Thursday, February 16, 2006

Week 03, Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, etc.

The French Revolution is a good place to start in studying romanticism—this was the central event of the age, and anyone with a claim to the title of poet or philosopher or statesman had to take up an attitude towards it. Is this a new dawn for humanity? Can we radically and rapidly transform our institutions to match our individual and collective aspirations? Or are such democratic, creative and imaginative experiments dangerous and doomed to failure, while older, more stable, principles respecting rank and order are bound to reassert themselves? All of the romantic poets wrestled with this issue, and most subsequent commentary on “romanticism” has seen the French Revolution as vital to an understanding of romantic poetics. The French Revolution brings to the fore basic questions about human nature and “the good society,” optimism and pessimism, reason and imagination and passion, the individual and the collective, love of innovation versus reverence for tradition. Next week, when we discuss mostly Blake, we will see him both exalting imaginative process and yet realizing that it has its dangers, too—so how best to deal with the dangers?

Edmund Burke Notes

122. Notice that Edmund Burke sees the revolution as something monstrous, chaotic and unpredictable. From the outset, for the terror has not yet begun, Burke sees this revolution has a field day for lower class rascals and crazy ideologues. He says that ignorant and selfish people most favor sudden, radical innovation. He defines nature as “wisdom without reflection, and above it.” It becomes clear that for Burke, following nature means following the laws of property and respecting the imperative of family and ancestry. Tradition is the human version of nature, and it must be respected, or the result will be violent instability. He dislikes all brands of absolutism—whether it be the Hobbesian type that favors absolute monarchism, or the French Revolution’s claims about Reason and Democracy.

123. Again, Burke says that we inherit our liberties and need not come up with philosophical abstractions to get behind this principle of inheritance. He insists that it is in our nature “to revere individual men” because of their age, and we should hold our civil institutions in similar reverence. Isn’t he suggesting, therefore, that Great Britain should be a government of men, and not of laws? The point is that laws, and civil institutions, for Burke, do not deserve reverence because they are the glorious products of reason, but rather because they are honored by time and observance. We will find Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine mocking Burke because they say he turns this principle of reverence for tradition into an absolute in its own right.

Notice the phrase “conformity to nature in our artificial institutions.” Burke says that civil institutions are in a sense artificial, man-made, but that we should not consider them simply the products of rational schemes. Evidently, since Burke supported the American Revolution in 1776, he believed the Americans somewhat respected the imperatives of tradition and were not trying to set up a crazy radical experiment in the New World. Little did he know…. Anyhow, the French revolutionaries, in his view, are trying to impose completely artificial notions derived from an arrogant exercise of reason upon an ancient and well-established, if by no means perfect, way of life. He sees the French revolution as “reason gone wild.” It would be too easy to say Burke has simply dismissed the French Enlightenment with its optimistic claims about the power of reason – most of the Enlightenment philosophers wrote and talked a good deal about the necessary role of the passions, our emotional side, in everyday life and society. He is probably arguing instead that the revolutionaries overemphasize the power of reason and think they can radically alter human civilization to suit the dictates of reason. They are, in a word, unbalanced in their view of humanity’s key elements. Notice that at the middle of the page, it would be easy enough to translate what Burke says into Sigmund Freud’s later conception of the superego – the parental figure that is always looking over our shoulder and keeping us from doing shameful things. For Burke, tradition takes on this role, and we should not set up against it our juvenile faith in “feeble contrivances of our reason.”

Towards the bottom of the page, Burke insists that he is not against change; he is saying that change should come about organically, over time rather than overnight. The French revolutionaries have set up what he calls “false claims of right” and then demanded instantaneous social change. So much for immediate demands in favor of “liberty, egality, and fraternity.”

124. “All men have equal rights; but not to equal things.” Burke has the same antipathy to French claims for equality of status and for social justice (as we would call it today) as Americans in the middle of the 20th century had for communist assertions that property should be held in common.

