Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“On Burke and Strauss: A Critique of Peter Lawler’s Analysis” By Paul Gottfried

Edmund Burke

This essay was written by Paul Gottfried for Nomocracy in Politics

I just discovered Peter Lawler’s comments on the First Things website about a recently concluded conference on Burke and Strauss sponsored by the Claremont Institute. My friend Grant Havers brought up these comments because of the brief mention in the First Thing letter section of his book on Leo Strauss. But my eye was drawn not so much to this reference as to Lawler’s remarks about the relation between Strauss’s attitude toward History and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Lawler, who has been described to me as a Catholic Straussian, may have his work cut out juggling his dual identity, without bringing in Burke as a further complication. After all Strauss’s observations about Thomistic natural law in Natural Right and History strongly suggest that he viewed this development as a medieval construct tied to an outmoded Aristotelian cosmology. In any case I’m not sure there’s much in Strauss’s teaching (teaching, like the modern enterprise, being a pet term among Strauss’s followers) that would provide a basis for Catholic moral philosophy. Perhaps we should also mention that Strauss and his disciples tend to read religiosity out of “political philosophers.” They do this by pointing to “esoteric writing” as evidence of theologically skeptical or atheistic tendencies in their favorite thinkers.   In our respective books on Strauss and the Straussians, Grant Havers and I zero in on these supposed discoveries of hidden meanings. Like the Cambridge scholar Quentin Skinner and the young Oakeshottian Kenneth McIntyre, we find Straussian appeals to the esoteric  to be a way of telling us what the interpreter himself believes and would like to imagine his subject also secretly embraces.

Lawler goes well beyond what the evidence would justify in trying to make his subjects seem at least minimally compatible. Not content to agree with one of the participants at the conference, Yuval Levin, about Strauss having “distorted” Burke by attributing to him views he palpably didn’t hold, Lawler tries to bring his subjects together even in death.  When Strauss attacks Burke in Natural Right and History as an initiator of the second, more disastrous wave of modernity, characterized by historical conservatism as a form of historicism, he knows full well what he’s doing. I see no reason to assume, as Lawler does, that Strauss was scolding Burke “for not being for hierarchy but for the flourishing of diverse forms of individuality.” Lawler would have us think that Strauss is criticizing Burke for being “oblivious to eternity.” Lawler’s subject was too much wrapped up in a “presentism” that “deprives us of being able to appeal from the present power configuration to a higher standard.” This however, as I show in my book, has never seemed to be a problem for Strauss or his students when it comes to glorifying American “liberal democracy.”  Burke apparently should not be exhibiting the same pride in his monarchist society that Strauss’s followers do when they extol the American model that is now intended for global export.

In a key text that Strauss quotes in Natural Right and History, which is “Thoughts on French Affairs,” an extended letter that Burke sent to an aristocratic friend in December 1791, Burke clearly does not argue that humans would do best to surrender to “a mighty current in human affairs,” providing it’s “sufficiently powerful.” Strauss is making a much larger point here, which, incidentally, is not Lawler’s. He is presenting historical conservatism as a dangerous aberration, leading away from the “good” modernity that Strauss associates with liberal democracy, toward totalitarianism. Strauss is also unhappy with Burke’s reliance on what came to be called the “historical process.” Burke’s view of a sound social order, according to Strauss, was the result of “accidental causation modified by the prudential handling of situations as they arose.” What was valuable in political society, for Burke, did not arise from rational planning but was “the unintended outcome of accidental causation.” Burke, as interpreted by Strauss, followed another modern notion that was incompatible with classical philosophy, namely that “man’s humanity was understood as acquired by virtue of accidental causation.”

It is, of course, possible to argue that Burke was anything but an ad hoc ethicist reducing human affairs to a series of contingencies. According to Francis Canavan and Peter Stanlis, it is possible to locate Aristotelian and medieval Christian influences in Burke approach to ethics and his stress on habituation as the key to moral education. Burke’s interpretation of prudence as a political virtue was clearly based on phronesis, the quality of mind and character that Aristotle associates with proper statecraft. Burke also stressed the role of Providence in human affairs and therefore it is inaccurate to say that what he viewed as happening in historical time was the “unintended outcome of accidental causation.”

