Politic Caution, Collected Reason
A politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral rather than a complexional timidity, were among the ruling principles of our forefathers in their most decided conduct. Not being illuminated with the light of which the gentlemen of France tell us they have got so abundant a share, they acted under a strong impression of the […]
A politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral rather than a complexional timidity, were among the ruling principles of our forefathers in their most decided conduct. Not being illuminated with the light of which the gentlemen of France tell us they have got so abundant a share, they acted under a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind. He that had made them thus fallible rewarded them for having in their conduct attended to their nature.Edmund Burke1
To call someone a conservative is to say he or she is inclined to conserve rather than gratuitously to innovate. Conservatism is consequently less a collection of policies than a disposition or, as George F. Will has called it, a “sensibility.”2 But a problem immediately presents itself. Why should someone be disposed to conserve? Does this attitude not assume there is always something worth conserving and thereby suggest a surrender of a conservative’s reason in the here and now to ages past that may have been corrupt, impolitic, or worse? And what, exactly, is the conservative inclined to maintain?
The answer to these questions is a belief that long custom encodes what Edmund Burke called “the collected reason of ages.”3 The latent premise is that this collected reason exceeds the wisdom of the smartest individual at any one moment. There is a virtue associated with that premise, one that lies at the conservative disposition’s core. It is humility: humility before one’s familial or political ancestors and humility arising from an awareness of personal and contemporaneous reason’s limits.
Deference to Ancestors
When teaching Burke’s political thought, I pose this hypothetical to students: A great, baronial manor home has been in your family for generations, each heir passing it on in turn. The house does not suit your tastes, so you tear it down and build something more modern. We tend to understand intuitively that you have done something wrong, but we need to understand exactly what. Have you done something foolish or immoral? The difference is essential. If you have done something foolish, you have ineptly applied your reason in the here and now to the question of what kind of house is best for you. The notion of immorality, by contrast, implies you bear an obligation in which you have failed. But to whom is the obligation? For Burke, the answer is that you are morally obliged to not only your descendants but also your ancestors.
Students tend to be troubled by this idea. The claim is not simply that you would be wise to learn from your ancestors. It is that you owe them deference, which expresses itself in the disposition to conserve what they built. “But,” students reasonably ask, “how can one be obligated to the dead and gone?” Burke addresses this by suggestively likening political institutions to an “entailed inheritance”—that is, one the heir has no right to destroy. Institutions endure over time. We are simply their temporary custodians. Burke explains:
But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of an habitation, and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers.4
The transient possessor of the commonwealth has no right to destroy his or her inheritance. We must be “mindful” of—in other words, disposed to conserve—what we have received and what we must transmit. If we are not, our ancestors will be as little habituated to respect us as we, if we destroy our inheritance, show ourselves to respect our own.
Significantly, Burke does believe deference to ancestors is prudent—as we shall see, it serves our interests right now—but this argument stands on its own without that claim. There are other suggestions in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France that ancestors are due respect and, crucially, that we are naturally disposed to give it. Another question I ask students: “Do you act around your grandparents like you would at the local bar on a Thursday night?” The answer, of course, is “no,” even if we cannot exactly explain this instinct. It is a matter of deference and respect. The presence of our ancestors tames our passions. If we see liberty as an inheritance, he says, our natural inclination will be to use it responsibly: “Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity.”5
Deference to our ancestors is also related to the goods of political life. Burke makes this argument most clearly and famously in his understanding of the social compact as connecting the living, the dead, and those not yet born. The objectives of political society, he says, take time:
As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.6
Absent intergenerational cooperation, politics—which Burke, with Aristotle, believes is intrinsically good for human beings—would be meaningless:
By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.7
This idea of a moral obligation to the dead is another that tends to rankle students. Like Thomas Jefferson, they do not readily see why the dead should govern us today, and they are right to ask. Yet this deference is a posture we take in daily life. We follow religious rituals we may not entirely understand, partly out of habit but also out of deference to those who handed them down to us. We revere our political institutions even if we cannot fully explain them.
