Easy Peasy

A couple of my recent posts have stemmed from reading Jesse Norman’s most interesting book about the life and thought of Edmund Burke. After reading it I was inspired to return to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I had not read for many years. It is filled with many of the wise and thought-provoking words that set Burke apart as one of the great minds of his age. But it also has the occasional passage that marks the man as a creature of his time and makes one realize why he is not favored by readers who like to think of themselves as “liberal.” There is, indeed, a stubborn strain of conservatism at the core of Burke’s thinking that can be at times a bit unsettling. He believes that if political change comes at all it should come slowly and he is sometimes annoyingly sympathetic with the wealthy and aristocratic whom he tends to paint with brighter colors than most historians would like. But we make a mistake to simply dismiss the whole of his book  as conservative bias and can find important lessons even in the most unsettling passages.

One thing that is disturbing to many is Burke’s insistence that the notion of “equality,” which was embraced by the French during their revolution, needs to be carefully qualified. In discussing the concept Burke sounds a bit like a reactionary who wants desperately to hold on to the notion that some people are simply better than others. This did not sit well with the Jacobins in France — or many of Burke’s contemporaries. And it does not sit well these days in the minds of those among us who have been conditioned to think that equality is a natural right of all human persons and no one should ever be regarded as in any sense better than any one else. For example, we hold to the conviction in our schools that “no child should be left behind” — well, some of us do. And we question expertise and the notion that some people may actually know more or be better than others, at least as far as their ability to do some things the rest of us cannot do — like walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, for example. Indeed, we have embraced the loose notion of equality to the point that we regard all opinions as somehow on a level and suspect anyone who claims to know something we cannot know. As one of my students said in being asked to comment on a passage in Plato’s Republic, “that’s just his opinion.” Yes, but there are mere opinions and there are reasonable opinions. Burke questioned this egalitarianism — especially in the case of the French experiment with leveling down and raising those who held menial positions in French society prior to the revolution to lofty perches among those who held the new reins of power. Burke worried that the cobbler might not make a very good lawmaker. As he notes:

“Every thing ought to be open, but not indifferently to every man. No rotation, no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortation or rotation, can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. . . . If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation. The temple of honour ought to be seated on an eminence. If it is to be through virtue, let it be remembered too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, and some struggle.”

It would seem that Burke champions opening up opportunities to all but suspects that some may fall short in ability. This is a notion most of us reject since we have come to realize that many who appear unfit for heavy duty prove themselves quite able when given the opportunity. The cobbler may, in fact, make a very good lawmaker — certainly better than the clowns who pretend to be doing that these days for huge salaries in the halls of our government. Burke might not agree; there is the suspicion on his part that some roles in society and government are unfit “by nature” for a great many people. In a word, there is an elitist strain in Burke that many find disturbing, though I must say while I may be willing to let the cobbler have a go at lawmaking, I would prefer that he not be enlisted to remove my appendix when the time comes. There are some things that a great many people simply cannot do. We may have carried this egalitarian thing a bit too far. The problem is Burke seems to want to determine this before the fact, whereas we are willing to let everyone have a try and see what happens.

But the sentence that jumps out at me in the above quotation is the one that talks about the “difficulty” and the “struggle” that prove “virtue.” This notion has been completely lost in a society that stresses “self-esteem” and is turning out young people who believe that struggle and difficulty are to be avoided at all cost — after all, we remove these things if we possibly can in order to grease the skids and make things easier for them than they were for us. How often have you heard parents say they didn’t want their kids to have to struggle the way they did when, in fact, it may have been that very struggle that brought about their success? Dostoevsky, for one, thought struggle and even suffering made us more human, deepened our sensibilities. As Burke suggests, “virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, some struggle.” One must wonder whether this explains why there we encounter so few virtuous people: so many now tread the path of least resistance.

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Liberal Individualism

British and American political thought arise out of the Enlightenment tradition that places the individual at the center of the political state. For thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and even Thomas Hobbes thinking about politics begins with the individual in what a number of them liked to call a “state of nature.” By placing their emphasis on the individual and beginning the discussion about civic membership with focus on human rights — as opposed to human obligations, which are the other side of human rights — they gave birth to what British MP and author Jesse Norman calls “liberal individualism.” The words, taken in their original meaning, suggest the emphasis of much of contemporary political and even economic thought on the rights of individuals and the notion that the human ideal is one of the self-sufficient individual with complete freedom from the restraints placed on them by civil laws. This thinking permeates much of contemporary political theory by both conservatives and liberals. As Rousseau would have it, the central idea in political thought is the question how a person can obey a law and in doing so remain free — implying that the paramount good in political societies is human freedom. The issue is not what sorts of things a citizen must do in order to become a good citizen and practice what the Greeks called “civic virtue.” The issue focuses almost exclusively on individual rights and freedom, freedom from restraints and the right to do as we want.

This Enlightenment view, as Norman has argued in his excellent book on Edmund Burke, is diametrically opposed to the classical, Greek and Roman view of politics that begins with the notion that human beings are social animals — even, as Aristotle said, political animals — and cannot be taken out of the social context without stripping them of their essential humanity. As Aristotle would have it, society makes possible those things that make Homo sapiens specifically human — such things as law, speech, and morality. A man or a woman taken completely out of the social context that defines them is not fully human: the hermit living alone in a cave is more nearly an animal, struggling to survive, having no ties with others, and lacking in the ability to communicate with others of his kind. Such a person is the imagined man in a “state of nature,” as Burke would have it. And such a man is not one we would want to emulate, one would think. And yet we do, unknowingly, in our adoration of the idea of the individual free to do his or her own thing.

Norman, in his study of Burke, is convinced that this peculiar Enlightenment notion of liberal individualism is the root cause of today’s stress on the self  and the resulting narcissism that permeates our culture and arises largely from viewing the individual in isolation. Much has been lost, in Norman’s view, by ignoring the classical view of human beings as social animals. One of the few thinkers who refused to buy into the Enlightenment view of liberal individualism was Edmund Burke who is usually labelled as a “conservative” thinker even though much of his thought is remarkably in line with such familiar “liberal” or “moderate” politicians as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In any event, labels don’t really help us to comprehend where a person stands on complex philosophical and political issues, and the term “conservative” may be the least helpful label of all. It is certainly the case, for example, that Burke would be appalled by the behavior of so many self-styled “conservatives” in America who pursue self-interest and unlimited wealth without any consideration whatever for the obligations they have as citizens.  Norman puts it well in the final paragraph of his rather laudatory study of Burke when he notes that:

“. . .Burke also questions the present self-image of politics and the media, an empty post-modernism in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of narrative deployed in the service of power. Instead, he offers values and principles that do not change, the sanction of history and moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honor, loyalty, duty, and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model. And he highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms, and the role of human creativity and imagination in re-enchanting the world and filling it with meaning.”

Those who like to think of themselves as politically conservative would do well to read and ponder the writings of Edmund Burke — as would we all. It is certainly the case that the political landscape is barren at present and would benefit greatly by thinking past profit, power, and personal advancement to the values listed above. And it is certainly the case that we could all benefit from another way of looking at ourselves — not in isolation, free and unfettered, but as members of a body politic and as such concerned about others. Therein may in fact lie true self-realization and even happiness — even, perhaps, true individualism.