Reading Edmund Burke Shows That Conservatism Is All About Defending Traditional Hierarchies

Studying the writings of Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, reveals something important: that right-wing intellectual thought is little more than a series of dressed-up defenses of conventional social relations and traditional hierarchies.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) by James Northcote.

Edmund Burke occupies a venerable position in the history of right-wing thought, often described by friend and foe alike as the father of modern conservatism. No doubt this would have surprised the opinionated Irishman, who largely saw himself as a practical politician, with nothing but disdain for pretentious intellectual scribblers. But no one gets to decide how history will remember them, if it deigns to, and Burke’s most enduring legacy has proven to be his extensive writings on politics and aesthetics.

Burkeanism is a mercurial and even intentionally ambiguous way of approaching the world, one that regards the human capacity to reason as fundamentally limited and consequently venerates established social relations and the wisdom allegedly embedded in tradition.

In many ways, it’s fundamentally anti-modern. And it has indelibly stamped the history of conservative thought.

The Sublime and the Beautiful

Despite his later revulsion at ne’er-do-well philosophers, Burke began his life as something of a bohemian intellectual. He traveled the European continent, engaging with the controversies of the era. But he was always uncomfortable with the most radical streams of contemporary thought.

Burke’s most important early book was A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), a work of aesthetics that would become influential enough to be cited by luminaries like Immanuel Kant. Burke’s prioritization of aesthetics, and the way he sees the beautiful and sublime as influencing human passions, is telling. For Burke — contra today’s “facts don’t care about your feelings” type — our emotions determine a great deal about how we apprehend the world. And our feelings are stirred, one way or another, by viscerally aesthetic ideas.

As the title indicates, the two most significant ideas Burke discusses in the book are the beautiful and the sublime. Insisting that beauty is “no creature of our reason,” Burke goes on to describe beautiful things as those that comply with our finite mental and physical strength. In other words, those over which humans can wield some control: birds, flowers, harmonious music, and so on. The sublime fills us with “astonishment and horror” — something so titanic and powerful that we are reminded of how finite our strength is, both mentally and physically.

Our idea of the sublime also exceeds reason; our affective idea of it — the “strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” — can give us some sense of the sublime’s transcendent power and infinitude but is never enough to represent it fully. Epic poetry — for instance, John Milton’s ruminations on God and the infinite in Paradise Lost — is probably the closest we can get.

The two dimensions Burke sketches out have come to define a great deal of right-wing theorizing. At times, conservatives echo Burke’s reflections on beauty through a critique of modernity as indifferent to the small and local (the rationalistic giant state being an exemplar). Modernity swallows up, as the conservative jurist Robert Bork put it in his book Coercing Virtue, “particularity — respect for difference, circumstance, (and) history.” Nostalgic variants of conservatism emphasizing the virtues of rural life, conformity to settled practices and values, and respect for conventional authorities all appeal to this side of Burke’s aesthetics.

Then there are the more grandiose variants of conservatism, which have no problem appealing to the gigantic. One of the problems these conservatives have with liberal and left-wing humanists is precisely the conceit that anything as small as human life can have meaning without some transcendent and awe-inspiring source of authority and power to vindicate it. The source of transcendent meaning might vary — the patriarchal God, the father, the nation, the eternal tradition, Western civilization — but a sublime source there must be.

What unites both of these right-wing strands is their suspicion of reason as a foundation for life and emphasis on affect and, more important, power and difference. Burke admires the beautiful in the same way later conservatives waxed poetic about the virtues of rural traditionalism; both embody a form of life characterized by regularity, a sense of order and harmony, and a realization of our limited reason and power. To behave otherwise, conservatives argue, is to bring about chaos — or, even worse, to fall into a kind of Luciferian hubris, questioning what should be merely revered and obeyed.

