Convention and Tradition: Hume and Burke

Convention and Tradition: Hume and Burke. The philosophy of Rousseau attacked only one limited segment of the system of natural law, the artificiality of seeing in society merely an agent to secure individual goods and in human nature merely a capacity to calculate advantages. Against this he set a single counter proposition, that the core of healthy personality consists of a few massive feelings which have little to do with intellectual power but which are of a sort to bind men together in communities, so that the well-being of the community makes up the most significant part even of the private good.

This proposition he can hardly be said to have defended; he enunciated it rather as a moral intuition, the direct insight of an uncorrected nature, and attributed to the philosophers as a fault, and to their unmeasured use of intellectual criticism, the selfishness and lack of public spirit which he saw in European society.

Had Rousseau stood alone, the imposing system of natural law, elaborated in a century and a half of philosophical development, would hardly nave fallen before an attack so ill-directed and leading to a result so uncertain in its applications as the general will. But Rousseau did not stand alone. The acclaim which he won with a body of ideas neither numerous nor well digested, and which he stated with a sentimentality that was tawdry as often as it was moving, showed that his public was already prepared; emotionally at least, to respond to a new kind of moral appeal.

Intellectually, also, the system of natural law was already inadequate, in the sense that it supplied no rational apparatus adequate to the social studies which were being projected and that its dogmatic claim to self-evidence was little better than a boast. It was living in France mainly on its utility as the revolutionary solvent of an antiquated political and social system.

In England this preservative did not exist. The defense of revolution ended with Locke, until the French Revolution itself produced a reverberation of natural rights, and the temper of English writers throughout the eighteenth century, in respect to both politics and religion, was markedly conservative. In a country where both church and government, though admittedly subject to serious abuses, served well the interests of the classes that Were politically vocal, the system of natural law had lost its immediate practical utility.

Moreover, English philosophy in the half century after the publication of Locke’s Essay developed almost exclusively on empirical lines, stressing the natural history of ideas and their derivation from the Senses, as Locke himself had suggested. English ethical writing followed the same course.

The idea of a deductive ethics starting from self-evident moral laws, which Locke had retained, soon became antiquated, Until Bentham English, utilitarianism lacked the radical and reformatory purposes that Helvetius gave the theory in France, but it was systematically clearer because it tried consciously to eliminate incongruous ideas like natural justice and natural right.

Even in economics, which remained the stronghold of natural law well into the nineteenth century, Adam Smith was on the whole less devoted to a deductive method than the classical economists after him, probably because the latter were more influenced than Smith by the French Physiocrats. Possibly his economics might have been still more systematically empirical if he had followed more closely the economic essays of his friend Hume.

Hume: Reason, Fact, and Value:-

This criticism and gradual elimination of the system of natural law culminated in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739-40. This work occupies a crucial position in the history of modern philosophy and its importance is not even mainly in the field of political philosophy. At the same time, the general philosophical position that Hume developed had a profound bearing upon all branches of social theory. What Hume supplied was a penetrating logical analysis which, if accepted, destroyed all the pretensions of natural law to scientific validity.

In addition he extended this critical result to specific applications of natural law in religion, ethics, and politics. At least the main principles of Hume’s analysis must be stated because they affected the whole future course of social theory. The technicalities in which he formulated his argument and which are now obsolete may be neglected.

Hume undertook to analysis the conception of reason, as this term was customarily used in the systems of natural law, to show that under this term there had been uncritically combined and confused three factors or processes which are quite different in their meaning.

The effect of this confusion was to describe as necessary truths, or unchangeable laws of nature and of morality, propositions which can make no claim to such absolute certainty. First, Hume undertook to say what can rightly be called reason in this necessary and inevitable sense.

There are, he admitted, certain comparisons of ideas which yield truths of this kind. They are to be found, he thought, only in limited parts of mathematics and they have definite peculiarities. They are what would now be called formal implications and they state that a conclusion follows if a premise is taken for granted. Nothing need be known about the truth of the premise, because all that is inferred is that if one proposition is true, then another proposition also must be true.

As Hume put it, not very accurately, the relationship is merely between ideas; the actual facts do not matter. Because of the direction that his interests took Hume gave less importance than was deserved to this kind of mathematical or formal truth. What he was chiefly concerned to do was to distinguish it from other logical operations with which it was confused, and also to show that this was the precise and proper meaning of rational or necessary truth.

