Roger Scruton on Edmund Burke

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Roger Scruton on Edmund Burke

Post  VicarJoe on Fri Jun 19, 2009 3:05 pm

Scruton is a British philosopher, and in the essay from which this paragraph is quoted ("Why I Became a Conservative," which is easy enough to find online), he comments on how his experience of Paris in 1968 was finally understood in his later reading of Edmund Burke's book Reflections on the Revolution in France, which came out even before the Terror (I believe it was published in 1790) but which predicted all the abuses of the French Revolution and talked about how the utopian-progressive revolutionary would always destroy civilization and practice terror. (Burke had an enormous impact on the Romantics like Wordsworth, many of whom turned away from the Revolution after reading Burke--much to the dismay of the utopian progressive professors who teach them...lol.) Anyway...

I don't pass this paragraph along for its politics so much as for something it says about an issue many of us hold central, the right to life. So I'll quote the paragraph and just jot down a thought or two it stirred in me:

"The final argument that impressed me was Burke’s response to the theory of the social contract. Although society can be seen as a contract, he argued, we must recognize that most parties to the contract are either dead or not yet born. The effect of the contemporary Rousseauist ideas of social contract was to place the present members of society in a position of dictatorial dominance over those who went before and those who came after them. Hence these ideas led directly to the massive squandering of inherited resources at the Revolution, and to the cultural and ecological vandalism that Burke was perhaps the first to recognize as the principal danger of modern politics. In Burke’s eyes the self-righteous contempt for ancestors which characterized the Revolutionaries was also a disinheriting of the unborn. Rightly understood, he argued, society is a partnership among the dead, the living, and the unborn, and without what he called the “hereditary principle,” according to which rights could be inherited as well as acquired, both the dead and the unborn would be disenfranchized. Indeed, respect for the dead was, in Burke’s view, the only real safeguard that the unborn could obtain, in a world that gave all its privileges to the living. His preferred vision of society was not as a contract, in fact, but as a trust, with the living members as trustees of an inheritance that they must strive to enhance and pass on."

This reminds me of Chesterton's definition of tradition as "the democracy of the dead." The social contract consists not just of those of us in the present tense--it is a trust handed on to us by our fathers and mothers and all our ancestors, who made our society and who ask us, as stewards, to take care of it and pass it on intact to the next generations. "Presentism"--the kind of constant sneering about how stupid our ancestors were--underwrites "cultural and ecological vandalism" as well. Not recognizing our debt to the past, we don't acknowledge a debt to the future either.

Most insightful to me was Scruton's reading of Burke that says "respect for the dead was...the only real safeguard that the unborn could obtain." In other words, once the "shackles" of the past are cast away, once society becomes "absolutely modern" and only meaningful in terms of the present tense, the unborn are easy enough to dispose of as well. The more someone values tradition and the inheritance of the past, the more likely he or she will value the unborn.

Well, wow. Really. Wow. In addition to its insight into why some people care about the unborn and some will not, I think it is an amazing insight into a kind of environmental worldview that's been lost. Love this essay.
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VicarJoe

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That's amazing.

Post  cradlerc on Fri Jun 19, 2009 4:56 pm

It made me think of this program I picked up at a powow we took the kids to last summer. I don't often go to powows, not being Native American, but this one was open to the public and I thought it would be interesting--it was.

Anyway, they had put together a little program where people were asked to write in with answers to a question about "The Seventh Generation." Two things struck me about this: one, was that it was interesting to see something that was thinking in terms of future generations and our impact upon them. The second was how lame most of the answers were--just really godawful stuff that was not very insightful or useful (I know that sounds mean, but it was just all this stuff that made you feel like the Native American movement got coopted a long time ago by the sixties and has never found its way out). That seemed sad to me, because this is actually a unique and potential very valuable insight about our conneciton to the past and present.

I love the idea of the trust. I wonder if we are discouraged from that, partly at least, because of our relationship to our environment. We're so mobile, there's nothing physical to pass down in trust--like, say, a farm, or a family home. Although I suppose "trust" should be no less abstract than "contract," when it comes down to it.
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In another essay

Post  VicarJoe on Fri Jun 19, 2009 5:08 pm

Scruton talks about the environment in the age of parcels of land inherited in perpetuity giving way to the environment as landscape to be chopped up into commercial parcels for rent or sale. So, partly, it's mobility, but partly too it's nascent capitalism that sees the land as a commodity that can be best profited on in dividing it up into exploitable pieces.
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Seventh generation and mobility

Post  stihl on Sat Jun 20, 2009 10:54 am

Joe and Cradle, there is a connection between the seventh generation and chopping up land and mobility.

One of the practices of the Irogquois was to rotate to a new site every so many years. The sites weren't really new, there were basically seven of them. When they had exhausted the soil at one village, they would rotate to another. The seven generations gave the intial site a chance to lay fallow and become productive once again. A relatively low population density so could get away with this.

Unfortuantely, we are bit more sedintary and have ply the land with fertilizer to keep it productive.

Along the lines of what you are saying Joe, it has been my sad honor to watch farmers, whose ansestors built up farms, parcelize the farm so they could enjoy a comfortable retirement in Florida. Part of this is the fact that our generation and, certainly the next generation, seem to have and allergy to manual labor. The other factor is life style and comfort. In order to make the transfer of a farm to the next generation economically possible, it would require the parents maybe sharing the same house as the son/daughter. Who wants to that? Apparently very few.
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