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   Chapter 6 BURKE

Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham By Harold Joseph Laski Characters: 74642

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It is the special merit of the English constitutional system that the king stands outside the categories of political conflict. He is the dignified emollient of an organized quarrel which, at least in theory, is due to the clash of antagonistic principle. The merit, indeed, is largely accidental; and we shall miss the real fashion in which it came to be established unless we remark the vicissitudes through which it has passed. The foreign birth of the first two Hanoverians, the insistent widowhood of Queen Victoria, these rather than deliberate foresight have secured the elevated nullification of the Crown. Yet the first twenty-five years of George III's reign represent the deliberate effort of an obstinate man to stem the progress of fifty years and secure once more the balance of power. Nor was the effort defeated without a struggle which went to the root of constitutional principle.

And George III attempted the realization of his ambition at a time highly favorable to its success. Party government had lost much credit during Walpole's administration. Men like Bolingbroke, Carteret and the elder Pitt were all of them dissatisfied with a system which depended for its existence upon the exclusion of able men from power. A generation of corrupt practice and the final defeat of Stuart hopes had already deprived the Whigs of any special hold on their past ideals. They were divided already into factions the purpose of which was no more than the avid pursuit of place and pension. Government by connection proved itself irreconcilable with good government. But it showed also that once corruption was centralized there was no limit to its influence, granted only the absence of great questions. When George III transferred that organization from the office of the minister to his own court, there was already a tolerable certainty of his success. For more than forty years the Tories had been excluded from office; and they were more than eager to sell their support. The Church had become the creature of the State. The drift of opinion in continental Europe was towards benevolent despotism. The narrow, obstinate and ungenerous mind of George had been fed on high notions of the power he might exert. He had been taught the kingship of Bolingbroke's glowing picture; and a reading in manuscript of the seventh chapter of Blackstone's first book can only have confirmed the ideals he found there. Nor was it obvious that a genuine kingship would have been worse than the oligarchy of the great Whig families.

What made it worse, and finally impossible, was the character of the king. The pathetic circumstances of his old age have combined somewhat to obscure the viciousness of his maturity. He was excessively ignorant and as obstinate as arbitrary. He trusted no one but himself, and he totally misunderstood the true nature of his office. There is no question which arose in the first forty years of his reign in which he was not upon the wrong side and proud of his error. He was wrong about Wilkes, wrong about America, wrong about Ireland, wrong about France. He demanded servants instead of ministers. He attacked every measure for the purification of the political system. He supported the Slave trade and he opposed the repeal of the Test Act. He prevented the grant of Catholic emancipation at the one moment when it might have genuinely healed the wounds of Ireland. He destroyed by his perverse creations the value of the House of Lords as a legislative assembly. He was clearly determined to make his will the criterion of policy; and his design might have succeeded had his ability and temper been proportionate to its greatness. It was not likely that the mass of men would have seen with regret the destruction of the aristocratic monopoly in politics. The elder Pitt might well have based a ministry of the court upon a broad bottom of popularity. The House of Commons, as the event proved, could be as subservient to the king as to his minister.

Yet the design failed; and it failed because, with characteristic stupidity, the king did not know the proper instruments for his purpose. Whatever he touched he mismanaged. He aroused the suspicion of the people by enforcing the resignation of the elder Pitt. In the Wilkes affair he threw the clearest light of the century upon the true nature of the House of Commons. His own system of proscription restored to the Whig party not a little of the idealism it had lost; and Burke came to supply them with a philosophy. Chatham remained the idol of the people despite his hatred. He raised Wilkes to be the champion of representative government and of personal liberty. He lost America and it was not his fault that Ireland was retained. The early popularity he received he never recovered until increasing years and madness had made him too pathetic for dislike. The real result of his attempt was to compel attention once again to the foundations of politics; and George's effort, in the light of his immense failures, could not, in the nature of things, survive that analysis.

Not, of course, that George ever lacked defenders. As early as 1761, the old rival of Walpole, Pulteney, whom a peerage had condemned to obsolescence, published his Seasonable Hints from an Honest Man on the new Reign. Pulteney urged the sovereign no longer to be content with the "shadow of royalty." He should use his "legal prerogatives" to check "the illegal claims of factious oligarchy." Government had become the private possession of a few powerful men. The king was but a puppet in leading strings. The basis of government should be widened, for every honest man was aware that distinctions of party were now merely nominal. The Tories should be admitted to place. They were now friendly to the accession and they no longer boasted their hostility to dissent. They knew that Toleration and the Establishment were of the essence of the Constitution. Were once the Whig oligarchy overthrown, corruption would cease and Parliament could no longer hope to dominate the kingdom. "The ministers," he said, "will depend on the Crown not the Crown on ministers" if George but showed "his resolution to break all factitious connections and confederacies." The tone is Bolingbroke's, and it was the lesson George had insistently heard from early youth. How sinister was the advice, men did not see until the elder Pitt was in political exile, with Wilkes an outlaw, and general warrants threatening the whole basis of past liberties.

The first writer who pointed out in unmistakable terms the meaning of the new synthesis was Junius. That his anonymity concealed the malignant talent of Sir Philip Francis seems now beyond denial. Junius, indeed, can hardly claim a place in the history of political ideas. His genius lay not in the discussion of principle but the dissection of personality. His power lay in his style and the knowledge that enabled him to inform the general public of facts which were the private possession of the inner political circle. His mind was narrow and pedantic. He stood with Grenville on American taxation; and he maintained without perceiving what it meant that a nomination borough was a freehold beyond the competence of the legislature to abolish. He was never generous, always abusive, and truth did not enter into his calculations. But he saw with unsurpassed clearness the nature of the issue and he was a powerful instrument in the discomfiture of the king. He won a new audience for political conflict and that audience was the unenfranchised populace of England. His letters, moreover, appearing as they did in the daily journals gave the press a significance in politics which it has never lost. He made the significance of George's effort known to the mass of men at a time when no other means of information was at hand. The opposition was divided; the king's friends were in a vast majority; the publication of debates was all but impossible. English government was a secret conflict in which the entrance of spectators was forbidden even though they were the subjects of debate. It was the glory of Junius that he destroyed that system. Not even the combined influence of the Crown and Commons, not even Lord Mansfield's doctrine of the law of libel, could break the power of his vituperation and Wilkes' courage. Bad men have sometimes been the instruments of noble destiny; and there are few more curious episodes in English history than the result of this alliance between revengeful hate and insolent ambition.