This deference is inextricable from the virtue of humility. The arrogant do not feel obliged to others, often not in the here and now but certainly not across generations. To feel what Burke calls “pious awe” toward our ancestors is to place ourselves in a posture of humility in their presence.8 To value what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things” is implicitly to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers and that fundamental goods are more durable than we are.9 This knowledge is closely related to another aspect of humility: the reasoned conclusion that reason has limits.
Custom and the Limits of Reason
For Burke, the common law of England is valuable—jurisprudence is, he writes, “the pride of the human intellect”—because it encodes the “collected reason of ages.” This is his attitude toward custom as well. It is a theater in which principles have been applied to circumstances. The ability to calibrate statecraft to circumstance—to combine “the principles of original justice with the infinite variety of human concerns”—is the essence of prudence.10 We need time to uncover and establish worthy goals and the means of attaining them. This disposition to see custom as wise and worthy of deference is an exercise of humility because it recognizes the limits of our contemporaneous reason. The arrogant do not defer to custom because they do not see what it can offer that their reason could not deduce or assess on its own. The modest, on the other hand, come to an eminently reasonable conclusion: Human reason has limits.
Burke associates these limits with the complexity of society. Human beings are complicated creatures; an entire society is infinitely complex and beyond the grasp of personal reason. In his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Burke disparages French revolutionaries who place excessive faith in reason:
An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is, however, sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces and put together, at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance, and complexity, composed of far other wheels and springs and balances and counteracting and cooperating powers. Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill.11
Overtones of humility pervade this passage. Only the ignorant believe they can reconfigure society like they would a machine. Significantly, rashness in social experiments is immoral and presumptuous. The well-intentioned should be fearful, something they would only be if they recognized their own limits and thus feared what they knew they could not predict or fully understand. Burke expressed a similar sentiment in Reflections: “The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself.”12 In a 1782 speech on parliamentary representation, Burke contrasted the individual human being’s ignorance with humanity’s wisdom:
For man is a most unwise and a most wise being. The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species, it almost always acts right.13
This is closely related to Burke’s warning about unintended consequences. What appears to be immediately good may be ultimately bad, and vice versa. In Reflections, Burke uses reason to identify this source of reason’s limited ability to predict the future:
The real effects of moral causes are not always immediate, but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.14
That is not to say we do not inherit any bad customs or immoral practices from the past. We all know we do. Burke is playing the historical odds on the supposition that a society that has survived the test of time will tend to have customs that merit emulation. There are, to be sure, morally diseased societies, but Burke’s claim seems to be that they are apt to be short-lived. Because of their overconfidence, fragility is built into their natures. This requires seeing events in historical rather than immediate time. In any case, Burke does not mean to provide an answer for the outlying instance of a persistent and pathological regime. Moreover, it merits emphasis that Burke came to political prominence as a reformer. But his reform was directed toward the reanimation or restoration of enduring principles and was consequently conservative to its core. He explicitly contrasted reform for the sake of enduring principles with change as an intrinsic good. Burke’s “Letter to a Noble Lord” captures the difference: “It cannot at this time be too often repeated, line upon line, precept upon precept, until it comes into the currency of a proverb,—To innovate is not to reform.”15 Innovation was arrogant because it was undertaken for the sake of novelty alone. By contrast, humility was encoded into the Reflections as a criterion for constitutional reform:
I would not exclude alteration neither; but even when I changed, it should be to preserve. I should be led to my remedy by a great grievance. In what I did, I should follow the example of our ancestors. I would make the reparation as nearly as possible in the style of the building.16
Thus far, we have seen Burke’s emphasis on humility in the deference morally due to ancestors and prudentially due to custom. But is the humility of the writer or theorist the same as the humility of the statesman? For Burke, understanding the difference between these roles was paramount. The theorist could deal in “eloquent paradoxes” because he or she was not responsible for what happened when they were—and perhaps never intended that they should be—implemented. On the other hand, the statesman must act. Might it not be appropriate, might it even be dangerous, for action in politics to be cramped by the virtue of humility?
Humility and Action
One of the suggestive ironies about Burke’s life is that he wrote of prudence and humility but acted with daring and firmness as a politician. He was confident in his predictions about the course of the French Revolution, even if that confidence arose from an analysis ultimately grounded in humility. He argued for an unbendingly firm British response even when it appeared likely the Jacobins would prevail not only in France but also across Europe. Burke’s humility was entirely compatible with bold statecraft.