It clearly follows from what has been said that no comparison of ideas can prove a matter of fact, and also that relationships between matters of fact are never necessary in the strict logical or rational sense just mentioned. This was the point of Hume’s famous analysis of the relation between cause and effect. It is always possible to assume the contrary of any matter of fact, and when two facts or events are found to be related as cause and effect, all that can be really known about them is that they do actually occur together with a certain degree of regularity.

Apart from the experience of actually finding them together, it would be impossible to infer the one from the other. Hence the so-called necessary connection between causes and effects is,a fictitious idea, provided the term necessary is used in the proper logical sense that it has in mathematics in cause and effect there is only an empirical correlation.

It would follow from this analysis of causal relations and matters of fact that the empirical sciences, which deal with events that actually happen and the correlations that actually occur between them, are fundamentally different from mathematics or from deductive reasoning which merely shows that one proposition follows from another.

In the third piece, the word reason or reasonable is applied to human conduct in particular the law of nature always professed to show that there are rational principles of right or justice or liberty which can be shown to be necessary and inescapable.

This, Hume concluded, was still another confusion. For in these cases, where a way of acting is said to be right or good, the reference is not to reason but to some human inclination, or desire, or propensity. Reason in itself dictates no way of acting. It may show, by adducing knowledge of causes and effects, that the result of acting in a certain way will be so and so; the question will still remain whether, when the reasoning is finished; the result is acceptable to human inclination or not. Reason is the guide of conduct only in the sense that it shows what means will reach a desired end or how a disagreeable result can be avoided, the pleasantness of the result is in itself neither reasonable nor unreasonable.

As Hume put it reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. From this analysis it follows that ethics or politics or any sort of social studies where judgments of value have to be taken into account are different both from deductive and from purely causal or factual sciences.

There are then three fundamentally different operations which have all been confused under the name of reason but which Hume proposed to distinguish there is, first, deduction or reason in the strict sense; second, there is the discovery of empirical or causal relationships; and third, there is the ascription of a value, as when one speaks of right or justice or utility.

If these three operations are carefully distinguished the whole alleged rationality of natural law falls to pieces, Since the two latter are not strictly rational, they both contain factors that cannot be proved, These factors Hume called conventions, and a large part of his philosophy was devoted to showing the presence of such factors in the empirical and social sciences.

These conventions are unescapable, in the sense that both empirical inference and practical common sense require something of the sort. They seem valid because men habitually use them and they are useful in the sense that by means of them more or less stable rules of action are made. But they cannot be shown to be necessary; the contrary could always be assumed, They proceed less from reason than from imagination or from a propensity to feign, that is, to assume more regularity in nature or society than is certain. In the empirical sciences the law of cause and effect is an example.

All the alleged general proofs of it are circular, while its special applications lead at most only to conclusions that are more or less probable. Psychologically, Hume thinks, it is merely a habit, and he can see no reason why nature should conform to human habits, yet without it there is no principle for connecting matters of fact. Similarly, as he proposed to show, social values like justice or liberty also involve conventions which must be referred for their authority to utility, or ultimately to their relation to human motives and propensities.

The Destruction of Natural Law:-

Starting from this general philosophical position, Hume applied his criticism to demolishing various branches of the system of natural law. He did not cover the ground completely, and it was long before the full implications of his argument were seen, but he attacked at least three great branches of the system natural or rational religion, rational ethics, and the contractual and consensual theory of politics.

The very notion of a rational religion, he argued, must be fictitious, because, since any deductive proof of a matter of fact is impossible, the existence of God must be indemonstrable. Indeed, the conclusion is more general a rational metaphysics purporting to show the necessary existence of anything is impossible.

The so-ca!led truths of religion, however, lack even the practical reliability of scientific generalizations; they belong purely to the region of feeling. Hence religion may have a natural history, that is, a psychological or anthropological explanation of its beliefs and practices, but there can be no question of its truth.

Similarly, in morals and politics, since values depend upon human propensities to action, it is impossible that reason by itself should create any obligation. Consequently virtue is merely a quality or action of mind that is generally approved. Like religion it can have a natural history but the force of moral obligation depends upon the acceptance of the propensities, the wants, the motives to action that give rise to it. No other validity is possible.

Much of Hume’s ethical criticism, however, was directed against the prevailing form of utilitarianism which tried to derive all motives from the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. His objection to this was empirical; he believed, of course rightly, that it oversimplified motives to the point of falsification.

Human nature is not so simple as to have only a single propensity, and many apparently primitive impulses, he thought, have no obvious relation to pleasure. They may be mainly benevolent, as parental affection is within a limited range, or they may be on their face neither selfish nor benevolent. Human nature has to be taken as it is, and the’ prevailing prejudice that selfish motives are somehow reasonable is part of the same fallacy that made the rationalists think that justice is reasonable.

