Burke and Political Epistemology

Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution.

Burke is of special importance for two reasons: he is the first political thinker to have had an inkling of the link between utopian thinking and totalitarian government – a link abundantly confirmed in our day. And he is the first political thinker to have articulated an explicitly conservative philosophy, as a comprehensive answer to the liberal and egalitarian arguments of his day. Obviously the concepts and the problems have all changed since Burke’s day; but many of the underlying arguments remain the same, and his striking ability to combine highly original thought with immediate popular impact has meant that Burke remains almost as influential today as he was when he wrote.

Points to remember: Burke made his name as a man of letters before his success as a politician, and wrote one of the most successful and influential works of philosophical aesthetics of the eighteenth century – the short essay On the Sublime and the Beautiful. He moved in literary circles, and rose to prominence in Parliament as a member of the Whig faction. (He was not a Tory; though of course party lines did not clearly exist then, and political parties only came on the scene with the Reform Act of 1832.) His political career was hampered by his predilection for lost causes: he wasted years of his life on the unsuccessful attempt to impeach Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India.

(Note: Hastings was probably a hard-working and conscientious civil servant in a difficult position. The chief charges against him concerned his extortion of money from the rajah of Benares and the begum of Oudh, his hiring out of British troops to the nawab of Oudh to subdue the Rohillas (a warlike Afghan tribe), and his alleged responsibility for the judicial murder of an Indian merchant, Nandkumar. He was impeached in 1787; but the trial, begun in 1788, ended with acquittal in 1795, despite the bitter prosecution of Burke, Richard B. Sheridan, the playwright and liberal MP, and Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs. Hastings ‘s fortune was spent in his defense, but the East India Company contributed to his later support. He became popular and was made a privy councillor (1814). Burke too was a privy councillor, but gave up his political ambitions on the death of his son.)

The Reflections on the French Revolution remains the most read and pondered of Burke’s works, though it should be remembered that it was, like most of his political writings, produced as a pamphlet in the heat of the moment, with a view to influencing public opinion at a critical time in European politics. It succeeded in dampening support for the French Revolution, and also in awakening the political class to the dangers of the new international situation. It is a work of immense rhetorical power, with many lapses into bathos, but also with passages of remarkable beauty and impact. The argument is as much concealed as revealed, however, in the passages which unfold it, so the work must be read with care.

Rhetoric and Philosophy.

There is an old dispute, very much alive in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, between rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, and philosophy, which is the love of truth. Obviously rhetoric can be deployed in the cause of falsehood as well as that of truth, and it is possible to be suspicious of rhetoric for that very reason – why are its devices being used, if it is not to hoodwink us? Truth needs no advocate except itself, and when clearly stated will persuade of its own accord. Such is the assumption of the philosopher, at least. This has led people to be suspicious of Burke’s Reflections, which are artfully composed and brilliantly rhythmical. They also deploy an interesting rhetorical device, which is to assume that their audience is already persuaded of the views that they defend. Burke’s intention was to persuade the English reading public not to listen to the radicals and egalitarians of his day, and in particular not to be taken in by the rhetoric of the French revolution. He was seriously concerned that people were leaning in the revolutionary direction and needed to be brought back to the right perspective. Yet he shaped his argument as a letter to a Frenchman, informing that Frenchman of the sound views of the English on the matters which the French revolutionaries had put in question. His intention was to provoke the reaction: yes, how very wise we English are, to think like that! That is exactly why we should beware of these dangerous ideas from France.

This rhetorical device implies two things: first that Burke was far less certain than he pretended to be, that he was expressing the settled prejudices of the English (still less of the British) people; secondly that many things that he should have been arguing for he was obliged, by his rhetorical trick, to take for granted – in particular, the overall success of the mixed and unwritten constitution of the emerging British state, in dealing with the problems posed by the post-Enlightenment world. At every point the negative features of the French experiment (into which Burke had a prescient insight) are being contrasted with an unexplored alternative, supposed to be too familiar and too self-evidently successful to demand exposition:

‘A politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral rather than a complexional timidity, were among the ruling principles of our forefathers in their most decided conduct. Not being illuminated with the light of which the gentlemen of France tell us they have got so abundant a share, they acted under a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind…. Let us imitate their caution if we wish to deserve their fortune or to retain their bequests. Let us add, if we please, but let us preserve what they have left; and standing on the firm ground of the British constitution, let us be satisfied to admire, rather than attempt to follow in their desperate flights, the aeronauts of France…’

This contentious presentation of the British constitution went hand in hand with a very vivid and prescient account of what was happening in France. Burke’s Reflections would have had less impact if it had not become clear, within a few years, that his predictions of chaos and terror were well founded. Moreover, he foresaw what was to be the shared outlook of the French Revolutionaries’ supporters, throughout the 19th century and right down to the new Jacobins of the Russian Revolution. His view was sneered at in every revolutionary period, and endorsed in every revolutionary aftermath. Nowadays the French Revolution has few unqualified defenders, of course; but it is important to see that it needed considerable philosophical insight to foresee when Burke wrote, less than a year after it had happened, what would result from it.

