Essay on Burke’s Conception of Society

Burke’s view of society is dominated by a historical perspective. He saw the state as the result of a process of historical growth which he often likened to that undergone by living organisms. Similarly incapable of surviving dissection, the state was also greater and more complex than any of the parts which made it up. He saw the ensemble of relationships compris­ing society as ultimately dependent on the habitual responses of the individuals composing it. His views on society, its functions and structure duffer from his predecessors and were influenced by new revolutionary ideas marked the 18th century and new social imperative.

Argument Burke’s conception for society was a reflection to progressive revolutionary ideas and new meaning of liberty, but it was limited by theological vision of the world.

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Help With Essay on Burke’s Conception of Society

Burke’s Conception of Society can be seen as a response to new social landscape and political ideas of the 18th century. The manners, customs, and rules, expressed and unexpressed, into which we are socialized, strikingly defended by Burke as ‘prejudice’, and in his view much more reliable when they are habits than when they are self-consciously followed rules or moral doctrines. The congruency of this ensemble is a result of piecemeal accommodation by past generations gradually melding the whole together. Although Burke thought this true of all societies inasmuch as they managed to perpe­tuate themselves over time, it was particularly true of the English constitution, largely as a result of the dominance of the idea of precedent in common law 1. Analyzing Burke’s views and concepts, it is important to note that his first great political crusade exposed it clearly: his objection to the English Government’s American policy was that it had been determined by considerations of

1. Bryant D. C. ” Burke’s Present Discontents: The Rhetorical Genesis of a Party Testament.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 42, 1956, p. 116.

rights instead of according to the actual circumstances. On the other hand, he rejected equally the abstract demands put forward by the extremists on the colonists’ side.

In general, Burke’s conception of society contrasted greatly with the 18th century theory of society. He rejects the “abstract” theorizing of the Natural Rights School, and appeals from their a priori psychology to actual human nature. Also, Burke distinguishes the Constitutional Society and the Revolution Society. He questions: How are we to judge social phenomena, to advise on policy, without some abstract criterion? How, for instance, are we to know what kind of political organization is most suited to any particular community? 2 Burke can offer no attempt at a scientific answer, but he can appeal to what seems better to him than theory, to the facts. That a community and a constitution have grown up together is the surest proof of their being suited to one another. Thus the appeal to human nature becomes an appeal to the facts, in other words, an appeal to the past. Conscious of ignorance, hardly contemplating the possibility of creating eventually a scientific sociology, he bows before the irresistible. He states: “Almost venture to affirm that not one in a hundred amongst us participates in the “triumph” of the Revolution Society” 3. Also, Burke supposes that man knows little, has little power: for him to take over the reins, to try to influence the destiny of the race, would be no less mad than impious. Put your trust in the past, says Burke; there is no higher sanction than Prescription, for it is a guarantee of the long continued approval of God and man. Prescription, then, is for Burke the most solid rock on which mundane rights can be based; it gives a title having for its sanction the eternal order of things; it is the master and not the creature of positive law, it is the decree of nature, it is the law of God.

2. Bryant D. C. “The Contemporary Reception of Edmund Burke’s Speaking.” In Historical Studies in Rhetoric and Rhetoricians, ed. Raymond F. Howes, 271-93. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1961, p. 94.

3. Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Available at: http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm

In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” Burke writes:

The institution of this society [the Constitutional Society] appears to be of a charitable and so far of a laudable nature; it was intended for the circulation, at the expense of the members, of many books which few others would be at the expense of buying, and which might lie on the hands of the booksellers, to the great loss of an useful body of men”4.

His views on society and social structure can be explained in terms of social contract theory. Burke had in front of his mind not the ever-present and unchanging law of nature, but the innumerable local laws of human society. This dissolution of the Law of Nature into two distinct but closely allied concepts-the law of God and the laws of men–very largely reverses its function. The law of God is perfect, but its contents cannot easily be specified; the laws of men have quite definite contents but are very far from perfect. By linking them together so ingeniously Burke is able to justify all the ordinances of the latter on the authority of the former. Thus the idea of Law was transformed into an essentially conservative doctrine.

One of the main limitations of his concept is that “religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and of all comfort: “If our religious tenets should ever want a further elucidation, we shall not call on atheism to explain them. We shall not light up our temple from that unhallowed fire. It will be illuminated with other lights. … We are Protestants, not from indifference, but from zeal” 5

Burke was never willing to throw over an old idea, and moreover the theory of the contract was the especial dogma of the Whig party 6. This, too, may be said in his defense, that the contractual theory of the State was undoubtedly the accepted one and must in the

4. Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Available at: http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm

5. Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Available at: http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm

6. Gaonkar D. “Object and Method in Rhetorical Criticism: From Wichelns to Leff and McGee.” Western Journal of Speech Communication 54, 1990, pp. 295.

