Edmund Burke for a Postmodern Age


by William F. Byrne

Edmund Burke’s time has come. The idea that the eighteenth-century Irish-born British statesman and writer is especially relevant today, in an age that is often described as “postmodern,” may seem odd, or perhaps presumptuous. But it is largely because of the postmodern and late-modern qualities of our contemporary age that Burke is needed. And, it is in the context of a postmodern age that we can best understand and appreciate Burke. He offers ways of thinking about political order, about morality, and about human reason and emotion which can serve as a partial corrective to some of the fundamental problems of the contemporary world.

Burke’s adult life roughly coincided with the height of the Enlightenment and the flowering of political modernity. A prominent Whig, he was undeniably a modern, and was steeped in the intellectual life of his time. Yet there was also something pre-modern, and postmodern, about Burke. Like the postmoderns of today, Burke was a critic of aspects of modernity, and perceived fundamental flaws and weaknesses within it. But, unlike typical postmoderns, he sought to recover, rather than abandon, traditional sources of order and meaning. For Burke this was vital to the preservation and development of what we would call a liberal society.

Modernity, especially as it reached fruition with the Enlightenment, can be seen in part as the decline, and sometimes the deliberate casting off, of traditional moral and political frameworks supported by custom, religion, old social structures, etc. These often-unarticulated, largely unquestioned behavioral norms were replaced in part by more explicit, but “thinner,” expressions of moral and political norms or ideals, often in the name of “reason.” Though it offers certain advantages, this new structure is a potentially precarious one—a precariousness that Burke recognized. One place this is demonstrated is in his objection, first, to the French Revolutionaries’ Declaration of the Rights of Man, and then to their subsequent partial recantation or qualification of those rights. In making universalistic, abstract declarations of rights in a manner not embedded in a rich cultural or religious framework, the human person is shifted from a mysterious, sublime realm to the prosaic one of human reason. Once rights have been freed of their anchors in tradition, it is a short step to the redefinition or compromising of rights, which potentially undermines the entire concept. Politics becomes arbitrary, or a matter of brute force.

Indeed, the modern sets up the postmodern. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson could speak in the U.S. Declaration of Independence of “truths” which we hold to be “self-evident.” Today, many would question such truths, and many would question the concept of truth altogether. Notably, even among those who still ascribe to certain abstract statements of political or moral “truths,” tremendous disagreement exists as to precisely what those truths mean in practice. Consequently they may be of limited practical usefulness. So, while the movement away from a more traditionally-based society made explicit formulations regarding human nature and the good order more important, it has also helped to eviscerate those formulations. Moreover, part and parcel of our age becoming increasingly postmodern is its becoming increasingly multicultural. But without enough of a common ethos, the liberal order itself becomes difficult to sustain.

Watching the Enlightenment unfold, Burke developed a sense of some of the dangers that lurked, and of how to combat or avoid them. Some of his insight involves conceptions of rationality. From Burke’s writings, including his early work on aesthetics, it becomes evident that, for him, judgment is a function of both the “the reasoning faculty,” or instrumental reason, and the imagination. It is one’s imaginative grasp of the world which provides the context within which, or upon which, reason functions. Consequently, it is a powerful driver of judgment. Political disagreements are often not a function of differences in reason, but of different imaginative frameworks, or realities, within which data are interpreted. This understanding of judgment contrasts profoundly with common unspoken assumptions since the Enlightenment era. It tends to be assumed that there exists a reasoning power which one can employ directly upon the external world. Under this assumption it follows that the way to act most rationally is to clear away any obstructions to reason’s functioning by rejecting those ways of thinking which are informed by custom, tradition, religion, etc. For Burke, there is no such thing as a reasoning power which can function in a vacuum, without an imaginative framework which supplies meaning and order.

