Friday, December 21, 2018

The Enlightenment’s Critic of Reason

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.


  1. I think there is much wisdom in Burke, especially concerning the French Revolution and his reasons for condemning it, and if his "Vindication of the Natural Society" was indeed a "sober and earnest treatise," as Rothbard contends, written anonymously in his younger years, rather than a satire as Burke later commented, he could be sensibly viewed one of the founding fathers of realistic or Hoppean libertarianism, or at least an early (perhaps the earliest) bridge between libertarianism and cultural conservatism.

    "A concern for “abstract rights” dissolves these “necessary human roots.”" - BM

    I'm not so sure that it does. Perhaps an overriding or autistic concern for abstract rights would be bad for the roots of a culture and a people, but surely reason that is employed to bolster good tradition or to strain the inequities from it in order to deduce what is true and eternal regarding mankind through the accidental and temporal noise of history cannot but reinforce the root structure by ridding it of its decaying and poisonous appendages.

    Here are two quotes, the first from Hoppe and the second from Kuehnelt-Leddihn, that I see as the 'north star' for myself in my continuing intellectual pursuits:

    "Conservative refers to someone who believes in the existence of a natural order, a natural state of affairs which corresponds to the nature of things: of nature and man. This natural order is and can be disturbed by accidents and anomalies: by earthquakes and hurricanes, diseases, pests, monsters and beasts, by two-headed horses or four legged humans, cripples and idiots, and by war, conquest and tyranny… The natural order is ancient and forever the same (only anomalies and accidents undergo change), hence, it can be recognized by us everywhere and at all times… Conservative refers to someone who recognizes the old and natural through the "noise" of anomalies and accidents and who defends, supports, and helps to preserve it against the temporary and anomalous. Within the realm of the humanities, including the social sciences, a conservative recognizes families (fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren) and households based on private property and in cooperation with a community of other households as the most fundamental, natural, essential, ancient, and indispensable social units.”


    "The true rightist is not a man who wants to go back to this or that institution for the sake of a return; he wants first to find out what is eternally true, eternally valid, and then either to restore or reinstall it, regardless of whether it seems obsolete, whether it is ancient, contemporary, or even without precedent, brand new, "ultramodern." Old truths can be rediscovered, entirely new ones found. The Man of the Right does not have a time-bound, but a sovereign mind. In case he is a Christian he is, in the words of the Apostle Peter, the steward of a Basileion Hierateuma, a Royal Priesthood"

    "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." - BM

    Great line! Manners are so important. As Peter Jackson's Gandalf would say, "I have found that it is the small everyday deed of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love."

    1. ATL, regarding the concern for abstract rights, what I took Casey to mean and also what I meant was regarding the issue of definition – the abstractness of the terms, empty buckets to be filled as one likes. Liberty, justice, tolerance, etc. Libertarians and communists both use these terms and use them with virtually opposite meanings. We complain that “our” words have been coopted, or the meaning changed by “our” enemies. But our words are all abstract; these can be filled in any way by whoever is doing the filling.

      As to your two “north stars”: I see three quotes following this statement!


    2. Your quote (my third guiding star now!) represents in a beautifully succinct way one of the core convictions underlying my faith (let's just call it what it is) in freedom and the proper course of arriving there as a society.

      I like to think of it as the 'golden proviso' of liberty: if you want people to live together in a state of liberty, which is basically a society which lives by the golden rule, you need people to strive for virtuous conduct in search of Aristotle's 'golden mean.'

      Virtue simply cannot be absent the strategy for liberty. Virtue creates stability, prosperity and predictability - all things that diminish the perceived necessity of the state. Unvirtuous behavior creates discord, destruction, and chaos - all things that promote the necessity of a central aggressive authority. It would be fatal to our vision to overlook this.

      Manners are the outward manifestation of a moral code; they are not simply etiquette. To me, living by the moral code, manners and all, is living virtuously.

      At least that's how I'd explain it to a secular crowd. To Christians, I'd say if you want liberty, it's time to start taking the Lord's words seriously and actually make an effort to understand them and apply them to your life and the conduct of those you hold in authority.

    3. Thanks, ATL. To live virtuously helps guide the definition of these abstract terms, filling the buckets with meaning that moves us toward liberty.

  2. At the risk of being pedantic, once again nice write up.

  3. Agree with Nick, nice write up.

    Don't know if you follow Takimag, but his recent article is all about manners, or the lack of them. He even mentions Burke.