Yet, in the long run, the real weapon which defeated George was the ideas of Edmund Burke; for he gave to the political conflict its real place in philosophy. There is no immortality save in ideas; and it was Burke who gave a permanent form to the debate in which he was the liberal protagonist. His career is illustrative at once of the merits and defects of English politics in the eighteenth century. The son of an Irish Protestant lawyer and a Catholic mother, he served, after learning what Trinity College, Dublin, could offer him, a long apprenticeship to politics in the upper part of Grub Street. The story that he applied, along with Hume, for Adam Smith's chair at Glasgow seems apocryphal; though the Dissertation on the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756) shows his singular fitness for the studies that Hutcheson had made the special possession of the Scottish school. It was in Grub Street that he appears to have attained that amazing amount of varied yet profound knowledge which made him without equal in the House of Commons. His earliest production was a Vindication of Natural Society (1756), written in the manner of Lord Bolingbroke, and successful enough in its imitative satire not only to deceive its immediate public, but also to become the basis of Godwin's Political Justice. After a vain attempt to serve in Ireland with "Single-Speech" Hamilton, he became the private secretary to Lord Rockingham, the leader of the one section of the Whig party to which an honorable record still remained. That connection secured for him a seat in Parliament at the comparatively late age of thirty-six; and henceforward, until his death in 1797, he was among its leading members. His intellectual pre-eminence, indeed, seems from the very outset to have been recognized on all hands; though he was still, in the eyes of the system, enough of an outsider to be given, in the short months during which he held office, the minor office of Paymaster-General, without a seat in the Cabinet. The man of whom all England was the political pupil was denied without discussion a place at the council board. Yet when Fox is little more than a memory of great lovableness and Pitt a marvellous youth of apt quotations, Burke has endured as the permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea.

For it has been the singular good fortune of Burke not merely to obtain acceptance as the apostle of philosophic conservatism, but to give deep comfort to men of liberal temper. He is, indeed, a singularly lovable figure. "His stream of mind is perpetual," said Johnson; and Goldsmith has told us how he wound his way into a subject like a serpent. Macaulay thought him the greatest man since Milton, Lord Morley the "greatest master of civil wisdom in our tongue." "No English writer," says Sir Leslie Stephen, "has received or has deserved more splendid panegyrics." Even when the last criticism has been made, detraction from these estimates is impossible. It is easy to show how irritable and violent was his temperament. There is evidence and to spare of the way in which he allowed the spirit of party to cloud his judgment. His relations with Lord Chatham give lamentable proof of the violence of his personal antipathies. As an orator, his speeches are often turgid, wanting in self-control, and full of those ample digressions in which Mr. Gladstone delighted to obscure his principles. Yet the irritation did not conceal a magnificent loyalty to his friends, and it was in his days of comparative poverty that he shared his means with Barry and with Crabbe. His alliance with Fox is the classic partnership in English politics, unmarried, even enriched, by the tragedy of its close. He was never guilty of mean ambition. He thought of nothing save the public welfare. No man has ever more consistently devoted his energies to the service of the nation with less regard for personal advancement. No English statesman has ever more firmly moved amid a mass of details to the principle they involve.

He was a member of no school of thought, and there is no influence to whom his outlook can be directly traced. His politics, indeed, bear upon their face the preoccupation with the immediate problems of the House of Commons. Yet through them all the principles that emerge form a consistent whole. Nor is this all. He hated oppression with all the passion of a generous moral nature. He cared for the good as he saw it with a steadfastness which Bright and Cobden only can claim to challenge. What he had to say he said in sentences which form the maxims of administrative wisdom. His horizon reached from London out to India and America; and he cared as deeply for the Indian ryot's wrongs as for the iniquities of English policy to Ireland. With less width of mind than Hume and less intensity of gaze than Adam Smith, he yet had a width and intensity which, fused with his own imaginative sympathy, gave him more insight than either. He had an unerring eye for the eternal principles of politics. He knew that ideals must be harnessed to an Act of Parliament if they are not to cease their influence. Admitting while he did that politics must rest upon expediency, he never failed to find good reason why expediency should be identified with what he saw as right. It is a stainless and a splendid record. There are men in English politics to whom a greater immediate influence may be ascribed, just as in political philosophy he cannot claim the persistent inspiration of Hobbes and Locke. But in that middle ground between the facts and speculation his supremacy is unapproached. There had been nothing like him before in English politics; and in continental politics Royer Collard alone has something of his moral fibre, though his practical insight was far less profound. Hamilton had Burke's full grasp of political wisdom, but he lacked his moral elevation. So that he remains a figure of uniqueness. He may, as Goldsmith said, have expended upon his party talents that should have illuminated the universal aspect of the State. Yet there is no question with which he dealt that he did not leave the richer for his enquiry.


The liberalism of Burke is most apparent in his handling of the immediate issues of the age. Upon Ireland, America and India, he was at every point upon the side of the future. Where constitutional reform was in debate no man saw more clearly than he the evils that needed remedy; though, to a later generation, his own schemes bear the mark of timid conservatism. In the last decade of his life he encountered the greatest cataclysm unloosed upon Europe since the Reformation, and it is not too much to say that at every point he missed the essence of its meaning. Yet even upon France and the English Constitution he was full of practical sagacity. Had his warning been uttered without the fury of hate that accompanied it, he might well have guided the forces of the Revolution into channels that would have left no space for the military dictatorship he so marvellously foresaw. Had he perceived the real evils of the aristocratic monopoly against which he so eloquently inveighed, forty barren years might well have been a fruitful epoch of wise and continuous reform. But Burke was not a democrat, and, at bottom, he had little regard for that popular sense of right which, upon occasion, he was ready to praise. What impressed him was less the evils of the constitution than its possibilities, could the defects quite alien from its nature but be pruned away. Moments, indeed, there are of a deeper vision, and it is not untrue to say that the best answer to Burke's conservatism is to be found in his own pages. But he was too much the apostle of order to watch with calm the struggles involved in the overthrow of privilege. He had too much the sense of a Divine Providence taking thought for the welfare of men to interfere with violence in his handiwork. The tinge of caution is never absent, even from his most liberal moments; and he was willing to endure great evil if it seemed dangerous to estimate the cost of change.

His American speeches are the true text-book for colonial administration. He put aside the empty plea of right which satisfied legal pedants like George Grenville. What moved him was the tragic fashion in which men clung to the shadow of a power they could not maintain instead of searching for the roots of freedom. He never concealed from himself that the success of America was bound up with the maintenance of English liberties. "Armies," he said many years later, "first victorious over Englishmen, in a conflict for English constitutional rights and privileges, and afterwards habituated (though in America) to keep an English people in a state of abject subjection, would prove fatal in the end to the liberties of England itself." He had firm hold of that insidious danger which belittles freedom itself in the interest of curtailing some special desire. "In order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties," he said in the famous Speech on Conciliation with America (1775), "we are every day endeavoring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own." The way for the later despotism of the younger Pitt, was, as Burke saw, prepared by those who persuaded Englishmen of the paltry character of the American contest. His own receipt was sounder. In the Speech on American Taxation (1774) he had riddled the view that the fiscal methods of Lord North were likely to succeed. The true method was to find a way of peace. "Nobody shall persuade me," he told a hostile House of Commons, "when a whole people are concerned that acts of lenity are not means of conciliation." "Magnanimity in politics," he said in the next year, "is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together." He did not know, in the most superb of all his maxims, how to draw up an indictment against a whole people. He would win the colonies by binding them to England with the ties of freedom. "The question with me," he said, "is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy." The problem, in fact, was one not of abstract right but of expediency; and nothing could be lost by satisfying American desire. Save for Johnson and Gibbon, that was apparent to every first-class mind in England. But the obstinate king prevailed; and Burke's great protest remained no more than material for the legislation of the future. Yet it was something that ninety years after his speech the British North America Act should have given his dreams full substance.

