Mr Burke's Acclaimed Cherry

We are afraid 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.
(Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution)

If you do a quick Google Search for “Edmund-Burke +own-private-stock-of-reasonâ€?, you’ll find plenty of web pages where that comment on the English attitude to reason is quoted. A few bloggers seem taken with it too. And why not? It’s such a fine, juicy looking cherry and always looks ripe for the picking. It has a certain plausibility too, once you get past the distracting metaphor. No wonder that it’s considered a good decoration for conservative confections.

What Burke appears to be saying is that no individual is a perfect reasoner – a reasonable enough proposition – and therefore, in making political decisions, we ought to have regard to past practice – tradition – which represents the accumulated wisdom of centuries. That’s how Australia’s own Owen Harries, presents Burke’s remark in a 2003 article published at <basso profundo>The American Conservative<basso profundo>:

If the complexity of society and the political order was one reason Burke feared radical and rapid change, a second and just as powerful reason was his reservation about the proposed engine of change: the role of reason in human affairs. Burke rejected the Enlightenment view of man as a predominantly rational, calculating, logical being. His rational side exists, but it is a small part of his total make-up. “We are afraid,â€? said Burke, “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 smallâ€? Habit, instinct, custom, faith, reverence, prejudice—the accumulated practical knowledge acquired through experience, all this was more important than abstract reasoning. Collectively, and for better or worse, it constituted man’s nature. (my emphasis)

Kudos to Harries for at least mentioning prejudice in that emphasised sentence, although it does occupy last place in a list of its more respectable relatives. What Harries glosses over here is Burke’s very explicit preference for prejudice over reason (others don’t gloss over this and even more kudos to them). This isn’t an isolated example, but it shouldn’t be taken as typical of Harries, or Burkean conservatives in general.

We’ll come back to that point later. First, let’s take a look at the rest of the bunch that Burke’s much prized cherry came from:

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid 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. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

Your literary men, and your politicians, and so do the whole clan of the enlightened among us, essentially differ in these points. They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own… (my emphases)

I’m particularly taken with this bit of the passage:

Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail…

At first, I thought that last remark – the declaration that England’s men of speculation seldom failed when they went looking for the latent wisdom in general prejudices – might have satiric intent. It does sound a bit sardonic, but Burke is absolutely in earnest. He really does prefer prejudice over reason, to the extent that his “Reflectionsâ€? are more of a long rant, worthy of any modern day RWDB. In the course of this rant, Burke vents quite a few general prejudices that he cherishes to a considerable degree – such as in this striking passage, where he bemoans the fact that they just don’t make revolutionaries like they used to:

Other revolutions have been conducted by persons, who, whilst they attempted or affected changes in the commonwealth, sanctified their ambition by advancing the dignity of the people whose peace they troubled. They had long views. They aimed at the rule, not at the destruction, of their country. They were men of GREAT civil, and GREAT military talents, and if the terror, the ornament of their age. They were NOT like JEW BROKERS, contending with each other who could best remedy with FRAUDULENT circulation and depreciated paper the WRETCHEDNESS and RUIN brought on their country by their DEGENERATE councils.

These disturbers were not so much like men usurping power, as asserting their NATURAL PLACE in society. Their rising was to illuminate and beautify the world. Their conquest over their competitors was by outshining them… I do not say, that the virtues of such men were to be taken as a balance to their crimes; but they were some corrective to their effects… Such were your whole race of Guises, Condes, and Colignis. Such the Richelieus, who in more quiet times acted in the spirit of a civil war… your present confusion, like a palsy, has attacked the FOUNTAIN OF LIFE ITSELF. Every person in your country, in a situation to be actuated by a principle of honour, is disgraced and degraded… But this generation will quickly pass away. The next generation of the “nobilityâ€? will resemble the ARTIFICERS and CLOWNS, and MONEY-JOBBERS, USERERS, and JEWS, who will be always their fellows, sometimes their masters. (my shouting and scare quotes)

