More from the 2010 American Chesterton Society Conference. The St. Louis Chesterton Society contingent is now camped out near Columbus, Ohio for the night. I have just spent a delightful 45 minutes in the motel spa, making my cramped right leg muscles relax and talking about many, many things. It has worked pretty well, and I’m about ready for bed. But first, let’s get the next installment published.
I skipped the third talk of the conference by Dr. Pasquale Accardo titled Chesterton for Beginners because, well, although I’m a beginner I prefered to chat for awhile. I’ll have a recording of it later anyway. If you are a beginner, I highly encourage you to attend the 2011 American Chesterton Society Conference in St. Louis next summer.
So, the fourth talk of the conference was given by longtime friend of the American Chesterton Society, Professor of Mathematics James Woodruff. His original title was GKC and Edmund Burke: The Mistake About Conservativism. But I think it was Dale that renamed it after finding out what the talk was really about.
I must confess that while I’ve heard the name “Edmund Burke”, despite the efforts of Professor Woodruff, I’ve got the barest instrduction to him. I took a lot of notes on this talk, and this will be a very long post. I’ve included a few links and I’ll do my best with Woodruff’s story and criticism of Our Hero. Any errors in what follows are my own, of course.
Edmund Burke was an Irish Member of Parliment (MP) during the very interesting years between 1765 and 1780. Woodruff thinks he was very much in sympathy with GKC some 125 years prior. He says GKC was (paradoxically) most critical of Burke when Burke was most Chestertonian.
Woodruff finds distinctly Burkean resonances in GKC’s story of the Yellow Bird (which I have not read). Although a Protestant, Burke worked for Catholic Emancipation in Parliment before the American Revolution. The riots in London over the idea that Catholicism might be made legal were written of by Charles Dickens in the novel Barnaby Rudge. It is thought that the main character was modeled on Edmund Burke. Burke spent ten years of his life trying to bring a corrupt official of the British East India Company to justice. All of this was seen especially at the time as “liberal reform”. Why then does GKC dismiss Burke as a “conservative”?
Burke traveled to France and was sympathetic with the peasants and thought the contrast between their poverty and the glitter or the royal court wrong. But he saw the revolution in France as a true revolution — it was being carried out to change the order of things, so he was against it. He saw the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England primarily as a restoration of right order, and was in favor of it. This is all detailed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is seen as one of the foundational documents of conservatism. Burke’s view of the conservative/progressive question really is Chesterton’s own view! See Chapter VII of Orthodoxy:
…all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
Chesterton focused on Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution to the exclusion of all else and called him a “conservative”. Here roughly is Chesterton’s indictment of Burke:
1) He sided with the aristocracy
2) He is an enemy of democracy
3) He denied the Rights of Man
4) He is a practical athiest
So who was right? Burke at root was an Aristotelian Natural Law philosopher even though he occasionally used the language of Social Contract Theory. For Aristotle and Burke, democracy means literally “mob rule” and would not support it. The sad history of the French Revolution shows democracy precicely to be this, and the success of a democracy depends on the virtue of the mob. Burke was not a simple Conservative, “defending the previous revolution” simply because it was previous. He saw what was coming and wanted to avoid it: he foresaw The Reign of Terror and Chesterton ignored it. Chesterton was wrong, and Burke should be acquitted.
So now you should be disabused of any notion that the American Chesterton Society is engaged in Hero Worship. This was a terrific talk, and I very much thank Professor Woodruff for it. It seems I have a lot more reading to do.