Ireland had always a place apart in Burke's affections, and when he first entered the House of Commons he admitted that uppermost in his thoughts was the desire to assist its freedom. He saw that here, as in America, no man will be argued into slavery. A government which defied the fundamental impulses of men was bound to court disaster. How could it seek security where it defied the desires of the vast majority of its subjects? Why is the Irish Catholic to have less justice than the Catholic of Quebec or the Indian Mohammedan? The system of Protestant control, he said in the Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe (1792), was "well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself." The Catholics paid their taxes; they served with glory in the army and navy. Yet they were denied a share in the commonwealth. "Common sense," he said, "and common justice dictate ... some sort of compensation to a people for their slavery." The British Constitution was not made "for great, general and proscriptive exclusions; sooner or later it will destroy them, or they will destroy the constitution." The argument that the body of Catholics was prone to sedition was no reason to oppress them. "No man will assert seriously," he said, "that when people are of a turbulent spirit the best way to keep them in order is to furnish them with something to complain of." The advantages of subjects were, as he urged, their right; and a wise government would regard "all their reasonable wishes as so many claims." To neglect them was to have a nation full of uneasiness; and the end was bound to be disaster.

There is nothing more noble in Burke's career than his long attempt to mitigate the evils of Company rule in India. Research may well have shown that in some details he pressed the case too far; yet nothing has so far come to light to cast doubt upon the principles he there maintained. He was the first English statesman fully to understand the moral import of the problem of subject races; and if he did not make impossible the Joseph Sedleys of the future, at least he flung an eternal challenge to their malignant complacency. He did not ask the abandonment of British dominion in India, though he may have doubted the wisdom of its conquest. All that he insisted upon was this, that in imperial adventure the conquering race must abide by a moral code. A lie was a lie whether its victim be black or white. The European must respect the powers and rights of the Hindu as he would be compelled by law to respect them in his own State. "If we are not able," he said, "to contrive some method of governing India well which will not of necessity become the means of governing Great Britain ill, a ground is laid for their eternal separation, but none for sacrificing the people of that country to our constitution." England must be in India for India's benefit or not at all; political power and commercial monopoly such as the East India Company enjoyed could be had only insofar as they are instruments of right and not of violence. The Company's system was the antithesis of this. "There is nothing," he said in a magnificent passage, "before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting." Sympathy with the native, regard for his habits and wants, the Company's servants failed to display. "The English youth in India drink the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it, and as they are full grown in fortune long before they are ripe in principle, neither nature nor reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for the excesses of their premature power. The consequences of their conduct, which in good minds (and many of theirs are probably such) might produce penitence or amendment, are unable to pursue the rapidity of their flight. Their prey is lodged in England; and the cries of India are given to seas and winds to be blown about in every breaking up of the monsoon over a remote and unhearing ocean." More than a century was to pass before the wisest of Burke's interpreters attempted the translation of his maxims into statute. But there has never, in any language, been drawn a clearer picture of the danger implicit in imperial adventure. "The situation of man," said Burke, "is the preceptor of his duty." He saw how a nation might become corrupted by the spoils of other lands. He knew that cruelty abroad is the parent of a later cruelty at home. Men will complain of their wrongdoing in the remoter empire; and imperialism will employ the means Burke painted in unforgettable terms in his picture of Paul Benfield. He denied that the government of subject races can be regarded as a commercial transaction. Its problem was not to secure dividends but to accomplish moral benefit. He abhorred the politics of prestige. He knew the difficulties involved in administering distant territories, the ignorance and apathy of the public, the consequent erosion of responsibility, the chance that wrong will fail of discovery. But he did not shrink from his conclusion. "Let us do what we please," he said, "to put India from our thoughts, we can do nothing to separate it from our public interest and our national reputation." That is a general truth not less in Africa and China than in India itself. The main thought in Burke's mind was the danger lest colonial dominion become the breeding-ground of arbitrary ideas. That his own safeguards were inadequate is clear enough at the present time. He knew that the need was good government. He did not nor could he realize how intimately that ideal was connected with self-government. Yet the latest lesson is no more than the final outcome of his teaching.


A background so consistent as this in the inflexible determination to moralize political action resulted in a noble edifice. Yet, through it all, the principles of policy are rather implied than admitted. It was when he came to deal with domestic problems and the French Revolution that Burke most clearly showed the real trend of his thought. That trend is unmistakable. Burke was a utilitarian who was convinced that what was old was valuable by the mere fact of its arrival at maturity. The State appeared to him an organic compound that came but slowly to its full splendour. It was easy to destroy; creation was impossible. Political philosophy was nothing for him but accurate generalization from experience; and he held the presumption to be against novelty. While he did not belittle the value of reason, he was always impressed by the immense part played by prejudice in the determination of policy. He had no doubt that property was a rightful index to power; and to disturb prescription seemed to him the opening of the flood gates. Nor must we miss the religious aspect of his philosophy. He never doubted that religion was the foundation of the English State. "Englishmen," he said in the Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), "know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and of all comfort." The utterance is characteristic, not merely in its depreciation of reason, but in its ultimate reliance upon a mystic explanation of social facts. Nothing was more alien from Burke's temper than deductive thinking in politics. The only safeguard he could find was in empiricism.

This hatred of abstraction is, of course, the basis of his earliest publication; but it remained with him to the end. He would not discuss America in terms of right. "I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions," he said in the Speech on American Taxation, "I hate the very sound of them." "One sure symptom of an ill-conducted state," he wrote in the Reflections, "is the propensity of the people to resort to theories." "It is always to be lamented," he said in a Speech on the Duration of Parliament, "when men are driven to search into the foundations of the commonwealth." The theory of a social contract he declared "at best a confusion of judicial with civil principles," and he found no sense in the doctrine of popular sovereignty. "The lines of morality," he said in the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), "are not like ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are made, not by the process of logic but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all." Nor did he hesitate to draw the obvious conclusion. "This," he said, "is the true touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men-does it suit his nature in general, does it suit his nature as modified by his habits?"

