Jacques Barzun on Burke

I have just read the only explanation of Burkeanism I have seen that makes any sense to me*:

The greatest political thinker of the late 18C, Edmund Burke, had demonstrated that stabel governments depend not on force but on habit– the ingrained, far from stupid obedience to the laws and ways of the country as they have been and are.

It follows that to replace by fiat one set of forms with another, thought up by some improver, no matter how intelligent, ends in disaster.  To expect such a scheme to prosper is unreasonable because habits do not form overnight.  Change is inevitable and often desirable, but it serves a good purpose only when gradual…

– Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

Burke in the hands of those insufferable Burkians (Russel Kirk, for instance) turns politics into something poetically beyond and more wonderful than the rational, as though it participates in a Pascalian transcendence of reason.**  In Barzun’s hands, it is nothing of the sort; politics, tradition, forms of government, and conservatism are a means to an end, a liberal end even, rather than ends in themselves. 

I’d like to be able to comment on who is interpreting Burke correctly (I suspect it’s Barzun, because people’s followers are always taking them too far)***, but I still haven’t gotten through the first chapter of Reflections on the Revolution in France that Hannah got me last Christmas.  (I want to; I’ll keep trying)Old Edmund rambled endlessly.  Eighteenth century writing style is no excuse; Madison had an eighteenth century writing style, but he also knew he had to persuade before his reader needed to go out and milk the cows, so he bloody well got to the point.

* Possibly including Burke’s own, but that I haven’t gotten through.  See below in text

** Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”  That I agree with.

*** In Burke’s case, the attraction is he allows you to say “ah HA!  Your argument is based on lowly reason.  You lose!”

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2 thoughts on “Jacques Barzun on Burke

  1. You do not mention that Burke was a Whig, not a Tory. That he clearly said that because of Man’s sinful nature, there are necessarily abuses in need of correction. And that correcting abuses is a morally required form of change. But change must be Darwinian and tentative, and emerge out of the everyday experience of the common run of people. Change must pass the test of time.

    For much of his career, Burke was a cautious liberal, siding with the 13 colonies against the Crown. He was inherently suspicious of British imperial ambitions in India. He argued for tolerance of Roman Catholics. He became clearly conservative only in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he wrote in part to flatter the UK Powers that Be. I agree with you that the most enthusiastic Burkean of our time, Russell Kirk, was more conservative than Burke himself was. Burkeanism is an attitude, not a dogma.

    That a lifetime of reflection would lead the great Barzun to Burkean sympathies is exactly what I would expect. I believe that most wise and practical people are Burkean in their sympathies, or become so as they age.

    To me, the practical content of the Burkean perspective is the following:
    * Private property, preferably diffused. This disciplines acquisitive greed, does not rule out a wide range of economic legislation. Burkeans are not free market libertarians. The ideal Burkean economic system would be a market economy in which most people were self-employed or employed in family firms. Ownership of the stocks and bonds of large firms would be well diffused;
    * Marriage. This disciplines lust, does not rule out the emancipation of women, and some of the evolution of sexual mores we have experienced over the past 100 odd years;
    * Representative democracy. This disciplines the love of dominating one’s fellows. There are honest differences of opinion concerning the practical details;
    * Faith, to discipline existential anxiety and to supply an eschatological foundation for morals. The experience of the English speaking countries shows that a common faith is not required, much less an established Church.

    Feel free to suggest additions to this list.

    • Who are you, cosmopolite…If I don’t know you, no need to say as it wouldn’t mean anything to me; if I should already know, then I apologize in advance….
      I don’t know about having faith for political reasons. Seems like we should do the opposite if anything. I’ll have to think on the existential anxiety point- seems like some people have a lot of faith and existential anxiety, but maybe the one is making up for the other.

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