Hume’s view of human nature excluded the excessive amount of calculation and foresight that contemporary moralists of the schools were accustomed to impute to it. Men are not, he believed, very calculating in pursuing either their self-interest or anything else. They are only foresighted when their feelings and impulses are not directly engaged, but impulse interferes with self-interest as often as with benevolence.

Hume’s form of utilitarianism set no special value on egoism and made no undue claims on human intelligence. In this respect it had more in common with that of John Stuart Mill than with that of Bentham, who preferred the simpler but less tenable picture of human nature adopted by the French utilitarians.

Hume’s criticism of the theory of consent-that political obligation is binding only because it is accepted voluntarily was slightly complicated by the fact that he raised no objections to it on historical grounds. On the contrary, he weakened the theory by treating it as nothing but hypothetical history. Like Burke later he was willing to concede that possibly, in the remote past, the first primitive society might have been formed by agreement.

Even if this were true it would have nothing to do with present societies. For if the obligation of civic obedience be derived from the obligation to keep an agreement, it is still pertinent to ask why the latter is binding. Empirically the two things are different no government actually asks its subjects to-consent or fails to distinguish between political subjection and the obligation of contract.

Among human motives the feeling of loyalty or allegiance to government is as common as the feeling that agreements should be kept. The political world over, absolute governments which do not even do lip-service to the fiction of consent are more common than free governments, and their subjects rarely question their right except when tyranny becomes too oppressive.

Finally, the purpose of the t things seems to be different political allegiance keeps order and preserves peace and security, while the sanctity of contracts mainly creates mutual trust between private persons. Evidently then, Hume argued, the duty of civic obedience and the duty to keep an agreement are different the one cannot be derived from the other, and even if it could, neither is more obviously binding than the other. Why then should either be binding?

Evidently because a stable society in which order is preserved, property protected, and goods exchanged is not possible without them. Both kinds of obligation grow from this single root. If the further question be asked, why men feel obliged to keep order and protect property, the answer is partly that these satisfy motives of tangible self-interest but also partly that allegiance is a habit enforced by education and consequently as much a part of human nature as any other motive. The members of a society do feel a sense of common interest and they admit the obligations that this is seen to impose.

As to its nature, Hume argued that-this common interest is more like language than it is like a promise or a rational truth. It is a body of conventions or rough general rules that have been shown by experience to serve human needs in a general way, though particular instances of their application often work a hardship.

For the sake of stability men have to know what they can rely on, and hence rules of some sort-are necessary. If they become too inconvenient, men will change them, even by violence if there is no other way, but broadly speaking any rules are better than none and the most that can be hoped is that they will work reasonably well.

Obviously they are not eternal verities rooted in nature, but merely standard ways of behaving justified by experience of their consequences and fixed by habit. By and large they preserve a stable social life in accord with men’s propensities and interests. Hume distinguished two main bodies of such conventions, those that regulate property, which he called the roles of justice, and those that have to do with the legitimacy of political authority.

Justice means in general that the possession of property small be stable, that it may be transferred by consent, and that agreements shall be binding, rules that are justified simply by the fact that they make property into a stable institution and satisfy the needs that create the interests of property.

A legitimate government, as distinguished from usurpation, rests on a similar set of conventional rules that serve to discriminate legal authority from mere force. Prescription and formal enactment are the most important of these. Hume illustrated the non-rational character of such rules by pointing out that their effects often extend backward in time. The accession of William in 1688 may have been doubtfully legitimate by any standard then applicable, but he becomes legitimate for present judgment merely because his successors have been accepted as such.

The Logic of Sentiment:-

If the premises of Hume’s argument be granted, it can hardly be denied that he made a clean sweep of the whole rationalist philosophy of natural right or self-evident truths, and of the laws of eternal and immutable morally which were supposed to guarantee the harmony of nature and the order of human society. In place of indefeasible rights or natural justice and liberty there remains merely utility, conceived in terms either of self-interest or social stability, and issuing in certain conventional standards of! conduct which on the whole serve human purposes.

Such conventions may; of course, be widespread among men and relatively permanent, because human motives are fairly uniform and in-their general outlines change slowly, but in no other sense can they be called universal. They are always contingent upon some state of the-facts, upon the causal relations of facts to human inclinations and upon the formulation of workable rules to give scope to these inclinations.

