In what was, perhaps, Edmund Burke’s best writing, the Anglo-Irish statesman had argued in favor of the moral imagination, a way by which one sees the reflection of God’s glory in another. He then concluded that section of the Reflections on the Revolution in France by noting that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
Anticipating the nuanced and complex arguments of Christopher Dawson and other Christian humanists of the twentieth-century while also inheriting the Stoic and Ciceronian arguments promoting decorum, Burke immediately transitioned from his arguments on the faculty of the soul to the necessity of a proper and well-ordered culture based on manners and respect. All other things in society, he argued, followed the first principle of a culture of manners. “Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our economical [sic] politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures.”
Creatures of what, one might ask?
Of the culture itself, derived from the worship of the cult, or cultus. From the culture, then, all things must follow. “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,” he argued.
Even the positive law, the economy, and the arts are but the creations of the culture. If the culture is well ordered, the fruits of that culture will be properly ordered legal and political institutions. It must be noted that Burke is not negating the natural law or the laws of nature. For example, imagine one of the most important arguments by the economists, that of “a law of supply and demand.” Burke did not argue against such a law; he merely argued that moral considerations should trump or attenuate such things.
Should those who serve as the guardians of religious morality and humane liberality embrace something other than the good, they will—perhaps unknowingly—ultimately pervert the institutions of society, for they have corrupted its very wellspring. Only power, Burke lamented, “will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish,” and power is supported only by its own terrors. When this happens, there is little left for a society but for it to wither into nothingness. Rarely, though, does such corruption attack all at once. Such a withering might take generations, as a society slowly marches toward the beat not of God and nature but of man’s lusts. Yet, even the appearance of such corruption might lead to real corruption, to real decay. Examining the French revolutionaries and their English supporters, Burke claimed, one could readily see “a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity.” In France, especially, “Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” Why, he asked? Because there had preceded it, a “revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.”
As such, Burke feared, western civilization had become so fascinated and titillated with its own “creative” abstractions, that it had forgotten what had allowed such abstractions to be apprehended and to work—God, nature, and ancestry. Contrary to many accusations against Burke, he believed that even kings must submit to justice and, when necessary, punishment. Just as natural rights must be accepted without too much delineation or metaphysical speculation, however, so justice must be treated with utmost reverence, never taken lightly, and always rooted in the most severe reflection. “The punishment of real tyrants is a noble and awful act of justice,” he realized. If a ruler has “outraged and oppressed a nation,” he is not “fit to be called chief.”
Having argued as such, Burke then took the role of Socrates, noting that he served as the “proxy” for no man, association, government, or crown. His own observations, as those of Socrates, were chained to the natural law as understood through revelation, ancestry, and manners. Certainly, he continued, no man could be regarded as both wise and innovative when it came to the crucial issue of morality. “We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality,” Burke assured his readers and listeners. The same was true in the understanding of rights and governments too. “Nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty,” he continued, “which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.”
Thus, Burke claimed, man must respect—first, if not foremost—the inherited prejudices. He should not accept them blindly, but he should accept them as worthy not only of consideration but also of respect. Prejudice, after all, is merely “the ready application in the emergency” the “steady course of wisdom and future,” therefore arming each man and each generation with coherence, avoiding, then, the hesitation in a “moment of decision.”
Of man’s prejudices, the most important come from his religious belief, especially those steeped in morality, ethics, and virtue. “Man is by his constitution a religious animal.” Atheism, then, is as much a perversion of nature as it is freakish in the mind and soul of man. Certainly, because of its immense diversity and complexity, nature and creation will always provide exceptions to its general and widespread rules, but these exceptions should not be seen as anything other than perversions and deviations. “Atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts.” Never will atheism last long, as it is not self-sustaining. Even a short life of atheism can wreak tremendous damage upon a people, leaving it in confusion and bewilderment.
Burke concluded this section of his Reflections with an admonition to respect God, the fountainhead, and touchstone of all that is permanent and good in this world. “All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully [sic] impressed with the idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society.” As such, the leaders of society, if properly ordered, will recognize that hierarchy based on excellences, not leveling based on commonalities, should rule the world. “A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world.” Without shame, the democracy will also act without fear.
This, perhaps more than anything else in this world of sorrows, should worry us.
This essay is the seventh 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; and the sixth here. Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.