18th century. Even without abandoning the contractual theory in so many words, he tacitly drops it when he regards every man as necessarily born into political obedience, and as becoming, when he grows to adult years, automatically a full member of the body politic and subject to all the ensuing obligations. The justification that Burke would have given, if the need for one had ever presented itself to him, would have been that he could not conceive of the individual as a moral and rational being apart from society, by which he is shaped and conditioned and endowed with moral personality 7. Not merely a particular code of morality, but his very conscience and sense of duty are bestowed on him by society. A humble respect for the dictates of the social conscience is the least he can offer in return; to refuse to accept his due position in society with all its implications would be to renounce obedience not merely to a particular code, but to all moral law and utterly to cast off the yoke of duty 8.

Burke declares in orthodox fashion that natural rights are sacred, but adds that he puts little value on attempts to codify them. In saying that he makes a declaration of rights not very different in effect from the French, Janet is attributing to Burke exactly what he refused to do. Natural rights are at the formation of society abrogated and replaced by civil rights, to which henceforth man is confined, because as soon as any restriction whatever is admitted on the abstract rights of man, society passes into the expediency9. Burke’s theory of the change is that political authority must be admitted to be an artificial derogation from the natural equality of man, but that it can be justified on grounds of utility; natural rights are at best abstract rights, the rights men can look for from government are their own advantages.

7. Pitkin H. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967, p. 67.

8. Greenberg, M. Burke & Political Liberty. New Criterion, Vol. 20, March 2002, p. 4.

9. Chapman G. W. Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967, p.71.

Burke came to see the constitution as the result of a gradual and unwitting development over time. One important consequence of this was that society was not properly subject to rational scrutiny, since the ‘fit’ between institutions, customs and practices would not conform to any known or discoverable general rules. This view of the limitations of individuals’ rational capacity to analyze society exemplifies one of Burke’s most famous targets: abstrac­tion or rationalism in political thought. In particular he deprecated the direct application to civil society of criticisms drawn from theories of natural rights or of the state of nature, as argued by many social contrast theorists (Lock, Hume, Coleridge) 10. He pointed out the folly of applying to civilized society ‘rights which do not so much as suppose its existence’. The ‘social contract’, if it could be said to exist at all, certainly marked the surrender of natural rights; but instead of dispensing with the notion Burke characteristically converted it from a radical into a powerfully conservative image: “Society is indeed a contract .. . but it is not a partnership in things … of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection” 10

Critics (Pitkin, 1967; Cone, 1957) suppose that Burke follows Hume when he warns that “the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed” 12. He goes farther and destroys the strict utilitarian position in advance when he shows that men’s passions frequently override their interests. Nor does he disapprove of this, though the only explicit statement to be found is in the following form, ” But we will not place the State of Nature, which is the Reign of God, in competition with

10.Goodrich C. Select British Eloquence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974, p.23.

11. Cone C. Burke and the Nature of Politics: Age of the American Revolution. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957, p.83.

12, p. 78.

“Political Society, which is the absurd Usurpation of Man” 13. If he will go to this extent as regards all men, where the masses of the people are concerned he thinks still less of the power of reason.

Speaking about civil society Burke appeals with equal constancy to the ideal of law. Explaining the concept of society, most critics and philosophers contrast Lock and Burke (Christie, 1970; Wilkins 1967). A comparison of the two shows that Locke, who hardly ever refers to the judicial power of the actual State, continually invokes the Law of Nature, for the enforcement of which he regards political society as formed, and clearly bases his most important arguments on this conception; whereas Burke makes use of it but rarely, and when he does talk of the Law of Nature seems to have something different in his mind. Parkin states it was really a pseudo-philosophical conception, and could be taken as equivalent to the “law of reason”-though what that might mean in its turn beyond a law of common sense it would be difficult to say 14. On the other hand, the law of which Burke talks is not a rationalized law of nature but a supra-rational law of God. In just the same way his Contract is not the Social Contract but “the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world” 15.

Burke supposes that liberty for an individual consists in freedom from restraint or violent treatment by others, and that this is only to be attained by operation of a known law with definite sanctions and an impartial judge. Burke goes further: his argument is that both liberty and social life are necessary to man, in fact that real liberty can only exist in an organized community, and that to enable an aggregate of individuals to act as such they must

13 Christie I. Myth and Reality in Late Eighteenth-Century Politics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970, p.63.