There is, however, a plain meaning that can be given to Burke’s observation about historical forces that appear to be irresistible, and it was provided by English literary critic Matthew Arnold. In the 1860s, Arnold explained in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time that Burke’s evocation of mighty forces was intended as a warning against what might happen if the French revolutionaries prevailed. It is hard to see how Burke in this passage was justifying whatever History brings forth.  Needless to say, Strauss, who was a very learned author, understood all this. He tells us things about Burke that indicates he read his collected works with considerable care. He even digs up one of Burke’s few references to John Locke, which turns out to be surprisingly positive.  Strauss depicted Burke as he did in Natural Right and History because he was taking a stand against the “modernity” that he ascribed to his subject. He viewed it as a dangerous alternative to what he was teaching his listeners or readers to value in the American form of modernity.

Lawler tells us something truly astounding, albeit with a certain verbal looseness, when he states this about Burke: “So his hatred of the French Revolution caused him to contribute to romanticism, if in not that big a way.”  This comes as news to me and would have bowled over Strauss.  European conservative thought, especially on the continent, would have been unimaginable without Burke’s contribution. His Reflections were translated into French, German, and Italian within ten years of its publication in 1790; and as Karl Mannheim, Jacques Droz and many other authors (including myself) have documented, Burke’s critique of the French revolutionary project and the assumptions about human nature on which it was based provided the conceptual template for French and particularly German conservatives. No other work was as seminal for continental conservative thought as Burke’s Reflections, despite the fact that Burke may have been viewed as a reformer before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Lawler also assures his fans that Burke was not “actually a reactionary.” “He remained a liberal Whig, and not really for a return to some selective premodern way of life.” Presumably the additions of “really” and “actually” are there to make us think Lawler has clinched the argument. Unfortunately he hasn’t, since it’s far from clear what Lawler (really!) means by “liberal Whig.” By the distinctions of his age Burke was an “Old Whig,” who broke with the majority of his party, when it followed the leadership of Charles James Fox by adopting a friendly attitude toward the French Revolution. Burke called for emancipating slaves in the West Indies but so did Tories, most notably Samuel Johnson.  He advocated Irish home rule and railed against colonial corruption, but these stands by themselves do not prove that Burke was in step with other reforms. Burke, being of Irish Catholic ancestry, was a champion of his legally disadvantaged ancestral people but he was not noticeably in favor of removing political disabilities from all groups, for example, Jews or Protestant dissenters.

The position that Burke took on Lord Hastings and his scandalous behavior in administering British India did not necessarily mark him as a “liberal.” It might be best to view many of his parliamentary stands like Lewis Namier, although not quite as cynically as this British historian does, in the context of the British party politics of the second half of the eighteenth century.  If Burke’s reaction to the Revolution is to be our test, however, he definitely did not fall into the “liberal” camp, as that descriptive term was then understood. At most it might be conceded that in “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity,” Burke advocates classical liberal economic solutions as opposed to government measures earmarked for the unemployed. He also introduces into his remarks about poverty references to the law of supply and demand.  But even in this proposal addressed to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, in 1795, where the influence of Adam Smith is discernible, Burke was making expediential arguments rather than theoretical ones.

In any case it is problematic to define Burke as a “progressive” for his time, which is what Lawler is intimating. For better or worse, Burke in the Reflections didn’t see society in modern progressive terms. He was concerned about continuities, as when he redefines the social contract as a compact binding together the dead, the living and the yet unborn. The body social as conceived by Burke, in its continuance and in its instantiation of unbroken custom and human ties, reveals a “stupendous wisdom” and Burke sets out to celebrate this providential blessing in the Reflections, when he contrasts to it the havoc wrought by French revolutionaries.

Finally I’m not sure what Lawler is trying to tell us in this passage: “Burke is right that the appeal to natural rights, by itself, is destructive of all order. That doesn’t mean that the appeal to natural rights can be regarded as ‘superfluous’.” My response to this special pleading is “why not?” There are perfectly usable political-moral theories that have nothing to do with Lockean natural right and which do not require me to think in atomistic social terms or ascribe to all human beings at birth someone’s wish list of rights.

Burke did concede something to the “natural rights” position, as Strauss notes in NR and H, but mostly to indicate that life in primitive conditions is “the state of our naked shivering nature.” Although the victims of this state can claim a “right to everything,” this meant very little since it was only with the birth of civil society as the “offspring of convention” that legal protections and civilized life were possible. Moreover, as Strauss reminds us, Burke in the Reflections, explains that the true contract is an eternal tie, “a partnership of a particular kind,” “a partnership in every virtue and all perfection” binding together the generations of a people or nation.

Strauss’s followers may prefer to this conservative view another one, which identifies good modernity with the triumph of their human or natural rights doctrine. From this perspective Burke may seem to be out of step with the march of modern democracy, certainly as understood by those making this criticism. All the same, as Lawler admits, Burke tried to hold “the British empire to a highly civilized standard,” without pulling in Locke’s concept of natural rights or anticipating the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Burke’s speeches combine Aristotelian ethics with huge doses of Humean skepticism about abstract moralizing and invented universals. But he was in no way deficient as a moral or political thinker because he would have questioned the “all men are created equal” passage in the Declaration of Independence and least of all because he never attended a Straussian seminar.

5 Responses to ““On Burke and Strauss: A Critique of Peter Lawler’s Analysis” By Paul Gottfried”

  1. gabe

    Was Strauss criticizing Burke or the “Germans” who interpreted Burke? in much the same way that many criticize Lincoln when in fact there criticism would be better directed towards those who interpret or “stretch” Lincoln.
    There is an interesting response to Lawlers response today to your piece over at pomocon:

    Gottfried writes:

    ” European conservative thought, especially on the continent, would have been unimaginable without Burke’s contribution. His Reflections were translated into French, German, and Italian within ten years of its publication in 1790; and as Karl Mannheim, Jacques Droz and many other authors (including myself) have documented, Burke’s critique of the French revolutionary project and the assumptions about human nature on which it was based provided the conceptual template for French and particularly German conservatives. No other work was as seminal for continental conservative thought as Burke’s Reflections, despite the fact that Burke may have been viewed as a reformer before the outbreak of the French Revolution.”

    On this Gottfried is correct, but Gottfried misses that those Germans aren’t really copying Burke how Burke understood himself, but rather their take on what Burke is saying in Reflections and their take distorts Burke significantly. This is what Strauss is talking about the role of Burke in the German historical school.

    Although I respect Gottfried a great deal, sometimes he is not a very careful reader. He sometimes glosses over huge segments of argument, without always carefully paying close attention to the detail of what is being argued and assumes what he quickly followed overall is the heart of the matter.

    Also I find his failure to understand what Strauss means by natural right very interesting, in that if Strauss was speaking/writing in German this problem would not occur–I believe. So sometimes I wonder if Gottfried is playfully pushing the natural rights take on when Strauss speaks of natural right to make it easier to show in his argument what Strauss is saying is wrong. Is it sloppiness or intentional done?

    Gottfried sees himself within this German form of historicism, especially in this 19th Century form. I am not sure if he really took the time to confront Heidegger and what Heidegger does to this tradition of German historicism, but that is another story.

    I must find him a fun fairer critic of the students of Strauss than most of the left wing critics, that Gottfried rightly points that the big wig Strauss students all try to cozy up to, or make peace with.
    – See more at:

    Any thoughts on this?

  2. Paul Gottfried

    I should have responded earlier to Peter Lawler’s generous comments but I was preoccupied with other writing tasks until now. The main reason I failed to distinguish between his views and Strauss’s reading of Burke is that I couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. I assumed with some justification that Peter was trying to justify Strauss’s interpretation–or show where it could be made compatible with Burke’s historic conservatism. From my reading it would appear that Strauss deliberately misread passages from Burke’s observations about the French Revolution because he was trying to underline his distance from historic conservatism. Peter from my impression was understating the depth and extent of this rejection. On the battle between natural and historic rights I suspect that I am more of a Burkean than Peter. I have never felt tempted to reconcile natural rights or its even less plausible offspring, “human rights,” with older moral traditions. That’s because I don’t think such constructs are necessary to defend the ideal of limited government or to believe in a universal moral order.


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