Saturday, September 15, 2012

Burke vs. Weigel

George Weigel, a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is "one of America's leading public intellectuals." (His own webpage says so.) On September 7, he published a thinly-researched, shabby misappropriation of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) to cast Democrats, in contrast with Burke, as followers of English political thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). "Burke vs. Hobbes," says Weigel, is the simple key that will explain the 2012 election to voters.

Edmund Burke is hailed widely as the "founder of modern conservatism," though it is probable that today's soi disant conservatives would horrify the learned man of Beaconsfield. Few figures in the history of political thought have invited so many misuses as Burke, a writer who, in one respected reader's view, has appeared throughout the last few centuries to have been "all things to all men." The influence Burke's powerful mind and great ideas has suffered from fact that he spent his life as a member of the House of Commons. In the hustle of daily political life, he rarely had time to write systematically. Without thought and careful reading, Burke easily can invite the kind of pleasing misunderstandings that Weigel is purveying.

Weigel writes that Burke's account of the state "has numerous affinities with Catholic social doctrine," and that is sort of true--though not in the ways Weigel thinks it is. Certainly it is true that Burke's Catholic mother and Catholic wife inspired generations of writers for centuries to allege Burke was a secret Catholic. But reputable scholars have debunked that claim definitively.

Weigel goes horribly wrong where he cites "Burke's defense of society's 'small platoons'" as evidence of Burke's affinity with the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity. (Burke actually wrote that we should "love the little platoon we belong to in society." My undergraduate students could quote Burke more accurately.)

For Weigel, Burke's praise for mediating social institutions like churches distinguishes him from Thomas Hobbes, who envisioned a powerful state that "monopolizes power for the sake of protecting individuals," and whose vision of human relationships went no farther than "contracts and legal relationships, period."

That is true about Hobbes, and Weigel is quick to condemn contracts as a political metaphor. But he fails to read a little further into the Reflections on the Revolution in France, where Burke allows that, "Society is indeed a contract," but no mere ordinary contract. It is a contract that includes those 'little platoons' together with the state, for Burke's political understanding recognized no distinctions between them.  The state is the organic product of the historical, traditional workings of social life.

Burke went on to add that, "the state ought... to be looked on with other reverence.... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection." In its most sacred sense, because "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."

This is not the contract that Hobbes had in mind. But it is "a contract." As "a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world," it must sound better to Weigel. But there is none of Weigel's dismissiveness about the state in Burke's descriptions.

George F. Will has spent four decades writing newspaper columns, but he has a doctoral degree in political philosophy from Princeton. In 1983, he wrote that, "It is perhaps marvelous that people who preach disdain for government can consider themselves the intellectual descendants of Burke, the author of a celebration of the state. But surely it is peculiar--worse, it is larcenous--for people to expropriate the name 'conservative' while remaining utterly unsympathetic to the central tenet of the greatest modern conservative."

What was Burke's "central tenet?" Only that portion I quoted above, the "contract," the partnership "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those to be born." Though churches and other social institutions play a vital role for Burke, they do not maintain that partnership. That is the role of the state.

The long Christian political tradition that pre-dates Hobbes and Burke agrees. Both Christianity and the classical political tradition that influenced it saw the governing authority as that which makes life good and good life possible. That is a Catholic idea older than anything Weigel has mentioned. But it is not only a Catholic idea. Indeed, the idea of a powerful sovereign that inspired Hobbes to hope for a Leviathan only could have come from the historical influence of Roman emperors and English kings. Burke had those same historical influences, by the way. That fact enables us to say--with distinguished scholars of Burke's work--that affinity for subsidiarity did not reach Burke by way of "the rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages." It came down through an organic constitutional tradition from Aristotle and Cicero, woven into a tapestry of English history that took very little account of anything Catholic by the time of the eighteenth century.

It is true that Burke's idea of the state as a contract was dramatically different from Thomas Hobbes's. Weigel is not wrong to set them on opposite sides, in that sense. It is less clear that anyone in the United States really holds to a Hobbesian view of political life. No political party has called for the dissolution of the three branches of government into a single Leviathan, for example.

I suppose it sounds scary to make it seem like someone has, and that must be good for Weigel's political party of choice. But before we let ourselves get too frightened, we should consider the source. George Weigel may know many things. But the evidence says that he needs to hit the books on Burke and Hobbes.

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