Of the truth of this general attitude it is difficult to make denial. But when Burke came to apply it to the British Constitution the "rules of prudence" he was willing to admit are narrow enough to cause surprised enquiry. He did not doubt that the true end of a legislature was "to give a direction, a form, a technical dress ... to the general sense of the community"; he admitted that popular revolt is so much the outcome of suffering that in any dispute between government and people, the presumption is at least equal in the latter's favor. He urged the acceptance of Grenville's bill for improving the method of decision upon disputed elections. He made a magnificent defence of the popular cause in the Middlesex election. He was in favor of the publication of parliamentary debates and of the voting lists in divisions. He supported almost with passion the ending of that iniquitous system by which the enfranchisement of revenue officers gave government a corrupt reservoir of electoral support. His Speech on Economical Reform (1780) was the prelude to a nobly-planned and successful attack upon the waste of the Civil list.

Yet beyond these measures Burke could never be persuaded to go. He was against the demand for shorter Parliaments on the excellent ground that the elections would be more corrupt and the Commons less responsible. He opposed the remedy of a Place Bill for the good and sufficient reason that it gave the executive an interest against the legislature. He would not, as in the great speech at Bristol (1774), accept the doctrine that a member of Parliament was a mere delegate of his constituents rather than a representative of his own convictions. "Government and legislation," he said, "are matters of reason and of judgment"; and once the private member had honorably arrived at a decision which he thought was for the interest of the whole community, his duty was done. All this, in itself, is unexceptionable; and it shows Burke's admirable grasp of the practical application of attractive theories to the event. But it is to be read in conjunction with a general hostility to basic constitutional change which is more dubious. He had no sympathy with the Radicals. "The bane of the Whigs," he said, "has been the admission among them of the corps of schemers ... who do us infinite mischief by persuading many sober and well-meaning people that we have designs inconsistent with the Constitution left us by our forefathers." "If the nation at large," he wrote in another letter, "has disposition enough to oppose all bad principles and all bad men, its form of government is, in my opinion, fully sufficient for it; but if the general disposition be against a virtuous and manly line of public conduct, there is no form into which it can be thrown that will improve its nature or add to its energy"; and in the same letter he foreshadows a possible retirement from the House of Commons as a protest against the growth of radical opinion in his party. He resisted every effort to reduce the suffrage qualification. He had no sympathy with the effort either to add to the county representation or to abolish the rotten boroughs. The framework of the parliamentary system seemed to him excellent. He deplored all criticism of Parliament, and even the discussion of its essentials. "Our representation," he said, "is as nearly perfect as the necessary imperfections of human affairs and of human creatures will suffer it to be." It was in the same temper that he resisted all effort at the political relief of the Protestant dissenters. "The machine itself," he had said, "is well enough to answer any good purpose, provided the materials were sound"; and he never moved from that opinion.

Burke's attitude was obsolete even while he wrote; yet the suggestiveness of his very errors makes examination of their ground important. Broadly, he was protesting against natural right in the name of expediency. His opponents argued that, since men are by nature equal, it must follow that they have an equal right to self-government. To Burke, the admission of this principle would have meant the overthrow of the British constitution. Its implication was that every institution not of immediate popular origin should be destroyed. To secure their ends, he thought, the radicals were compelled to preach the injustice of those institutions and thus to injure that affection for government upon which peace and security depend. Here was an effort to bring all institutions to the test of logic which he thought highly dangerous. "No rational man ever did govern himself," he said, "by abstractions and universals." The question for him was not the abstract rightness of the system upon some set of a priori principles but whether, on the whole, that system worked for the happiness of the community. He did not doubt that it did; and to overthrow a structure so nobly tested by the pressure of events in favor of some theories outside historic experience seemed to him ruinous to society. Government, for him, was the general harmony of diverse interests; and the continual adjustments and exquisite modifications of which it stood in need were admirably discovered in the existing system. Principles were thus unimportant compared to the problem of their application. "The major," he said of all political premises, "makes a pompous figure in the battle, but the victory depends upon the little minor of circumstances."

To abstract natural right he therefore opposed prescription. The presumption of wisdom is on the side of the past, and when we change, we act at our peril. "Prescription," he said in 1782, "is the most solid of all titles, not only to property, but to what is to secure that property, to government." Because he saw the State organically he was impressed by the smallness both of the present moment and the individual's thought. It is built upon the wisdom of the past for "the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right." And since it is the past alone which has had the opportunity to accumulate this rightness our disposition should be to preserve all ancient things. They could not be without a reason; and that reason is grounded upon ancestral experience. So the prescriptive title becomes "not the creature, but the master, of positive law ... the soundest, the most general and the most recognized title between man and man that is known in municipal or public jurisprudence." It is by prescription that he defends the existence of Catholicism in Ireland not less than the supposed deformities of the British Constitution. So, too, his main attack on atheism is its implication that "everything is to be discussed." He does not say that all which is has rightness in it; but at least he urges that to doubt it is to doubt the construction of a past experience which built according to the general need. Nor does he doubt the chance that what he urges may be wrong. Rather does he insist that at least it gives us security, for him the highest good. "Truth," he said, "may be far better ... but as we have scarcely ever that certainty in the one that we have in the other, I would, unless the truth were evident indeed, hold fast to peace, which has in her company charity, the highest of the virtues."

Such a philosophy, indeed, so barely stated, would seem a defence of political immobility; but Burke attempted safeguards against that danger. His insistence upon the superior value of past experience was balanced by a general admission that particular circumstances must always govern the immediate decision. "When the reason of old establishments is gone," he said in his Speech on Economical Reform, "it is absurd to preserve nothing but the burden of them." "A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve," he wrote in the Reflections on the French Revolution, "taken together would be my standard of a statesman." But that "ability to improve" conceals two principles of which Burke never relaxed his hold. "All the reformations we have hitherto made," he said, "have proceeded upon the principle of reference to antiquity"; and the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, which is the most elaborate exposition of his general attitude, proceeds upon the general basis that 1688 is a perpetual model for the future. Nor is this all. "If I cannot reform with equity," said Burke, "I will not reform at all"; and equity seems here to mean a sacrifice of the present and its passionate demands to the selfish errors of past policy.

