Burke’s Conservatism

Harvey C. Mansfield. "Burke's Conservatism," in An Imaginative Whig: Reassessing the Life and Thought of Edmund Burke, ed. Ian Crowe (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005).


In this essay, I will approach the question of Burke’s conservatism by considering the thought of two scholars whom it has been my pleasure to know and learn from: Peter J . Stanlis and Leo Strauss.

Stanlis presents Burke as “our master teacher” against positivism and its attendant ills of statism, totalitarianism, anarchy, and popular tyranny. He has been accused of enlisting Burke on the right side of the Cold War, as if that were a crime; but, in fact, in the section at the end of his book called “The Contemporary Need of Burke’s Political Philosophy,” Stanlis avoids polemics and claims that everybody’s understanding will be improved by reading Burke as he does. “Burke,” he says, “is a restorative of the Christian· humanist wisdom of Europe, based on the Natural Law. Strauss, too, presents Burke’s thought as “a return to the premodern conception of natural right. ” For both scholars, Burke represents a visible return to a better past. They could have found other conservatisms that do not feature a return to natural law, as Stanlis has it, or to cl assic natural right, as Strauss prefers. They could have gone to nineteenth-century German philosophers, to Hegel especially. But none of the German philosophers presents himself as making a return of this kind or, as Burke said, to “the authors of sound antiquity.” To return to these authors implies their superiority to present thinkers, and the German philosophers did not want to admit that point. In contrast to the early modem philosophers, the Germans were willing to praise the ancient authors and eager to bid them welcome to a new, revised modernity that had room for them. But their hospital ity took the form of appropriation into their own systems- or system, since mainly I am speaking of Hegel, the mas· ter appropriator and systematizer. The rules of the house would be maintained, and the ancient authors would live as permanent guests or resident aliens. With Burke, however, we see an attempt at return, for which the distinction between modern revolutionary natural rights and traditional natural law (Stanlis) or modern and premodern natural right (Strauss) must be maintained and, more, kept in view. Conservatism is, first of all, a return, a return to natural law or classic natural right, seen, at least potentially, in its own terms, as distinct from a revised modern natural right that absorbs the ancient authors and turns them to its own account. Perhaps both Stanlis and Strauss wanted to consider the possibility of return as opposed to appropriation, the name for this possibility being “conservatism .” Burke shows us the advantages and disadvantages of conservatism. Its first advantage is to admit or proclaim the necessity of return in opposition to the German philosophers who try to pass off their headlong advance toward the end of history and beyond as the summary of wisdom.

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