Political Epistemology.

At the heart of Burke’s argument is an epistemological observation, similar to the observation that underlies Hayek’s theory of spontaneous order, and Adam Smith’s account of the ‘invisible hand’. The creation and maintenance of a free political order, he argues, cannot be achieved through a rational plan, or through any statement of goals, however elevated, since it is not in our power to understand how to fulfil that plan or to achieve those goals. The knowledge that is needed to confront the complex problems of a great society, and to guide people through all their conflicts without violence and disorder, is not knowledge that can be contained in a single head. It is knowledge that accumulates in society as a whole, there to be made available in the form of customs and traditions that have the tacit consent of the people, largely because they have not been schooled in the art of questioning them:

‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the 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 ages…’.

The ‘we’ in that sentence refers to the (rhetorically invoked) British people, but should in fact be read as a place-holder for ‘people of political wisdom’. Burke goes on from this statement to develop his interesting account of prejudice. A prejudice is not, for Burke, a defective kind of belief – i.e. a belief arrived at in advance of the evidence that might confirm or refute it, and held on to regardless. It is part of the common epistemic capital – a piece of wisdom, the legacy not of personal experience, but of the experience of generations, and shaped to the needs of social action. Prejudice provides a steady motive to action , and makes right conduct into a habit, rather than a momentary decision. (The thinking here echoes that behind Aristotle’s theory of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics. )

‘Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice his duty becomes a part of his nature.’

Philosophers will notice the way in which the word ‘just’ has been slipped in at the last minute: in order to counter the objection that not every prejudice embodies wisdom, and that there are prejudices among the thinking classes, such as those that caused the French Revolution, which are a danger to mankind. What Burke is trying to say is that prejudices are validated by their origins, and when they are so validated it is because their origins lie outside the individual agent, in the accumulated experience of a community, and because they encapsulate the motives that have enabled people to live together in harmony. They are, if you like, solutions to permanent problems of coordination, and embody the successful attempt to reconcile the freedom of each person with the freedom of his neighbours, under a shared political order. Such solutions cannot be derived ­ a priori, because the information on which they depend is available only in the workings of society, and not in the brain of any individual.

Putting it that way is of course to emphasize the connection with the Austrian theories of the market, and it is not the way that Burke puts it. However, his position should be seen, not only as a theory of Hayekian ‘spontaneous order’, but also as empiricist. He believed that government requires knowledge; that this knowledge, like all knowledge, must ultimately be derived from experience; and that the experience in question is the experience of many people over many generations, from which it is distilled in the form of prejudice. Not a foolish theory, and one that he saw the French Revolution as confirming through its failed attempt to refute it.

Religion and the State.

Burke shared with other contemporary conservatives the view that religion is fundamental to the body politic. He defended the Anglican establishment (though he was of mixed Catholic and Protestant descent, like many middle-class Irishmen). Indeed, he saw an established religion as performing a vital political function, which is that of ‘the consecration of the state’. The state cannot enjoy the authority that it demands, in the eyes of ordinary people, if it is not also endowed with some of the immovable and untouchable characteristics that attach to religion. Its ceremonies and offices stand in need of haloes, so to speak, with which to put them beyond the reach of innovation, and with which to endow them with an other-worldly dignity.

However, Burke also believed in religious freedom, and was less concerned about differences of opinion in religious matters than about the dangers of radical atheism – which was the state of mind advanced by the French Revolution, as he saw it. For Burke ‘man is by his constitution a religious animal’; and this means that, if you destroy the long-standing and evolved institutions of religion, as these are enjoyed in a country like France, you create a vacuum into which other, more superstitious and more dangerous ideas will flow. He was, like many of his contemporaries, shocked by the anti-clerical fervour of the Revolution, not merely because of the cruelties and excesses committed against priests, monks and nuns, and the confiscation of their endowments – though all those measures were bad enough in Burke’s eyes. He was shocked especially because he believed that the revolutionaries were depriving the ordinary people of something that they need. The religious need would not lie dormant for long: take away the long-standing religious traditions and institutions, and it would manifest itself in other and more fantastic creeds and symbols.