Burke, indeed, was never a democrat, and that is the real root of his philosophy. He saw the value of the party-system, and he admitted the necessity of some degree of popular representation. But he was entirely satisfied with current Whig principles, could they but be purged of their grosser deformities. He knew too well how little reason is wont to enter into the formation of political opinion to make the sacrifice of innovation to its power. He saw so much of virtue in the old order, that he in

sisted upon the equation of virtue with quintessence. Men of great property and position using their influence as a public trust, delicate in their sense of honor, and acting only from motives of right-these seemed to him the men who should with justice exercise political power. He did not doubt that "there is no qualification for government but virtue and wisdom ... wherever they are actually found, they have, in whatever state, condition, profession or trade, the passport to heaven"; but he is careful to dissociate the possibility that they can be found in those who practice the mechanical arts. He did not mean that his aristocracy should govern without response to popular demand. He had no objection to criticism, nor to the public exercise of government. There was no reason even for agreement, so long as each party was guided by an honorable sense of the public good. This, so he urged, was the system which underlay the temporary evils of the British Constitution. An aristocracy delegated to do its work by the mass of men was the best form of government his imagination could conceive. It meant that property must be dominant in the system of government, that, while office should be open to all, it should be out of the reach of most. "The characteristic essence of property," he wrote in the Reflections, "... is to be unequal"; and he thought the perpetuation of that inequality by inheritance "that which tends most to the perpetuation of society itself." The system was difficult to maintain, and it must be put out of the reach of popular temptation. "Our constitution," he said in the Present Discontents, "stands on a nice equipoise, with sharp precipices and deep waters on all sides of it. In removing it from a dangerous leaning towards one side, there may be a danger towards oversething it on the other." In straining, that is to say, after too large a purification, we may end with destruction. And Burke, of course, was emphatic upon the need that property should be undisturbed. It was always, he thought, at a great disadvantage in any struggle with ability; and there are many passages in which he urges the consequent special representation which the adequate defence of property requires.

The argument, at bottom, is common to all thinkers over-impressed by the sanctity of past experience. Hegel and Savigny in Germany, Taine and Renan in France, Sir Henry Maine and Lecky in England, have all urged what is in effect a similar plea. We must not break what Bagehot called the cake of custom, for men have been trained to its digestion, and new food breeds trouble. Laws are the offspring of the original genius of a people, and while we may renovate, we must not unduly reform. The true idea of national development is always latent in the past experience of the race and it is from that perpetual spring alone that wisdom can be drawn. We render obedience to what is with effortless unconsciousness; and without this loyalty to inherited institutions the fabric of society would be dissolved. Civilization, in fact, depends upon the performance of actions defined in preconceived channels; and if we obeyed those novel impulses of right which seem, at times, to contradict our inheritance, we should disturb beyond repair the intricate equilibrium of countless ages. The experience of the past rather than the desires of the present is thus the true guide to our policy. "We ought," he said in a famous sentence, "to venerate where we are unable presently to comprehend."

It is easy to see why a mind so attuned recoiled from horror at the French Revolution. There is something almost sinister in the destiny which confronted Burke with the one great spectacle of the eighteenth century which he was certain not merely to misunderstand but also to hate. He could not endure the most fragmentary change in tests of religious belief; and the Revolution swept overboard the whole religious edifice. He would not support the abolition even of the most flagrant abuses in the system of representation; and he was to see in France an overthrow of a monarchy even more august in its prescriptive rights than the English Parliament. Privileges were scattered to the winds in a single night. Peace was sacrificed to exactly those metaphysical theories of equality and justice which he most deeply abhorred. The doctrine of progress found an eloquent defender in that last and noblest utterance of Condorcet which is still perhaps its most perfect justification. On all hands there was the sense of a new world built by the immediate thought of man upon the wholehearted rejection of past history. Politics was emphatically declared to be a system of which the truths could be stated in terms of mathematical certainty. The religious spirit which Burke was convinced lay at the root of good gave way before a general scepticism which, from the outset of his life, he had declared incompatible with social order. Justice was asserted to be the centre of social right; and it was defined as the overthrow of those prescriptive privileges which Burke regarded as the protective armour of the body politic. Above all, the men who seized the reins of power became convinced that theirs was a specific of universal application. Their disciples in England seemed in the same diabolic frenzy with themselves. In a moment of time, the England which had been the example to Europe of ordered popular liberty became, for these enthusiasts, only less barbaric than the despotic princes of the continent. That Price and Priestley should suffer the infection was, even for Burke, a not unnatural thing. But when Charles Fox cast aside the teaching of twenty years for its antithesis, Burke must have felt that no price was too great to pay for the overthrow of the Revolution.

Certainly his pamphlets on events in France are at every point consistent with his earlier doctrine. The charge that he supported the Revolution in America and deserted it in France is without meaning; for in the one there is no word that can honorably be twisted to support the other. And when we make allowances for the grave errors of personal taste, the gross exaggeration, the inability to see the Revolution as something more than a single point in time, it becomes obvious enough that his criticism, de Maistre's apart, is by far the soundest we possess from the generation which knew the movement as a living thing. The attempt to produce an artificial equality upon which he seized as the essence of the Revolution was, as Mirabeau was urging in private to the king, the inevitable precursor of dictatorship. He realized that freedom is born of a certain spontaneity for which the rigid lines of doctrinaire thinkers left no room. That worship of symmetrical form which underlies the constitutional experiments of the next few years he exposed in a sentence which has in it the essence of political wisdom. "The nature of man is intricate"; he wrote in the Reflections, "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." The note recurs in substance throughout his criticism. Much of its application, indeed, will not stand for one moment the test of inquiry; as when, for instance, he correlates the monarchical government of France with the English constitutional system and extols the perpetual virtues of 1688. The French made every effort to find the secret of English principles, but the roots were absent from their national experience.

A year after the publication of the Reflections he himself perceived the narrowness of that judgment. In the Thoughts on French Affairs (1791) he saw that the essence of the Revolution was its foundation in theoretic dogma. It was like nothing else in the history of the world except the Reformation; which last event it especially resembles in its genius for self-propagation. Herein he has already envisaged the importance of that "patrie intellectuelle" which Tocqueville emphasized as born of the Revolution. That led Burke once again to insist upon the peculiar genius of each separate state, the difficulties of a change, the danger of grafting novelties upon an ancient fabric. He saw the certainty that in adhering to an abstract metaphysical scheme the French were in truth omitting human nature from their political equation; for general ideas can find embodiment in institutional forms only after they have been moulded by a thousand varieties of circumstance. The French created an universal man not less destructive of their practical sagacity than the Frankenstein of the economists. They omitted, as Burke saw, the elements which objective experience must demand; with the result that, despite themselves, they came rather to destroy than to fulfil. Napoleon, as Burke prophesied, reaped the harvest of their failure.

