Instead of being gung-ho about the utopian goals of absolute justice and equity, Burke begs us to realise the importance of stability and order in society, while also reaffirming the need for dispensing justice and bringing social reform.
My tryst with the conservative disposition began only a couple of years back, when in a desperate search for texts to critically engage with the hegemonic left-liberal narratives, and in order to articulate my own reservations about them, I had an opportunity to lay my hands on the book by Yuval Levin, titled The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.
This was the first time that I was introduced to Edmund Burke, generally seen as the Father of Modern Conservatism.
This piece is a heartfelt note of thanks to Edmund Burke on his 291st birth anniversary on 12 January, for the intellectual legacy that he has left behind and which would endure itself and play a crucial role in shaping the intellectual thought process of the society for generations to come.
The contemporary relevance of Burke, especially for youth, is of the highest regard. Burke’s articulation of conservatism, which would have been rightly identified as a form of classical liberalism by his contemporaries, provides us with a window of escape from the seductive trappings of ideology.
As it has been pointed out often, conservatism in itself doesn’t constitute an ideology with a coherent set of doctrines. Rather, it only refers to a certain attitude which is desirable while dealing with the nuances of everyday politics.
Roger Scruton, arguably one of the best conservative intellectuals of the 21st century, defines it as such:
Conservatism is about conserving things: not everything of course, but the good things that we admire and cherish, and which, if we don’t look after, we might lose. These things are our most important collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, the security of property and family life. In all those assets, we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. The work of destroying our social assets is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creating them, slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the 20th century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.
The disavowal of operating within a given set of ideological frameworks avoids the rigidity of thought that it produces. Burke realised the dangers of this rigidity when he, in a way, predicted the terror that the French Revolution would unleash.
Rather, the conservative disposition demands only an openness to questioning the wisdom of any change in policy (in case of a political scenario) that one undertakes, and vouches for a proper scrutiny before the measure is undertaken.
It also pleads for respecting the status quo, considering that the society has arrived at it through generations of pondering and prudence.
These are some of the most significant qualities to be learnt from Burke, especially for the energetic and emotionally charged up youth, as they often tend to disregard the worth of accumulated knowledge of the society (considering that it has sustained itself after intense scrutiny and application over generations), without giving it a thorough examination.
A conservative temperament helps the youth reconcile the cherished values of the society with their own urge for bringing about radical and “progressive” change.
In fact, it gives them the agency to question the sagacity and desirability of both the “progressive” change being advocated, and also the radical means of bringing about the change.
At a time when the curricula of law and humanities streams are overwhelmingly strewn with hegemonic leftist narratives, which put the students into an endless cycle of deconstructing the “oppression” of their society and motivate them to advocate for calls of social, economic and political justice as their highest priorities, Burke helps one remain calm, patient and sane in the midst of this stormy “enlightenment” of realising the “oppression” within one’s culture and society.
Instead of being gung-ho about the utopian goals of absolute justice and equity, Burke begs us to realise the importance of stability and order in the society, while also reaffirming the need for dispensing justice and bringing reforms within the society (At this point, I must confess I haven’t read much of Burke yet, and my observations are a result of my reading of his A Vindication of Natural Society, and Reflections on the Revolution in France).
This should not be misunderstood as Burke undermining the importance of change in the societal relations, thus portraying him “as a simple reactionary opposed to change in some thoughtless way”.
On the contrary, Burke acknowledges that it is change that keeps a society going and maintains the vitality of a civilisation. An oft quoted statement of Burke is as follows:
“We must all obey the great law of change. A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means, it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.”
It comes as no surprise that Burke was a member of the Whig Party that stood for modern reforms, and was himself one of the most active reformers of the British parliament of his time.
This brings us to another essential point that Burke seems to convey through his oeuvre of literature, i.e., the necessity of maintaining an attitude of balance and harmony while dealing with the problems of the society, and this goes to the core of conservative philosophy.
Arriving at balanced positions with regards to the various issues “plaguing” the society helps one perform an act of remedial hermeneutics to resolve them while maintaining the social fabric intact. Burke also implores us to inculcate within ourselves a sense of responsibility, towards both curing the ills of the society while also cherishing the good values of the society.
Responsibility of the individual towards oneself and one’s society motivates one to value peace and harmony, and to be more thoughtful and sensitive about the means and ends of reforms being advocated.
Such an approach towards specific issues turns out to be quite common sensical and pragmatic, with no compromise on the need for reform itself.
It just requires us to be more careful, rational, and dually sensitive towards issues in order to fully grasp the implications of the reforms being demanded, while being completely open to reforms as such.
I personally believe that the works of Edmund Burke should be afforded some space in our universities’ curricula. They would, at the least, help in shaping us into better, more civilised individuals, who realise the importance of thoughtful dialogue and engagement with all sides for the flourishing of a civil society.
Given the turbulent times for the student community that the nation is witness to, reading Burke would indeed be a good prescription.