The reason is that the statesman—who, again, has no choice but to act—must do so with firmness. But that is compatible with the virtue of humility and its corollary, prudence. The prudent statesman can approach a problem humbly but still act decisively. Indeed, he must. Just as courage is the willingness to press on despite fear, prudence is the capacity to act decisively amid uncertainty. The humble statesman makes decisions with a full embrace of the limits of human reason and the debt due to his ancestors and posterity. These shape his deliberations. One can deliberate carefully and execute a decision decisively.
This requires understanding the true character of prudence, which Burke associated with, but did not reduce to, caution. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace, written to urge Britain to stand firm against Jacobinism, Burke explained: “There is a courageous wisdom: there is also a false, reptile prudence, the result, not of caution, but of fear.”17 For those afflicted with this false prudence, cowardice masquerading as humility might induce paralysis and indecision. But that was not genuine prudence. Fear has no moral standing. Humility does. It was for this reason that Burke could say war on revolutionary France required prudent caution. In a 1792 letter, he wrote: “To interfere in such dissensions requires great prudence and circumspection.”18
With these considerations in mind, we can now turn to the epigraph of this chapter, in which Burke distinguishes “moral” from “complexional” timidity. Complexional timidity—that is, a disposition toward timidity—is akin to reptilian prudence. Its motive is fear. What, by contrast, is moral timidity? Timidity is virtuous to the extent it is grounded in humility. The moral timidity of Burke’s British forebears was rooted in “a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind.”19 This is a reference to fallen man. God made us fallible and therefore rewards us for humility. Humility simply aligns our conduct with our fallen “nature.” Burke suggests this difference between moral and complexional timidity has to do with what we are timid about. In his “Speech on American Taxation,” for example, he denies that it would be timid or weak for Britain to repeal counterproductive measures:
If, Sir, the conduct of ministry, in proposing the repeal, had arisen from timidity with regard to themselves, it would have been greatly to be condemned. Interested timidity disgraces as much in the cabinet as personal timidity does in the field. But timidity with regard to the well-being of our country is heroic virtue.20
This is a strange and revealing formulation. Timidity is heroic, which connotes facing and overcoming some danger. The danger in this situation is apparently political. It required heroism to counsel caution.
If so, that suggests something we must consider by way of conclusion: Can contemporary politics account for humility? Our political culture elevates brashness and braggadocio, especially in the executive branch. Our fixation on rapid activity discourages, and perhaps outright punishes, caution. Its elevation of the here and now over the past or future is supremely self-interested and, significantly, self-confident. We do not lionize leaders who emphasize what is not and cannot be fully known. We reward confident predictions and unattainable promises. Yet conservatism conserves on principle, not for convenience. It is not enough to say that conservatism happens to produce the policies we would want at any given moment. The virtue of humility is no part of that kind of conservatism. Put otherwise, that brand of conservatism does not reflect a disposition to conserve. A recovery of humility in politics, by contrast, would establish conservatism in its true sense as a common ground on which policy disputes could be hashed out civilly and constructively. Perhaps it would be an act of humility to restore this principle on which our ancestors relied.
- Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1887), 3:562.
- George F. Will, The Conservative Sensibility (New York: Hachette Books, 2019).
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 357.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 276.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 359.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 357.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 358.
- T. S. Eliot, “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), 76.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”
- Edmund Burke, “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1888), 4:209.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 456.
- Edmund Burke, “Speech on a Motion for a Committee to Inquire into the State of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament, May 7, 1782,” in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1888), 7:95.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 311.
- Edmund Burke, “A Letter to a Noble Lord on the Attacks Made upon Mr. Burke and His Pension, in the House of Lords, by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, Early in the Present Sessions of Parliament. 1796.,” in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1888), 5:187.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 562.
- Edmund Burke, “Three Letters to a Member of Parliament on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France,” in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1888), 5:241.
- Edmund Burke, The Speeches of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke on the Impeachment of Warren Hastings (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1857), 2:481.
- Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 562.
- Edmund Burke, “Speech on American Taxation,” in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1888), 2:49.