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burkeWhat Matthew Arnold called “an epoch of concentration” seems to be impending over the English-speaking world. The revolutionary impulses and the social enthusiasms which have dominated this era since their great explosion in Russia are now confronted with a countervailing physical and intellectual force. Communism, Fascism, and their kindred expansive ideologies all in their fashion were manifestations of a common rebellion against the prevalent moral order. To resist them, rather gropingly and grumpily, the English and American traditions of mind and society have been aroused, quite as they stirred against French innovating fury after 1790. We appear to be entering a time of revaluation and reconstruction; we begin to discern, perhaps, the outlines of a resurrected conservatism in philosophy and politics and letters. Already many minds have swung right about from the spectacle of Continental terror to a reaffirmation of ancient values, as Coleridge and Southey and Wordsworth and Mackintosh and their generation abandoned their early levelling ideas and became the most zealous of conservators. England in Arnold’s “epoch of concentration” became, in spite of its disillusion, a society of profound intellectual achievement, the revolutionary energy latent in it diverted to reconstructive ends. That the epoch of concentration displayed moral qualities so powerful, that it did not sink into a mere leaden reaction, Arnold attributed to the influence of Burke. And in our time of revulsion against the twentieth-century revolutions, we need to recall the ideas which Burke’s genius moulded into a philosophy of social preservation. Lacking these or some other genuine principles, our own age of contraction is likely to slip into sardonic apathy and fatigued repression.

I have no intention of discussing here the details of Burke’s political philosophy, or of his religion and metaphysics, or even of his literary attainments. These things have been done before, though never quite as they should be: Burke’s immensity has frightened away biographers and editors, so that no proper life of Burke exists and no decent edition of his works. I am quite as much afraid of the ghost of Burke’s brilliance. What I am trying to do in this essay is to capture the bare essence of Burke’s passionate aspiration and exhibit it as the nubbin of any consistent conservative growth. What was it that Burke evoked in his own epoch of concentration? What enduring significance does his system offer to critics of society and ideas in any time of revulsion against innovation? Perhaps the soul of Burke’s darting genius is his principle of order.

Kenneth Burke

Kenneth Burke

Some months ago, I heard that eminent American critic Mr. Kenneth Burke discuss “Rhetoric and Hierarchy.” A considerable part of his small audience was composed, as all such audiences must be, of people benevolently determined to be liberal, but rather hazy about their definition of liberalism, except that it signifies equality. Now in his essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Arnold has a memorable description of this “liberalism;” and he makes these liberals exclaim,

“Let us have a social movement, let us organize and combine a party to pursue truth and new thought, let us call it the liberal party, and let us all stick to each other, and back each other up. Let us have no nonsense about independent criticism, and intellectual delicacy, and the few and the many…we are all in the same movement, we are all liberals, we are all in pursuit of truth.”

In this way the pursuit of truth becomes really a social, practical, pleasurable affair, almost requiring a chairman, a secretary, and advertisements; with the excitement of an occasional scandal but, in general, plenty of bustle and very little thought. “To act is so easy,” as Goethe says; “to think is so hard!” It was mildly amusing to watch the descendents of Arnold’s liberals, in Mr. Burke’s audience, as he spoke of rhetoric and hierarchy.

For Kenneth Burke made it clear enough, in his Coleridge-like way, that he was as fond of hierarchy as he was of rhetoric. He uttered no equalitarian platitudes. He had formerly thought—said Mr. Kenneth Burke—that “law and order” was a tautological phrase. But he had come to realize that “order” is not simply the same thing as law; instead, “order” means class, rank, gradation, hierarchy. And without order, law cannot subsist. Without order, nothing high or enduring in society or letters can be attained. Perhaps Edmund Burke might have frowned upon this usage of “hierarchy;” but in substance, Mr. Edmund Burke might have been speaking, rather than Mr. Kenneth Burke.

