Kirk on Burke

As I've indicated at times over at Fors Clavigera, I have found myself of late sometimes struggling with my orientation--POLITICAL orientation, that is (though my wife is sometimes alarmed by my interest in Oscar Wilde!). While my soul recoils at the ideology of the Religious Right, I find myself equally disenchanted with the Religious Left, and so I myself drawn to earlier models--primarily the 19th-century Christian socialism of Ruskin, Maurice (and the less 'Christian' visions of William Morris), I have also had a growing interest in more classic "conservatism" (as opposed to the neo-conservatism that dominates today's political discourse). This is especially true since, as an advocate of "ancient" paths of catholicity, I'm clearly sympathetic with the anti-revolutionary streak that characterizes conservatism proper.

So a couple months ago, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by reading Russell Kirk's biography of Edmund Burke: Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (1967; reprint ed., ISI Books, 1997). Burke is oft hailed as the father of conservatism, while Kirk is often looked to as a father of American conservatism. (The Russell Kirk Center is located not far from here, in Mecosta, MI.)

The book was a very engaging read, almost a bit of a page turner. It is written in a kind of "classical" style of brief biography (reminding me of Waugh's biography of Rossetti), perhaps teetering on the edge of hagiography, but never quite there. Kirk's treatment is primarily an account of the man through his ideas and political vocation, not pretending to offer any kind of comprehensive treatment. Rather, Kirk was trying to bring to life Burke's vision--and I was struck by how instructive it would be for today's neo-conservatives to return to Burke, who would have no truck with their passion for de-regulation, global expansion of laissez-faire market systems, and blatantly revolutionary program of "regime change."

Kirk's Burke is most passionately opposed to the "arbitrary" exercise of political power, which animated his attempts at conciliation with the American colonies while at the same time strenuously renouncing the French revolution and the ensuing reign of terror. This same concern led him to commit decades to reigning in the corruption of the East India Company and to battle for expanded Irish rights. This also translated into a very critical attitude to the Enlightenment (not unlike some postmodern critiques of the Enlighenment).

While I find Burke's penchant for Christendom to be bothersome, I can see where it's coming from (something like O'Donovan?). But what I find most perplexing about such "Christian" conservatism is how to square a core sensibility of conservatism with a core Christian doctrine. Conservatism, of course, is about "conserving;" it is anti-revolutionary, and operates with an abiding sense of the wisdom to be found in the past, in tradition, in the institutions that have been handed down across the ages. In fact, this translates into a kind of optimism about what's gone before. And it's this optimism about past institutions that I can't quite square with the doctrine of original sin. Burke at one point puts it this way, speaking in favor of "things long established": "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species, it almost always acts right" (p. 93).

But how to square this confidence in the native wisdom of "the species" with the trenchant critique of human wisdom as folly that we find in the New Testament (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 1:18-25)? I wonder if there is grounds for an ecclesial conservatism but not a political conservatism.

In any case, this is a book that I will read again, sooner rather than later.