Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Great Primaeval Contract by Richard Bourke

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution (1790) in France is a defense of the British constitutional setup, including existing relations between the church and state. As such it is an attack on figures hostile to the Anglican establishment as well as to the principle of parliamentary monarchy. Its immediate target was the nonconformist preacher Richard Price, who sought with various fellow travellers  to undermine ecclesiastical and political arrangements in Britain. Noble patrons of dissent, like the Earl of Shelburne, and aristocratic critics of the national Church, like the Duke of Grafton, are treated with particular distain. For Burke, , their public support for the values of Revolutionary France exposed them to justifiable derision. They were driven, he supposed, by a kind of demagogic enthusiasm which hid their goal of self-serving ambition. In the process they helped publicize an attitude to politics and religion that would ultimately be destructive of both. Burke was desperate to consolidate Whig antipathy to such principles and recover Charles James Fox from the temptations of populism by counter-posing the enlightened values of British domestic politics with the chaos of ideas that were serving to dismantle France.

Burke's principal target was Price's idea of freedom as self-government, which extended civil liberty to include a right to public power. It was on this basis, Burke believed, that Price had mistaken the Whig conception of legitimate resistance for a license to resort to revolution as a matter of convenience. With this approach, it was suggested, neither Parliament nor monarchy could stand. Burke accepted that, fundamentally, government was an instrument of convenience. However, he also thought that constitutional government should provide a way of deliberating over the character of that convenience. This required the provision of means of scrutiny, debate and execution under conditions of stability and allegiance. For this reason, Burke dwells at some length on the emotions that support continuity in national counsels and attachment to the welfare of the community.  These included moral and aesthetic sentiments that encourage respect, as well as feelings of veneration for enduring customs and the national past. None of this was intended to affirm an empty reverence for "tradition". Instead, support for authority was interpreted as a means of advancing the common good.  As Burke was at pains to emphasize  in his speech opening the Hastings trial, the failure to protect the good of the community provided grounds for legitimate resistance. More expansively, the Reflections dwells on the duty of obedience as well as protection. He claimed that both should comprehended under the "great primaeval contract" that defines the moral relations between rulers and ruled. Burke recognized the right to revolution against the state but he also appreciated the gravity of resource to insurrection. The situation in France, he thought, could scarcely justify resort to violence, still less attempt upon the pillars of established government.

Burke claimed that civil society was a mechanism for survival as well as a vehicle for human progress towards perfection.  It was consequently an object of both reverence and piety as well as a beneficiary of trust.  In France it had fulfilled its trust only to be treated with contempt. Full-scale resistance had begun not with popular insurgency  but with the treachery of disaffected courtiers and nobles. These were soon abetted by disgruntled men of letters who found themselves in league with aspiring of the moneyed interest.  Between them the launched an offensive against the property of the Church, condemned as a bastion of corporate privilege. On Burke's analysis the Revolution was fuelled by resentments about inequality rooted in the ambitions of rising talent along with competitiveness over standing among the divisions of the aristocracy. The diverse appeal of equality focused hostility against the monarchy, giving rise to a reckless spirit of innovation. That mood was eagerly heightened by the deputies in the Assembly, who were in Burke's opinion bereft of practical wisdom and the inclination to pursue sustainable reform.  Superstitious fear of timeworn  historic abuses were conflated with current political practice.  Luxury was unwisely taken to be a cause of misery. The determination to overturn the consolation of providence made the spectacle of unmerited prosperity seem unbearable. As corporate bodies and social divisions were progressively undermined, the military poised to extend its power without resistance. The spirit of conquest was reborn under the cloak of liberty...

Unlike the class of freethinkers in the first half of the eighteenth century, dissenters in Britain in the 1780s and 1790s were aided by an alliance with the political mainstream. They shared this advantage with atheists in France, who had formed a vehicle among deputies in the third estate hostile to the clerical establishment. Despite  the outright animosity of rational dissenters towards irrational irreligion, Burke regarded the two groups as constituting a common peril. First of all, he ascribed to both a similar intellectual approach; and second, he noted their shared antagonism to established religion.  Burke accounted for both these features
in terms of a shared attitude of 'enthusiasm." Ascribing an enthusiastic spirit to English dissent and French heterodoxy was of course an affront to both, since they separately prided themselves on supplanting credulity by means of rigorous, rational procedure.

Two forms of excessive credulity came under attack in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: superstition on the one hand, enthusiasm on the other.  Both presumed to sustain belief on the basis of insufficient evidence, driven, it was often claimed, by excessive fear in the case of superstition, and by disproportionate hope in the case of enthusiasm. Burke took many of the heterodox, congratulating themselves on their success in overcoming superstition, to have slipped into enthusiasm, pretending in the process to have achieved enlightenment. He sought to turn the tables on what he saw as intellectual complacency, implying that for Priestly, Price and Helvetius, reason operated less as a means of genuine enlightenment than as a kind of spiritual "illumination." In seeking to purge belief of all superstition, faux enlighteners confused reasonable assent with the foundationless "Fancies of a Man's Own Brain", as Locke had put it.  Reason among the deists and rational dissenters was a merely presumptuous mental persuasion. Burke thought: the feeling of certainty that it communicated was a kind of intellectual conceit.

The term conceit has two senses here: it refers, first to a whimsical notion; and second, to the presumptuousness of treating personal fancies as tokens of divine revelation. The belief that reason reveals to the mind the truths of nature by introspection combines both meanings into a comprehensive conceit amounting to a self-regarding confidence in one's own opinions without reference to probable evidence. Revolutionary agitators in France shared with rational non-conformity in England a determination to impose moral truths of reason on the actions and opinions of individuals already existing under the discipline of civil society. This bespoke an extraordinary arrogance: to begin with, it equated personal preferences with rational norms of conduct; next, it strove the impose these values irrespective of circumstances. The procedure was both sophistical and pedantic at the same time, and therefore dubbed by Burke a regressive "political metaphysics." All judgments of experience, and consequently all existing arrangements could only be validated by the abstract ideals of doubtful speculation.

As we have seen, Burke assumed that this would usher in an age of false "humanity" under the impact of the ideas of Rousseau: ordinary feelings would be suppressed out of deference to abstract norms, the metaphysical love of man would encourage contempt for  individual men, and the idlest fantasy of social improvement would be sufficient to justify limitless suffering.

Given  the remoteness of these norms and ideals from the existing order of things, the criticism of concrete abuses gave way to exposing the foundations of legitimacy. The most reasonable prejudice was restlessly discarded. Since actual political attitudes and institutions would never "quadrate" with the amplitude of pre-civil rights, their illegitimacy was a foregone conclusion of the theory. This mode of dissection masqueraded as enlightened critique by public opinion, but in truth it was a recipe for antinomian destruction. Every civil restraint was branded as illicit  "privilege, all government deemed a form of "usurpation." Improvement was predicated on what Priestly projected as "the fall of the civil powers", and the means to reform was supplanted by permanent insurrection.

As Burke saw it, spurious emissaries of enlightenment in France promised nothing more edifying than an anti-Christian establishment founded on persecution. They proffered liberation from the authority of the past, but would in practice deliver ruthless tyranny; they held out the promise of toleration, but would end by heightening religious oppression. Christian charity should be taken as the "measure of tolerance", Burke later argued, not apathy or hatred towards religion. The self-appointed representatives of "light" in Britain would similarly squander toleration by capsizing the Church under which it was provided. In the absence of that ecclesiastical structure, sectarianism would proliferate, and animosity deepen.  At the same time, public life would lose its connection to the sanctity of religion. Religion was essential to the progress of culture: containing the germ of the moral life, it laid the foundations for humane behavior.  Without it, regression to brutishness was assured. The endeavor to destroy organized belief would vitiate morals, and manners accordingly would become depraved. The endeavor, however, was bound to fail. Man, Burke claimed, was "by his constitution a religious animal." Any attempt to eviscerate the influence of religion from the human mind could only succeed in creating yet more mysterious forms of persuasion, at once "uncouth, pernicious and degrading."

While religion was the basis of moral edification, it was also the pillar of the state: in the first place, God prescribed the formation of civil society; and in the second, the sanction of religion operated as a check upon its rulers. Both these natural law precepts can be traced to diverse sources in the history of jurisprudence, and they found expression in one of the pivotal paragraphs of the Reflections. "Society is indeed a contract,"  the paragraph begins.  By "Society" Burke meant civil society, and he was signaling his belief that the state was founded on reciprocal obligations. These were neither as arbitrary nor as perishable as the contingent  interests that were served by ordinary agreements in business or trade.  The national interest was rather an enduring interest that bound one generation to the next. The personality of the state was a product of human artifice and could not  be reduced to its transitory parts. Equally, its objectives were not exhausted  by the mere "animal existence" of the individuals who composed it. Since civil society was enjoined by divinity  ['Providentially'] as a mechanism for realizing human ends, it was a means of advancing towards the perfection of science, art and virtue. This did not mean, in neo-Aristotelian fashion, that it was the state's purpose to realize the perfection of human nature, but that, in protecting society, and thus religion too, it facilitated the objective of mental and moral improvement. In combining their aptitudes for that purpose, citizens were subject to the obedience while sovereigns were bound by the obligation to protect.  Accountability, in both directions, were fixed by a law of nature. Burke dubbed this "the great primaeval contract of eternal society". It implied the subjection of nature to divine will (which Burke saw less as a burden than a consolation). It was on the basis of this subjection that the responsibility of human conscience to a higher law was commanded.           

[The author notes on several occasions in his text that it is not easy to fit Burke's thesis or position into the opposing 'conservative' and 'liberal' paradigms of contemporary political discourse; "the force of his argument has been drowned out by subsequent political rhetoric", he is not adequately represented as            'a leading opponent of modernity', he is wrongly 'deputed to represent the forces of reaction.' Indeed, both political parties  in the U.S. put significant emphasis on the primacy of civil society as the engine of human progress, the importance of religion in that construct and the duty of reverence towards  the constitutional structure of the State, as each accuses the other of failing to do so. Burke himself considered the Constitutional framework of the American Republic sufficient for the purposes he outlined in Reflections.]

Long book. This is the most justice I can do for it at this time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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