According to Burke, and his modern disciples, every one of the prejudices he displays here has, at its core, a “latent wisdomâ€? that might be laid bare by a “man of speculationâ€?. Burke’s aversion to “money-jobbers, userers, and Jewsâ€? must be considered, from a Burkean viewpoint, as the sort of general prejudice that is beneficial to man and society. There are good grounds for supposing that it was, in Burke’s time, a general prejudice – either that or Burke seriously misunderstood his readership and he was, by the standard of his own times as well as ours, a stupid bigot. But no-one wants to go there, surely?

Let’s put that aside and, on Burke’s behalf, state the question we would want a man of speculation to answer:

Why is it a good thing for decent Christian gentlemen to hold and even cherish a deep aversion to money-jobbers, userers, and Jews?

Fallacy twitchers will notice that a couple of prior question has been left begging in phrasing this question:

Is it a good thing for decent Christian gentlemen to hold and even cherish a deep aversion to money-jobbers, userers, and Jews? If so, for whom?

I propose to leave those two questions – important as you might think them – to their own devices and focus on the original question. If it’s good enough for the acknowledged progenitor of modern conservatism, it’s good enough for me.

A short answer to the Burke worthy question – one that avoids delving into the troublesome history of the Jews’ position in English society – is that the commercial activities favoured by Jews – money jobbing and usury – are of a kind, that if unchecked, lead to a disorderly state of society. That’s really all we need, but if we cared to press our hypothetical man of speculation, we might obtain a more detailed account of the kinds of disorder that money-jobbing and usury lead to. Personally, I wouldn’t care to press that question.

Some might think this answer lacks a little depth but our task, as men of speculation is not to indulge ourselves – particularly not if we are inclined to the sort of dangerous curiosity that might lead to such inquiries as might explode the general prejudice against Jews – but to indulge Mr Burke. The truth (or truths) we might seek – perhaps through a study of the history of relations between Jewish money-jobbers and usurers, on the one hand, and Christian gentlemen on the other – are not what Mr Burke wants. Especially if our inquiries should lead us to conclude that, however conducive it may be to maintaining a particular social order (one, for example where low-born merchants know their place and don’t amass fortunes greater than those of their social betters – the landed gentry and the clergy), it might be a little harsh on the Jews. Or, worse yet, that the social order that was served by this prejudice was a pretty rotten one. Would it be wise to impart such findings to Mr Burke and his fellow Christian gentlemen?

I think not – Mr Burke might take us for that most despicable of creatures, a man of enlightenment and respond accordingly. Worse, we place ourselves at risk of succumbing to a belief in democracy, a state of civil society that is not just disorderly, but downright unseemly:

A government of five hundred country attornies and obscure curates is not good for twenty-four millions of men, though it were chosen by eight and forty millions; nor is it the better for being guided by a dozen of persons of quality, who have betrayed their trust in order to obtain that power. At present, you seem in everything to have strayed out of the high road of nature. The property of France does not govern it.

Advertisements
Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in levity, Philosophy, politics
17 comments on “Mr Burke's Acclaimed Cherry
  1. Katz says:

    Burkean conservatism is enjoying a season of sunshine at the moment.

    Folks of the Right, even here on LP, frequently extol Burke as the only salvation from the wreckage of Leftist rationalism. Many of us have been the subject of their tut-tutting and finger wagging.

    But, lo and behold!

    Right at the core of Burke’s prescription for a sound and workable social order: a canker.

    Poor old Right wingers…

    How much of Burke’s bathwater can be tossed out without jettisoning the baby?

    As Gummo elegantly points out:

    1. Burke had a horror of what today is called economic rationalism. To him, uppity Jews personified the social order turned upside down.

    2. Burke adhered to a definition of “merit” which is inimical to democracy, as it is understood today.

    And there is a wider point, not discussed by Gummo, which merits attention.