The conventions of society may be explained by history or psychology or anthropology but they cannot claim validity in any but-the relative sense of being generally convenient and in accord with men’s estimate of utility. All the attempts to find in them an eternal fitness or rightness are merely confused ways of saying that they are useful; granted the principle of utility the whole system of natural right can be dispensed with.

The immediate result of this powerful destructive analysis wag not at all what Hume must have anticipated. If the criticism stands, the only possible deduction from it is some form of empirical positivism, without metaphysics or religion and without an ethics that claims validity beyond the circumstances of society and the satisfaction of human needs.

What happened proved that metaphysics, religion, and ethics, more or less on traditional lines, were stronger than Hume’s criticism. There was, indeed, no disposition on the part of competent philosophers to deny that his conclusions were unescapable if the premises were granted, and there was no special effort to revive the system of natural law with its self-evident truths of reason.

On the contrary, after the French Revolution and the conservative reaction against it, the philosophers were more likely to believe that the doctrine of individual rights had suffered only its just fate, as being at once intellectually inept and socially dangerous. But neither had they any desire to stop with Hume’s results, which it became the fashion to brand as merely negative.

Consequently there was nothing for it but to go behind Hume’s chief premise and to deny that he had been right in making a rigid distinction between reason, fact, and value. If these could be fused into a single operation, or if reason could be interpreted as including them all at once, a new logic, a new metaphysics, and a new defense of absolute values might be produced.

This was the course that philosophy, under the guidance of Kant and most completely in Hegel’s idealism, elected to follow. Whether it achieved a synthesis or only a new confusion is still subject to debate. In any case Hume’s positivism had the paradoxical effect of producing an elaborate metaphysics, a religious revival, and a firmer belief in absolute ethical values.

Though Hegel gave the most systematic statement of this new philosophy, he combined ideas that were everywhere prevalent at the end of the eighteenth century-in a new literary valuation of sentiment, in romantic pseudo-medievalism, in the revival of folk-poetry and a new interest in the historical roots of national culture, and in the idea that law and institutions express the inner spirit of the nation.

So far as social philosophy is concerned three factors may be mentioned which, it was hoped, might be fused together in a new synthesis. In the first place, there was a tendency either to depreciate logic (or abstract reason) as compared with sentiment, or to hope that the two might be combined in a higher or profounder logic.

Carlyle’s sneer at Hume’s philosophy, as a flat continuous thrashing-floor tor logic, whereon all questions, from the doctrine of rent to the natural history of religion, are thrashed and sifted with the same mechanical impartiality, was typical in particular, the moral sentiments and the massive feelings of religious reverence and loyalty to the community that Rousseau had glorified were supposed to embody a deeper wisdom than that of mere logical clarity.

In the second place, this respect for sentiment and the community carried with it a new estimate of the value of custom and tradition. Instead of regarding them as the antithesis of reason, the new philosophy preferred to see in them the gradual unfolding of a reason implicit in the consciousness of the race or nation.

Hence they are no burden which the enlightened individual must shuffle off but a precious heritage to be guarded and into which it is the high privilege of the individual to be inducted. No one expressed this new valuation of the traditional national culture more clearly than Burke.

Finally, this change itself implied a new sense of the meaning of history. In the history of civilization it became the custom to see the gradual unfolding of the divine mind and the divine purpose. Hence the values of social life-its morals, its art and religion, and its cultural achievements-were at once absolute and relative, absolute in their ultimate significance though relative in any particular historical embodiment. Reason in man is a manifestation of an underlying cosmic spirit which realizes itself gradually in the history of the nations.

Burke: The Prescriptive Constitution:-

To this imposing but romantic philosophical edifice, which reached completion in the idealism of Hegel and with which the nineteenth century proposed to replace the system of natural law, Burke made an important contribution. He more than any other thinker in the eighteenth century approached the political tradition with a sense of religious reverence.

He saw in it an oracle which the statesman must consult and a growing repository of the achievements of the race which must be changed only with a due piety toward its inward meaning. There is, indeed, a certain incongruity in putting Hume and 2urke together in a single chapter. The cool and rather sardonic clarity of the Scottish philosopher was the antithesis of the ardent imagination and the innate piety of the Irish statesman.

Yet in a sense Burke accepted Hume’s negations of reason and the Jaw of nature. There is something almost defiant in his concession that society is artificial and not natural, that it is no product of reason alone, that its standards are conventions, and that it depends on obscure instincts and propensities even on prejudices. But art is man’s nature.

