March 18, 2004

The "reasonable men" get their day again

Posted by Curt at 02:35 PM in Literature | TrackBack

A few weeks ago I posted about Theodore Dalrymple’s creation of the term “pre-ideological” to describe Stefan Zweig and, I suppose, a common breed of writer and artist in the days before the higher and lower spheres of culture become inextricably tangled up with each other. I thought at the time that this was just a whim of an unrependent conservative of the old guard, but if Christopher Hitchens, ex-radical and current neo-conservative of whom I am generally no supporter either in style or beliefs, is out to offer a tribute to Edmund Burke, well then, we may be at the beginning of a movement of some sort.

As much as Burke is generally considered a political philosopher, his views in my opinion virtually embody the idea of pre-ideological. This is fairly evident in his commitment to tradition and particularly to his idea of a continuity uniting past, present and future generations, which does not seem to have a deliberate, logical foundation in his arguments, but should not necessarily be considered unreasonable on that account. Burke seems to consider tradition to be a value in and of itself, and far be it from me to disagree with that, particularly as in my observation nostalgia seems to be almost a true universal, certainly more universal than idealism. Perhaps it is because we always perceive the present through the eyes of the past, so that even our idealism is often tinged with nostalgia. As Leopardi says, “Our happiness always lies in the past.”

In any event, Burke’s views seem to be a much more reasonable defense of tradition than most others I have encountered. I have always, for example, found something pleasant about the air of grandeur and culture surrounding certain elements of the church, despite by no means being of any creed myself. I find Burke’s tacit explanation of this bizarre attachment, that these traditions acquire a value simply by virtue of their perpetuation, much more satisfying and true than the orthodox religious explanation that their value is based upon the absolute truth of scripture, which I dismiss (pending further evidence and experience). It may be distressing to some (even to myself) that people find meaning and value in things simply by virtue of their existence and perpetuation, but it seems to be true, and those wishing to register complaints had better take them up with whatever shaped our natures. This is not to say that nostalgia or tradition are most valuable; there are often higher imperatives, as I would be the first to concede; then again, Burke felt that way too. He was one of the strongest opponents of slavery and of colonialism, for example, despite the undeniable body of tradition surrounding both practices, because there were higher imperatives mitigating against them. On the other hand, he was not going to be beaten along into approving of the French Revolution, no matter how much slave-liberty rhetoric was bandied about.

The central point seems to be that it is often necessary to break with tradition when there is something greater or better at stake, but nothing except destruction can come of challenging traditions simply because they are latent. Perhaps it would be best to follow Descartes’ description of his own working method for challenging his own beliefs so as to arrive at true, valid principles: “as I had from that time begun to hold my own opinions for nought because I wished to subject them all to examination, I was convinced that I could not do better than follow in the meantime the opinions of the most judicious…expediency seemed to dictate that I should regulate my practice comformably to the opinions of those with whom I should have to live.”

In short, many of us may not find church and crown so valuable or sacrosanct as Burke, nor so worthy of preservation. But Burke seems to me in the end to have been a reasonable man, one of the few generous and humble enough that I could imagine saying, as George Eliot did, “our neighbors are often better than we believe them.” Therefore, if we cannot at least acknowledge a spark of wisdom in his belief that no society should be built from the ground up, than we are a long way from a world which is tolerant enough to be liveable for all of humanity.