Should one generation ever consider itself greater than any other generation, past or future, Edmund Burke warned in his magisterial Reflections on the Revolution in France, the entire fabric of a civilization might very well unravel and, ultimately, disintegrate. Our modern ears have no right to discount Burke’s argument as simple hyperbole. What takes centuries to build and hone, however, can take moments to undo. We have witnessed numerous generations since Burke wrote this, and we have seen the arrogance of several, but most especially the Vatican II generation and the so-called “counter-culture” generation of the 1960s. To this day, we suffer from the arrogance of each. They each, in the name of toleration, progress, liberalism, and humanitarianism ask us to submit to their teachings blindly. As one great Canadian and Stoic man of letters argued in the early 1980s, “They shout about love, but when push comes to shove, they fight for things they’re afraid of.”
Once a generation succeeds in separating itself from past and future, it harms not just civilization but the very dignity of man. The individual man, unanchored, Burke noted darkly, “would become little better than the flies of summer.”
Rooted in the pagan and Christian occidental traditions, Burke employed the Stoic, Ciceronian, and Augustinian concepts of a society as far more significant and immediate than the actual and perceived here and now. Though the Stoics and St. Augustine labeled, respectively, this “greater” or “transcendent” society the Cosmopolis and the City of God, Burke called it a “partnership.”
It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only among those who are living, but among those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible worlds, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath that holds all physical and all moral natures, each in its appointed place.
Burke’s idea also holds much in common with the medieval concept of the “Economy of Grace and Nature” and the Renaissance belief in a “Great Chain of Being.” In other words, all things radiate from the Divine Logos, with each created thing participating in multiple ways in the universal scheme of Justice.
Though each man and each generation participates in the contract, it exists prior and above that of any individual man or generation. It is, consequently, not subject to the human will or to human whims, though men can generally ignore it or mock it in attempted opposition. Men can even forcefully rebel against it.
Always, at their own peril, however.
“But if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken; nature is disobeyed; and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow,” Burke lamented. Through free will, however, men also join the eternal contract through an immense variety of associations of nation, government, friendship, family, school, and business.
Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law.
Though Burke does not state it here directly, he was describing the Platonic ideal of Justice. When Burke does label it—in addition to calling it a partnership and an eternal contract—he generally refers to it as a commonwealth or, less often, a state. By state, however, we would be incorrect to presume he means the term in the way ideological men have used it for the previous century or so, as a mechanism of confluent interests to promote itself through the legal use (or monopoly) of force and power. Commonwealth, however, works well as a term, conjuring the idea of multiple communities—sometimes concurrent, overlapping, and polycentric in both time and space, sometimes in tension, but always as wheels within wheels, layered, and, at once, hierarchical and level.
Should someone imagine an ordered and predestined machine as the world, Burke cautioned, he would fail in understanding the intricate delicacies and complexities of life, always constant, but also ever changing. As Burke understood it, all of reality is gothic, haphazard, and jagged, rather than symmetrical and systematic. Romantic, classical, and Christian, he fully embraced the mystery of free will, that which negates all certainty and Gnosticism in this rather fallen world. “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will,” he wrote, “even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence,” Burke continued. “The world on the whole will gain by a liberty, without which virtue cannot exist.” The embrace and acceptance of freedom of the will must always necessitate the inability to predict tomorrow.
Western civilization rests upon two pillars, and it depends on each generation to accept, to judge, and, when needed, to reform: 1) mannered liberality toward others, and 2) Judeo-Christian ethics. “Nothing is more certain, than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined: I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.” Again, Burke echoed Cicero here, especially the Roman republican’s letter to his son, On Duties, which claimed that sacrifice, not rights and privileges defined manhood. Whether alone or in community, Cicero had written his son, decorum defines us, allowing us to treat each other and ourselves with respect and dignity.
Anticipating the Christian humanism of the twentieth century, Burke embraced a traditional understanding of the liberal arts to hold the generations together, cementing continuity and promoting the virtues, properly understood. In particular, Burke believed charity not only as the highest virtue, but the one that kept us most human. “Charity is not confined to any one description, but ought to apply itself to all men who have wants.”
This essay is the eighth essay in a series; the first essay may be found here; the second may be found here; the third may be found here; the fourth here; the fifth here; the sixth here; and the seventh here. Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.