Edmund Burke was an 18th century English politician who is credited as the founder of conservative politics. The big reason he got to be the father of conservatism is because he was part of the first generation of people to observe ideology first hand, and his opposition to revolutionary politics and defense of an order carefully cultivated over many generations sets him apart from many of the men of his age who remain famous to this day.
Many of his writings have been ordered and this Harvard Classics volume focuses on four works in particular. Two works are aesthetic philosophy and two concern contemporary politics. The first, a short treatise called On Taste, investigates the meaning of taste, how it is cultivated and the difference between good and bad taste. His conclusion is that taste is honed by experience, familiarity, and practice. As a whole, the piece felt extremely dated because many of his discussions on art not only contradict the modern art movements, but also the preceding romantic movement. The trouble is a good framework should provide insight not just to the past but into the future, and I struggled to see how Burke would incorporate luminaries such as Monet and Van Gogh into his theory. Jackson Pollack, of course, would be right out.
The other aesthetic work in this collection was On the Sublime and the Beautiful. This much longer work is much more solid and fits both examples from Burke’s past and examples from Burke’s future quite nicely. The sublime is something that overwhelms your other emotions, pushing everything else out and replacing it with a single emotion. The beautiful, on the other hand, draws you in willingly. Burke works through the mechanisms for the sublime and the qualities of the beautiful while writing specific objections to notions like beauty deriving from fitness to purpose. All and all, this is a very solid and worthwhile work of philosophy to engage with and take something from.
The biggest work in this collection is Burke’s most famous, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Written during the beginning, hopeful period of the French Revolution, before the Jacobin Club earned its infamy, Burke’s Reflections offer a denunciation of the events that had transpired in France since the King had called the Estates General. Burke’s main argument is that, while the ancien regime was in need of a proverbial draining of the swamp, the fundamental structure of French government has served them well for a millennia and shouldn’t be jettisoned in favor of redesigning everything “rationally” from the ground up.
Burke’s conservatism is laid out very strongly in Reflections. He looks at every aspect of the National Assembly and deconstructs it in humiliating fashion. The deconstruction isn’t necessarily the reason this work has stayed relevant, Burke would be vindicated in a few short years on the instability and nonsensicalness of the reforms the revolution had brought even at this early stage. The relevance to today is how he lays out his opposition to ideological thinking in general and embeds his philosophy on governance.
Before I discuss Burke’s conservatism more, I’d like to take note of the last work in the collection, Letter to a Noble Lord, written by Burke to one of his political enemies going after the pension he had been granted by the King. The letter is a masterwork of invective, dressing down his critics and espousing his philosophy. Written at the end of his life, Letter to a Noble Lord lays everything on the table in a fairly short form.
Overall, Burke’s political philosophy as espoused in Reflections on the Revolution in France and Letter to a Noble Lord are quite different from conservatism today, but not without some things in common. Conservatism today is ideological in a way that Burke distinctly was not. Free market economics, a hawkish foreign policy, Judeo-Christian values and adherence to the Constitution are, to the American conservative, the solutions to every problem faced by the country. Burke is distinctly different in that he does not think that one should strictly adhere to a particular set of solutions at every turn, i.e. he is not ideological. Instead of ideology, Burke has values that he seeks for government to uphold. Burke values things like security, justice, order, prosperity and other good and ultimately does not care what form the government takes on, and is happy to use experience as a guide towards achieving that end.
This attitude is ultimately what Burkean Conservatism is about. The trouble with applying it to a modern American context, or a modern British context, is the application results in contradictory suggestions. How can one be a conservative like Burke when the dominant forces in the country are heading for cultural, fiscal, and demographic implosion? How can a conservative support a status quo that is increasingly desirous to infringe on fundamental rights? These are tough questions that I’ve answered by abandoning conservatism as insufficient for the problems we face.
However, Burke did face an even more extreme situation than that of the West today before his death. The French Revolution, which he so forcefully spoke against in 1790 went on for quite a few more years. Burke was alive for the Reign of Terror and the accompanying regicide. He continued to write and be involved in politics, and throughout that time he advocated for the restoration of the monarchy, albeit with a constitution. That hardly aligns with the type of conservatism he espoused earlier in the revolution, and it seems clear to me that particular attitude is situational, even for Burke. While Burke did not live to see it, twenty five years after he wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke’s prescription for France would be the government forced upon it by the Allies at the end of the Napoleonic Wars with the restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty.
Burke was certainly well worth reading and contemplating and would earn its place in this collection again if it were being remade. However, as far as my suggestion for Burke to a general audience, I have to caution any potential reader that not only does Burke write very dense prose, understanding his work requires familiarity, not only with large parts of the Western Canon, but the contemporary events of his era.
The next volume I’ll be reading marks the beginning of the second half of the Harvard Classics. There are 51 volumes in the set, however one volume is an index, and one is a series of lectures which I have been reading alongside the appropriate works. At this point, I have nearly finished that volume as well. This new volume is a collection of works by a pair of very important English philosophers from the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, each representing different sides of the arguments of their day. Following these philosophers, I’ll be reading Modern Continental Drama, followed by two volumes of English and American essays. From there I will be embarking on scientific works with Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and a collection of important scientific papers.