    Clearly, Burke did not believe that all “habit[s], instinct[s], custom[s], faith[s, reverence[s], prejudice[s]” were created equal. Thus there were some whose extinction would be beneficial for the world at large. There is no prize for guessing which culture Burke thought the best and most beneficial for the world.

    Thus Burke’s prescription for the world is a gradual but inexorable spread of English Whig ideas, until the whole world ran like the world of Jane Austen.

  2. polluted skies says:

    “Thus Burke’s prescription for the world is a gradual but inexorable spread of English Whig ideas, until the whole world ran like the world of Jane Austen”
    And still the first thing a newly wealthy chinese person does is obtain an enrolment form for their children to attend a British Public School or it’s equivalent in the US .
    Go figure.
    Love for authoritarianism is one of those latent wisdoms I guess ,a realisation gained straight after the first million hits the bank account.

  3. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    There’s a whiff of Eisehowerian warning about the military industrial complex there, is there not? An eloquent defender of anarchism, Burke did a Hitchens, spooked by the French Revolution. Marx concluded he was a self-serving sycophant. Again, one cannot escape the parallels with the Beltway Slut.

  4. There’s a lot of floaties in the bathwater with the baby, Katz. Makes it a little hard to find the poor little bugger.

  5. Hmmm, maybe we should examine all the philosophers and see if they have any opinions with which we disagree and, if so, we can comfortably throw out their entire body of work as being tainted.
    OK – so he was wrong about people of Jewish origin. It does not logically follow, however, that he was also wrong about the respect we should pay to tradition or that we should simply throw out all accumulated wisdom.
    This is a fascinating way of playing the man, not the ball.
    .
    Sir Henry – considering the consequences of their philosophies, I would be more inclined to disregard what Marx said about Burke than what Burke may have said about Marx. From Marx’s intellectual base has come all of the great tyrannies of the twentieth century. From the passage recounted from Burke above has come some errors on banking theory and the Jewish race. Both are wrong, but I have a good idea which is worse.

  6. How is pointing out Burke’s anti-semitism ‘playing the man’?

    From Marx’s intellectual base has come all of the great tyrannies of the twentieth century.

    First, this point is wrong. At the very least, you seem to be forgetting a certain German.
    Second, even if it were true, I don’t see how it exculpates Burke. Marx may have been many things, but a bigot was not one of them.
    Third, do you honestly believe that there have been no tyrannies under the banner of ‘conservatism’, or that nobody has been killed as a result of Burkean ‘prejudices’?

  7. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Hmmm, you’re on a sticky wicket there old boy. We could say the same thing about Jesus Christ.

    It has occurred to me that you owe your comfortable existence, your superannuation’s profits, job, share investments and cheap shirts to Karl Marx via the People’s Republic of China. Which makes you somewhat of an opportunisitc hypocrite, doesn’t it?

    BTW, How did Nazi Germany spring from Marx’s intellectual base? Or wasn’t Nazi Germany, in YOUR OPINION, one of the “great tyrannies of the 20th century”?

  8. Andrew,

    Burke’s anti-Semitism is just one of several prejudices he displays in the passages I’ve cited. Here’s a few more you appear to have overlooked:

    “… if they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice …”

    In other words, don’t trust lesser intellects (those of the hoi polloi) to understand the basis of a prejudice – it’s good enough that their prejudice keeps them on the straight and narrow.

    “Your literary men, and your politicians, and so do the whole clan of the enlightened among us, essentially differ in these points. They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own…”

    Froggy intellectuals are arrogant bastards and so is any Englishman who has any truck with their new fangled ideas.

    “A government of five hundred country attornies and obscure curates is not good for twenty-four millions of men, though it were chosen by eight and forty millions…”

    The hoi polloi can’t be trusted to elect their leaders – they’ll select people of no account who aren’t up the job.

    Finally, Burke plays the man continually, in a variety of entertaining ways throughout. Goose, gander, sauce old son.