These propensities and the society that grows out of them are human nature; without them and without the moral codes and institutions in which a they issue a creature might be, as Aristotle said, a beast or a god but not a man. Consequently the traditions of a nation’s life have a utility not measured by their contribution merely to private convenience or the enjoyment of individual rights. They are the repository of all civilization, the source of religion and morality, and the arbiter even of reason itself.

Burke showed precisely, therefore, the reaction that was to follow upon Hume’s destruction of the eternal verities of reason and natural law. Sentiment, tradition, and idealized history stepped in to fill the vacancy left by the removal of self-evident rights, and the cult of the community replaced the cult of the individual.

There has been much discussion about the coherence of Burke’s political philosophy, especially about the consistency between his Whig principles and his violent reaction against the French Revolution. This reaction destroyed lifelong political associations and friendships, and to his contemporaries it appeared incompatible with his earlier defense of American liberties, his attacks on the king’s control over parliament, and his effort to sweep away the vested rights of the East India Company.

In truth this was a misconception. The coherence of Burke’s political views was never that of a logically constructed system, but the same conservative principles that actuated his attack on the Revolution ran through everything that he wrote before it.

The events in France, it is true, frightened him, unbalanced his judgment, revealed hatreds that had been decently masked, and produced a flood of irresponsible rhetoric in which his impartiality, his judgment of history, and his customary mastery of facts were largely lost. But the Revolution did not produce or even seriously change his ideas. It merely forced him to isolate them from concrete cases and to state them as general propositions.

At all times his main political beliefs were the same that political institutions form a vast and complicated system of prescriptive rights and customary observances, that these practices grow out of the past and adapt themselves in the present with no break in continuity, and that the tradition of the constitution and of society at large ought to be the object of a reverence akin to religion, because it forms the repository of a collective intelligence and civilization. The Revolution made his repudiation of natural rights more violent but not more complete.

For convenience in presentation a distinction may be made between Burke’s opinions on certain questions specifically English the nature of the constitution, parliamentary representation, and the value of parties-and generalized statements of theory which were largely called out by the French Revolution.

Burke accepted, as his loyalty to Whig principles required, the theory transmitted from Locke, that the constitution is a balance of crown, lords, and commons. For rhetorical purposes he was not above using the weight of Montesquieu’s authority, but in fact his idea of constitutional balance had little to do with the separation of powers which liberals regarded as the bulwark of individual liberties.

For Burke the balance is between the great vested interests of the realm and its ground is simply prescription, not at all the inviolability of individual rights. He agreed substantially with Hume that the arrangements of a political society are conventions sanctified by use and wont.

Our constitution is a prescriptive constitution; it is a constitution whose sole authority is that it has existed time out of mind. Your king, your lords, your judges, your juries, grand and little, all are prescriptive. Prescription is the most solid of all titles, not only to property, but, which is to secure that property, to government. It is a presumption in favor of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, that a nation has long existed and flourished under it. It is a better presumption even of the choice of a nation, far better than any sudden and temporary arrangement by actual election. Because a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation; but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one set of people, not a multiparty and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of the ages and of generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.

This view of the constitution could, it is true, claim the authority of Locke, but not of those parts of Locke which taught that the rights of individuals are indefeasible and which mainly commended him to revolutionists. It joined rather with the tradition which Locke carried over from Hooker and which went back to a per-revolutionary idea of the constitution as a comity between powers; all of them have an original authority, because all are organs of the realm, but none of them is legally sovereign.

More truly, however, Burke’s theory!of the constitution and his conception of parliamentary government was based upon the actual settlement of 1688 (as distinguished from Locke’s philosophical theory of it by which effective political control passed into the hands of the Whig nobility. His effort to revivify the Whig Party was already reactionary in 1770, because the great Whig houses no longer had the position of undisputed leadership that they enjoyed after the Revolution.

It was his loyalty to this conception of English government that made Burke oppose both the reform of parliament and the growth of George III influence in it. For he feared, and frankly said that he feared, the patronage of the crown and the money of the East Indian nabobs, which together made up an influence stronger than the Whigs could muster. Burke’s conception of parliamentary government accordingly included the independence of the ministry from the court and its leadership in parliament, but it excluded any popularizing of the House of Commons.

Parliamentary Representation and Political Parties:-

Consequently his theory of representation also looked back to the seventeenth century. He rejected the idea of a constituency as a numerical or territorial unit and of representation as implying the no session of the ballot by any considerable portion of the population represented. He denied that individual citizens as such are represented and that numerical majorities have any real significance in forming the mature opinion of the country.