Nor was he less right in his denunciation of that distrust of the past which played so large a part in the revolutionary consciousness. "We are afraid," he wrote in the Reflections, "to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages." Of Siéyès' building constitutions overnight, this is no unfair picture; but it points a more general truth never long absent from Burke's mind. Man is for him so much the creature of prejudice, so much a mosaic of ancestral tradition, that the chance of novel thought finding a peaceful place among his institutions is always small. For Burke, thought is always at the service of the instincts, and these lie buried in the remote experience of the state. So that men like Robespierre were asking from their subjects an impossible task. That which they had conceived in the gray abstractness of their speculations was too little related to what the average Frenchman knew and desired to be enduring. Burke looks with sober admiration at the way in which the English revolution related itself at every point to ideas and theories with which the average man was as familiar as with the physical landmarks of his own neighborhood. For the motives which underlie all human effort are, he thought, sufficiently constant to compel regard. That upon which they feed submits to change; but the effort is slow and the disappointments many. The Revolution taught the populace the thirst for power. But it failed to remember that sense of continuity in human effort without which new constructions are built on sand. The power it exercised lacked that horizon of the past through which alone it suffers limitation to right ends.

The later part of Burke's attack upon the Revolution does not belong to political philosophy. No man is more responsible than he for the temper which drew England into war. He came to write rather with the zeal of a fanatic waging a holy war than in the temper of a statesman confronted with new ideas. Yet even the Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796) have flashes of the old, incomparable insight; and they show that even in the midst of his excesses he did not war for love of it. So that it is permissible to think he did not lightly pen those sentences on peace which stand as oases of wisdom in a desert of extravagant rhetoric. "War never leaves where it found a nation," he wrote, "it is never to be entered upon without mature deliberation." That was a lesson his generation had still to learn; nor did it take to heart the even nobler passage that follows. "The blood of man," he said, "should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man. It is well shed for our family, for our friends, for our God, for our country, for mankind. The rest is vanity; the rest is crime." It is perhaps the most tragic wrong in that century's history that these words were written to justify an effort of which they supply an irrefutable condemnation.


Criticism of Burke's theories can be made from at least two angles. It is easy to show that his picture of the British Constitution was remote from the facts even when he wrote. Every change that he opposed was essential to the security of the next generation; and there followed none of the disastrous consequences he had foreshadowed. Such criticism would be at almost every point just; and yet it would fail to touch the heart of Burke's position. What is mainly needed is analysis at once of his omissions and of the underlying assumptions of what he wrote. Burke came to his maturity upon the eve of the Industrial Revolution; and we have it upon the authority of Adam Smith himself that no one had so clearly apprehended his own economic principles. Yet there is no word in what Burke had to say of their significance. The vast agrarian changes of the time contained, as it appears, no special moment even for him who burdened himself unduly to restore the Beaconsfield estate. No man was more eager than he that the public should be admitted to the mysteries of political debate; yet he steadfastly refused to draw the obvious inference that once the means of government were made known those who possessed the knowledge would demand their share in its application. He did not see that the metaphysics he so profoundly distrusted was itself the offspring of that contemptible worship of expediency which Blackstone generalized into a legalistic jargon. Men never move to the adumbration of general right until the conquest of political rights has been proved inadequate. That Burke himself may be said in a sense to have seen when he insisted upon the danger of examining the foundations of the State. Yet a man who refuses to admit that the constant dissatisfaction with those foundations his age expressed is the expression of serious ill in the body politic is wilfully blind to the facts at issue. No one had more faithfully than Burke himself explained why the Whig oligarchy was obsolete; yet nothing would induce him ever to realize that the alternative to aristocratic government is democracy and that its absence was the cause of that disquiet of which he realized that Wilkes was but the symptom.

Broadly, that is to say, Burke would not realize that the reign of political privilege was drawing to its close. That is the real meaning of the French Revolution and therein it represents a stream of tendency not less active in England than abroad. In France, indeed, the lines were more sharply drawn than elsewhere. The rights men craved were not, as Burke insisted, the immediate offspring of metaphysic fancy, but the result of a determination to end the malignant wrong of centuries. A power that knew no responsibility, war and intolerance that derived only from the accidental caprice of the court, arrest that bore no relation to offence, taxation inversely proportionate to the ability to pay, these were the prescriptive privileges that Burke invited his generation to accept as part of the accumulated wisdom of the past. It is not difficult to see why those who swore their oath in the tennis-court at Versailles should have felt such wisdom worthy to be condemned. Burke's caution was for them the timidity of one who embraces existent evils rather than fly to the refuge of an accessible good. In a less degree, the same is true of England. The constitution that Burke called upon men to worship was the constitution which made the Duke of Bedford powerful, that gave no representation to Manchester and a member to Old Sarum, which enacted the game laws and left upon the statute-book a penal code which hardly yielded to the noble attack of Romilly. These, which were for Burke merely the accidental excrescences of a noble ideal, were for them its inner essence; and where they could not reform they were willing to destroy.

The revolutionary spirit, in fact, was as much the product of the past as the very institutions it came to condemn. The innovations were the inevitable outcome of past oppression. Burke refused to see that aspect of the picture. He ascribed to the crime of the present what was due to the half-wilful errors of the past. The man who grounded his faith in historic experience refused to admit as history the elements alien from his special outlook. He took that liberty not to venerate where he was unable to comprehend which he denied to his opponents. Nor did he admit the uses to which his doctrine of prescription was bound to be put in the hands of selfish and unscrupulous men. No one will object to privilege for a Chatham; but privilege for the Duke of Grafton is a different thing, and Burke's doctrine safeguards the innumerable men of whom Grafton is the type in the hope that by happy accident some Chatham will one day emerge. He justifies the privileges of the English Church in the name of religious well-being; but it is difficult to see what men like Watson or Archbishop Cornwallis have got to do with religion. The doctrine of prescription might be admirable if all statesmen were so wise as Burke; but in the hands of lesser men it becomes no more than the protective armour of vested interests into the ethics of which it refuses us leave to examine.

That suspicion of thought is integral to Burke's philosophy, and it deserves more examination than it has received. In part it is a rejection of the Benthamite position that man is a reasoning animal. It puts its trust in habit as the chief source of human action; and it thus is distrustful of thought as leading into channels to which the nature of man is not adapted. Novelty, which is assumed to be the outcome of thought, it regards as subversive of the routine upon which civilization depends. Thought is destructive of peace; and it is argued that we know too little of political phenomena to make us venture into the untried places to which thought invites us. Yet the first of many answers is surely the most obvious fact that if man is so much the creature of his custom no reason would prevail save where they proved inadequate. If thought is simply a reserve power in society, its strength must obviously depend upon common acceptance; and that can only come when some routine has failed to satisfy the impulses of men.

