Burke - The Great Melody

I started reading The Great Melody by Conor Cruise O'Brien. comments and summary of notable bits follow.

Churchill had a very good interpretation of burke! ^_^

man, you hear about Churchill in school of course for his role in WWII, but no one tells you he was a skillful historian and epistemologist. and the commie WWII hater types who bash Churchill certainly are ignorant of it!

so the good interpretation of burke is roughly: Burke is a classical liberal. a very important one who revived that way of thinking. he was consistent in this throughout his entire political career. he hated tyranny and abuse of power. Conor calls this the Whig interpretation, and it was dominant until ~1930.

some very harsh and false attacks were made on Burke by James Mill (John Stuart Mill's father).

a bastard named Namier trashed Burke's reputation and held major sway from 1930-1970 and beyond. he didn't ever refute the good interpretation. he just pretended it had already been refuted and referred to it that way and implied only a simpleton would think otherwise. he also focussed his writing mostly on second and third rate people. seems like something out of Atlas Shrugged. "give the little guy a chance; the important people already got to be important in their own time, just ignore them now to even things up"

one of the bastard's books trashing burke only mentions burke 8 times. he's subtle. one could read the book and not realize burke was the primary target. he acts like burke doesn't matter to history, and is only worth mentioning in passing. he talks about issues where burke was very influential and fails to mention burke's famous speech and sort of takes it for granted that it's too ridiculous to bother examining. in the few passing remarks, and with no evidence to support it, and ignoring that these interpretations were refuted at length in existing books, Namier says Burke is a lackey without special skill who spreads myths. then Namier went back to talking at length about people he admitted weren't very important, but were evidently more important to discuss than Burke. Namier tries to get reader's to accept his statements about Burke on authority; he supplies no evidence for them. it's true that Namier did a lot of research, but he didn't spend that time researching Burke, he instead focussed on the second-raters.

Namier's next book is worse. this stuff is really wicked. but conor is dignified and objective and unemotional. i guess that's more effective. he just points out the facts and lets the reader use his own judgment, without ever suggesting what is the appropriate feeling.

it's pretty frustrating how such a bastard with such anti-truth-seeking and immoral tactics -- which are despicable even by mainstream standards -- can be so influential. Besides the obvious, Conor should never have had to waste his time reading that filth, let alone commenting on it; it'd be nicer if his book was about good things. but i don't disagree with his judgment that including the Namier stuff was for the best. Namier did exist and does need discrediting. sigh.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Godwin-like Burke Quote

The Great Melody by Conor Cruise O'Brien page 42 quoting Burke on why more Catholics didn't convert to Protestantism due to the Irish Penal Laws:
Now as to the other point, that the objects of these Laws suffer voluntarily ... it supposes, what is false in fact, that it is in a man's moral power to change his religion whenever his convenience requires it. If he be beforehand satisfied that your opinion is better than his, he will voluntarily come over to you, and without compulsion; and then your Law would be unnecessary; but if he is not so convinced, he must know that it is his duty in this point to sacrifice his interest here to his opinion of his eternal happiness, else he could have in reality no religion at all. In the former case, therefore, as your Law would be unnecessary; in the latter, it would be persecuting; that is, it would put your penalty and his ideas of duty in the opposite scales; which is, or I know not what is, the precise idea of persecution.
Reminds me of Godwin. It has the same concept of persuasion. Either I, in my own judgment, come to see your idea as best, and so compulsion is unnecessary, or I don't, in which case you can't reasonably expect me to change my mind. Godwin would say in the second case you should rethink whether you are correct if you can't be persuasive; Burke here says in the second case you can't say people are volunteering to suffer, because they'd suffer either way they chose.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Popper on Burke

Popper does a great job of presenting opposing views fairly, with ample quoting, and generous interpretations. Popper writes very clearly, and he makes sure to explain the opposing views as clearly as possible. That often means writing them more clearly than their proponents ever did. Popper frequently uses more words to explain an opposing view than he does to criticize it. I can't think of anyone else who is comparable; this is one of of the wonderful things about reading Popper.

That's why I was very surprised to find one case where Popper provided a single, hard-to-read quote, and gave an ungenerous and unreasonable interpretation. Unfortunately, Popper does this to one of my favorite authors: Burke.

