Part 2 of 3
In my first essay of this series, I asserted that Alpha-Wolfe Conservative Edmund Burke deserved careful reassessment in light of impoverished tradition. Now I want to investigate his claims regarding the evolution of culture and institutions. I confess that I will be using that great reactionary romantic G. K. Chesterton as my intellectual crutch in dismantling some problems with Burkean conservatism. Once again I will also assume that my reader is familiar with the general theses of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
The ever-prudential Edmund is remembered best for rejecting the radicalism of the French Revolution. Whereas Continental ideology encouraged the sans-culottes and the parlor-bound intellectuals to violently turn the world upside down, Burke looked to the slow moderate change of individual nations to organically alter the social order. History not only sifted through wisdom and foolery; it also established the rights of Englishmen. The contract theorists’ abstract “rights of man” and individualist rationalism posed a threat to the easy-going acculturation of reflective reform and historically-rotted progress.
Now, what bothered Chesterton was not Burke’s rebuttal against (most) of the Enlightenment. Instead, it was conservatism’s practical atheism in response to liberalism. In a chapter of the magisterial What’s Wrong with the World called “The Empire of the Insect,” the author observed that “Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory” but rather “that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic.” He asserted:
[Burke] did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but the tyrant it ought to have.
In other words, Burke chose Montesquieu over Aquinas. Continue reading The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary