Historiographical essays can be quite interesting and helpful for examining the preoccupations and prominent points of view of intellectuals over time.
As Maciag notes, Burke had a very practical side, for example rejecting abstract claims of right along with abstract claims of sovereignty or the right to dominate in Britain’s conflict with America. Properly introduced and modulated, discussion of partial and mis-interpretations such as these can be highly useful in understanding the interpreters and the social context in which they wrote. Maciag is admirably forthright in his intentions—to trace, not so much interpretations of Burke in America, as uses of Burke by conservatives in America.
Given his assumptions, Maciag’s book can best be understood as a kind of primer for liberals on the use and abuse of Burke by conservatives. If one accepts Maciag’s (not uncommon) ideological take on political philosophy as a “bridge between culture and ideology,” then his treatment of Burke as the tool of frightened, somewhat conflicted and foolish conservatives in their doomed bid for power in liberal America can be seen as entirely reasonable.
According to Maciag, a “right wing constituency during the early Cold War” succeeded, with the acquiescence of liberal and “neutral” scholars, in classifying Burke as “a narrow defender of outdated beliefs.” He sets out to debunk such a reading, highlighting Burke’s “progressive” stands against executive corruption, slavery, and oppression of Britain’s subjects in America and India.
In seeking to “save” Burke from conservatives, Maciag ends up wondering why conservatives would have chosen him as their patron saint in the first place.
Maciag pieces together something of a rationale for conservatives’ use of Burke in the Cold War thesis—put forward before him by, among others, Kramnick. There is a disconnect in Maciag’s book between the rhetoric of political parties, on which he bases his assumptions concerning conservative goals, and the interpretations of Burke in more highbrow writings that are the putative subject of his book. It is not surprising, then, that Maciag dismisses natural law interpretations of Burke as more ideological entrepreneurship, this time with the goal of resurrecting an outdated Christian humanism to combat secular modernity. It is here that we see the essential flaw in Maciag’s analysis, for where he seeks to discern the ideology behind conservatism, and the place of Burke within that ideology, conservatism by nature eschews ideology.
Maciag has a picture in his mind of conservatism as a reactionary love of hierarchy, irrational religious dogma to be imposed on everyone, and political power to be used to support oppressive traditions and economic power. This reviewer doesn’t take seriously the evidence offered by Maciag nor shown much grasp of the historical context of Burke. This podcast with criminologist Barry Latzer focuses on the surprising findings in his latest book, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America. This episode of Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with congressional scholar Louis Fisher on his recent book, Congress: Protecting Individual Rights. The Online Library of Law and Liberty’s focus is on the content, status, and development of law in the context of republican and limited government and the ways that liberty and law and law and liberty mutually reinforce the other.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an English political philosopher who is often seen as laying the foundations of modern conservatism. Online library of liberty a collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets a project of liberty fund, inc. The online library of law and liberty’s focus is on the content status and development of law in the context of republican and limited government and the ways. Disputed all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing this is probably the most quoted statement attributed to burke, and an.
There is an inherent drawback to treating the concept of social justice as a virtue which it may or may not be. Above you can read article and ebook that discuss about Edmund Burke Online Library Of Liberty. At the Federalist Society national student symposium, my colleague Josh Kleinfeld was the deserving recipient of the Paul Bator Award given to an outstanding law professor under 40.
But I do wonder whether one aspect of Burkean conservatism—deference to past historical experience—deserves quite as much weight today as it once did.
But the value of historical experience as a guide for policy depends on the technological and social rate of change and on the availability of alternative methods of sifting experience. The knock on the CIA is that its interrogation program, exposed as ineffective and abusive in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s recent report, was lawless.
Such a paradox can only come about when what Edmund Burke called “the first of all virtues, prudence,” has fled the scene. This next episode of Liberty Law Talk is a discussion with author and professor Grant Havers on his conservative critique of Leo Strauss.