But we may urge a difficulty that is even more decisive. No system of habits can ever hope to endure long in a world where the cumulative power of memory enables change to be so swift; and no system of habits can endure at all unless its underlying idea represents the satisfaction of a general desire. It must, that is to say, make rational appeal; and, indeed, as Aristotle said, it can have virtue only to the point where it is conscious of itself. The uncritical routine of which Burke is the sponsor would here deprive the mass of men of virtue. Yet in modern civilization the whole strength of any custom depends upon exactly that consciousness of right which Burke restricted to his aristocracy. Our real need is less the automatic response to ancient stimulus than power to know what stimulus has social value. We need, that is to say, the gift of criticism rather than the gift of inert acceptance. Not, of course, that the habits which Burke so earnestly admired are at all part of our nervous endowment in any integral sense. The short space of the French Revolution made the habit of thinking in terms of progress an essential part of our intellectual inheritance; and where the Burkian school proclaims how exceptional progress has been in history, we take that as proof of the ease with which essential habit may be acquired. Habit, in fact, without philosophy destroys the finer side of civilized life. It may leave a stratum to whom its riches have been discovered; but it leaves the mass of men soulless automata without spontaneous response to the chords struck by another hand.

Burke's answer would, of course, have been that he was not a democrat. He did not trust the people and he rated their capacity as low. He thought of the people-it was obviously a generalization from his time-as consistently prone to disorder and checked only by the force of ancient habit. Yet he has himself supplied the answer to that attitude. "My observation," he said in his Speech on the East India Bill, "has furnished me with nothing that is to be found in any habits of life or education which tends wholly to disqualify men for the functions of government." We can go further than that sober caution. We know that there is one technique only capable of securing good government and that is the training of the mass of men to interest in it. We know that no State can hope for peace in which large types of experience are without representation. Indeed, if proof were here wanting, an examination of the eighteenth century would supply it. Few would deny that statesmen are capable of disinterested sacrifice for classes of whose inner life they are ignorant; yet the relation between law and the interest of the dominant class is too intimate to permit with safety the exclusion of a part of the State from sharing in its guidance. Nor did Burke remember his own wise saying that "in all disputes between the people and their rulers the presumption is at least upon a par in favor of the people"; and he quotes with agreement that great sentence of Sully's which traces popular violence to popular suffering. No one can watch the economic struggles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or calculate the pain they have involved to humble men, without admitting that they represent the final protest of an outraged mind against oppression too intolerable to be borne. Burke himself, as his own speeches show, knew little or nothing of the pain involved in the agrarian changes of his age. The one way to avoid violent outbreak is not exclusion of the people from power but their participation in it. The popular sense of right may often, as Aristotle saw, be wiser than the opinion of statesmen. It is not necessary to equate the worth of untrained commonsense with experienced wisdom to suggest that, in the long run, neglect of common sense will make the effort of that wisdom fruitless.

This, indeed, is to take the lowest ground. For the case against Burke's aristocracy has a moral aspect with which he did not deal. He did not inquire by what right a handful of men were to be hereditary governors of a whole people. Expediency is no answer to the question, for Bentham was presently to show how shallow was that basis of consent. Once it is admitted that the personality of men is entitled to respect institutional room must be found for its expression. The State is morally stunted where their powers go undeveloped. There is something curious here in Burke's inability to suspect deformity in a system which gave his talents but partial place. He must have known that no one in the House of Commons was his equal. He must have known how few of those he called upon to recognize the splendor of their function were capable of playing the part he pictured for them. The answer to a morally bankrupt aristocracy is surely not the overwhelming effort required in its purification when the plaintiff is the people; for the mere fact that the people is the plaintiff is already evidence of its fitness for power. Burke gave no hint of how the level of his governing class could be maintained. He said nothing of what education might accomplish for the people. He did not examine the obvious consequences of their economic status. Had his eyes not been obscured by passion the work of that States-General the names in which appeared to him so astonishing in their inexperience, might have given him pause. The "obscure provincial advocates ... stewards of petty local jurisdictions ... the fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation" legislated, out of their inexperience, for the world. Their resolution, their constancy, their high sense of the national need, were precisely the qualities Burke demanded in his governing class; and the States-General did not move from the straight path he laid down until they met with intrigue from those of whom Burke became the licensed champion.

Nor is it in the least clear that his emphasis upon expediency is, in any real way, a release from metaphysical inquiry. Rather may it be urged that what was needed in Burke's philosophy was the clear avowal of the metaphysic it implied. Nothing is more greatly wanted in political inquiry than discovery of that "intuition more subtle than any articulate major premise" which, as Mr. Justice Holmes has said, is the true foundation of so many of our political judgments. The theory of natural rights upon which Burke heaped such contempt was wrong rather in its form than in its substance. It clearly suffered from its mistaken effort to trace to an imaginary state of nature what was due to a complex experience. It suffered also from its desire to lay down universal formul?. It needed to state the rights demanded in terms of the social interests they involved rather than in the abstract ethic they implied. But the demands which underlay the thought of men like Price and Priestley was as much the offspring of experience as Burke's own doctrine. They made, indeed, the tactical mistake of seeking to give an unripe philosophic form to a political strategy wherein, clearly enough, Burke was their master. But no one can read the answers of Paine and Mackintosh, who both were careful to avoid the panoply of metaphysics, to the Reflections, without feeling that Burke failed to move them from their main position. Expediency may be admirable in telling the statesmen what to do; but it does not explain the sources of his ultimate act, nor justify the thing finally done. The unconscious deeps which lie beneath the surface of the mind are rarely less urgent than the motives that are avowed. Action is less their elimination than their index; and we must penetrate within their recesses before we have the full materials for judgment.

Considered in this fashion, the case for natural rights is surely unanswerable. The things that men desire correspond, in some rough fashion, to the things they need. Natural rights are nothing more than the armour evolved to protect their vital interests. Upon the narrow basis of legal history it is, of course, impossible to protect them. History is rather the record of the thwarting of human desire than of its achievement. But upon the value of certain things there is a sufficient and constant opinion to give us assurance that repression will ultimately involve disorder. Nor is there any difference between the classes of men in this regard. Forms, indeed, will vary; and the power we have of answering demand will always wait upon the discoveries of science. Our natural rights, that is to say, will have a changing content simply because this is not a static world. But that does not mean, as Burke insisted, that they are empty of experience. They come, of course, mainly from men who have been excluded from intimate contact with the fruits of power. Nonconformists in religion, workers without land or capital save the power of their own hands, it is from the disinherited that they draw, as demands, their strength. Yet it is difficult to see, as Burke would undoubtedly have insisted, that they are the worse from the source whence they derive. Rather do they point to grave inadequacy in the substance of the state, inadequacy neglect of which has led to the cataclysms of historic experience. The unwillingness of Burke to examine into their foundation reveals his lack of moral insight into the problem he confronted.

