraham Shackleton, a Quaker, at the Balitore School This strange mix of familial and educational influences perhaps contributed to Burke's general acceptance of diversity; and his later political championing of tolerance for both the Dissenter and Catholic minorities.
After receiving his AB. from Trinity College, Dublin, this young Irishman set off for London. There he studied. then dropped, law. There he married. And there he began his career in the republic of letters. His literary and philosophic genius generated associations with men like Johnson. Goldsmith. Reynolds. and Garrick. His fine mind made him a fit secretary far various noblemen; while his intellectual and verbal gift led him ultimately to Parliament.
His literary and speaking career can be divided into two parts.' First, that of Belles Lettres a period in which Burke produced his vindication of Natural Society (1756); The Sublime and the Beautiful (1757); An Account of the European Settlements in America (1757); A History of England (1758); and the editing work on the Annual Register (1759-1788). Second, was the period in which he accomplished his greatest rhetorical and political polemics: Present State of the Nation (1769); Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents (1770); Speech on Conciliation with America (1775); Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); Letter to a Nobel Lord (1796); and Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796). He produced many other tracts, speeches, letters, and essays.
His political life can be divided into five overlapping segments: 1) The Irish Period during which he baffled for the enfranchisement at Catholics, and supported the rights of Dissenters. 2) The American Period during which he advocated reconciliation with the American Revolutionaries, though he did not look favourably on the revolt. 3] The English Period during which he advocated reform at the Civil Service lists, was instrumental in the establishment at a functional political party system, and spoke to the issue of George Ill's insanity. 4) The India Period during which he was involved with the impeachment at Warren Hastings for misconduct in Colonial India. 5) The French Period during which time he devoted himself to Battle against the "armed doctrine" at Revolutionary France.
He was always the Christian gentlemen; the consummate Spiritual warrior. His methods were erudite, humane, but morally fierce. Appropriately enough, he spent the last years of his life settling French refugees who had tied the sad results of "enlightenment politics." Burke applied Reason to word; virtue to deed.
An Outline of Sanity
A return to Burke seems inevitable tar contemporary Christianity; especially in our era when orthodox Evangelicalism is seeking to incarnate social values in life. As Biblical Protestantism searches its intellectual and cultural roots and Dafties the militant Anti-Christian ideologies which dominate our media. educational, and governmental elites; Burke's seminal thought will prove a potent magazine with which to provision Christendom, tar Burke represents the first great voice against the forces at destructive modernism. What had arisen in France in 1789 was something evil: something that swallowed decency in the shadow of the abstract slogans "liberty, equality. and fraternity." The Terror was not an aberration, but the logical consequence at the new French ideology. Burke predicted such consequences.
Burke was the first to recognize that a new breed of Past-Christian man had gained the upper hand in France. In France's revolution could be found the seeds at our own humanistic ideologies of liberalism and communism. "What is Jacobism7" asked Burke, "It is an attempt...to irradicate prejudice out at the minds of men...jacobins have resolved to destroy the whale frame and fabric of the ad societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion. To obtain an army for this purpose. they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich. A Christian, as such, is to them an enemy."4 Such prophecy demands our respectful attention,
Burke had never heard of Marx: he did not know the cruelties of Stalin. He had never read Soltzenitsyn's Gulag; nor heard of the witness of Valladares in Against All Hope. What Burke did know was the heart of Man. He projected his insight from first principles. it would not have surprised him that all Let revolutions trace their spirit to regicide France. Vipers breed vipers. Can it be otherwise?
Burke faced the abstract insanity of his day by relying upon the revealed Christian tradition. He held first, that God created the Universe, that man was part of a natural order, and that we are born into a framework designed by Providence. What this means 5 that life 5 a covenant with God, and a covenant with those who precede us as well as with those who follow after us. Tradition, precedent, duty and wisdom are Oil trans-temporal institutions of human experience. Life and morals are not abstract things we invent, rather: we are shaped by the morals and doctrines we have received, An abstract study of society which neglects the natural and organic relationships which God has forged between men and women, between city and country, between nation and state, between people and language is foolishness. By contrast, Burke stands opposite Tom Paine's visionary effusion: "We have it in our power to remake the world anew" Nothing could be further from the Burkean mind.