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Although I cannot say precisely how far Kenneth Burke is directly influenced by Edmund Burke, it is plain he knows the works of that great Whig very well—perhaps as well as another eminent critic, Mr. T. S. Eliot, whose recent books The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes toward the Definition of Culture contain repeated references to Burke, and whose endorsement of Burke’s views was the proximate cause of Eliot’s recent lectures at Chicago on “The Aims of Education.” But it is surprising how many writers are unaware of the full extent of Burke’s influence and, perhaps, of just what Burke believed.

Mr. Robert Gorham Davis, for instance, in a recent number of The American Scholar, observes with alarm a swelling conservative movement among literary critics. He is particularly vexed at the social principles implicit in the “New Criticism” and the “humanist agrarian movement” in the United States, which he thinks can have no proper place in modern democracy. These views, Mr. Davis declares, must be derived from Maistre, Bonald, Chateaubriand, and other French reactionary thinkers down to Maurras. With an intolerant complacency which would at once have amused and grieved Tocqueville, Davis denounces these deviationists from democratic orthodoxy; only the democratic creed must be pronounced in America: “Every circumstance in this country has tended to the strengthening of this tradition, and no social basis exists for a rival tradition of serious cultural significance.” The Humanists and Agrarians and New Critics have been flirting with exotic abstractions:

Over the last two decades, in the journals of the New Criticism, authority, hierarchy, catholicism, aristocracy, tradition, absolutes, dogma, truths, became related terms of honor, and liberalism, naturalism, scientism, individualism, equalitarianism, progress, protestantism, pragmatism, and personality became related terms of rejection and contempt….During the forties, with the intense reaction against Stalinism, the socio-historical patterns of acceptance and rejection established by the humanist agrarian movement quietly triumphed on the higher literary levels, and became the required postulates, curiously enough, for the proper evaluation of literature as literature.[1]

We will return to these observations presently. But here it is interesting to interpolate a somewhat similar statement by Mr. Lionel Trilling, in his preface to The Liberal Imagination:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction….But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling

Mr. Trilling is doleful about this; he professes to believe that an intelligent conservative opposition ought to exist for the general well-being of society, quite as J. S. Mill believed Coleridge ought to be read; but he does not know where to find any American conservative thinkers. Mr. Davis thinks there are too many conservatives, Mr. Trilling that there are too few. They seem to agree, however, that philosophical conservatism is a hothouse growth, an orchid certainly in the United States and to a lesser degree exotic in Britain. In this respect, they reveal a kind of provinciality, an infection perhaps of the self-satisfied “liberalism” Arnold describes. For the profound conservative influence of Burke has had a continuous existence not only in England, but in America; and fundamentally it is the mind of Burke, whether immediately or filtered through the writings of his Continental admirers, that stimulates the conservative critics whom Mr. Davis detests.

Order in society: an arrangement of things not according to an abstract equality, nor yet according to a utilitarian calculus, but founded upon a recognition of Providential design, which makes differences between man and man (and God and man) ineradicable and beneficent. This, I think, is the idea fundamental to Burke’s liberal conservatism, and this is the principle to which all real conservatives after him clung. Burke established these concepts as a barrier to the corrosive radicalism of three separate systems of thought: the corrosive rationalism of the philosophes, the collective sentimentalism of Rousseau’s school, and the arbitrary utilitarianism of Bentham. Of these three bodies of ideas, perhaps the last, only beginning to rise in Burke’s last years, has proved to be the most implacable enemy to old values; and in the shape of its caricature, Marxism, Benthanism remains intent upon destroying the principles of order, prescription, and diversity which Burke and his followers loved. In Keynes’ Two Memoirs is a striking recognition of the destructive power of utilitarianism, which is the foundation of the modern “planners’ society,” whether nominally “capitalistic” or “communistic:”

I do now regard that as the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilization and is responsible for its present moral decay. We used to regard the Christians as the enemy, because they appeared as the representatives of tradition, convention, and hocus-pocus. In truth it was the Benthamite calculus, based on an over-valuation of the economic criterion, which was destroying the quality of the popular Ideal.

