On Edmund Burke

Reading Iain Hampshire-Monk’s review of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich, I noted Bromwich’s comment that “no serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.” Picking out “the father of modern conservatism” does pose difficulties, as such abstract categories as “liberal” and “conservative” are context-sensitive and shift dramatically over time, and picking a single “winner” from among the contestants implies a bit of a game-show approach to history. But to play the game and see where it leads, I confess that some of my own publications support the notion of Burke as the father of modern conservatism, at least if that means providing a modern substructure for conservatism.

My line of reasoning (drawing heavily on Burke’s seemingly apolitical treatise on the sublime) was that the 18th century saw rapid erosion of objective social hierarchies as a legitimating discourse in favor of subjective registers – from empiricism’s egalitarian emphasis on the five senses to the Cult of Sensibility novels, wherein “nobility” is established by personal character and not birthright – all tending toward the subjectivism of Kant. Pre-modern conservatives clung to the old hierarchical thinking of the Great Chain of Being. Burke, though, could see the writing on the wall. The new playing field was the field of subjective registers. Kant and Wordsworth (liberally, in my reading) use the new subjectivism to demystify those old hierarchical power structures and empower the individual. Burke, on the other hand, brings conservatism to modernity by updating its ideological support system. He leaves the mystification of objective power sources intact but articulates a subjective and modern ground of authority for that mystification. First and foremost, he does this through his emphasis on the “second nature” of learned behaviors and received traditions folded into our very identities. But one can see it also in how his aesthetic theory shifts the locus of “the sublime” from the neoclassical objective markings to subjective registers of power, terror, etc. In so many ways, he shores up the dignity of traditional institutions and gives them a foothold in the modern playing field. Thus when Enlightenment radicals like Paine and Wollstonecraft would replace monarchy and aristocratic birthrights with rational democratic principles, Burke countered with the  subtlety and forethought that laid the ground for modern conservatism. At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Gary Gautier, “Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian in Context: Gothic Villains, Romantic Heroes, and a New Age of Power Relations,” Genre 32 (1999): 201-34.

Gary Gautier, Landed Patriarchy in Fielding’s Novels (Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), chapter 3.

Pleasure and Happiness

Chided for too many hits on the snack cabinet, a work colleague shrugged it off as an epicurean temperament. It is true that Epicurus, father of hedonism, placed pleasure at the root of all happiness. But unfortunately for my gluttonous friend (who, to his credit, was offering a mock-justification and not a real one), step two in Epicurus is to realize that pleasure is best secured by tracking your lifestyle and your appetites always toward simple pleasures and never toward luxury. It may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but the pursuit of luxury is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to pleasure (and therefore to happiness). Thus Epicurus.

I always liked the twist on happiness and pleasure that dominates the novels of 18th-century England. I believe it was Ann Radcliffe (whose gothic novel, The Italian, 1797, is in my opinion still the greatest example of that genre to date) who put it most succinctly, although I can’t find the quote. Something like, “Pleasure is the excitement that comes from the gratification of an appetite; happiness is the deep contentment that comes from a life of virtue.” Pleasure is a state of sensory excitement bound to a momentary appetite; happiness is a state of being that transcends the momentary appetites. Thus the eighteenth century.

My personal elaboration for today is this. The contrast between pleasure and happiness commonly drawn in 18th-century novels doesn’t mean they’re constantly at odds. Fortunately or unfortunately for us (depending on whether you prefer that life be interesting or that life be easy), there is simply no direct correlation between happiness and pleasure. Some surface pleasures may be conducive to happiness, and some may be destructive of happiness. Some may resonate with pure joy at the depths, and some may stir up turbulence and dissonance at the depths. It all depends on whether those pleasures are consistent or inconsistent with virtue, affirming or debasing one’s core health or any human connections in play. When surface pleasure and deeper happiness go together, it makes things easy. When they are at odds, there has to be a trade-off, no way around it, a loss on one side will compensate for the gain on the other. That’s when it gets interesting.