Virtual representation, that is, representation in which there is a communion of interests and a sympathy in feelings and desires, he thought had most of the advantages of representation by actual election and was free from many of its disadvantages. In short, Burke visualized parliamentary government as conducted under the leadership of a compact but public-spirited minority, which in general the country was willing to follow, with parliament mainly a place where the leaders of this minority could be criticized and called to account by their party but in the interests of the whole country. At the same time his views permitted some sound criticism of representative government as it then existed.

He pointed out effectively difficulties which arose from trying to legislate in parliament in too great detail. He wrote, in his addresses to his constituents at Bristol, the classic defense of a member’s independence of judgment and action. Once elected he is responsible for the whole interest of the nation and the empire, and he owes to his constituents his best judgment freely exercised, whether it agrees with theirs or not.

As Burke said, a member does not go to school to his constituents to learn the principles of law and government. Burke’s effort to give new life to the Whigs caused him to see, earlier than any other English statesman, the necessary place in parliamentary government meld by the political party. This was implied in the Whig conception of the ministry as leaders of the House of Commons. Burke’s argument was directed against the prejudice, especially favorable to the pretensions of a patriot king like George III, that any combination for a political purpose within the nation is a faction, pursuing only unpatriotic partisan advantages. He formulated the classic definition of a political party.

Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.

He argued, unanswerable, that-any serious statesman must have ideas about what sound public policy requires and, if he is responsible, he must avow the intention to put his policy into effect and seek the means to do it. He must act with others of like views and allow no private considerations to break his loyalty to them. They must hold together as a unit and refuse alliances or leadership incompatible with the principles on which their party is formed. This was unquestionably an idea of great importance for the understanding and operation of constitutional government.

Abstract Rights and the Politic Personality:-

Important though these ideas of English government were, they would hardly entitle Burke to a high place among political philosophers. It was the Revolution in France that forced him, much against his will, to state in general terms the principles upon which he had been accustomed to act.

In his earlier writings he had almost ostentatiously eschewed a political philosophy. In the two most celebrated cases in which he played a conspicuous part, the controversy with America and the attack on the privileges of the East India Company, he refused to discuss either the abstract legal powers of parliament or the abstract rights of the colonies or the Company.

In the case of America he had proposed to consult the genius of the constitution but he had denied that its letter was worth debating. Still more had he been accustomed to speak disparagingly of abstract theories about the rights of citizens, the resort to which he described as a sure symptom of an ill-conducted state.

He had contrasted judgment in the abstract sciences, where it is a merit to consider only one circumstance at a time, with political judgment, which requires consideration of the largest possible number of circumstances. He had denied that mores questions are ever abstract and had asserted that things are right and wrong, morally speaking, only by their relation and connection with other things.

He had described the wisdom of the statesman as prudence, expedience, the knowledge of human nature, and dependence upon opinion. In short, he had conceived politics as an art and a gift of insight, dealing with a subject-matter so obviously mixed and modified, that human rights are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition but not impossible to be discerned.

It was the militancy of the revolutionary philosophy that forced ,Burke not, indeed, to state a theory of rights, but to set down in general form his ideas of the social framework in which rights occur.

It is true that he never denied the reality of natural rights. Like Hume he admitted that the social contract may be true merely as a bit of hypothetical history,and much more than Hume he was convinced that some of the conventions of society are inviolable.

Just what these immovable principles are he never tried to say-property, religion, and the main outlines of the political constitution would probably have been among them-but he certainly believed in their reality. However, again like Hume, he believed that they were purely conventional. That is to say, they arise not from anything belonging to nature or to the human species at large, but solely from the habitual and prescriptive arrangements that make a particular body of men into a civil society. Burke drew precisely the same contrast between a race and a society that Rousseau had drawn in his criticism of Diderot.

In a state of rude nature there is no such thing as a people. A number of men in themselves have no collective capacity. The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation. It is wholly artificial; and made, like all other legal fictions, by common agreement. What the particular nature of that agreement was, is collected from the form into which the particular society has been cast.

This is the reason why the revolutionary ideal of equality is impossible; to realize and destructive in its effects. The rule of majorities is itself merely a social convention, a device of practice settled by general agreement and strengthened by habit; it is quite unknown to nature.

Moreover, natural equality is socially fictitious. The incorporation of men into a politic body requires differences of rank, an habitual social discipline, in which the wiser, the more expert, and the more opulent conduct, and by conducting enlighten and protect, the weaker, the less knowing, and the less provided with the goods of fortune in short, a people is an organized group; it has a history and institutions, customary ways of acting, habitual pieties and loyalties and authorities. It is a true politic personality.