Havers' recent book Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique contends that Strauss was a liberal Cold War warrior who most wanted to defend the foundational principles of British and American democracy. In her first formal appearance as head of the United States Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen obliquely suggested the Fed might not raise its mighty “federal funds” rate to tighten the economy until months after its Quantitative Easing bond purchasing ended completely, coyly portending cheap money indefinitely.
Ilya Somin has posted an essay at Volokh that narrows that gap between our views on the source of the moral obligation to obey the law—I certainly agree, for example, that there are exigent circumstances in which one might be not merely entitled but obliged to disobey—but our underlying disagreement persists: whether the calculation itself is an individual or a political one.
Edmund Burke, mobilizer of theoretical resistance to the French Revolution in the face of all odds, pursuer of Warren Hastings in the face of certain defeat, lived a political life so seemingly incautious that by its end he had to ask to be buried in an anonymous grave lest the Jacobins, on their inevitable march across his beloved island, exhume and violate his bones. Timothy Sandefur’s The Conscience of the Constitution contributes to the debate over the best way to limit the powers of the United States government in order to secure liberty. The January Liberty Forum seeks to recover perhaps a forgotten connection between the Bill of Rights and the structural limitations on power in the Constitution. Our Books section this week features Alex Pollock's review of Greenspan's The Map and the Territory. This edition of Liberty Law Talk is with Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.

No other major figure in 20th century American social and political life has deserved study more than Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994).
It is hardly a secret that the political philosophy implicit in most television dramas that touch on politics or society is Progressive. Brad Birzer comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his upcoming biography of Russell Kirk entitled Russell Kirk: American Conservative. This next edition of Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with the great American Founding historian Gordon Wood on a new two volume collection entitled the American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate that he has edited for Library of America. At the end of the day, the best and most deeply committed collectivists ought to be advocates of a small and limited government.
Many supporters of a policy of same-sex marriage, and even many supporters of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage—there is a difference—have felt compelled to disavow the shoddy analysis-cum-emotivism by which Justice Kennedy imposed that conclusion. After a brief introduction, the author proceeds to a short chapter laying out his interpretation of Burke’s thought, then reviews and characterizes various interpretations of Burke’s work by Americans, beginning in the late eighteenth century and proceeding more or less chronologically through to the present day. All thinkers of any real stature have within their work a set of assumptions, concerns, and goals that may receive varying emphases depending on the characters and intentions of those reading them. At the same time, Burke also had an almost mystical aesthetic sensibility, especially manifest in his discussions of the importance of tradition and the need for a kind of spiritual binding to maintain any decent, ordered society. The prevalence of utilitarianism among intellectuals in the United States in the nineteenth century is often overlooked, in part because here, unlike in Britain, it so manifestly had to deal with, and in many ways incorporate, more spiritual concerns and elements, for example within populism and various reform movements.
On Maciag’s reading, interpretations of Burke in America always have been about American issues and politics, not the actual, historical Burke and his body of thought.
Indeed, this kind of reading has appeared before, most prominently in Clinton Rossiter’s more friendly Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion. He further contrasts Burke’s “humane” positions with the authoritarian attachment to unbridled political power he ascribes to conservatives.
On this view, conservatives encouraged anti-communist hysteria beginning in the 1950s as a political ploy to win popular support for their anti-democratic policies and found in Burke’s anti-revolutionary writing a good stock of useful quotations. Maciag seems unaware that the latter often flatly contradict the former, though he would have seen this had he examined the policy positions of the authors he cites. The philosophical content of Burke’s writings is deeply rooted in the tradition of Christian humanism and its reading of natural law. Again, the practical utility of the project seems uncertain even to Maciag, but he ascribes recklessness and even intentional misinterpretation to figures such as Russell Kirk and Peter Stanlis because, on his view, Burke’s thought, while it might be consistent with, cannot be said to necessarily belong within the natural law tradition. Maciag, of course, cannot accept such a statement as accurate; for him all political thought is ideological—aimed at making society over in a given image. For natural law, on Cicero’s reading in particular, is neither an abstract universal all societies must copy nor a set of “rules” dictating all our proper actions. Maciag presents a wide diversity of conservatives and their aguments, along with the liberals who have sought support in Burke’s writings. Progressivism, secular and religious, is also rooted in the tradition of Christian humanism.
