For those of us who love Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, and Irving Babbitt, the extravagantly convoluted term, “the moral imagination,” rolls readily off the tongue and warms the heart like few other things. Yet, most of our closest allies on the right scratch their collective and individual heads in confusion. “What is this moral imagination,” they ask in some understandable bewilderment. The term comes from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. It only appears once in this seminal writing, but it is the cornerstone of the entire work. And, yet, even for those of us who love the term and the concept… we too easily employ it, more often than not, out of its context, thus rendering this precious Burkean-ism somewhat un-Burkean.
When Burke first coined and employed “the moral imagination,” he was in the midst of explaining his reasons for defending true rights against false rights as understood by the English proponents of the French revolutionaries. Far from opposing the reality of natural rights—as many of Burke’s most important opponents and friends have equally accused him of doing—Burke distinguished between what we can know and what we most likely do not know concerning them. “The rights of men are in a sort of middle,” he argued, “incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned.” As such rights depart the eternal and timeless, entering into the reality of our temporal existence, they become like “rays of light, which pierce into a dense medium, are, by the laws of nature, refracted from their straight line.”
To understand properly our natural rights, one must be willing to do three things.
First, he must understand that no person has rights independent of justice. The proper and classical definition of justice—to give each person his due—trumps all arguments of rights. Indeed, rights augment justice.
Second, one must approach natural rights with all due humility. Just as we each know we have a soul but cannot find it when searching at a physical and material level, so, too, we have rights. Thus, the person must know that he knows next to nothing when considering natural rights. They are, to be sure and necessarily, mysteries.
Because natural rights are mysteries, Burke wittily noted, the farmer and the physician will always understand them better than the “professor of metaphysics.” Because a philosopher declares rights does not make them so. They are above and beyond the will and desire of man. By abstracting natural rights, the metaphysician has no limits, thus no humility. In his arrogance, he distorts all that is sacred. “Hypocrisy, of course, delights in the most sublime speculations; for, never intending to go beyond speculation, it costs nothing to have it magnificent.”
Third, one must admit that governments exist to protect such rights but not to “make” them, which is an impossibility and a false conceit. “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it.” The use of plural and then singular is important as well, as Burke is continuing to stress the extraordinary nature of such rights.
What the French revolutionaries and their English supporters misunderstand in their focus on natural rights is that they are fundamentally rooted in the deepest of complexities and must be understood not in abstraction, but in context. In other words, the supporters of natural rights too often forget the “natural” aspect of rights, justice, and humanity.
The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them. If you were to contemplate society in but one point of view, all these simple modes of polity are infinitely captivating. In effect each would answer its single end much more perfectly than the more complex is able to attain all its complex purposes. But it is better that the whole should be imperfectly and anomalously answered, than that, while some parts are provided for with great exactness, others might be totally neglected, or perhaps materially injured, by the overcare of a favourite member.
Burke continued in a rather Socratic vein, noting the horrific irony of what the pro-revolutionary forces wanted. “Amidst assassination, massacre, and confiscation, perpetrated or meditated, they are forming plans for the good order of future society.” Can good ever come from evil, at any level beyond the grace of Our Father?
Closely related to his own work in his philosophical treatise, On the Sublime and the Beautiful, Burke introduces into eighteenth-century political thought what will be known after his death as a deep and abiding and inspiring romanticism, against the classicism, the rationalism, the materialism, and the utilitarianism of his antagonists. In Burke’s romantic vision of the human person, he fears that his opponents wittingly or not will stripe man naked, leaving him only to his own base instincts.
All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
Denuded, man’s sins become all that defines him. The cost will be outrageously high, Burke feared. So high, indeed, that man might cease to exist in any form of recognizable civilization.
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. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.
Frankly, this is one of the single most powerful statements not just in political philosophy, but in all of western civilization. As Burke moved toward this argument, he rose to the heights of Socrates, Cicero, St. John, and Thomas More.
Invoking Plato directly, Burke continued:
On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to states. Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.
In essence, Burke’s argument about the moral imagination is thus: If you cannot see beyond the mere appearances of a person, that person will cease to be a person and so will you. What makes us human, ironically, is that which is the least human thing about us: the grace given us to see the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of another, regardless of the corruption marring the human. This, in particular, is what the faculty of imagination allows us to understand. No person is merely the sum of his parts.
It is well worth concluding with Burke’s own words—perhaps his most penetrating and insightful in all of his many gorgeous writings.
The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.
The words move me like none other in modern history. As a scholar, my brain cheers. As a human, my humility increases. As a Christian, my soul rejoices.
This essay is the sixth 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; and the fifth here. Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.