February 9, 2019


Conservatism & the politics of prudence: On Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk & the conservative ethos. (Daniel J. Mahoney, January 2019, New Criterion)

As Kirk was careful to note, Burke never made natural right the direct foundation of political life and political judgment. That was too revolutionary and too doctrinaire, and it risked separating the rights of man from one's equally important duties as a human being and member of the social order. But he defended a traditional system of morals indebted to Aristotle, Cicero, the Fathers of the Church, and Hooker and Milton. Burke claimed no originality in this regard, as Kirk points out. But through his eloquence and fiery Irish spirit, he "put new warmth into their phrases, so that their ideas flamed above the Jacobin torches." He thus renewed old and enduring wisdom, what Kirk, following Eliot, called the "permanent things." It is in this limited sense that Burke's politics of prudence perfectly coheres with the "natural law," understood as moral verities that largely transcend historical change and cultural variation. As Greg Weiner argues in an impressive forthcoming book on Burke's and Lincoln's views on prudence, Burke believed that political judgment was essentially circumstantial but that moral truths came closer to reflecting unchanging truths about human nature and the divine and natural "constitution of things." So understood, Burke is both a partisan of prudence (not to be confused with fearful timidity or "the false, reptile prudence" that Burke denounced in the Letters on a Regicide Peace) and the moral law as articulated by the moral traditions of the Christian West and by other civilized peoples. This moral consensus is related to "the universal constitution of peoples" mentioned above. To affirm a politics of prudence is not to deny a common "moral constitution" that belongs to man as man. In that limited sense, Burke is as "universalist" as Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. And Burke adds, as Kirk is right to observe, a note of Christian humility before the moral inheritance which is among the great gifts of classical and Christian civilization.

Kirk made two additional contributions to Burke studies, both of some significance. Kirk stressed that Burke was among the first to see the limits, all the limits, of social contract theorizing. Choice and consent play some legitimate role in politics (guided by humane and prudent judgment), but they should never obscure obligatory duties that are not a "matter of choice." Parents, citizens, neighbors, and children all have "burdensome duties" (as Burke puts it in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs) that they are obliged to carry out with grace and a sense of responsibility. Likewise, Kirk noted, Burke believed that every member of a political community was "obliged to obey the laws and sustain the state." Choice plays an important role in politics (and marriage), but it cannot be the basis of every aspect of life. Duty is as fundamental as consent. Kirk stresses the multiple ways in which Burke's conservative liberalism was decidedly un-Lockean: while defending the rights of property, Burke never believed that civil society arose from a pre-political "state of nature." Men and women are not truly born "free and independent," and the only true social contract is "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." That is the great primeval contract that Burke so eloquently invokes in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. In the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, he sides with the classics and the Christians against full-blown modern "individualism." [...]

For Kirk, Burke was above all the prudent and humane advocate of ordered freedom. Liberty entails limitation, order demands respect for the liberty and dignity of human beings, especially those long rooted in the social and political life of a free people such as the English.

Posted by at February 9, 2019 7:02 PM


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