14. Parkin C. The Moral Basis of Burke’s Political Thought. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968, p.45.

15. Burke, In Wilkins B. T. The Problem of Burke’s Political Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967, p. 64.

be in a state of “habitual social discipline”. Liberty, in other words, is freedom, but it is a social freedom secured by an “equality of restraint”, a liberty to do those things which society considers desirable. Burke says that society has also another duty towards the individual, that of exerting its pressure to free him from the despotism of his own blind and brutal passions. This rather poetic description, with its “living body” and “life”, tends to give an illusory appearance to the doctrine. Burke’s summing-up is more true to it. “And hence the Sources of what are usually called States, civil Societies, or Governments; into some Form of which, more extended or restrained, all Mankind have gradually fallen” 16

In spite of many limitations, this theory has some advantages: because smaller bodies within a State, as well as being obstacles to reform through their vested interests, are also the strongest barriers against the growth of despotism, whether of one man or of a multitude. If you will not be ruled by the organized people in their classes and corporations, the author of the ‘Reflections’ seems to say, then you will be ruled by the unorganized people, the mob; until in reaction from anarchy the despotism of one man is accepted as a lesser evil. France, he accurately prophesied, was to know both extremes 17.

In a semi-feudal society the result is that for the liberties of the people he reads class privileges. But put it in a different way and Burke’s liberty secures to every member of the community his due rights in his due place. He asks if there is legal security for life and property, free disposal of person, and unrestricted use of industry for all individuals; either protection in the enjoyment of hereditary estates, or else a fair

16. Burke E. Vindication of Natural Society. 2005. Available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/Texts/LFBooks/Burke0061/Vindication/0339_Bk.html

17. Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Available at: http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm

compensation, and finally liberty to express without molestation unpopular opinions on public affairs 18. .

In sum, Burke’s concepts of the society was a progressive step during the Revolutionary era contrasting with the concepts of Lock and Hume, but it has many limitations. The main limitations of Burke’s view was that liberties of the society were arbitrarily and unequally divided that they were equivalent to privileges, and so in practice it tended to become merely a defense of the privileged classes. Nor, taking the permanence of the existing order for granted, did he look forward to any extension of privileges to the rest of the community. When this is examined closely it is seen to consist mainly in drawing limits. Equitable treatment of existing rights is the main consideration, nor does he safeguard himself by any denial of the possibility of prescribing in an abuse. The main strong points of this concept are that reforms should be timely, they should give the people what they rightly desire before agitators have taken up the demand and modified it for the worse, but above all it should be temperate, should not attempt completeness. Also, he underlines that if an existing institution seems to answer any good end, whether such were its original object or not, we should regard it as framed for that end and reform it accordingly. Finally, change must not be incurred except when the existing evil is patently excessive, nor pushed farther than is imperative at the moment. Burke’s principal interest in the Whig Revolution is as a final settlement, not as a precedent; there is a great deal more desire to preserve than to progress apparent here. The list may have its faults, but surely it is better that positive guarantees of this kind should be given than that the individual should be enfranchised with all the liberties of a citizen of the world in theory and enslaved to an autocratic revolutionary State in practice.

18 Christie I. Myth and Reality in Late Eighteenth-Century Politics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970, p.55.

References

  1. Bryant D. C. ” Burke’s Present Discontents: The Rhetorical Genesis of a Party Testament.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 42, 1956, pp. 115-26.
  2. Bryant D. C. “The Contemporary Reception of Edmund Burke’s Speaking.” In Historical Studies in Rhetoric and Rhetoricians, ed. Raymond F. Howes, 271-93. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1961.
  3. Burke E. Vindication of Natural Society. 2005. Available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/Texts/LFBooks/Burke0061/Vindication/0339_Bk.html
  4. Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Available at: http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm
  5. Canavan F. P. The Political Reason of Edmund Burke. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1960.
  6. Chapman G. W. Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967
  7. Christie I. Myth and Reality in Late Eighteenth-Century Politics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970.
  8. Cone C. Burke and the Nature of Politics: Age of the American Revolution. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957.
  9. Gandy C. I., and P. J. Stanlis, eds. Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1983.
  10. Gaonkar D. “Object and Method in Rhetorical Criticism: From Wichelns to Leff and McGee.” Western Journal of Speech Communication 54, 1990, pp. 290-316.
  11. Greenberg, M. Burke & Political Liberty. New Criterion, Vol. 20, March 2002, p. 4.
  12. Goodrich C. Select British Eloquence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
  13. Parkin C. The Moral Basis of Burke’s Political Thought. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
  14. Pitkin H. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
  15. Wilkins B. T. The Problem of Burke’s Political Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

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