In a way Burke’s argument here is a version of the conservative anthropologist’s: it does not presuppose the truth of any doctrine. It holds, rather, that religious traditions are part of the epistemological inheritance of a community. They too embody those long-standing solutions to communal needs and impulses that are not to be shaped anew by intellectual thought. Take them away, and you leave people exposed to fanaticism of a new and more dangerous kind – in particular to the religion of the State. (And Burke was perhaps the first to recognize that the State might emerge from the revolutionary turmoil with all the trappings and privileges of a deity.) This posture of Burke’s informs his view of the role of intellectuals in revolutionary politics. Priests take vows to something greater than themselves, so as to become servants of the community, purveyors of customs and traditions that have some of the benign epistemic content that Burke attributes to ‘just prejudice’. But intellectuals have a tendency to place themselves above all other powers, justified by their superior learning in confiscating or destroying everything that stands opposed to their schemes.

The New Class.

Burke describes the Revolution as the work of a ‘literary cabal’, and recent historical research confirms his judgement that the prime movers in the revolution were people in the grip of the anti-religious, utopian and egalitarian doctrines associated with the Encylopedists (Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert etc.), and spread through the country via the institution of the cabinets de lecture. The characteristic of the intellectual politician, for Burke, is the desire to impose on the organic workings of society the abstract geometry of a rational plan. This ‘rationalism’ is dangerous for many reasons, not the least of which being its inherent hostility towards opposition. Anyone who is motivated by a rational plan, and who believes that he has discovered the correct means to achieve it, is apt to believe that his opponents are not just mistaken but also obstacles, standing in the way of what needs to be done. This is an epistemological error (since correct solutions emerge over time, through dialogue between opponents, and the achievement of compromises that are then built into customs). But it is also a serious moral threat. Intellectuals animated by ‘rational’ plans grant themselves total licence to silence those who stand in their way, even to the extent of murdering them. (This was already beginning to happen, but it should be noted that Burke wrote before the Terror.)

Those who had usurped the power of the state in France had ‘sublimed themselves into airy metaphysicians’, resolved to know nothing of those they governed except as ‘men in general’. In other words, their rationalism led them to propose abstract theorems for the government of human societies, while ignoring the concrete historical circumstances, and the inherited customs and institutions, and the fundamental predispositions which make human beings governable in the first place. This too leads to an epistemological failing: revolutionary government, for Burke, is always at war with its own informational base. It doesn’t know what it is doing, precisely because it is led by people who are confident that they do know what they are doing, and that the knowledge in question can be contained in abstract principles, which make no reference to the history and customs of the people on whom they are to be imposed.

Burke made another important observation. The ‘literary cabal’ sees the state and its institutions not as an inheritance to be respected, but as a tool to be used. And since it knows what is right, and is absolutely entitled by its knowledge to rule over lesser mortals, the cabal uses the state to consolidate its own power – to ensure that it occupies all the offices of government, and to eliminate all the institutions (such as the judicial ‘parliaments’ of the old regime) in which other forces than its own might be heard. In this way it builds up its own position as a new class – assigning to itself important positions and powers which are every bit as unequal as those enjoyed by the old aristocracy, but without the authority of custom or the limits imposed by a proper ‘division of powers’. (Burke anticipated the abolition of judicial independence in France: and this was to be critical in precipitating the Terror.)

Furthermore this new class, which has a monopoly control of the state, will apply the power of the state – which is the only power it knows how to use – in all kinds of spheres where it is both out of its depth epistemologically, and also a negative force. The assault on the free economy, on the currency, and on the military were all to be foretold once the new class had arrived on the scene. Its first reaction to any problem of economics or social order is to absorb the matter into the functions of the state, by confiscating property, issuing phony currency in the form of assignats, and trying to impose as a command what can only exist as the by-product of free agreements.

Much that Burke says about the literary cabal applies, with even more truth, to the communist revolutions of more recent times, In particular he identified two features which have been characteristic of revolutions throughout modern times: (a) what certain more recent thinkers (e.g. Eric Voegelin, Alain Besançon (The Intellectual Origins of Leninism)) call ‘gnosticism’ – the view that intellectual enlightenment brings with it an absolute title to government, and (b) the use of the state in order to create a new class, bound together by privileges which are generated at the political level, rather than at the level of society.