This moral enervation, which is a consequence of materialistic humanitarianism, John Maynard Keynes did not perceive until the anarchy of our era was already far advanced. But Burke saw it before 1790, and so, though less distinctly, did John Adams in America. Ever since then, conservatives in the tradition of Burke have been engaged in a dubious battle, its lines often ill-defined, against both the totalitarian democracy of Rousseau and the planners’ utopia of Bentham. The philosophical adherents of Burke have not been confined to the Conservative party in England, nor to any particular party in America. The great reformer-conservator was at once the inspiration of a resuscitated Toryism, the system of Canning and of Disraeli, and the model for what was best in Liberalism, the preceptor of Hazlitt, Macaulay, Gladstone, J. S. Mill, Morley, Birrell, and a great many others. His literary and moral influence descends unbroken through a series of names to conjure with—Coleridge, Scott, Wordsworth, Southey, Newman, Bagehot, Stephen, Maine, Lecky, and such diverse thinkers and critics of the present century as Saintsbury and Squire, Whitehead and Laski. No other modern thinker has exerted so varied and pervasive an influence upon serious thought in Britain.

His Continental reputation cannot be properly described here, but we ought to remember that the Reflections, the Regicide Peace, the Appeal from the New Whigs, supplied the basis for European conservatism, through the medium of Gentz, Maistre, Guizot, Chateaubriand, and their pupils; while he was admired quite as warmly by moderates like Royer-Collard, liberals like Tocqueville, and critics like Taine. Though the ideas of Burke were from the beginning a good deal altered in the Continent, and presently curiously mottled by infusions of Hegel and even Comte, still when Mr. Davis, and Mr. David Spitz in his recent Patterns of Anti-Democratic Thought, are zealous to decry imported ideas subversive of “the democratic tradition,” often they are alarmed by nothing more than a French or German reflection of Burke.

Edmund Burke statue

Edmund Burke

Burke’s American influence, in its full extent, is still less clearly recognized. But it has been strong, North and South. The Federalists—not only Hamilton and Ames and Dwight, but John Adams and his son, these latter somewhat against their will—learned a great deal from him. The Southern conservatism of John Randolph and Calhoun, and thus in some measure Southern belief to the present day, constantly cited Burke in its vindication. Tocqueville renewed the social ideas of Burke among a people who were beginning to forget him. “Criticism of literature as criticism of life begins, as a serious matter,” remarks Laski, “with James Russell Lowell”;[2] and Lowell, like Arnold, believed Burke to be the great master of English prose and the great source of social wisdom. Ever since, social and literary criticism in the United States has borne the mark (sometimes unacknowledged) of Burke. It is plain today upon the most interesting and vigorous schools of critical thought—upon the New Criticism, upon the conservative and Thomist circles best known for their work at the University of Chicago, upon Catholic thinkers of whom Ross Hoffman is a good instance, upon the late Ralph Adams Cram and the late Albert Jay Nock, upon the New Humanists that were led by Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt, upon the Southern “agrarians.” It is a profound quality in the work of T. S. Eliot. But Mr. Trilling says that “liberalism is the sole intellectual tradition.” Possibly Mr. Eliot, by virtue of his churchwardenship, has been translated into an “ecclesiastical exception;” but I cannot guess how Mr. Trilling manages to dispose of everybody else. There are men beyond college campuses, and ideas beyond the pages of the Partisan Review.

Nor has Burke ever been wholly neglected by practical statesmen in America, even during this century. Woodrow Wilson, often represented as a disciple of Jefferson, wrote the best defense of Burke on the French Revolution I know, declaring that “Burke was Burke, and Burke was right” when he denounced radicalism.[3] And not long ago I heard Senator Wayne Morse quote Burke, to much effect, before a large audience. These instances could be multiplied.