Such a corporate structure depends only in a small degree upon calculation or self-interest or even upon the conscious will. In his ironical attack upon the revolutionists glorification of reason, Burke was even willing to say that society depends on prejudice, that is to gay, on deep-seated feelings of love and loyalty, beginning with the family and the neighborhood, and spreading out to the country and the nation.

At bottom these feelings are instinctive. They make up the massive substructure of human personality in comparison with which reason and self-interest are superficial. At the foundation of society and morals is the need that every man feels to be a part of something larger and more enduring than his own ephemeral existence.

Communities are held together not by self-interest cunningly calculated but by the sense of membership and duty, by the feeling that one has a place in the community even though it be but a lowly one, and that one is morally obligated to carry the burden that one’s position traditionally imposes. Without such a sense a stable union of men is impossible, for the individual intelligence, unsupported by customary institutions and their duties, is a frail instrument.

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

It was this sense of the massiveness of the communal life and of the relative impotence of individual reason and will that made Burke the enemy of abstract ideas in politics. Such ideas are always too simple to fit the facts. They assume a degree of inventiveness that even the wisest statesman does not possess and a degree of pliability that institutions do not possess. Institutions are not invented or made; they are alive and grow.

Hence they must be approaches with reverence and touched with caution, for the planning and contriving politician, with venturesome, speculative plans for new institutions, can easily destroy what it passes his wit to rebuild. Old institutions work well because they have ages of habituation and familiarity and respect behind them; no new invention, however logical, will work until it has amassed a similar body of habit and sentiment. Accordingly the pretensions of the revolutionists to make a new constitution and a new government seemed to Burke both mad and tragic.

A government may be changed and improved but only a little at a time and always in accordance with the habits of its people and in the spirit of its own history. This was what Burke meant when he spoke of consulting the genius of the constitution, He had an almost mystical reverence for the embodied wisdom of a people. Always, he assumed, a great political tradition contains the clues for its own development, not by the slavish following of precedent but by the adaptation of a customary practice to a new situation. This for him was the art of the statesman, to preserve by changing. It was a faculty of insight as much as reason and as such defied definition.

The Divine Tactic of History:-

Accordingly, Burke not only cleared away, as Hume had done, the pretense that social institutions depend on reason or nature but far more than Hume he reversed the scheme of values implied by the system of natural law. It is custom, tradition, and membership in a society far more than reason that gives moral quality to human nature. As Rousseau had said, one becomes a man by being a citizen. For it is this artificial body that provides everything morally estimable or even genuinely rational in human life; art is man’s nature.

The contrast is not between a stupid, repressive authority and the free, rational individual, but between this beautiful order, this array of truth and nature, as well as of habit and prejudice and a disbanded race of deserters and vagabonds. Civilization is the possession not of individuals but of communities; all a man’s spiritual possessions come from his membership in an organized society.

For society and the social tradition is the guardian of all that the race has created, its moral ideals, its art, its science and learning. Membership means access to all the stores of culture, to all that makes the difference between savagery and civilization. It is not a burden but an open door to human liberation.

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up fora little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of 2 temporary and perishable nature. 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. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each it their appointed place.

In this eloquent passage, probably the most famous that Burke ever wrote, the peculiar, almost Hegelian, use of the word state ought to be noted. No clear sine is drawn between society at large and the state, and the latter is named as in a special sense the guardian of all the higher interests of civilization.

Yet the fact is not excluded that the state is also, in one of its lower capacities, the government that fosters a trade of pepper and coffee. This was, to say the least, a serious confusion of words, since society, the state, and government have certainly very different meanings.

Moreover, the interchange served a rhetorical need in Burke’s argument. By it he implied that the revolutionary government in France, in overthrowing the monarchy, had become an enemy to French society and was destroying French civilization. Doubtless Burke meant to assert that this was true, but he had no right to cast the argument in a form that begged the question.

Overthrowing a government and destroying a society are quite different things, and there are many sides of a civilization that depend very little on the State. This tendency to idealize the state by making it the bearer of all that has the highest value for civilization became characteristic of Hegel and of the English idealists.

Burke’s reverential attitude toward the state distinguished him absolutely from Hume and the utilitarians; the word expedience was often on his lips but it had hardly the meaning of utility. For he practically united politics with religion. This was true not only in the conventional senses that he was himself a religious man, that he believed good citizenship to be inseparable from religious piety, and that he defended the establishment of the English church as a consecration of the nation.

It was rather that he looked upon the social structure, its history, its institutions, its manifold duties and loyalties, with a reverence that was akin to religious awe. He experienced this feeling not only for England but for any ancient, deeply rooted civilization.

