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Jesse Norman interview: Edmund Burke, our chief of men

24 May 2013

9:00 AM

24 May 2013

9:00 AM

When he arrived in London, Burke had a very brief career in law. He soon dedicated his time to critical thinking, writing and politics. Burke published a number of ground breaking books, including: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and Reflections on the Revolution in France.

In his new book, Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman dissects Burke’s outstanding intellect, and his career. He then asks how these ideas might be applied to modern politics.

Jesse Norman is Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire. In 2012 he was named as the Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year. He is a member of the Treasury Select Committee and is a senior fellow at the think tank, Policy Exchange. He has also taught philosophy at University College London and Birbeck College.

Many of Burke’s critics have called him an apologist for aristocracy and privilege. You disagree, why?

They do see him as that. They also refer to him as a paid hack who was a mouthpiece for his political masters. What my book aims to do is show that is wrong. The idea of Burke being a paid hack relies on the suggestion that Burke comes to his views about political parties —  and their anchoring role in government — out of a desire to please the Whig oligarchs. [But] we now know that Burke developed his ideas about political parties at least 8 years before he even entered politics. So that theory actually falls by the way.

What Burke is fired up about is this hatred of injustice, and a hatred of the abuse of power. Some examples of this include: Burke’s dislike of the how the English treated the Irish; what he sees as Britain suppressing the American colonists; or how he perceived the British monarch buying and corrupting power within Parliament; or in his critique of the French revolution, which he regards as the abuse of popular power to overturn the social order. That is actually the greater coherence of what Burke is about.

Can you talk about the idea of the sublime, and how it influenced Burke’s own philosophical and political outlook?

One of the things that it is intrinsic to Burke is this notion that somehow identity is tied up with the little platoons — as he calls them — in The Reflections on the Revolution in France. That idea or conception of human emotion you find in his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. [In this book] he argues that it is those human affections that attract us to the beautiful; and that feeling of awe in our emotions, which gives us respect for the sublime.

The social order is also part of Burke’s idea of the sublime. It’s here you get his distinctive thought that the complexity of society outstrips our capacity to understand it. In Burke’s view, we are meddling with something of which we know little or nothing, when we attempt to pass great ideologically driven policies to upend the social order, and destroy the fabric and relationships that underlies it. There is also this idea of the sublime that shows Burke’s conception of political leadership as rooted in modesty and humility; it’s an awareness that the individual is a very small component of a much larger social order. Therefore we must treat it with respect


You write in the book about Burke’s powers of prophecy, particularly in The Reflections on the Revolution in France: where he predicted the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the reign of terror after the French Revolution. Was this one of his greatest achievements?

What is extraordinary about Burke is his capacity for prophecy. That comes out of three things: first is his idea of history and the potential threat to the social order. The second is the deep understanding he has of human change, of human personality and of human nature. The third is a very nuanced and detailed grasp of the specific circumstances behind particular changes.

When the French revolution takes place in 1789, and the whole of the world is marveling at how good it is going to be, Burke is instantly able to see that the parallel is not going to be the peaceful Glorious Revolution of 1688 [in Britain], but the utterly disastrous and bloody [English] Civil War of 1641.

Conor Cruise O’ Brien—another Burke biographer—once referred to Burke as someone who believed in ‘ordered freedom’? What do you think he meant by that?

I think Cruise O’ Brien was absolutely right in that phrase. For Burke there was a deep distinction between liberty and license. This is an old distinction, but Burke makes a lot of use in it. Licence is an imagined freedom, where an individual imagines that they can do anything they like, regardless of circumstance. This is the individual you find in economics: it’s all about incentives and there are no constraints except those imposed by preferences. That is a terrible blunder because it licenses all kinds of behaviour that are highly unattractive. The recent banking crisis is a classic example of this.

Burke opposed that idea. Instead he believed that liberty comes from the constraints and structure of a society and the greater social order. These are the things that actually allow you to do well in society and prosper. These constraints don’t restrict you, they actually enable you. That, in my view, is a much more profound notion, because it points to a much better perception of government.

For example, the liberal conception of government often merely seeks just to get government out of the way because the only thing that matters is having as much licence as possible. But in the Burkean conception, government has a positive role, shaping society, without overly burdening it. Instead you get a much more nuanced notion of government, as well as a better theory of how people are.

One of Burke’s intellectual arch nemeses was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Could you briefly talk about where their paths differed: what was Burke’s main critique of Rousseau?

Burke’s critique of Rousseau evolves, and that is complicated by the fact that there are a number of things that he and Rousseau would actually agree on. They both reject what you might call a scientific approach to humankind. But where Burke disagrees with Rousseau is that he is much less utopian about how institutions should operate. Rousseau wants the general will to be revealed through institutions, and a general levelling, which allowed individual wills to be exercised without the kind of power relations you find in society. Burke has the exact opposite view. He regards society as the enabler of wellbeing. He is not a utopian.

In fact, he is very grounded in society as it actually is. So the counterpart of Rousseau’s utopian idea, for Burke, is a hatred of ideology that is irrationally driven. He saw this as misguided and often driven by personal vanity.

You can see Rousseau as a kind of enabler of many of the ambitious social projects of the 20th century: such as fascism and totalitarianism. You can see Burke piloting a kind of conservative reaction to [these ideas], which would never allow individuals the kind of power that puts their ideas into action. And which would never allow the social order to be overturned on the whim of an ideology.

Can you talk about how Burke’s ideas differ from Hobbes, with respect to the social contract?   

In the Hobbesian perception of the social contract, individuals are treated in a game-theoretic way, where the question is: what is the minimum motivation you can give to an individual in order to generate the theory of legitimate government. And the minimum motivation that Hobbes gives, is the fear of violence and death. That gives an individual a reason to want to suspend some of their sovereignty, and repose it in a higher force, or state, that is a legitimate government.

Now Burke has a completely different concept of the social contract. He doesn’t think individuals should be considered in that game-theoretic way. On the contrary, he thinks individuals should be embodied as culturally engaged individuals: molecularly, so to speak, rather than atomically. He thinks institutions themselves cannot just be thought of as groups of individuals.

Therefore he has got a much knottier conception of society. Burke would say we cannot understand the notion of what it is to be human an independent human of society. He would argue that man’s nature is to be in society.

The incoherence in Hobbes’ project can be pointed out by asking Hume’s question: how it might be possible for any individuals to strike a social contract if they didn’t already have the institution of promising? But if that’s true, then the social contract cannot be the true basis of legitimate government. In other words: there is something self-defeating about the Hobbesian project. Burke had a hint of how that might be.

Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman MP is published by Harper Press.


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