Secondly, since neither State, nor the autonomous individual, is the center of this divine order, we find that Burke laid great emphasis on the "little platoon." The family, the church, and the free associations of life are the bearers of natural, God prescribed order. Here is where soda order and harmony can be found. Burke's philosophy attacks the root of the romantic and modernist conception that the individual or the State is the end and be-au of life. The family is one of the permanent things: and ills to the family that the educational, moral, and the economic spheres of life adhere. Burke's worldview undermines oath American individualism and Marxist collectivism. Our "me generation" would find his calls for limited liberty, moral order, and social duty, alien to our essentially selfish lifestyles, while the Left recognizes immediately Burke's incompatibility with their utopian ends.
Thirdly, Burke held, OS our founding fathers held, that a nation must be governed by law and morality. Civil change must be orderly: societies must grow along a natural and traditional path: linked to the roots of their past, and nourished by the notions of divine equity, justice, and order. The moral imagination of a people must be linked to their historic national character. As George Will has pointed out, the essence of all true statecraft is soulcraft. Abstract violations of this civic order bring nations to ruin: witness the catastrophic communist economic experiment, or our own flirtations with sexual suicide divorce, feminism, homosexuality, and abortion.
And fourthly, equalitarianism is vain doctrine. God's creation reflects a hierarchy of unequals. Yet thls inequality does not automatically produce tyranny. When inequality is properly controlled, it alone produces the framework for social man. Burke recognized that no true society could exist in justice while maintaining that all people are interchangeable. The natural aristocracies that arise in society make society possible Truth is not a matter for the ballot box: nor is utopia achieved by leveling. Inequality is not merely a natural reality: it is a moral good: a thing to be prized.
The key to understanding Burke is the recognition that he has worked out a living social philosophy from unchanging Christian presuppositions. As Russell Kirk says: "Burke put his trust in prescription. tradition, moral habit, custom or, Os his intellectual heir, `.5. Eliot expressed it, in the idea of a Christian society, the product of the experience of the species with God and with man in community."5 His life and work was to shape this philosophy through speech and writing.
The essential task of the modern Christian literary reader, therefore, will be the translation of Burke into our era. What can we mine from Burke's wealth and how can this transfer be accomplished
1. Before we can begin to exploit Burke we will have to resolve a number of difficulties. The first problem for us is communication: Burke wrote in O rhetorical style, a gentlemanly syntax, image flowing upon image. In our era of 60 second TV political commercials: it might be difficult for us to follow speeches composed for 3 hour deliveries. But this, after all, is the very same problem we have with any number of other dissimilar literary classics. The communication problem can be solved through intellectual effort, word study, and backgrounding. Such is the problem for the student; or for the teacher who wishes to popularize Burke. For the scholar especially, no such barrier exists, and much of the leg work for further research has been already accomplished6.
2. Americans will have a secondary communication problem: British history. The British context of Burke's writing, allusions, and historical situation will require some study. We might have to learn a little about British Imperial policy or study the Hastings Impeachment trial.
3. In spite of, and perhaps because of, Burke's slightly elevated style, there is much to be learned from his use at language. As Edward Dawden states: "In a well known canon of style Burke lays it down that the master sentence of every paragraph should involve first a thought, secondly, an image, and thirdly, a sentiment. The rule is certainly not one of universal application; it is one not always followed by Burke himself, but it expresses the character of his mind. A thought, an image, a sentiment, and all bearing on action, it gives us an intimation that the writer who set forth such a canon was a complete nature, no fragment of a man, but a full-formed human spirit, and that when he came to write or speak, he put his total manhood into his ufterance."8 Burke's language is not overly complex; it is crystalline, expansively aphoristic, mannered, and balanced. Reading him is like hearing Jane Austen on political economy. And Lewis's commentary on Austen aptly fits Burke: "The great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists are unblushingly and uncompromisingly used' good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude,,., impropriety, indelicacy, generous candour, blameable, distrust, just, humiliation, vanity, folly, ignorance, and reason."8 A study of Burke, like Austen, will undoubtedly vivify our prose,
4. Burke will also fit in well with our literature curriculums. His ideas form a counter-point to the entire canon of Anglo literature. Conservatism, though it is hard for some to believe, has been an ongoing tradition in our literature. We find an apology for hierarchy in Shakespeare: a defense at liberty in Milton. Swift and the Neo-classicists attack vice. Johnson defends a reasonable classicism. Wordsworth and Coleridge reject romantic rebellion and celebrate a natural and a social order. In our own era, Chesterton defended orthodoxy, Eliot recognized the need far cultural elites, and Lewis' stood as the dinosaur exemplum of old western man. Burke fits in well with this company. He stands as a colossus: one foot on the classical values, one foot on the rhetoric of the romantics, Use could easily be found for using him directly, or as a comparative reading with the traditional curriculum of literature.