Burke accepts that there will be inequality amongst people in terms of rank and wealth, so he has no patience with long lists of claims based upon what he considers a bogus and completely artificial theory of “natural right.” If you were to say to him that such distinctions are not fair because they are not reasonable, he would say the basis of society is not reason in the first place. As JFK is reputed to have said, “so who said life is fair?” So it isn’t only conservatives who accept that it is impractical to demand absolute equality for everyone. Burke does not come right out and say it, but property rights and, in our time, the demands of capitalism, mean that there will be winners and losers – anyone who claims to support the principle of aristocracy or the capitalist order must confront that simple fact. If you weren’t born into the nobility, too bad; if you have no capital and can’t afford the finer things in life, too bad. Social and economic systems tend to generate inequalities, and even seem to require them to thrive. You cannot have order, Burke suggests, if you insist upon absolute equality.

Burke considers natural rights a fantastical concept -- it derives from reason gone wild. In other words, the very conception of “Nature” in the hands of French revolutionaries is the most artificial construction of all. It is okay to say that the law should treat people fairly in the courts – that is a glorious English custom, after all – but evidently he thinks it an entirely different thing to start talking about our innate or God-derived abstract rights as human beings.

124-25. Burke provides a tableau contrasting the vicious ruffians who assaulted the king and queen of France with the nobility and grace of those two personages. This is obviously an emotional appeal – we are expected to be outraged at this insult to civility and the bygone age of chivalry. What takes the place of the nobility as governors? Why evidently, ruffians, sophistical speakers, economists, and the lower orders in general – a mishmash of contradictory impulses and desires. This is a recipe for chaos, in Burke’s opinion. It can never lead to stability.

126. This is where Burke propounds his doctrine of “this mixed system of opinion and sentiment” originating in the feudal period. What did chivalry provide? Well, it provided “the decent drapery of life” that our new proponents of the “Empire of light and reason” would strip away, leading human society naked and therefore obscene. Essentially, feudalism made the strong submit to regular forms and even added a touch of elegance and grace to and otherwise harsh way of life, in Burke’s view.” Without force, or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power.” Burke therefore is not supporting tyranny or the divine right of kings – he is after all, at least early in his career, coming from the Whig tradition, which by no means wants to give absolute power to the monarch. I think Burke is suggesting that chivalry may have been something of a fiction, but it was a fiction hallowed by time and that led to a workable way of life for the English people. As he says at the bottom of 126, the French revolution can lead to nothing but a mechanical kind of society in which there is no human connection between one person and another. There will be no “love, veneration, admiration, or attachment.” Only an isolated group of people pursuing their own individualistic, selfish, incompatible goals. This is the basic contrast in metaphors between Edmund Burke and the radical members of the French Enlightenment: the organic entity versus the machine. Understood in this way, we can see that there is a conservative side to what we have come to call romanticism. The early usage of this word generally meant something like “old-fashioned and not very realistic” – something from the age of chivalry. Think of any “romance epic” or a novelistic romance – if you read this sort of thing, you are not looking for realism but rather for excitement, passion. In a sense, therefore, Edmund Burke might be labeled a romantic in his belief that human society must be appreciated as an organic entity. It is not a machine that we may tinker with lightly, but a tree-like organism that should grow slowly until it becomes magnificent and beautiful. But again, Burke would be careful not to offer us a radical and total set of claims about “nature.” That would put him on the side of the French revolutionaries who are abhorrent to him. Perhaps he is suggesting that you should use your metaphors carefully and not put too much stock in them. We are creatures of reason and passion, the artificial and the natural, so we should remain humble about the province of both.

127. “Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.” Burke accurately predicts, without of course knowing his name, the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the first full paragraph, Burke says “power, of some kind or other, will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and it will find other and worse means for its support.” If you destroy the old power structure, what you will get is not liberty and order but a new assertion of power. Napoleon put an end to the period of near anarchy in France, but only by declaring it and empire and taking the country to war with the rest of Europe to support the very ideals it had begun to abuse itself. Remember that Burke published this tract well before the period of terror, which only started in 1792 – so he looks almost like a prophet in this prediction. Rebellious France begot Napoleon, and all Europe paid the price.