So much by way of disproportionate preface. The principle of order, which is the central idea in Burke’s system, is not a concept repugnant to American or English tradition. It has always been the essence of intelligent conservatism. Now we need to define this principle of order, which is likely to be an idea of transcendent importance in the approaching epoch of concentration.

Burke having been expounded by eminent critics from Coleridge to Quiller-Couch, there ought to be small necessity for restating his central idea. All the same, that necessity exists. Despite the publication of several books on Burke recently, despite a considerable number of periodical articles, despite the interest aroused in his personality and principles by the Wentworth Woodhouse Papers being opened to the public at Sheffield, Burke remains imperfectly understood. Mr. Trilling refers to him (although simply in the haste of generalization, I am sure) as a “Tory,” which would surprise Dr. Johnson. Even some of the writers who love Burke best do not know enough about him. In a recent number of Cornhill, Mr. Somerset Maugham published the best analysis of Burke’s style ever written; but Maugham revealed an incidental misconception of Burke’s character which is widespread. Uncritically accepting one partial view of Burke’s private affairs—that view first given a degree of probability by Sir Charles Dilke, carried further by Dixon Wecter, and repeated without proper investigation in Sir Philip Magnus’ biography of a few years past—Maugham goes so far as to apply the epithet “corrupt” to the Whig reformer, though he substantially retracts that description a little further on.[4] Very likely publication of the Wentworth Woodhouse Papers and the Milton Papers and other documents and correspondence of Burke will refute this view, before many years elapse; and, indeed, Augustine Birrell sufficiently refuted it more than sixty years ago. But I remark this haziness of Burke scholarship only to suggest that although the rhetoric of Edmund Burke has not ceased to be appreciated, his principles very commonly are insufficiently apprehended.

Mr. John Chamberlain, in The Freeman, says that a good many people who formerly drifted leftward now are painfully making their way back to the ideas of Adam Smith, Jefferson, and “the earlier John Stuart Mill.” If these people, including Mr. Chamberlain himself, are to find a satisfactory principle of order for society, they will have to search still further. For without any intention to depreciate Adam Smith—political economy is not the whole of the problem of society; and as for picking and choosing from the leveling and conserving sides of Jefferson’s character, or preferring the “earlier” John Stuart Mill to the later—why, two sets of ideologues can play at this game. A consistent and catholic conservatism must be rooted in Burke. Burke knew that economics and politics do not stand alone; they are only manifestations of a general order, and that order is more than human. He applied his great practical intellect to a glowing delineation of this principle of order; and, despite his detestation of abstractions, we find in the Reflections and its sequels, in the speeches against Hastings, and in certain other of his productions a general social analysis suffused with the imagination of a poet and a critic.

“It was no service to our understanding,” writes R. M. MacIver, in the impatient way of “realistic” political scientists, “when Burke enveloped once more in mystic obscurity the office of government and in the sphere of politics appealed once more against reason to tradition and religion.”[5] Perhaps it is unfair to quote this passage; for Maclver wrote in 1928, and since then we have beheld some interesting activities by states which have emancipated themselves from the trammels of “tradition and religion.” Basil Willey knows Burke’s “mystic obscurity” (which, however applicable to Coleridge, surely is a phrase grotesquely inaccurate when Maclver tries to attach it to Burke) to be a belief as intelligible as it is influential. Burke, he writes, perceived that the evil in society “lay in the meddling instinct which presumes to interfere with the mysterious march of God in the world. Burke was of the company of those who are continually conscious of the weight of all this unintelligible world; he was more aware of the complex forces which hem us in and condition all we do, than of any power in us to act back upon and modify the very environment that limits us.”[6]

french revolutionBurke’s principle of order, therefore, is an anticipatory refutation of utilitarianism, positivism, and pragmatism, an affirmation of that reverential view of society which may be traced through Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, the Roman jurisconsults, the Schoolmen, Richard Hooker, and lesser thinkers. It is this; but it is more. Burke’s prophetic gift permitted him to see that the Revolution in France was no simple political contest, no culmination of enlightenment, but the inception of a tremendous moral convulsion from which society would not recover until the disease, the disorder of revolt against Providence, had run its course. He adapted the reverential view of society to the riddles of the modern world.