5. The surest way for us to digest Burke is in small doses. I think we must savor his prose: and use him as a pantry from which we feast on first principles. Indeed, he is a delectable dictionary of social insight:9 Atheism: "While [Jacobinism] prepares the body to debauch and the mind to crime, a regular church of avowed atheism, established by law, with a direct and sanguinary persecution of Christianity is formed to prevent all amendment and remorse. Conscience is formally deposed from its dominion in the mind. What fills the measure of horror is that schools of atheism are set up at public charge in every part at the country." Pather prophetic of Statist education, is he not?
Christian activism: "When bad men combine, the good must associate else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."
Communism: It we view Jacobinism as a nascent form of Marxism, then this statement is again prophetic: "We are at war with a system which by its essence is inimical to all other governments, and which makes peace and war as peace and war may best contribute to their subversion. It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war,"
Free Enterprise: "An honorable and fair profit is the best security against avarice and rapacity; in all things else, a lawful and regulated enjoyment is the best security against debauchery and excess." Our affluent society, both libertarian and social welfarist might learn something from such reasonable self control.
Liberty': "The only liberty I mean, is a liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue: but which cannot exist at all without it." Burke's liberty is not the licence at Hustler Magazine. Liberty is not boundless freedom; it is freedom bound by moral law.
6. One of the most difficult problems in life is to find writers from whom one can feed; intellectually, morally, and imaginatively. Burke can fill this need for us as a Christian intellectual mentor. Gibbon called Burke "the most eloquent and rational madman that I have ever known."10 But it is just such divine madness which the world needs. It is not enough to have a passion to battle secular humanism. Marxist-Leninism, or materialist Objectivism; we must also have mind and wisdom. Burke is worthy of emulation in this passionate direction of the mind. He was a man of charity; yet he was also a man at force. He was tolerant of theological differences among Christians; but hateful of vice, tyranny, and corruption He is a model; a paradigm for the New Christian Conservative intellectual. "Example," said Burke, "is the school of mankind. and they will learn at no other." Well then. lets follow an example.
If Christian Conservatism is to become a healthy intellectual movement, if it is to preserve a literary tradition; if it is to be more than just a collection of mailing lists and political lobbyists then we had best study closely those who have gone before. Burke is a good place to start.
1 Lee, Arthur. "To the Prince Royal of Poland, Life," 1766, p.290, in Martin Tucker, editor, Moulton's Library of Literary Criticism (New York: Ungar, 1966) 429
2 Cazales, M. "On the Decth of Edmund Burke," 1791, in Moulton's 430-31
3 Robertson, J. B. Lectures on the Life of Burke," 1875, in Moulton's 432
4 This quote is taken from the massive compilation of Burke's letters, The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, edited by R.B. McDowell (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1969) Vol. V111, 129-130
5 Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genios Reconsidered. (New York: Arlington House, 1967) 83
6 A number of bibliographies heve been produced which will help the scholar: Cordosco, F. Burke: A Handlist of critical notices and studies, New York, 1950; Copeland, T.W. and M.S. Smith, A Chacklist of the Correspondence of Burie. Cambridge: Index Society, 1955; Stanlis, Peter J. Bibliagraphy of Edmund Burie 1748-1968, 1972; Todd, William B. Bibliography of Edmund Burke. University Press of Virginia, 1982; Gandy, Clara I. and Peter J. Stanlis. Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources to 1982. New York: Garland Publishing, 1983.
7 Dowden, Edward The French Revolution and English Uterature, (1897) 94
8 "A Note on Jane Austen," Essays in Criticism, 1954; also compiled in A Mind Awake, editod by Clyde Kilby, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968) 248
9 All the following quotes were taken from Timothy Sheehan, Reflections with Burke. New York: Vantage Press, 1960. This vanity press dictionary of quotations, though containing some repetition, offers a good handbook for Burkean ideas.
10 Gibbon, Edward. "Private Letters," edited by Prothero, Vol II, p 251 To Lord Sheffield, found in Moulton's 433