  9. Let’s also note, apropos Sir Henry’s last question, that Burke displays an obvious double standard in his attitude to revolutionaries and disturbers of the Commonwealth:

    These disturbers were not so much like men usurping power, as asserting their NATURAL PLACE in society. Their rising was to illuminate and beautify the world. [etc]

    So some people are fit to be revolutionaries – perhaps even tyrants – and some aren’t. How are we to tell the difference?

  10. Gummo, are you aware that Voltaire is sitting in that bath with Burke? Is the branch of Enlightenment thought he represents also to be thrown out?

  11. First up Mark, I’d say there are fewer floaties in Voltaire’s baby bath (they’re not in the same bath at all). Second, Voltaire had two things going for him that are absent in Burke’s writing – wit and humour. Third, he wasn’t the sole philosopher or literateur invloved in the Enlightenment. You forget Diderot and the Encyclopaedists.

    Now it’s off to find my old Penguin copy of The Philosophical Dictionary to look up that passage about Jewish old-clothes men.

  12. I am not forgetting a certain Austrian, Happy Revolutionary – authoritarian socialism has a lot to be sorry for and that includes the doings of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party.
    .
    As for your point, Sir Henry – my superannuation would have been much bigger if the whole of China had followed the lead of Taiwan much earlier.
    .
    Gummo,
    Burke was wrong about many things, as have all of us been from time to time – we are informed by that great tide of accumulated ‘wisdom’ that Burke himself clearly refers to. Burke was in several, if not many, cases wrong about the bits of wisdom we should hold on to. What he was not wrong about was that we should only discard it when it is proven wrong. Thoughtless revolutionary change tends to create only bodies and wreckage.

  13. Katz says:

    OK – so [Burke] was wrong about people of Jewish origin.

    AR, that is a fatuous reading of both Burke and Gummo’s critique of Burke.

    Burke’s comments about Jews were as archetypes of what he saw as a greater evil: the rising power of money and finance over social hierarchy and tradition.

    Burke was talking about the behaviour of Jews. For historical reasons Jews were the financiers and money-lenders in European society.

    Burke was never referring to anything “essential” about Jews.

    For conservatives this aspect of Burke is unsettling, because it serves as the wedge between the libertarian Right and cultural conservatives.

    While the Left continues to dominate intellectual culture, this split will remain latent because both libertarian- and paleo-conservatives recognise that they need each other: my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

    When they start stoushing seriously, that’ll be a bad day for the Left.

  14. Gummo,

    Voltaire’s antisemitism was in a class of its own. Consider this:

    The Jewish nation dares to display an irreconcilable hatred toward all nations, and revolts against all masters; always superstitious, always greedy for the well-being enjoyed by others, always barbarous — cringing in misfortune and insolent in prosperity.

    Or this:

    Jews are … the greatest scoundrels who have ever sullied the face of the globe … They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and Germans are born with blond hair. I would not in the least be surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race … You [Jews] have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct, and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.

    Nor was Voltaire the only Enlightenment thinker to hold such views. History professor David Sorkin has written that with the coming of the Enlightenment Jews were condemned for:

    their ritualistic religion, national character or economic situation which, separately or together, prevented them from being moral. Enlightenment thinkers almost without exception subscribed to this image of Jewish inferiority.

    Both Diderot and Montesquieu belong to this Enlightenment antisemitic group. Montesquieu wrote:

    Know that wherever there is money there is the Jew.

    Diderot:

    Brutish people, vile and vulgar men.

    Need I go on? The point is that if Burke’s politics are to be repudiated because he once negatively associated Jews with usury, then the Enlightenment, in its mainstream, must also be repudiated, a step I believe you would be unwilling to take.

  15. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    I apologise for straying from this here thread about Burke (which is, BTW, wonderful!)

