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EDMUND BURKE

THE CONSERVATIVE ANARCHIST

When studying anarchism and rhetoric, the writings of Edmund Burke are interesting to examine. Burke is known as one of the most skilled orators and authors of polemic essays of his time. William Wordsworth was a frequent visitor of the House of Commons, where he witnessed Burke orate. Wordsworth was so impressed by Burke’s oration skills that he wrote an ode to Burke: “Prelude to Book 7: Residence in London”.1 Edmund Burke was a fervent supporter of the American Revolution and dedicated many political writings to it. The French Revolution, however, he did not support at all and he wrote essays denouncing it. Throughout his political career, Burke tended to be defined as a modern conservatist. However, his early work A Vindication of Natural Society, although regularly read as a satire, portrays a strong critique on political society and governmental institutions. A Vindication of Natural Society was published anonymously in 1756 in response to Lord Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History, which was published in 1752. Burke satirises Bolingbroke’s work by imitating his style and trying to reduce his ideas about deism and atheist rationalism to absurdity. Burke then presents the reader with a different view on society, one without institutions such as the church and civil government, thus revealing the dangerous consequences of one- sided thinking. The satirical method Burke used is called ‘reduction ad absurdum’.2 According to Burke, Bolingbroke’s work does not take practical matters into account. In order to show the reader the consequences of this line of thinking, Burke presents a different view on society, one that is taken to the extremes and therefore very subjective, thus reveal- ing the dangerous consequences of one-sided argumentation. Although A vindication of Natural Society is widely considered to be a satire, there is much debate about the nature of the work. This article explores if an anarchist interpretation of political society can be found in Burke’s A Vindication of Natural Society.

There are reasons to assume Burke’s work was not intended as a satire. The preface to A Vindication, which states that it is a satire, was added nine years after the first publication, after Burke’s political career had taken off and his authorship of A Vindication had been discovered. According to Murray. N Rothbard, “to admit that [Burke] had seriously held such views in earlier years would have been politically disastrous. His only way out was to brush it off as a satire, thereby vindicating himself as an eternal enemy of rationalism and subversion.”3 Another person who read Burkes work in an anarchist light is William Godwin, who referred to Burke’s work in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. In this work, Godwin attacks governmental institutions, and his novel Caleb Williams criticizes the aristocracy. These are two themes that occur in Burke’s work as well. Godwin refers in his footnotes to Burke’s A Vindication of Natural Society, which Godwin describes as a more elaborated argumentation of his views: “Most of the above arguments may be found much more at large in Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society; a treatise in which the evils of the existing political institutions are displayed with incomparable force of reasoning and lustre of eloquence...”4

As mentioned earlier, Burke’s work and political views after A vindication are considered to be rather conservative, and for this reason many scholars assume that A vindication must be a satirical work. Especially when compared to the more conservatist view in his later work. However, Burke has spoken in a similar critical voice before the publication of A vindication of Natural Society. Isaac Kramnick, author of the biography The Rage of Edmund Burke, points out earlier works Burke wrote in Dublin.5 This collection of essays is called the Editorial on Irish Poverty and was published in 1748, portraying Burke’s view on poverty and the division of riches in Ireland:

The riches of a nation are not to be estimated by the splendid appearance or luxurious lives of its gentry; it is the uniform plenty diffused through a people, of which the meanest as well as greatest partake, that makes them happy, and the nation powerful.6

Whereas the idea of Burke as an anarchist is interesting, there are also reasons to assume that A vindication of Natural Society is indeed satire. When taking a closer look at some examples of A Vindication, it is easy to be fooled by Burke’s sober manner of argumentation, which seems very rational. However, when keeping in mind that Burke is trying to ridicule Bolingbroke’s work by showing the dangers of one-sided thinking, the satire begins to manifest itself more clearly. For example, Burke argues that the great empires in history, and in fact all empires of whatever form (he refers to Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Judea, Greece, Rome as well as ‘modern’ nation states) are “cemented in blood” and nothing more than a history full of murder and cruelty. Burke calculates that inter-state wars over time have taken the lives of more than thirty-six million people. Although Burke’s arguments are represented quite factually and truthfully, it is meant as a satire. The satirical element being the one-sided argumentation: by describing these empires as being solely engaged in war, Burke ignores any positive characteristics these societies may have. Moreover, Burke differentiates between three modes of government: despotism, aristocracy and democracy. In his explanation of these different modes of government, Burke only shows the reader the negative ‘extremes’ such governments can transform into: tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy. When elaborating on these different political societies, Burke singles out the malice of abuse of power: “But the Truth is, this unnatural Power corrupts both the Heart, and the Understanding”.7 Eventually, Burke reduces all empires and states to being nothing but tyrannical to their subjects. Although the examples Burke provides are factual, they are, again, one-sided. This one-sidedness is what Burke regarded as the flaw in Bolingbroke’s work. If Burke’s satirical purpose was not clear yet, he tells his reader how the text is meant to be understood:

After so fair an examen, wherein nothing has been exaggerated; no fact produced which cannot be proved, and none which has been produced in any wise forced or strained, while thousands have, for brevity, been omitted; after so candid a discussion in all respects; what slave so passive, what bigot so blind, what enthusiast so headlong, what politician so hardened, as to stand up in defence of a system calculated for a curse to mankind?8

When considering Burke’s views on these three modes of government, he seems critical of the use of power. Nevertheless, his argumentation is deliberately one-sided, in order to emphasise the dangers of Lord Bolingbroke’s line of reasoning. A more sober interpretation of Bruke’s critiques on political society seems interesting when keeping in mind the nature of Burke’s earlier writings (such as the Editorial on Irish Poverty). Perhaps A Vindication of Natural Society is just as Burke aims to convey to his readers: not just one thing. As Burke states,

All government is founded on one ‘grand error.’ It was observed that men sometimes commit violence against one another, and that it is therefore necessary to guard against such violence. As a result, men appoint governors among them. But who is to defend the people against the governors?9

by Ekbenit Ouija Dendadik Ben



Notes


1. William Wordsworth, The Complete Poetical Works (London: Macmillan and Co., 1888)

2. Encyclopædia Britannica www.britannica.com/topic/reductio-ad-absurdum

3. Murray. N Rothbard, “A Note on Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society” Journal of the History of Ideas 19,-1 (1958): 114–118

5. Isaac Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 1977)

6. Edmund Burke, Editorial on Irish Poverty (1748)

7. Edmund Burke, A Vindication of the Natural Society (1756)

8. Ibid.

9. Murray. N Rothbard, “A Note on Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society” Journal of the History of Ideas 19,-1 (1958): 114–118