Quotes are from The Open Society and Its Enemies p112-113. Popper starts by lumping Burke together with Aristotle even though their statements are quite different. Here's Aristotle:
To take care of virtue is the business of a state
And here is what Burke said[1]:
[the state is] to be looked upon with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature
Note that it says "other reverence" not just "reverence". This is because Popper left out important context. Popper goes on to paint Burke as a worshipper of the State. But Burke was actually saying the State deserves more reverence than a temporary agreement for trading coffee or calico. That's where the word "other" comes from.

Now, the main thing Popper says is that Burke and Aristotle are demanding that the State be worshipped, and be in charge of morality. Aristotle says very clearly that virtue is in the domain of the State, but Burke does not. Burke says the State is more important than "things subservient...". What things is he talking about? Trade of coffee for one. Burke goes on to explain that the State is a longterm partnership to achieve longterm ends. The main theme is to get liberty and prevent chaos. Those are exactly the things Popper thinks it proper that a State do. But Popper takes Burke to mean something else:
In other words, the state is said to be something higher or nobler than an association with rational ends; it is an object of worship.
That is not what Burke said, at all. His ends are rational and he did not ask for worship. My guess is that Popper is being harsh because Burke used one religious word ("reverence") despite the fact that Burke was only demanding more reverence than trade contracts. Popper goes on to accuse Burke of wanting to legislate morality:
it is a demand that the realm of legality ... should be increased at the expense of the realm of morality proper ... [at the expense of] our own moral decisions ... [at the expense of] our conscience.
That is what Aristotle demanded, but it's not even close to what Burke said. Nor is it consistent with Burke's record, e.g. his asking the State to be more lenient with Catholics. Popper then expands on his favored view (he calls it "protectionist"), which he is opposing to the Burke/Aristotle view:
from the protectionist point of view, the existing democratic states, though far from perfect, represent a very considerable achievement in social engineering of the right kind. Many forms of crime, of attack on the rights of human individuals by other individuals, have been practically suppressed or very considerably reduced, and courts of law administer justice fairly successfully in difficult conflicts of interest.
I can't imagine Burke disagreeing with this!

[1] Popper gave no citation, but I found it, here's the full paragraph:

SOCIETY is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure "” but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. 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 between those who are living, but between 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 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. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule, because this necessity itself is a part, too, of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force; 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.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Hayek on Burke

So unproductive has conservatism been in producing a general conception of how a social order is maintained that its modern votaries, in trying to construct a theoretical foundation, invariably find themselves appealing almost exclusively to authors who regarded themselves as liberal. Macaulay, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and Lecky certainly considered themselves liberals, and with justice; and even Edmund Burke remained an Old Whig to the end and would have shuddered at the thought of being regarded as a Tory.
Also from the same essay:
to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits.
Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it "“ or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called "mechanistic" explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Burke Quotes


It says "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." is the most famous Burke quote, but is a misattribution!

Also on the page is this wonderful comment.
It has always been with me, a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.
William Hazlitt
Hazlitt also had good things to say about Godwin.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Adam Smith on Burke

The economist Adam Smith remarked that Burke was "the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us".[76]
The cite says: E. G. West, Adam Smith (New York: Arlington House, 1969), p. 201.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Godwin on Burke

Whilst this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author's mind, while he penned the preceding sentences. In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In sublety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed. But his characteristic exceilencies were vividness and justness of painting, and that boundless wealth of imagination that adorned the most ungrateful subjects, and heightened the most interesting. Of this wealth he was too lavish; and, though it is impossible for the man of taste not to derive gratification from almost every one of his images and metaphors while it passes before him, yet their exuberance subtracts, in no considerable degree, from that irresistibleness and rapidity of general effect, which is the highest excellence of composition. No impartial man can recall Burke to his mind, without confessing the granduer and integrity of his feelings of morality, and being convinced that he was eminently both the patriot and the philanthropist. His excellencies however were somewhat tinctured with a vein of dark and saturnine temper; so that the same man strangely united a degree of the rude character of his native island, with an urbanity and a susceptibility of the kinder affections, that have rarely been paralleled. But his principal defect consisted in this; that the false estimate as to the things entitled to our deference and admiration, which could alone tender aristocracy with whom he lived, unjust to his worth, in some degree infected his own mind. He therefore sought wealth and plunged in expense, instead of cultivating the simplicity of independence; and he entangled himself with a petty combination of political men, instead of reserving his illustrious talents unwarped, for the advancement of intellect, and the service of mankind. He unfortunately has left us a memorable example, of the power of a corrupt system of government, to undermine and divert from their genuine purposes, the noblest faculties that have yet been exhibited to the observation of the world.
My favorite part is
In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard [Edmund Burke] as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In sublety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.
I think Godwin's criticism of Burke is incorrect. Burke, like Godwin, knew that there is knowledge in the status quo (in traditions), and that it should only be changed gradually/piecemeal to avoid both violence and destruction of knowledge. For this reason, both of them considered the French Revolution a bad idea. To my mind, they were basically in agreement. But somehow they did not see it.