Boldly pious in an age of skepticism, Burke’s theology and morality were those of orthodox Christianity. “We have not (as I conceive) lost the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century; nor as yet have we subtilized ourselves into savages.” The presence of evil among men is an irrefragable fact; so that men in society may contend with evil, God has ordained the state; and the state, or society, has been “marshaled by a divine tactic” which makes order possible. Some order always must exist—a just and natural order, in obedience to this divine tactic, or an arbitrary and violent order, when the world is turned upside down by presumption. There is no possibility of restoring men to an alleged primitive simplicity: mankind has the choice of obedience, a society guided by the best men in it, or of presumption and a society bullied by the worst men in it. “Burke, as he regarded humanity swarming like bees into and out of their hives of industry,” wrote Augustine Birrell, “is ever asking himself: How are these men to be saved from anarchy?”[7]

And Burke’s answer to himself and to his age is that men are saved from anarchy by the principle of order. They are saved by reverence toward God and prescriptive order among men. They are saved by gradation and prejudice. There is only one way really to understand Burke, and that is to read him through. But, reducing great splendid profundities to meager little paraphrases, perhaps we can outline here what Burke means by obedience to a Providential order. To attempt more, when second-hand sets of Burke can be bought for next to nothing—why, “the rest is vanity; the rest is crime.”

(1) This temporal order is only a part of a larger, a supernatural order; and the foundation of social tranquility is reverence. Veneration lacking, “there is no sanction to any contract, virtual or even actual, against the will of prevalent power…we have but this one appeal against irresistible power—

“Si genus humanum et mortalia temnitis arma,
At sperate Deos memores fandi atque nefandi.”[8]

Though Burke does not carry the advocacy of ordination and subordination so far as Dr. Johnson, he is emphatic that the first rule of society is obedience—obedience to God and the dispensations of Providence, which work through natural processes. “Out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform.” Maugham, in his admirable essay on Burke cited earlier, observes that we moderns are hardly able to understand the spirit of veneration. He is quite right, of course. But when veneration goes out of society, so much sinks with it that a cyclical process seems to be set in motion, arranging that mankind shall presently experience disaster, then fear, then awe, and at last resurrected veneration. Veneration probably is the product of a patriarchal social outlook. When it is eradicated by sophistication, Providence has a way of returning us, rather rudely, to patriarchy.

(2) After the order of God, Burke implies, comes an order of spiritual and intellectual values. All values are not the same, nor all impulses, nor all men. A natural gradation teaches men to hold some sentiments dear and others cheap. Leveling radicalism endeavors to put all emotions and sensations upon the same level of mediocrity, and so to erase the moral imagination, which sets men apart from beasts. “On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.” When he wrote of how “learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude,” the phrase which excited more ferocious criticism—even from John Adams—than anything else Burke said, Burke was simply paraphrasing Matthew, vii, 6, of course; and he meant what even some eminent socialist critics like Mr. V. S. Pritchett and Dr. C. E. M. Joad are coming to dread, that the mass of men, shorn of proper intellectual leadership, “all the decent drapery of life torn rudely off,” will be wholly indifferent, or perhaps hostile, to anything that is not flesh.