Radicals have often claimed natural law to challenge hierarchical authority, established law, social custom and mores, and the status quo in general.
This site brings together serious debate, commentary, essays, book reviews, interviews, and educational material in a commitment to the first principles of law in a free society.
Although he supported the American colonies in the revolution against the British crown, he strongly opposed the French Revolution, the rise of unbridled democracy, and the growing corruption of government. But the agency’s worst excesses may have resulted from the attempt to be excessively lawful. The Intelligence Committee’s voluminous report (even its summary is 525 pages long) is an in-depth account of that decline. Scruton’s just-released book, How to be a Conservative, might be said to take on the challenge Friedrich Hayek issued in his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” There, you will recall, Hayek argued that conservatism does not offer a program, or any substantive content that would affirm a free society. Many conservatives hold Strauss in high regard as a thinker who shaped their intellectual commitments. Patrick Garry leads off with an essay that answers the question: What should be the focus of the Bill of Rights? A 2013 Bradley Prize recipient, Levin connects us with the actual contest between Burke and Paine as they debated the central claims of the French Revolution and much of modern political thought with its focus on rights, individualism, the social contract vs. The existing studies of Kirk are excellent, but the latest effort, by Professor Brad Birzer, surpasses all previous attempts to appreciate the magnitude of Kirk’s personal mission and scholarly opus. Our discussion focuses on the nature of Kirk’s conservatism and his place on the American Right. Politics for the Progressive is a science not in the Aristotelian but in the Baconian sense.
What the euphoria over newly released Supreme Court decisions seems always to obscure is that the same method will be available to other jurists in other cases. There is plenty for Maciag to work with in Edmund Burke, the philosopher in action who defended old Whig principles as he founded modern conservatism. These very real aspects of Burke’s thought have allowed some interpreters to paint him as a kind of utilitarian, concerned only with practical issues or material well-being, or even simply with the power and influence of his own political party. The more Romantic reading of Burke, with its clear linkage to American transcendentalism, shows up the quaint marginalism of so much of intellectual life in the United States, given the American faith in progress and the people’s innate (religiously-based) virtue.

There also is the danger that the subject thinker’s work will become distorted or, worse, lost altogether amidst the many “voices” and “readings” under review. But the use of these assumptions as a prism through which to read interpretations of Burke by American conservatives distorts both Burke and his conservative interpreters.
The humane Burke, then, must be contrasted with the “fearful” Burke who opposed the French Revolutionary Jacobins. Thus they foolishly choose to cloak conservatism’s reactionary love of hierarchy, tradition, state oppression, and support for plutocratic forces with an equally unappealing, illiberal use of Burke’s dark side. Burke’s emphasis on the limits of human perfectibility, his rejection of radicalism in all its forms, his insistence on order as the first need for all societies, and his recognition of what he called “the real rights of man” in family, faith, and freedom—including the economic freedom to what one has earned by the sweat of one’s brow—all are rooted in a vision of human dignity and the order of existence that are a Christian development of the natural law tradition begun most powerfully by Cicero. Instead, according to Maciag, what natural law interpreters of Burke give us are empty platitudes that do more to tie Burke to the religious dogma of the interpreters than to set forward a coherent plan of political action. Here one may note his incredulity at Richard Weaver’s conviction that the nominalism of William of Occam, which denied the existence of universals, was catastrophic for western civilization.
It is, for the natural law thinker (and, today, this almost uniformly means the conservative) the reality of existence, the set of universals against which we ought to measure our conduct and our products, not as a blueprint, but as ethical norms (e.g. Sure, you could cherrypick which quotes that support your view of Burke and ignore the rest, but what purpose would that serve besides mere rhetoric. That would particularly fit a reactionary explanation of conservatism, defined more by what it is against than what it is for. Law and Liberty considers a range of foundational and contemporary legal issues, legal philosophy, and pedagogy. For Burke, history was “the known march of the ordinary providence of God.” More secularly, it was also the best repository of human prudence and wisdom and thus the best guide to policy in an uncertain world.
