Tag Archives: Edmund Burke

Causes and pretexts

We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public without the same

—“troublous storms that toss

The private state, and render life unsweet.”

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition, by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out every thing that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving, that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice. Seldom have two ages the same fashion in in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigour of a juvenile activity. It walks abroad; it continues its ravages; whilst you are gibbeting the carcass, or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourself with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of robbers. It is thus with all those, who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under colour of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.

—Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) [ed. J. C. D. Clark, pp. 310-12]

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“Illa se jactet in aula—Æolus, et clauso ventorum carcere regnet.”

It is no wonder therefore, that with these ideas of every thing in their constitution and government at home, either in church or state, as illegitimate and usurped, or, at best as a vain mockery, they look abroad with an eager and passionate enthusiasm. Whilst they are possessed by these notions, it is vain to talk to them of the practice of their ancestors, the fundamental laws of their country, the fixed form of a constitution, whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long experience, and an increasing public strength and national prosperity. They despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men; and as for the rest, they have wrought under-ground a mine that will blow up at one grand explosion all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament. They have “the rights of men.” Against these there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding: these admit no temperament, and no compromise: any thing withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice. Against these their rights of men let no government look for security in the length of its continuance, or in the justice and lenity of its administration. The objections of these speculatists, if its forms do not quadrate with their theories, are as valid against such an old and beneficent government as against the most violent tyranny, or the greenest usurpation.

—Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)


Action without relevant thought

In that same essay there’s a discussion of Blake and the deformations of morality that come from, as you put it, the “compulsion to do something”. The disastrous results of that compulsion are the focus of the essays in part four of the book. I was reminded, when I was reading that section of the book [Moral Imagination], of Mark Danner’s article on Dick Cheney in a recent edition of the New York Review. He quotes Cheney saying in a CIA briefing in 2001, “It’s not about our analysis, it’s about our response.” 

I recognize that strain of thought. It means acting quickly. There’s a compulsion that unites power with the necessity of action, which is understood to be rapid action—action without considerable deliberation and without a great deal of relevant thought. There’s an almost reflexive violence that comes from this need to act.

When you start reading the politicians of some depth of mind who I discuss in this book, you recognize that there’s a line of thinking about action which is wary of the trouble action as such may inflict, that makes you think hard before doing and makes you see some possible good in not doing. Now this is, of course, deep in the texture of Burke’s conservatism, for example. You also find it in Gandhi’s insistence that the actor in a programme of non-violent resistance take on himself the burden of the consequences of that resistance. This led to Gandhi, in more than one protest, asking the people in his movement, when it turned violent or chaotic, to fast, to take upon themselves the burden of self-recrimination. That’s what Martin Luther King was doing in Memphis when he assassinated. There’d been violence in the street and it was partly the fault of the demonstrators. Gandhi-like, instead of saying “Let’s do the next thing now,” King said, “We have to go back and do it again.”

I find this also in Wordsworth. This is not unique to my reading of him—you’ll find other critics sensitive to this train of thought or feeling. A poem like “Nutting” and even elements of the Prelude are full of the evidence of something equivocal about action, something to be concerned with even after you’ve committed yourself to the action. Of course, the mentality of empire goes absolutely in the opposite direction—one conquest must lead to another.

David Bromwich interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire in Prospect Magazine