Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
I am moving ahead in Casey’s examination, past thinkers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to Edmund Burke. I am moving ahead because the elements of Enlightenment thinking to be found in some of these others are well-known – both for good and bad.
In Burke, we have perhaps the first – and best-known – critic of one of the most important elements of the Enlightenment: reason without tradition, reason fully individualized.
There seems to be much controversy in interpreting and understanding Burke; there are also aspects of his thinking that run contrary – or at least appear to run contrary – to the idea of liberty. I will avoid all of this and focus on the areas that are clear to me – if these are controversial amongst scholars, I am going to add little of value to the conversation in this short review.
Burke is commonly understood to reject “abstruse metaphysical reasoning about politics,” specifically the acceptance of the certainty of reason over history. Casey offers:
I think it might be fairer to characterise Burke as not so much denying reason a place in politics but denying a certain abstract, detached and ahistorical view of reason that place.
Reason, devoid of history and tradition, seemed to be the target in Burke’s sights. Burke finds reason a place, but not the highest place; there is a history – what Burke describes as “prejudices” – that comes in advance of reason, but not opposed to reason. This is reason built on tradition.
Burke’s reason built on tradition inherently takes aim at the individual reason that perhaps holds the highest position in the Enlightenment. In its place, Burke offers reason tempered by history. Burke describes this history – this “prejudice,” as he puts it – as “manners.” It might be compared to what I have described as culture, tradition, custom.
Burke thought manners mattered more than law and even more than morals inasmuch as both law and morals in large measure depend on manners. …Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.
Burke’s harshest criticism in this regard was leveled at the French revolutionaries, who have “set about destroying manners and natural piety.” I think it seemed reasonable to them at the time, one head at a time.
Casey finds himself in substantial agreement with Burke on this point of manners, as do I. He describes this point as consistent with the views of a culturally conservative libertarian. I take the point further, as I find it the only path toward libertarianism: to the extent manners sooth, purify, exalt, and refine us, voluntary governance rises and monopoly government falls; the opposite is true when manners vex, corrupt, debase, and barbarize.
While Casey finds several points of disagreement with Burke, he does find agreeable one aspect of Burke’s thought:
…his reminder to us that human beings aren’t disembodied rational beings but are fleshly creatures of experience, custom, habit, historical precedent and religion, and that there’s a perpetual danger that a concern with abstract rights runs the risk of dissolving those prior and necessary human roots that perform the constitutive role for man in his social identity that memory does for his psychological memory.
A concern for “abstract rights” dissolves these “necessary human roots.” We see this in the community of libertarians: what human roots are maintained in this community? The only thing in common is this concern for abstract rights. There is no community in this, just as there is no future for liberty in a society so constructed.