(3) Physical and moral anarchy is prevented by general acquiescence in social differentiation of duty and privilege. “I am no friend to aristocracy, in the sense at least in which that word is usually understood.” But a natural aristocracy cannot be eradicated from among men unless freedom is to be eliminated also. The problem of the statesman is to bring to the commonwealth’s service the real aristocracy among a people, which is not simply an hereditary aristocracy. If this class is not recognized and venerated, the brute and the sycophant exercise its abandoned functions in the name of a faceless “people.” Burke’s true natural aristocracy “is not a separate interest in the state.” It includes those who are bred to high ideas and to live in the consciousness of a public censorial inspection; the leisured, accustomed to reflect and converse; those habituated to command; the administrators of justice; the professors of sciences and arts; the manufacturers and merchants who “have cultivated an habitual regard to commutative justice.” Anyone who thinks this concept of hierarchy illiberal really ought to read what Thomas Jefferson wrote on the same subject. If such classes are trusted with the leadership of society, and if property and ancient rights are venerated, then “as long as these endure, so long the Duke of Bedford is safe, and we are all safe together—the high from the blights of envy and the spoliations of rapacity, the low from the iron hand of oppression and the insolent spurn of contempt.”

Almost all factions seem ready to confess, today, that we need more virtue and intelligence at the top of society. Planners talk of an elite to remedy this desperate lack. T. S. Eliot is suspicious of the idea of an “elite,” as Burke would have been; since, at best, it is the substitution of arbitrary selection for the gentler procedures of natural selection. With an elite, all the elements of subordination may reappear, but none of the consecration that accompanies Providential ordination.

Against an “elite” recruited out of conformity to party fanaticism and enthusiastic adherence to a shallow and venomous intellectual credo, Burke wrote in the second letter of the Regicide Peace:

To them, the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals is nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects; dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.

These were, of course, the Jacobins; the description applies as well, or even better, to the Communist and the Nazi rule of an “elite.” Here one grasps in a moment all that Burke’s principle of order was not; and here one perceives the gulf that separates Burke from Hegel. But Burke’s constructive imagination means more to us than his denunciation of fanatic “planning,” of “plebiscitary democracy;” and possibly this generation will begin to struggle back toward his principle of a true order, a consecrated society guided by veneration and prescription.

Society is immeasurably more than a political device. Burke, knowing this, endeavored to convince his generation of the immense complexity of existence, “the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.” If society is treated—Bentham and the several schools of his disciples so regard it—as a simple contraption to be managed on mathematical lines, then man will be degraded into something less than a partner in the immortal contract between the dead, the living, and those yet unborn, the bond between God and man. Paul Elmer More touches upon this menace, which Burke foresaw with such passionate loathing, in his essay “Economic Ideals:”

As we contemplate the world converted into a huge machine and managed by engineers, we gradually grow aware of its lack of meaning, of its emptiness of human value; the soul is stifled in this glorification of mechanical efficiency. And then we begin to feel the weakness of such a creed when confronted by the real problems of life; we discover its inability to impose any restraint on the passions of men, or to supply any government which can appeal to the loyalty of the spirit. And seeing these things we understand the fear that is gnawing at the vitals of society.[9]

Critics of thought and society are going to understand such fear better and better, as this decade advances; and they will pay increasing attention to Edmund Burke’s ideas on order, I suspect. The remarks of Mr. Kenneth Burke and the essay by Mr. Somerset Maugham are some indication of this drift. In our epoch of concentration that fear will not diminish; critics will grope for some “loyalty of spirit;” and it will not be found in Marx, nor in Rousseau, nor even in that arch-modern Bentham.

Books on or by Russell Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the Sewanee Review, Volume 60 (April-June 1952) and appears here with gracious permission from The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal


[1] “The New Criticism and the Democratic Tradition,” The American Scholar, Winter, 1949–50.

[2] Laski, The American Democracy, 419.

[3] Wilson, “Burke and the French Revolution”, The Century Magazine, September, 1901.

[4] “After Reading Burke,” The Cornhill Magazine, Winter, 1950–51.

[5] MacIver, The Modern State, 148.

[6] Willey, The Eighteenth-Century Background, 244–245.

[7] Birrell, Obiter Dicta, Second Series, “Burke”.

[8] “You who despise humanity and the rules of arms, remember: the Gods keep count of your transgressions.” —Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneid bk i, 539–43 (19 BCE)(S.H. transl.)

[9] Shelburne Essays, XI, 249.

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