(I have decided to take a page from Brett Favre’s playbook and come out of retirement. I do miss writing the blogs and the responses of like-minded and not-so-like-minded readers. As my friend Ben Dillow suggested, rather than go “cold-turkey” I might post a blog from time to time. I will just stay away from those really depressing current events for the most part. We shall see how it goes. Call this one “Reflections On Some Comments By Edmund Burke.”)
For Edmund Burke, morality and law both rest on manners, for manners affect society directly. Specifically, he notes that
“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”
As we are told in the excellent study of Edmund Burke’s life and thought by Jesse Norman, for Burke “manners are not the product of reason, but of unreflective individual habit and social wisdom.” In making these remarks, Burke sides with Aristotle who long ago taught that what he called “virtue” was a question of habit and disposition, not reason. Reason can indicate which of several possible actions is the best, but it is character or disposition that will lead us to act — or not to act, as the case may be. Burke agrees.
But what does this eighteenth century thinker’s ideas have to do with us today? The answer should be obvious to anyone who has stopped for a moment to think about the gradual disintegration of our civilization, the return to a new barbarism, that is evident on every side. The demise of manners is simply an indicator of the deeper problem, as I have noted in previous blogs. While good manners managed to survive the Victorian age, by the time of the Great War, and in particular the attack on Victorian values by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, manners began to be regarded as somehow dishonest. Accordingly, manners, which focus on the well-being of others, have been jettisoned in the name of what we like to call “honesty,” “telling it like it is,” and “letting it all hang out.” Consequently, the self has become all-important and others are left to fend for themselves. In the end we have come to rely more and more on law alone to maintain order in an increasingly narcissistic society. But the legal network that strives to maintain order also shows signs of corruption and decay, and we look in vain for the good manners of the citizens to hold the social body together. The idea that good manners make possible a gain in self-esteem and self-worth by losing ourselves in caring for others, has been lost somewhere between the death of God at the end of the nineteenth century (as announced by Nietzsche) and the rapid rise of a crass materialism in a society that has lost its bearings.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of politics where we can see the same dynamic at work that is evident in society at large: political parties, which were formed to further the common good, have become mere factions (in Burke’s terms) that focus instead on short-run self-interest. As Burke defined them, political parties are supposed to be “bodies of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Indeed. This is what political parties are supposed to be. In fact, in this country — and to some extent in England as well — they have become entrenched bodies of small-minded cretins who willingly trade the national interest for self-advancement and the maintenance of their own positions in government. The eighteenth century notion of the common good, on which this nation was founded, has been buried alongside manners.
All of this was predicted by Aristotle who saw the transmogrification of other-directed interest into self-interest as the worm that eats at the heart of the body politic. Burke was merely echoing Aristotle’s warnings a few thousand years later, though those words are still worth pondering.