127. During the feudal age, learning went hand in hand with power, argues Burke. Religion supported learning, and learning in turn supported the cause of order. The nobility and the clergy worked together in this regard. If we wanted to relate this passage to a view of literature, I suppose we could say that Burke would fold it back into the concept of learning, in his conservative definition – the arts should not overturn society, in other words, but should rather reflect its most stable values. That is of course a common conservative view of art.

Mary Wollstonecraft Notes

Wollstonecraft considers natural rights to be common sense—not a radical abstraction as Burke would have it. Reason is the natural gift of God, so why shouldn’t we use it? And if we look around, see massive injustice that could be fixed with a dash of reason, why not make some rational changes? We make our own institutions based upon God’s gift of reason—so we can change what we made to suit the present time. She considers Burke’s entire argument irrational, scarcely worthy of the title “argument.” She accuses him of being more or less a ranting lackey who will support any tyrant over the dictates of reason. It takes “courage to change,” as Bill Clinton would say, and Burke is a blubbering coward. W accuses his reverence for the English fathers as nothing more than love of brute power. Everyone knows that chivalry, with its niceties, was a fraud that covered up what was essentially a society of slaves and masters. Art and social elegance should not serve as beautiful masks for something ugly! (If there must be ugliness, give it to us straight, like whiskey—then we can know where things stand.)

Wollstonecraft assumes that if you give uneducated people freedom, they will know, or at least quickly learn, how to maintain it. But you owe them a chance at self-determination, as she says concerning women in her other great work on The Vindication of Women. Burke, by contrast, apparently sees nothing inherently progressive about democracy. People will just pursue their selfish individual desires. Some modern thinkers such as Matthew Arnold would say much the same thing—right will prevail eventually, but “force till right is ready.”

The argument about nature: Wollstonecraft says reason is central to human nature, so why condemn its productions as dangerous fantasy? Why must we think the end result of rational process will be an unnatural monstrosity? But Burke emphasizes rank, gradation, and similar concepts. He trusts in the process that leads to a system of social ranking, and he insists that this process is analogous to nature itself. So he invests social rank -- titles, inherited property, etc. -- with inherent, essential qualities, and will have none of the revolutionaries’ absolutizing of such concepts as “nature.” We must not govern ourselves by abstract concepts, but rather by traditions. Wollstonecraft says that amounts to advocating slavery, with custom (the dead) as our masters. Which, to her, sounds like outright insanity. “What exactly are conservatives conserving?” she might ask. Paine says the same thing—the past is nothing to us. Wollstonecraft suggests that no matter how cautious Burke tries to sound in his advocacy of custom as “natural,” he is an essentialist at heart, investing stale tradition with the power of a living organism. And if there’s anything Wollstonecraft can’t stand, it’s an essentialist—that is what irritates her most about men’s opinions concerning women. Men keep telling women what they are rather than listening to them and giving them a chance; here we have Edmund Burke pulling the same shoddy stunt on the whole human race.

Our authors show that both sides—the radical revolutionists and the conservatives—lay claim to key terms like “Reason” and “Nature.” Those terms may seem self-evident, and are certainly important, but they are contested terms. Questions crop up along with these terms—should we say that Reason is itself “natural” to us, or that it actually sets us apart from anything in the natural world? Was there ever a “state of nature” for humanity, or were we “always already” social animals who never lived by the simple arrangements animals arrive at by means of evolution and instinct. Or should we say, like Rousseau, that civilization is something artificial that has corrupted our better instincts towards free expression, true cooperation, and regard for our fellows? Any position you take up on such grand matters is likely to be full of problems, and yet it seems necessary to have a position on them.

Will add notes on others if time permits....

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