The Rights of Man.

The literary cabal had seized power in the name of an ‘armed doctrine’ (Burke’s expression for what we might now call an ‘ideology’). This was the doctrine of ‘natural rights’ or the ‘Rights of Man’. In calling this an armed doctrine Burke meant to emphasize its all-justifying character: it recognized no limitations of history, national boundary or custom, and authorized any action whatever carried out in its name. (He therefore predicted the successive declarations of war which the revolutionary government made on the governments of Europe, in the name of the ‘people’ whom those governments ‘oppressed’.)

Burke acknowledged that there are natural rights, and saw the British Declaration of Right of 1689 as embodying them. But (a) these rights are procedural rights – rights to a fair trial, to private property justly acquired, to a rule of law, and so on – as opposed to claims against the property and liberty of others; and (b) they become a political reality only when embodied in an enduring constitution. When declared as abstract doctrine, without reference to the inherited procedures whereby they have come down to us, the ‘rights of man’ become a danger – a licence to oppress minorities in the interests of those with majority power, and so on.

‘… from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity…’

Burke anticipated modern conservative objections to the idea of ‘social justice’, arguing that when rights are rewritten, not as procedures limiting the exercise of power, but as goals to be advanced by power, it becomes possible to commit any kind of injustice against the individual citizen. He was particularly opposed to the confiscations of property that were carried out in the name of the ‘rights of man’. Here was an instance, in Burke’s eyes, of the way in which the doctrine of natural rights could be used by one group of citizens to oppress and rob another.

The problem, as Burke saw it, lay not in the idea of natural rights, which had the authority of a long tradition of legal and political thinking. It lay in the illusion that this idea contains a complete description of the aims and the methods of government: ‘Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect.’

This complaint is often echoed today. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, for example, contains (art 26) a ‘right to education’. This is not a freedom right but a claim right (see class on freedom, earlier). So on whom does the duty lie to provide for this right? Obviously the state, and that means the taxpayer. If this really is a ‘natural right’ – i.e. a right upheld by natural law, on a priori grounds that all rational beings must acknowledge – then there is an a priori reason for the existence of state educational systems, and the economy that goes with them. This is one of many examples in which the doctrine of natural right (‘human rights’) can be used, and is being used, to advance statist solutions to social needs and interests, and to give legitimacy to socialist policies. Moreover it raises in acute form the question how you justify the claim that something is or is not a natural right. Burke’s choice of procedural rights (rights falling under the aegis of ‘natural justice’) is animated by a belief that these are indeed justifiable by a priori argument: there are no rights at all, if there is no procedure whereby the individual can claim them. Therefore, if there are any rights, there is the right to such a procedure – an a priori proof. But this leaves the field wide open as to what other rights there might be. And that, Burke is saying, is how it should be. Those other rights express the long-standing and slow-forming agreements and compromises of an actual historical community, as opposed to the belligerent abstractions of an intellectual doctrine.

At other points, however, Burke is prepared to state universal rights. But the emphasis is always on freedom rights, rather than claim rights, e.g.: ‘Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.’ That is, in effect, an anticipation of Mill’s ‘harm’ principle. Also, in the state ‘all men have equal rights, but not to equal things’, a statement that needs much unpacking, if it is not to look as though it takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. Apart from such abstract negative principles, however, Burke believes that convention is the source of our concrete rights, and that convention is the outcome of history.

History and Political Obligation.

This brings us to the Burkean idea of historical right. The new class of intellectuals was, in Burke’s view, at ‘inexpiable war with establishments’. The fact that something had existed already and had stood the test of time mattered not at all to the cabal. ‘Duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time…’. However, this progressive and innovative quality in the new class does not betoken any real understanding of, or ability to secure, the future. ‘People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors’; and it is precisely through giving a proper place to those ancestors that societies achieve the stability on which future generations depend.

The social contract, as Rousseau had outlined it, and as the Revolutionaries, following Rousseau, had conceived it, was a contract between living people, for their mutual benefit. To this Burke made the reply (a) that society is indeed a contract, but (b) that the state is not to be seen as a kind of commercial deal, replaceable at will by some better arrangement. On the contrary, a political community is founded on a ‘contract between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’. In other words, the state is not founded in a contract, properly speaking, but in a condition of trusteeship. The state does not exist to confer the accumulated benefits and savings of past generations on whomesoever should seize temporary control of it – which is the danger in any democracy, and especially a democracy that is declared by a band of self-righteous intellectuals. The state exists precisely to prevent that kind of conduct: ‘lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as though they were the entire masters…’.