Godwin would of course also have approved of Burke's take on America, India, and Irish Catholics. (Perhaps Godwin might think Burke was too timid in his advocacy for Catholics, but I don't think that).

The comments about political entanglements do make sense. Burke had those. But for good reason. He wanted to work within and with the system to reform the system. By taking on flawed allies (which are the only kind available), Burke was able to make important, good things happen like peace with America and recognizing American independence. That changed history for the better. Godwin held himself aloof, which I respect, but I don't think Godwin's way is a moral imperative, and I don't think Burke should be criticized for having some practicality. (Note: There were significant limits to Burke's practicality. For example, his impeachment of Warren Hastings became sufficiently politically impractical that Fox wanted him to stop, but he wouldn't. And he had his party turn down running the Government over some ideals.)

Burke turned down a seat in the house of lords. Someone commented that taking it would honor the house more than Burke. If he was corrupted by the Government and aristocracy, and adopted their values, it must only have been in quite a limited way, or he would have taken that seat. Burke could also have had a well paid and powerful position working for the King, if he'd wanted. I think Burke did hard work for his entire political career, and made sacrifices for the cause, and he did it because he cared about reform, and he wasn't very interested in any rewards. He was not corrupt.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Bias About Burke

A Genius Reconsidered by Russell Kirk, p 151
[Edmund Burke] was not a man of the enlightenment
The idea here (clearer with context) is that the violent, radical, utopian French Revolution, and associated thought, is the True Enlightenment, and all the other attempts at progress don't get to count as part of The Enlightenment.

So, if you're an avid reformer, a man of reason and thought, but also a man of non-violence who wants to move forward with sufficient error correction rather than without it -- as Burke was -- then you're a stodgy old unEnlightened conservative.

According to Amazon reviews, the book is biased to the right wing and gives a very favorable treatment of Burke. Those Amazon reviews must have double the left-wing bias that Kirk has. Equal bias would make them see it as fair, and then they need to go left again to see it as being slanted right.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Thomas Paine Confused

he and some of his friends visited burke several years before french rev. separately i think.

when the revolution started, he and a few others wrote to burke.

they thought burke would be on their side!

that's how little they understood any philosophy. they didn't even know he wouldn't agree with them.

the french revolution is reputed to have been all about philosophy and abstract ideas.

but how can that be? those men didn't know anything about ideas. they were incapable of understanding burke's philosophy even enough to see which side he'd be on.

paine's book replying to burke on the french revolution confirms my point. it showed that even after burke explained his position in detail that paine *still* couldn't understand even the main points of it. paine was no thinker.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Atrocious Burke Scholarship

The Portable Edmund Burke edited by Isaac Kramnick states on page xxviii of the introduction that:
Beginning in 1929 and 1930, Burke's reputation was subjected to the most serious assault on it since the radical crew of Wollstonecraft, Priestly, Paine, William Godwin, and others had finished with it one hundred and thirty-five years earlier.
This is false. Godwin did not assault Burke's reputation. Here is a well known quote by Godwin about Burke:

Whilst this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author's mind, while he penned the preceding sentences. In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In sublety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.
This was followed with a bit of criticism; Godwin considered Burke to be one of the best men ever, but flawed. There is no way to take it as an assault on Burke's reputation. Godwin also praised Burke on several other occasions.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)