Burke’s Gothic Political Outlook

One of the first critics to recognize the link between Burke’s aesthetics and his politics was the English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Drafting a response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wollstonecraft criticized him for elevating vague “Gothic notions of beauty” over reason and analytical precision. As she put it in her A Vindication of the Rights of Men:

I perceive, from the whole tenor of your Reflections, that you have a mortal antipathy to reason; but, if there is any thing like argument, or first principles, in your wild declamation, behold the result: — that we are to reverence the rust of antiquity and term the unnatural customs, which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated, the sage fruit of experience: nay, that, if we do discover some errors, our feelings should lead us to excuse, with blind love, or unprincipled filial affection, the venerable vestiges of ancient days. These are gothic notions of beauty — the ivy is beautiful, but, when it insidiously destroys the trunk from which it receives support, who would not grub it up?

This was a savvy observation. As Corey Robin and others have observed, many conservatives down to the present day dress up arguments for deferring to tradition and authority with the gloss of unknowable profundity. Often, they’re successful in inspiring sympathy, because many people do feel a genuine sense of loss at the sight of traditional hierarchies subject to attack.

Nevertheless, when egalitarian movements are on the march, sublime institutions and creeds that were formerly respected and defended come under relentless scrutiny and critique. The rhetorical flash and bang, jazzing things up, obscuring the unknowable and transcendent, fall away. Like the titular magician in The Wizard of Oz, various forms of traditional power are exposed as crusty elites defending their privileges. And conservatives — grudgingly, as Edmund Fawcett points out in his excellent Conservatism: A Fight for Tradition — are forced to spring into action, providing intellectual defenses of what they simultaneously claim cannot be adequately grasped by the intellect.

The apparent paradox of this claim reflects a long-standing conservative belief that ultimately it would have been better if no one had questioned these institutions and creeds in the first place. Not coincidentally, Burke was one of the first to express a complex aversion to intellectualism, while recognizing the need to provide some kind of argument for conservatism against its enemies.

Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. . . . Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. . . . In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.

This kind of thinking would have an enormous influence on conservative thinkers going forward. But Burke rarely provides an extensive philosophical argument for why any of this is less abstract than the apparently vague rationalistic principles of his opponents. Often, he merely ridicules his foes and asserts the obviousness of his own preferred principles. The argument frequently boils down to claims that his favored prejudices and practices have proven their worth over time, unlike the new and untested ideas put forward by his opponents.

Conservatives today will often point out that Burke’s prophecies on the potential violence of the French Revolution proved accurate, suggesting we should give him some credit. But it is also worth noting that most of the institutions and prejudices Burke felt were necessary for an ordered society — respect for the Crown and aristocratic property, distrust of democracy and the intellectual abilities of the “swinish multitude,” the political subordination of women to men — would all be discarded rapidly after his death. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone but the most out-of-touch reactionaries defending them now. Meanwhile, the principles and ideals of the French Revolution, and the modern world they embodied, live on and continue to inspire millions.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Burke

Burke’s writings contain some elements of truth. Any sensible person should recognize their mental limitations and not assume that they can possess a complete understanding of the world. There are also many traditions and ways of life that have been needlessly corroded (often by the forces of capitalism); the inverse error of Burke’s bias toward the old is to fetishize the new.

The fundamental problem with Burkean arguments, as Wollstonecraft and others have argued, is that their hostility to so-called rationalist abstraction and appeals to affect and the profound unknown are only sustainable for those who already feel the way they do. This is why Burkeanism has been described as less a philosophy than an outlook or attitude.

And an attitude pivoting around aesthetic sensibilities doesn’t get you very far. As Ian Shapiro notes, one person might feel deeply attached to a venerated if mysterious tradition, while another might view it as a grotesque form of domination. The only way we can suss out who is right is by leaving the ethereal realm of aesthetic vagueness and putting confidence in our limited powers to understand the world as it is.

Conservatives who channel Burke will always resist the move to the rational since, if we can understand the world as it is, we have it in our power to remake it. This is precisely what they do not want. And it is exactly what we must set out to do.