This aspect of Burke is probably his most profound contribution to conservative philosophy. His attack on the revolutionaries was fundamentally an attack on their presumption of absolute ownership of the accumulated assets and institutions of France . By abolishing all obligations to ancestors and by refusing to be bound by all obligations, trusts and bequests of the previous regime, the revolutionaries were in effect disenfranchising the dead, and thereby disenfranchising their own successors. To respect future generations one must also respect the dead, and all that the dead have set aside for the lasting well-being of the community.

There is a powerful point here, both psychologically and logically. Trusteeship is a different relation from contract, and incorporates the diachronic nature of our obligations, in a way that contract fails to do. Conservatism and conservation are in fact two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs and institutions; they also include the material capital contained in the environment, and the economic capital contained in a free but law-governed economy. The purpose of politics, on this view, is not to rearrange society in the interests of some over-arching vision or ideal, such as equality, liberty or fraternity. It is to maintain a vigilant resistance to the entropic forces that erode our social and ecological inheritance. The goal is to pass on to future generations, and if possible to enhance, the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.

Love and Hate.

The theme of trusteeship connects with an underlying moral vision in Burke. At several places he points to the negative energy of the revolutionaries. They express themselves in the language of love: but what they love are abstractions – liberty, equality, fraternity, defined without reference to any concrete human beings, and in abstraction from any real policy that would show how to achieve these goals. On the other hand their deeds are animated by an extraordinary hatred: hatred of religion, custom, institutions, classes. And their political discourse is full of hatred towards those whom they wish to punish, usually for ‘crimes’ for which they are not in any way personally responsible. As Burke saw it, the ‘cabal’ was animated by a need to hate which was in no way balanced by the purely abstract declarations of love with which it excused its persecutions. He did not express the point in the terms used by Nietzsche; but it is quite clear that he identified in the Revolution the very force that Nietzsche condemned by the name of ressentiment – the burning hatred towards those who possess the good things of life, and the desire to cast them down from their eminence. This purely negative emotion aims always to destroy, but as a rule has no idea of what to put in place of the thing that it destroys. And of course you don’t have to read much about the Russian revolutionaries to agree that resentment played a large part in animating their project. Burke’s insight into the Jacobins anticipated the observations of Dostoevsky and Conrad concerning the early Russian nihilists, and those of later writers concerning the spirit of the communist revolution. The desire to destroy is uppermost, urgent and concrete; the protestations of love (for ‘ le peuple toujours malheureux’, as Robespierre described (and made) them) subdued, unfocused and abstract.

Here begins a theme to which I will return at the end of the semester. There is an important motive underlying conservatism – a motive that distinguishes it from liberalism, and which sets it in radical opposition to socialism in all its forms, and that motive is love – love of ‘the given’, of the actual and inherited social order, with all its imperfections. This love quickly turns to mourning when that order is too much changed; it always has an anticipatory grief attached to it. And this explains the impact of Burke’s prose – that, even when flawed by sentimentality and moroseness, it is turned constantly in the direction of something loved, maybe idealized, but loved as a concrete and existing thing. Socialist literature, when it deals with the actual, is usually fuelled by animosity, often towards some class, such as the bourgeoisie, targeted as exploiters, usurpers or whatever. Burke was perhaps the first conservative to see that this emotion is a vital source of radical politics and precedes its target. Hence it brooks no rational argument.

Burke produced arguments, comparisons, analogies. But he also identified a state of mind , which entered politics with the French Revoluton and has been part of politics ever since. It is this state of mind which is expressed, for Burke, equally in utopian schemes (whose very abstraction liberates the ‘hatred of the actual’ which is their real motive) and in the totalitarian forms of government which inevitably result from them – forms of government bent on destroying the Other, the one who is attached to things as they are. Recent thinkers (François Furet, for example) have come to agree with Burke in seeing this state of mind at work in the French Revolution. Others, like Milosz and Solzhenitsyn, have had much to say about its presence in the totalitarian revolutions of our time.

This takes us out of the realm of pure philosophy into that of psychology. But it has a bearing on political philosophy, since it raises in a new form the question of which beliefs, which conceptions, which political analyses, are ‘ideology’, in the Marxist sense, and which are science. Leftists dismiss Burke’s pamphlet as ideology. But he could reply that the utopian thinking to which he is opposed has a far greater claim to the title, since it exists as a mask of love over the face of hatred.

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