Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chesterton and Burke

Isabel Archer tries to draw a distinction between Chesterton and Burke. FLG hasn't read Chesterton, but notes this passage:
The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

Isabel then writes:
the long Chesterton quote did make me think of countless arguments that I've gotten into with Burkean conservatives on gay marriage. There, they usually seem to be arguing that even if I think I understand the general history of marriage as an institution -- how it arose, what purposes it was supposed to serve, and what purposes may no longer be served, I can't possibly. It is just too darn hard. And we are all supposed to sort of sit back and let organic historical forces take their courses, which I imagine functioning sort of like tidal waves or hurricanes. Except that that has never seemed to me to be quite right, because historical forces are nothing more than the aggregate of millions of individual decisions, which are volitional acts. And one does have control over one's volitional acts -- one tiny particle of the hurricane -- even if no one does not have control of the entire hurricane.

While FLG may not have read Chesterton, he has read Burke.

Many people, even some so-called Burkean conservatives, think Burke basically just means this:
A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views.

But that's not the whole story.

He also wrote:
A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.

Your constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls and in all the foundations of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. Your constitution was suspended before it was perfected, but you had the elements of a constitution very nearly as good as could be wished. In your old states you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination and all that opposition of interests; you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe. These opposed and conflicting interests which you considered as so great a blemish in your old and in our present constitution interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions. They render deliberation a matter, not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations, and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, for ever impracticable.

FLG's emphasis, obviously. So, Burke clearly thought of change as happening through the dialectic of opposing of interests. Thus, FLG doesn't think that Chesterton is a soft Burkean, but rather a Burkean. At least the quotation cited seems to imply. Both seek, it seems to FLG, to "render deliberation a matter, not of choice, but of necessity."

Whether the actual Burkean conservatives she is arguing with are indeed Burkean, well, that's another question entirely.

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