I’ve just started a new course at my learning-in-retirement program on Edmund Burke and the origins and history of conservatism. Only one class in and already I am having trouble seeing anything in common with Burke and what goes for this “ism” today. While I have find myself unable to stomach virtually everything coming down the political pipeline with the label “conservative,” I am surprised by how much of Burke’s political thinking makes sense. Our first class began with a collection for the members of all sorts of characterizations of Burke. Out of the potpourri that filled the whiteboard, these resonated.
Burke comes across as a pragmatist. He was very suspicious, even dismissive, of scientific theories as models for political action. He never used the word complexity in his voluminous writings, but described social systems in the same kinds of terms others and I use to talk about complex systems in general. He saw the French Revolution and its bloody after-effects as the result of basing social change on some theory, in this case, the concept of universal rights of man.
The second interesting feature was his belief in some common good toward which government’s purpose was to attain and maintain. Related to this was his interesting position on the role of elected representatives. He argued publicly, even after being elected to the Parliament, that representatives should think and act in terms of the whole of the people, not only in the interested in those of the district he serves.
I am particularly impressed by his pragmatic stance, or, better, his anti-theory position on social change since I have been arguing along the same lines in all my work on, first, sustainability, and, now, on flourishing. Like Burke, in his critique of the French Revolution and its failures, my critique of modernity and its failure to avoid analogous harmful unintended consequences to both the human and natural world singles out the inherent scientism underlying the models used to design and run all primary social institutions: the mechanical model of the universe and the Smithian self-interested human being.
Like the French Revolutionaries, we moderns misunderstood the real mechanics of a complex society and are now suffering the effects of our blindness. Burke put his faith in tradition and its accretion over a long period. He had the advantage over the Colonists, toward which, by the way, he was quite sympathetic of many centuries of development. Immersed in the British aristocracy, he was considerably blind to the fact that many fellow countrymen and women had little of the common good he was so fond of talking about. But he did appreciate a form of pragmatic change, incremental and slow. He even saw parties in a Deweyan way, as providing a collective, rather that singular, view of issues and the way to deal with them.
One of our assignments was to watch a lecture about Burke on YouTube by a Yale professor. He surprised both his student audience and me by his claim that Burke was one of the most radical political thinkers of his tile and even later. His basis was his opposition to the centrality of theory that pervades so-called radicals from Hobbes to Marx. He points out that they stayed close to the enlightenment theme of the role of science and theory in underpinning the progress of humanity.
There’s much more coming in the next three classes about Burke. I will miss the next two because Ruth and I are skipping schools (and everything else) to visit Morocco, a place that has intrigued us for years. But already I can see why so many pundits are disconnecting Burkean conservatism from the present Republican Party and those who today are calling themselves conservatives. I suspect that he would be much concerned with the pace of change in today’s world, largely coming from the “ideas” embedded in technology, and would call for a more deliberate introduction. But then so am I.
(Picture: Edmund Burke)