Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Growing wild from the rank productive force of the human mind"

This wonderful phrase takes us straight to the heart of Burke's political morality.

If you'll go back to that long quotation from Burke, in my last posting, you'll see what he's talking about: the vast array of monastic institutions, with real estate and clergy, that France had inherited from the so-called middle-ages. By the late 18th century, these institutions, along with the feudal social structures and politics that supported them, oh yes and religious beliefs too, had become, shall we say, 'obsolete'-- a word that could only have come into use with modernity. The Revolution was, in large part, a rebellion against the ancient feudal world with its hierarchies, ranks, privileges, beliefs--the whole thing to be swept away, root and branch, including Christianity and the Church. No half-measures. So, at one fell swoop, the revolutionaries confiscated all the Church real estate and sold it on the open market, the proceeds going to pay off the national debt AND provide backing for the new national (paper) currency call the "Assignat." This was, of course, a hare-brained scheme and as Burke predicted, created pure financial chaos.

O.k. What Burke was objecting to was not, simply, the economic stupidity of this 'reform' nor (like Maistre)) did he object on religious grounds; Burke's objection are more like those of an ecologist today who is forced to watch, appalled, as the vast botanical and zoological resources of the Amazon river basin (for instance) are squandered to make room for soy-beans and beef-cattle. Human institutions are human inventions,"the rank productive force of the human mind,"
growing naturally in rank profusion in the soil of human cultures. The grow, they evolve 'organically,' like plants or mushrooms, fertilized by history. Designed for one purpose, they take on others. Or they become obsolete. But there they are, a resource or 'power', to be used by intelligent, imaginative statesmanship. There are all sorts of useful purposes that the monastic institutions of France could have been put to. Once destroyed, these things can never be recreated. What a waste.

Burke is a conservative but in a way that preserves or conserves the connection, often lost, between conservatism and conservation. The question is, to bring this down to the politics of today, two hundred years later, what does it mean to be a conservative now, in the U.S. of A.? Or anywhere else, for that matter.


  1. Burke wrote before the word "totalitarianism" had been coined. The problem with the French Revolution was that it tried to mix totalitarianism with democracy—it tried to create a free society where there would be no freedom. If Burke were writing today, that's what he would say.