What some dismiss as “cultural baggage” is in fact much of what informs one’s reason. Those who reject such elements still must have a worldview, or an imaginative context of some sort. But, their imaginations may be more haphazardly, and less soundly, equipped. Burke’s famous phrase “wardrobe of a moral imagination”—the first known appearance of the now popular, but often misused term “moral imagination”—reflects this understanding. His occasional disparagement of “reason” and of “naked reason,” which has caused so much confusion among his commentators, does not represent a rejection of reason but of the misconception that instrumental reason propels us to a higher plane from which we are able to perceived reality clearly and directly, without the aid of a well-formed imaginative framework. This framework informs not only reason but what we call intuition, as well as our “feelings” and “passions.” Burke notes that we often act correctly from our feelings, but may reason incorrectly in articulating the basis for our action. This is not because we possess some sort of instinctive knowledge of right action, but because our feelings reflect judgments made intuitively, informed by the same moral-imaginative frameworks which inform our reason, and which contain much information that is non-conceptual and inarticulate.

For Burke, the modern era is plagued by the false objectivity and false certainty of those political actors and theorists who claim to follow “reason” and who claim to eschew both emotion and traditional sources of wisdom. Such persons are not free of emotional influence at all; indeed, because they fail to recognize the role of their emotions, they may be more prey to them. And, because they attempt to discard much traditional knowledge, they are limited to a fragmentary, ad hoc collection of information on which to draw. Burke notes that such persons become what we would identify as ideological, revolutionary, totalitarian political thinkers, slaves to ambition and hampered by a distorted grasp of reality. Their problem is not simply a knowledge deficiency. When one consciously draws upon the traditional knowledge of one’s civilization, one develops a sense the one has but a humble place in a greater order. A rich imaginative framework of this type provides many resources by which one may critique and check one’s actions, impulses, and speculations. In contrast, the universe of a thinker who has contempt for tradition is one in which the thinker can assume the place of God. Paradoxically, however, such a thinker is not necessarily more free than one who embraces a traditional framework; he may be imprisoned by the ideology, or simply the idiosyncratic ideas, that he adopts, and, as Burke states, he may be a slave to ambition.

Given his understanding of reason, morality, and politics, it is no surprise that Burke devoted so much of his political activity to preserving and building sound imaginative frameworks or worldviews. Such concern can be seen to run through almost all of Burke’s significant public policy efforts, such as his years of effort to reform British imperial policies with regard to India and Ireland. Unlike many of his “enlightened” contemporaries, who saw fit to remake the world in their image, Burke displayed great concern and respect for native cultures and societies. He argued, for example, that properly-functioning traditional Islamic states did not permit arbitrary rule; it was the young Englishmen of the East India Company, which supplanted Islamic states in India, who in fact engaged in such rule. This was no surprise since they governed “without society,” unbounded by the social fabrics of either India or Britain. In myriad ways, Burke’s actions in both domestic and foreign policy focused on preventing “caprice” through the promotion of well-equipped moral imaginations on the part of both the governors and the governed.

Burke also looked to the role of contemporary culture in the shaping of imaginative frameworks. As a young man he criticized the Dublin theater’s lowbrow productions of serious classic works. For example, he was appalled when the scene of the witches in Macbeth was made an occasion for “ridiculous jigs” and “smutty entendre.” The scene is one which properly evokes a sublime sense of participation in a greater mysterious order. To Burke such destruction of the sublime and sacred could be fatal to a society, undermining the sense that we act in trust and that there are some things more important than one’s personal advantage or momentary whim.

Today we face an increasingly postmodern, multicultural world characterized by an increasingly “thin” liberal society, by crises of meaning and truth, and by increasingly strident and discordant political discourse. Politics in general tends to take the form of a dysfunctional mix of high-sounding abstract ideals and the crassest “pragmatism.” Burke tells us that to maintain and build a healthy polity we must look to the source of sound moral and political action. Truth is something that is not easily grasped; great truths in particular can be only dimly known. They certainly cannot be well-expressed in simple formulas, and cannot be learned the way one learns a scientific theorem. Truth is more of a way or path, and it is pursued in part through the cultivation of a sound moral imagination. Only through proper rootedness do our unavoidably subjective perspectives become more “objectively” sound, and we gain a glimpse of an unchanging reality within the flux of daily life.

About the Author:

William F. Byrne is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at St. John’s University in New York. His book Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics was recently published by Northern Illinois University Press.