Hitchens on Burke

Fascinating book review in the Atlantic by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is reviewing a new edition of Edmund Burke’s classic work Reflections on the Revolution in France. This volume contains four critical essays exploring Burke. Hitchens essay is much more than a “book review,” however, but rather a thought provoking reflection on Burke, his ideas and writing, and their place in the history of ideas.

In discussing Burke’s reputation he offered this bon mot which is well worth keeping in mind these days:

It is a frequent vice of radical polemic to assert, and even to believe, that once you have found the lowest motive for an antagonist, you have identified the correct one.

Hitchens reproduces a number of Burke’s more famous passages and I wanted to reproduce a section of one as well. I am no expert on Burke by any means but I have always been struck by this passage:

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

I have always thought that this passage captures something integral to the mood of traditional conservatism.

Some view Burke’s Reflections as the melancholy ranting of a reactionary elitist while others see in it, and in Burke, the founding of modern conservatism or at least the inspiration. (see Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot and Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered) Hitchens seems somewhere in the middle depending on his mood. For Hitchens the true wisdom of Burke is his awareness that all revolutions “eat their young.” But he does recognize the connection between Burke and conservatism, and the wisdom therein:

If modern conservatism can be held to derive from Burke, it is not just because he appealed to property owners in behalf of stability but also because he appealed to an everyday interest in the preservation of the ancestral and the immemorial. And the abolition of memory, as we have come to know in our own time, is an aspect of the totalitarian that spares neither right nor left. In the cult of “now,” just as in the making of Reason into an idol, the writhings of nihilism are to be detected.

To use a cliché: read the whole thing.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).