    BUT, two things: while Musso had Marxist beginnings, NSDAP certainly did not, even if Rohm flirted with socialist ideas and Adolf started as a Red Brigader. Indeed, the SA was specifically formed to biff the Marxists out of existence. But your intial point Comrade Reynolds foundered on a false premise anyhow.

    Moreover, it is inconceivable that your current prosperity, Comrade Reynolds, would come about without the authoritarian, one-party state that is the PRC, which has the power to set the workers’ wage as low as it likes, determine when and where they work and maintain its currency at an artificial low. it is a command economy that can be said fairly and accurately to have sprung from Marx’s intellectual base. The regime’s earlier iteration is arguably responsible for a greater number of deaths among its citizens than either Adolf or Vlad and Joe. But it is a moot point…

    Nevertheless, it is very cheeky for you Comrade Reynolds, to devalue, absolutely and without reservation, everything that Marx wrote because, Lenin and Stalin and Mao murdered millions of people in the next century, while you are happy to scoff the fruits of the low-paid Chinese workers whose toil artificially and unfairly keeps up your standard of living. Bah humbug.

  16. Sources, Mark?

    But a debate on Voltaire’s anti-semitism vs Burke’s is a bit beside the point, I think. Here I go, quoting my own post again:

    There are good grounds for supposing that it was, in Burke’s time, a general prejudice – either that or Burke seriously misunderstood his readership and he was, by the standard of his own times as well as ours, a stupid bigot. But no-one wants to go there, surely?

    And since I now have that old copy of the Philosophical Dictionary to hand, here’s Voltaire on Prejudice:

    There are universal and necessary prejudices, which constitute virtue itself. In all countries, children are taught to acknowledge a god who rewards and avenges; to respect and love their mothers and fathers; to regard theft as a crime, selfish lying as a vice, before they can imagine what is a vice or a virtue.

    There are therefore very good prejudices: they are those ratified by judgement when one is able to reason…

    RELIGIOUS PREJUDICES

    If your nurse told you … that Mohammed or somebody else made a journey into heaven; if then your tutor drove into your brain what your nurse engraved there, you will keep hold of it for life. Should your judgement seek to rise above these prejudices, your neighbours, above all the women, scream impiety and frighten you. Your dervish, fearing to see his income diminish, accuses you to the cadi, and his cadi has you impaled if he can because he wants to command fools, and believes that fools obey bewtter than others. (my emphasis)

    Excuse me if I prefer a thinker who is prepared to make the effort to lift his judgement above his prejudices to one who prefers to leave his prejudices largely unexamined, on the basis that there’s wisdom somewhere in them and one day a man of speculation will no doubt turn it up for him.

  17. Sir Henry,
    I am sorry, but this can only be considered to be absolute twaddle:

    Moreover, it is inconceivable that your current prosperity, Comrade Reynolds, would come about without the authoritarian, one-party state that is the PRC, which has the power to set the workers’ wage as low as it likes, determine when and where they work and maintain its currency at an artificial low.

    It is wrong on so many levels it is simply not funny. Firstly, to say that I may not criticize Marx because, in China abandoning parts of his teachings they are becoming wealthy and, as a result I am benefiting is a simple absurdity. Secondly, it is in abandoning many of the powers it previously used to control the things you are saying that is allowing them to make money. The state sector in China is still largely unprofitable – it is in the areas where freedom has been “granted” that all the money is being made.
    I could go on, but I cannot be bothered. Your attempt to make a point out of this is just so weak that it is not worth it.
    On the other area – Marx clearly provided the intellectual foundation for revolution and mass murder. At many points in his writings he makes it plain that killing those opposed to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not only a part of the plan, but an essential part. Every country, without exception, that has claimed to follow his lead has embarked on that process. Your list in the pantheon of “Communist Greats” could be extended much further to encompass all of the dictators following Marx. All of them, without exception, embarked on a campaign of mass murder. Does that not tell you something?

Comments are closed.

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
%d bloggers like this: