In her review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Elizabeth Corey puts her finger on one questionable conclusion that Levin draws from his otherwise masterly examination of the competing political visions of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Levin presents the debate between these two figures as a template for contemporary political controversy, with Paine’s vision mapping more or less onto the left’s typical style of argument, and Burke’s onto the right’s. But, as Corey notes, our political debates usually unfold within the exclusive conceptual parameters of Paine’s vision. “Paine has won,” she writes plainly. As a result, “with few exceptions, modernity requires that everyone, and perhaps particularly conservatives, defend their modes of life in abstract, rationalistic terms.”
I think Corey is right about this. But the observation raises an interesting question: what are we to make of Burke’s thought? Why read a thinker whose most basic premises lie outside the acceptable parameters of our political debates?
One way to approach this question—somewhat paradoxically—is to grasp just how thoroughly Burke’s vision has been routed in our day and age. To appreciate the extent of Paine’s victory, consider the following passage from Levin’s book, in which he summarizes Paine’s conception of human freedom:
Society is therefore a means to accomplish what each individual has the right but not the ability to accomplish. For Paine, this means it is above all a means to enable choice, or the freedom to shape our own future uncoerced—a means to the radical liberation of the individual from the burdens of his circumstances, his given nature, and his fellow man. Equality, individualism, and natural rights (some transformed into civil rights) are descriptive and prescriptive facts regarding the human condition, but personal liberty—the right to choose—is the end toward which we aim in politics.
If this is a fair description of Paine’s political thought, shouldn’t we simply say that his politics are now our politics? Isn’t this the way most modern Americans, on both sides of the partisan divide, think about politics?
Both liberals and conservatives appeal to “personal liberty” as a summum bonum in most of their arguments; think about the way that liberals argue about abortion and conservatives argue about limiting government regulation. Aren’t “equality” and “rights” the great prescriptive facts for us about human life? These terms kindle the greatest passions in our debates, as group after group protests against the withholding of their “rights” or their “freedom.” This is why conservatives have such a hard time making their case heard in the public arena. We occupy a political order determined not merely by liberal ideas, but by liberal emotions, and therefore we confront a public that is instinctively disposed to reject the kinds of arguments a real conservatism would employ.
The range of affections that shape Burke’s political vision are of an entirely different order. Instead of Paine’s abstract affections, Burke’s politics originate in particular affections that find their objects in one’s own time and place. He enumerates some of these affections quite explicitly in a passage from Reflections on the Revolution in France: “We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility.”
What must strike any modern reader about this list is how little such sentiments inform our present political discourse. Are there many Americans, for instance, who look up to Congress with affection? Most people would simply say that our culture has changed dramatically since Burke’s time, so that such affections would no longer be appropriate in the context of modern politics. There is much truth in this. But Burke’s claim is stronger than such a response would imply.
These affections, he asserts, are not cultural inventions. Rather, they are the primal social intuitions from which politics takes its initial momentum. Burke writes: “when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected; because all other feelings are false and spurious, and tend to corrupt our minds, to vitiate our primary morals, to render us unfit for rational liberty.” In another very famous passage in the Reflections, Burke maintains that the political affections of the people of England are contiguous with their personal and domestic affections:
We have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.
Accordingly, for Burke, a political order in which something like his enumerated affections play no part is one that is profoundly estranged from human nature, one bound to prove morally corrosive over time.
There is, then, a very stark challenge to our political order presented to us by Burke’s thought. I think conservatives have routinely failed to appreciate the magnitude of this challenge, in large part because they have unduly stressed the importance Burke places upon our instincts for preservation. Certainly, those instincts occupy a central role in his thought, but Burke was concerned with preserving a very specific order of things—a society shaped by the Christian religion, led by men whose minds have been formed through a “monkish” educational program, and meliorated over centuries through the institutions of the British constitution—in other words, a society growing organically out of the particular affections he explicitly cites in his Reflections. And what he was trying to preserve that order against were corrosive abstract affections—the very affections that have largely come to define political order in our day and age.
The two centuries since the great debate of Paine and Burke have witnessed the increasing hegemony of Paine’s political language. They have completely reversed the stance towards the present political order which a Burkean must now assume. Paine’s vision, which for Burke represented an epochal danger to true political order, for us, just is the political order. And vice versa: Burke’s vision of a political order emerging out of affections for the divine and for one’s local history appeared to him, in his age, as something to be preserved. To us, in our age, it can only appear as something to be created out of the cultural wreckage surrounding us.
Strange misreadings of Burke occur when we isolate his conservative impulses from the specific political order that inspired them, and when we fail to consider how dramatically our own political order differs from that one—how much, in fact, our political order instantiates the very ethos that he so consistently and fervently deplored. The most infamous example of this kind of misreading was offered by Jeffrey Hart, who appealed to Burke in order to defend the right to abortion, on the grounds that this right has been established for decades in America, and any attempt to rescind it would represent a wholly un-Burkean idealism. Nothing could violate the entire spirit of Burke’s canon more than supposing his ideas compel us to acquiesce in the present abortion regime. This is the kind of gross distortion of his thought that results when we consider him only as a counselor of deference to whatever political order prevails at any given time.
If such misreadings demonstrate the wrong approach to Burke’s work, what is the correct one? The key, I think, lies in relishing the extraordinary power of his language, a political and moral rhetoric that effectively models the kind of conservatism Corey calls for, with its “radical reorientation of the modern soul.” Other writers describe the sort of principles that would constitute a viable conservative vision—the grateful piety towards God and land and family—but only Burke realizes that vision in his words, conveying to us some sense of what it must be like to live according to such principles. His superb eloquence, which is often noted as something incidental to his thought, is really at its heart. It is the means by which he manifests the full experience of constructing a political order out of the particular affections of time and place.
Burke is, in effect, the poet of conservatism. And, like any good poet, he is capable of arousing the elemental affections from which civilized life grows. To see what I mean, consider this justly famous passage from his Letter to a Noble Lord:
At every step of my progress in life, (for in every step was I traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honor of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws, and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home. Otherwise no rank, no toleration, even for me. I had no arts but manly arts. On them I have stood, and please God, in spite of the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, to the last gasp will I stand.
Notice the way Burke uses “manly” here, and the way he defines masculinity by implication. It is not a matter of testosterone, but of dignity. To be manly simply means to be above what he calls elsewhere “low chicane,” to conduct oneself publicly in a virtuous manner. Such manliness, as Burke so powerfully demonstrates, is fair cause for pride. What decent man wouldn’t wish to be able to speak of himself this way?
Now imagine if this passage were taught to a young man in school. Imagine if he were presented with this model of masculinity instead of the truly debased images of manhood our culture offers him. Imagine if he learned to feel pride insofar as he knew himself to be honest, intelligent, and useful to his community. How might he eventually start to think about the proper way to make a living, or about his duties to his children, or about the trustworthiness of the public servants seeking his vote? By orienting his soul towards Burke’s conception of manliness, by engaging his sympathies and emotions with that conception, we would have good reason to hope that, in time, his character and his behavior would both bear the impress of a conservative vision of things. And we wouldn’t have to make a single argument.
This is the unique excellence of Burke, and this is what makes his work indispensable to us. Conservatives have a large range of thinkers they can draw upon to assist them in the theoretical defense of their vision. But Burke is the figure who best exemplifies what it is like to act and deliberate according to that vision, to extend our primal affections into the public arena, and to construct a political order answering to the most profound desires of the rational soul. His work will always provide us with one of the best demonstrations of a simple yet momentous political truth: that the way we order our society will always be the consequence, first and foremost, of the way we love.
Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in the New English Review, the Front Porch Republic, the University Bookman, Arion, and the Evansville Review. His personal website is markanthonysignorelli.com.