The Useful Cobbler: Edmund Burke and the Politics of Progress

James Conniff. The Useful Cobbler: Edmund Burke and the Politics of Progress (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).


For purpose of introduction, Burke’s contribution to the theory of representative government can be summarized in seven propositions. The first four provide a means of conceptualizing change. First, Burke argued that all abstract or “metaphysical” styles of political reasoning, including natural law theories, are inherently unsatisfactory. The complexity and variety of politics is so great, according to Burke, that little can be said without reference to particular circumstances. In the Reflections, he contrasted the French reformers unfavorably to ancient law-givers: “the legislators who framed the ancient republics knew that their business was too arduous to be accomplished with no better apparatus than the metaphysics of an undergraduate, and the mathematics and arithmetic of an exciseman.” The results of such efforts are at times merely ludicrous, but more often, as indeed in France, they are disastrous. Second, a rejection of abstractions did not, for Burke, require a denial of all reasoning in politics, but was, rather, part of a turn to principles solidly based on the dictates of experience and history. As he put it, “the science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.” Third, Burke’s conception of history led him to view society as a corporate entity developing through time. For Burke, this proposition has two important subheadings. First, contrary to much of the commentary on Burke, he clearly denied any analogy between society and a living organism. Society is, he said, based on “a permanent standing covenant,” and, therefore, “the idea of a people is the idea of a corporation. It is wholly artificial, and made, like all other legal fictions, by common agreement.” Second, Burke held that history is broadly, though not uniformly, progressive; that is, history is the story of a gradual evolution from primitive barbarism to modern commercial civilization. Therefore, he argued that at a ll times a balance must be maintained between the need to adapt society to changing circumstances and environments and the equally strong need to preserve its essence for those who are to come. Fourth, Burke believed that social change may be controlled and directed by human intelligence and effort. Thus, he maintained both the possibility and desirability of political reform. In a kind of eighteenth century Aristotelianism, Burke conceived of such reform as a gradual perfecting of the ongoing system. As he explained to the North American colonists in January 1777, “this constitution has therefore admitted innumerable improvements, either for the correction of the original scheme, or for removing corruptions, or for bringing its principles better to suit those changes which have successively happened in the circumstances of the nation or in the manners of the people.’m Both sides of this equation must be kept in mind if Burke is to be properly understood. The key is balance; one must preserve and improve as well. The remaining propositions deal with the way society handles change. The fifth is that, as change is natural and reform necessary, the proper role of the politician, according to Burke, is to serve as the agent and mediator of social and political progress. Further, for reform to be effective, it must be both acceptable to the people and practical as well. Burke maintained that a politician is, in some sense, a public trustee. “It is,” he said, “of the essence of every trust to be rendered accountable; and even totally to cease, when it substantially varies from the purposes for which alone it could have a lawful existence.” Burke recognized that this role was not easy to play. Thus, he thought that education and training are essential to a good politician, and defended the leadership role of the landed aristocracy. Sixth, a good ruler, in Burke’s opinion, must subscribe to certain political values. For example, he must support a politics based on the reconciliation of interests. Burke wrote of the English constitution: “there is a perpetual treaty and compromise going on, sometimes openly, sometimes with less observation,” and, therefore, “the whole scheme of our mixed Constitution is to prevent any one of its principles from being carried as far as, taken by itself, and theoretically, it would go.” Moreover, good politicians are also prudent, for prudence is the virtue which adjusts general principles to practical concerns. Burke felt that the practical reason of the politically-active must, almost intuitively, recognize the necessary exceptions and modifications of applied morality. Finally, Burke defended the various devices and weapons, such as political parties, which a politician finds useful in performing his function. As he wrote early in his career, “I find it impossible to conceive, that any one believes in his own politics, or thinks them to be of any weight, … refuses to adopt the means of having them reduced into practice.” For Burke, it was never enough to know what is right; one must also seek some means of implementing that truth.

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