That lack of insight must, of course, be given some explanation; and its cause seems rooted in Burke's metaphysic outlook. He was profoundly religious; and he did not doubt that the order of the universe was the command of God. It was, as a consequence, beneficent; and to deny its validity was, for him, to doubt the wisdom of God. "Having disposed," he wrote, "and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but to His, He had, in and by that disposition, vitally subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us." The State, in fact, it is to be built upon the sacrifice of men; and this they must accept as of the will of God. We are to do our duty in our allotted station without repining, in anticipation, doubtless, of a later reward. What we are is thus the expression of his goodness; and there is a real sense in which Burke may be said to have maintained the inherent rightness of the existing order. Certainly he throws a cloak of religious veneration about the purely metaphysical concept of property; and his insistence upon the value of peace as opposed to truth is surely part of the same attitude. Nor is it erroneous to connect this background with his antagonism to the French Revolution. What there was most distressing to him was the overthrowal of the Church, and he did not hesitate, in very striking fashion, to connect revolutionary opinion with infidelity. Indeed Burke, like Locke, seems to have been convinced that a social sense was impossible in an atheist; and his Letters on a Regicide Peace have a good deal of that relentless illogic which made de Maistre connect the first sign of dissent from ultramontanism with the road to a denial of all faith. Nothing is more difficult than to deal with a thinker who has had a revelation; and this sense that the universe was a divine mystery not to be too nearly scrutinized by man grew greatly upon Burke in his later years. It was not an attitude which reason could overthrow; for its first principle was an awe in the presence of facts to which reason is a stranger.

There is, moreover, in Burke a Platonic idealism which made him, like later thinkers of the school, regard existing difficulties with something akin to complacent benevolence. What interested him was the idea of the English State; and whatever, as he thought, deformed it, was not of the essence of its nature. He denied, that is to say, that the degree to which a purpose is fulfilled is as important as the purpose itself. A thing becomes good by the end it has in view; and the deformities of time and place ought not to lead us to deny the beauty of the end. It is the great defect of all idealistic philosophy that it should come to the examination of facts in so optimistic a temper. It never sufficiently realizes that in the transition from theoretic purpose to practical realization a significant transformation may occur. We do not come to grips with the facts. What we are bidden to remember is the splendor of what the facts are trying to be. The existing order is beatified as a necessary stage in a beneficent process. We are not to separate out the constituent elements therein, and judge them as facts in time and space. Society is one and indivisible; and the defects do not at any point impair the ultimate integrity of the social bond.

Yet it is surely evident that in the heat and stress of social life, we cannot afford so long a period as the basis for our judgment. We may well enough regard the corruption of the monarchy under the later Hanoverians as the necessary prelude to its purification under Victoria; but that does not make it any the less corrupt. We may even see how a monistic view of society is possible to one who, like Burke, is uniquely occupied with the public good. But the men who, like Muir and Hardy in the treason trials of the Revolution, think rather in terms of the existing disharmonies than the beauty of the purpose upon which they rest, are only human if they think those disharmonies more real than the purpose they do not meet. They were surely to be pardoned if, reading the Reflections of Burke, they regarded class distinctions as more vital than their harmony of interest, when they saw the tenacity with which privileges they did not share were defended. It is even possible to understand why some insisted that if those privileges were, as Burke had argued, essential to the construction of the whole, it was against that whole, alike in purpose and in realization, that they were in revolt. For them the fact of discontinuity was vital. They could not but ask for happiness in their own individual lives no less than in the State of which they were part. They came to see that without self-government in the sense of their own active participation in power, such happiness must go unfulfilled. The State, in fact, may have the noblest purpose; but its object is attempted by agents who are also mortal men. The basis of their scrutiny became at once pragmatic. The test of allegiance to established institutions became immediately the achievement for which they were responsible. The achievement, as they urged, was hardly written with adequacy in terms of the lives of humble men. That was why they judged no attitude of worth which sought the equation of the real and the ideal. The first lesson of their own experience of power was the need for its limitation by the instructed judgment of free minds.[18]

[18] Cf. my Authority in the Modern State, pp. 65-9.


No man was more deeply hostile to the early politics of the romantic movement, to the Contrat Social of Rousseau and the Political Justice of Godwin, than was Burke; yet, on the whole, it is with the romantics that Burke's fundamental influence remains. His attitude to reason, his exaltation of passion and imagination over the conscious logic of men, were of the inmost stuff of which they were made. In that sense, at least, his kinship is with the great conservative revolution of the generation which followed him. Hegel and Savigny in Germany, de Maistre and Bonald in France, Coleridge and the later Wordsworth in England, are in a true sense his disciples. That does not mean that any of them were directly conscious of his work but that the movement he directed had its necessary outcome in their defence of his ideals. The path of history is strewn with undistributed middles; and it is possible that in the clash between his attitude and that of Bentham there were the materials for a fuller synthesis in a later time. Certainly there is no more admirable corrective in historical politics that the contrast they afford.

It is easy to praise Burke and easier still to miss the greatness of his effort. Perspective apart, he is destined doubtless to live rather as the author of some maxims that few statesmen will dare to forget than as the creator of a system which, even in its unfinished implications, is hardly less gigantic than that of Hobbes or Bentham. His very defects are lessons in themselves. His unhesitating inability to see how dangerous is the concentration of property is standing proof that men are over-prone to judge the rightness of a State by their own wishes. His own contempt for the results of reasonable inquiry is a ceaseless lesson in the virtue of consistent scrutiny of our inheritance. His disregard of popular desire suggests the fatal ease with which we neglect the opinion of those who stand outside the active centre of political conflict. Above all, his hostility to the Revolution should at least make later generations beware lest novelty of outlook be unduly confounded with erroneous doctrine.

Yet even when such deduction has been made, there is hardly a greater figure in the history of political thought in England. Without the relentless logic of Hobbes, the acuteness of Hume, the moral insight of T.H. Green, he has a large part of the faculties of each. He brought to the political philosophy of his generation a sense of its direction, a lofty vigour of purpose, and a full knowledge of its complexity, such as no other statesman has ever possessed. His flashes of insight are things that go, as few men have ever gone, into the hidden deeps of political complexity. Unquestionably, his speculation is rather that of the orator in the tribune than of the thinker in his study. He never forgot his party, and he wrote always in that House of Commons atmosphere which makes a man unjust to the argument and motives of his opponent. Yet, when the last word of criticism has been made, the balance of illumination is immense. He illustrates at its best the value of that party-system the worth of which made so deep an impression on all he wrote. He showed that government by discussion can be made to illuminate great principles. He showed also that allegiance to party is never inconsistent with the deeper allegiance to the demand of conscience. When he came to the House of Commons, the prospects of representative government were very dark; and it is mainly to his emphasis upon its virtues that its victory must be attributed. Institutional change is likely to be more rapid than in his generation; for we seem to have reached that moment when, as he foresaw, "they who persist in opposing that mighty current will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself than the mere designs of men." The principles upon which we proceed are doubtless different from those that he commended; yet his very challenge to their wisdom only gives to his warning a deeper inspiration for our effort.

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