Birzer has a command of the primary sources that is truly amazing, and his archival labors evince the work of a superior scholar and world-class historian. That is why it is a welcome change of pace that one of the most popular programs of the decade celebrates a distinctive brand of conservatism—that of Edmund Burke. He says things that anger elites and about which, often, events seem to confirm the seeds of his base’s opinions. For example, many have prominently argued that Kirk’s conservatism is only strangely American. Political questions are not prudential complexities to which human judgment approaches better or worse answers but rather moral rigidities with right or wrong solutions wholly within the ambit of the all-powerful human mind.
They have allowed other interpreters to see him as a kind of romantic reactionary, harking back to an idealized, medieval past.
And the smart, often condescending view of Burke as a conflicted pragmatist, or “ambivalent” conservative, torn between his higher, progressive self and his fear of the masses, generally shows the ideological narrowness of its supposedly sophisticated proponents. Perhaps more dangerous, however, is the possibility that the author will use his own particular reading of the figure as a rod against which to measure the readings of others—and with which to strike them for their failings. Burke’s thought must, in this light, reflect a conflicted character caught between a liberal commitment to “the essential spirit of democracy” and a fearful reactionary impulse seeking political order and balance through the “ballast” of aristocracy. The problem with this reading is that so many conservatives were labeled “isolationists” for opposing foreign entanglements in the post-war era and many conservatives openly criticized the various wars in the Middle East during recent years. Indeed, whether wisely or foolishly, conservatives often reject the pursuit of power altogether, seeing themselves as a “remnant” defending what is left of Western Civilization in hostile times. Conservatives may well be wrong, and certainly are out of step with the times, but their rejection of modern presuppositions does not constitute an ideology in the contemporary sense, and recognition of that fact is necessary for a historiography of conservative thought to enlighten readers as to its essential nature—or even the more practical goals of its adherents as played out in political discourse. He used abstract principles, in the way radicals used them, at times to challenge what he saw as injustices.
It should therefore be unsurprising that the elite’s rejection and disdain inflame rather than calm the Trump phenomenon. And they have allowed still other interpreters—including Maciag—to see him as a conflicted, ambivalent figure caught between a concern to ameliorate the sufferings of misgoverned people and the fear of mass revolution. This last danger is particularly acute, and damaging, when the author has not laid out a full and accurate, or at least balanced, interpretation of the author himself. For him, natural law (and, oddly, at some points “natural right”—a term he recognizes in the anti-Burkean Leo Strauss) is “a religious ideology” and “an abstract theoretical construct” that should demand systemic action aimed at eliminating evils and promoting a political program. Given the differing circumstances of societies and people, we cannot look for a specific recipe or formula for virtue, but the rejection of the idea of an innate goodness in the order of existence, and a drive toward this good in each of us, is the source and indeed the essence of our current, for the conservative corrupt, state. But he also, like many liberal and conservative critics of radicals, was wary of anything that challenged too strongly the status quo. Otteson’s recent book (reviewed here), and I want to supplement Otteson’s case: In addition to the solitary individual staring down the centralized bureaucracy, we can think about the collections of individuals in civil society who are greater than the sum of their parts. The real, constant, and frequently realized danger is that an historiographical essay will allow commentary on commentary—in essence, superficial and rather journalistic reporting of changes in rhetoric over time—as a substitute for serious analysis of the figures and topics under discussion. The conservative is no ideologue because he rejects the very worldview Maciag insists all of us by nature have—that of a purpose-driven search for power. And this means that natural law cannot be consistent with actual, imperfect traditions, let alone with what he asserts is the conservative desire to maintain particular traditions at almost any cost.

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