Yuval Levin, a researcher of the fractured relationship between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, recently wrote an interesting post about Burke’s significant appeal for conservatives as a founding father (and it should be noted that leftists won’t stop admiring him either). This raises the question of what a “Burkean Conservatism” might look like. Peter Stanlis, a prolific Burke scholar, takes the term to mean an ability to combine natural and constitutional law with a practical prudence to form a political philosophy at once consistent but almost wholly unsystematic. Society is indeed a contract – but one between God and man, and all generations of humanity that form families and communities.

I think there is much to admire in such a sentiment, one of an anti-ideology . . . . . .

If ideology is, in some measure, a replacement for God, Edmund Burke wrote against three schools of thought embodied by the French Revolution: the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophers, the romantic sentimentalism of Rousseau and his disciples, and utilitarianism.

Human beings do have rights by virtue of their human nature, but those rights are not bloodless abstractions, nor are they limited to mere guarantees against government. To narrow natural rights to such neat slogans as ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ or ‘life, liberty, property,’ was to ignore the complexity of public affairs and to leave out of consideration most moral relationships. The evolved wisdom of society shaped the necessary ability to be restrained from actions destructive to self and community and supported the right to have some control placed upon appetite.

Such conservatism is an approach, a style, a sentiment, a bias – against efforts of utopianism, ideology, and the promise of a new future with little consideration of human nature. It is against the pursuit of systematic, ideological aims, such as the actions of state organized “unity.” Civil society is an offspring of custom and convention, not proposition. A “Burkean” philosophy of civil order, then, is not as devoted to particular policy outcomes as to the necessity of protection and a skeptical humility about the ability to effectuate change. A priori abstraction and reasoning are not to be trusted, given the possibility of unintended, unpredictable, and unforeseen consequence.

In sum, human autonomy is an illusion, and a good society requires limits upon appetite – limits often imported through moral, cultural continuity. These, perhaps, are more important for the good socio-political organization of humanity than constitutional right.

How different from much of movement conservatism, and from speech such as George W. Bush’s second inaugural address!

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Articles by Jonathan Jones


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