The vehemence of his attack on the East India Company and of his arraignment of Warren Hastings was in part due to such a feeling toward the ancient civilization of India and to the conviction that the Indians must therefore be governed upon their own principles and not upon Ours, while he believed that the Company had merely exploited and de, strayed.

He felt a like reverence for the culture of France, even for its monastic institutions, for which as a Protestant he had no strictly religious regard. Burke never could feel that any government or any Society was a matter of human concern alone; it was a part of the divine moral order wherewith God governs the world.

Nor could he feel that an nation was a law merely to itself. For as every man should have his place in the stable and continuing order of his nation, so every nation has its place in a world-wide civilization unfolding in accord with  divine tactic. In one passage, written after Burke had nearly exhausted himself with the violence of his attack or.

France, this sense of a divine plan in history rose above even his invincible hatred of the Revolution. He said in a spirit of resignation that if indeed a great change is to come, then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. In this feeling for divine immanence in the social order and its historical development Burke was strikingly like Hegel.

I attest the retiring,  attest the advancing generations, between which, as a link in the great chain of eternal order, we stand.

Burke, Rousseau, and Hegel:-

Burke is rightly regarded as the founder of self-conscious political conservatism. Nearly all its principles are to be found in his speeches and pamphlets an appreciation of the complexity of the social system and of the massiveness of its customary arrangements, a respect for the wisdom of established institutions, especially religion and property, a strong sense of continuity in its historical changes and a belief in the relative impotence of individual will and reason to deflect it from its course, and a keen moral satisfaction in the loyalty that attaches its members to their stations in its various ranks.

The point is not, of course, that before Burke there was no conservatism, but it is almost true to say that there was no conservative philosophy. He intended indeed to uphold the political privilege of a party that was already losing its control of English government, but his ideas had a much wider application than the defense of the Whig oligarchy. The reaction that he led against the French Revolution was the beginning of a shift which carried the prevailing social philosophy from attack to defense and therefore to a new emphasis on the value of stability and the power of custom on which stability depends.

It was not true that this new conservatism stood Immovably for the status quo. Hegel, whose philosophy embodied systematically all of Burke’s scattered principles, was typically the advocate of a new political order in Germany. But the rise to importance of such a philosophy signified an era in which the forces of change were ready to join hands with the forces of stability. Behind it lay a structure of social classes which for the time being was relatively stable and in which even liberals could hope to gain their ends by evolution rather than revolution.

The pervasiveness of this change in the climate of European opinion is indicated by the astonishing similarity between the basic ideas of Burke and Rousseau. Superficially the two men had nothing in common, and Burke did not fail to record the contempt which a somewhat superficial acquaintance aroused in him for Rousseau character.

Yet Rousseau’s nostalgia for the city-state and Burke’s reverence for the national tradition were of a piece. Both were phases of the new cult of society which was replacing the old cult of the individual. Not less striking were the differences between Burke and Hume, despite the substantially conservative temper of both men and their agreement about inalienability of the system of natural law.

Hume retained the preference for matter-of-fact motives and purposes which always characterizes the utilitarian temperament. If there was anything that aroused downright distrust and dislike in his placid mind it was enthusiasm. In destroying reverence for the law of nature he felt no need to put a new reverence in its place, and a cult of society would not have appeared to him better than other cults. With Burke the destruction of the pseudo-science of natural law was the occasion, as it was with Kant, for setting up a rational faith, in which the warmth of reverence did duty for the assurance of truth.

It is perhaps stretching a point to say that Burke had a political philosophy at all. His ideas are scattered through his speeches and pamphlets, all called out by the stress of events, though they have the consistency that is the stamp of a powerful intelligence and settled “moral convictions.

Certainly he had no philosophy other than his own reaction to the events in which he took part and little knowledge of the history of philosophy. He was therefore unaware of the relation of his own ideas, or of the system of natural law that he opposed, to the whole intellectual history of modern Europe.

He could not have given systematic form even to his own reflections on political and social morality; still less could he trace their bearing on the larger questions of religion and science of which they were a part. In the generation after Burke, however, it was just this broader relationship that Hegel tried to show.

There is no question of direct influence; Burke see, never to have been mentioned by Hegel, though the influence a Rousseau upon him was important. But what Burke had taken a granted Hegel tried to prove: that the apparently fragmentary Social tradition can be placed in a general system of social evolution. And he added what Burke had not thought of that the rational form of this evolution might be made into a method generally applicable to Philosophy and social studies

Leave a Comment