Saturday, 16 June 2012

Peter Hitchens: ensnared in the Burkean Knot

Last week I had the pleasure of journalist, writer etc. Peter Hitchens stopping by to hale me across the precipitous gorge which threads between conservative Hatfield and libertarian McCoy.

Unfortunately I fear some other passing flaneur of the bloggevards determined him to push off before I had a chance to test his parry. Crunching further through metaphorical gears, I arrive at my appraisal of his predicament: He is caught in a Burkean knot.

Unable to wriggle backwards or forwards, either way would lead to escape, but instead he remains forever captured in the moment of reaction to revolution, throwing out the baby of natural liberty with the undoubtedly filthy Jacobin bathwater, seeking comfort from institutions made virtuous by their long continuance, and rejecting the pursuit of any lofty principle found outside the compass of Archbishop Cranmer's church.

But back yonder calls him a blind Samson:

If every action which is good, or evill in man at ripe years, were to be under pittance, and prescription, and compulsion, what were vertue but a name, what praise could be then due to well-doing, what gramercy to be sober, just or continent? many there be that complain of divin Providence for suffering Adam to transgresse, foolish tongues! when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had bin else a meer artificiall Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. ['in the motions' i.e., in a puppet show]

We our selves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he creat passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly temper'd are the very ingredients of vertu?

They are not skilfull considerers of human things, who imagin to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; for, besides that it is a huge heap increasing under the very act of diminishing, though some part of it may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universall thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remains entire. Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewell left, ye cannot bereave him of his covetousnesse.

Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercis'd in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste, that came not thither so: such great care and wisdom is requir'd to the right managing of this point. Suppose we could expell sin by this means; look how much we thus expell of sin, so much we expell of vertue: for the matter of them both is the same; remove that, and ye remove them both alike.

John Milton: 'Aeropagitica'.
Forwards beckons a helping hand of Victorian Liberal Virtue, first with a swipe at the socialists, then a definition of the citizen - i.e., Milton's free individual strained through the experience of 200 years :
There is, again, a theory in economics and politics directly the opposite of our own, cutting at the root of our most obvious principles ; and it is growing daily. It involves an attack upon personal production, personal accumulation, and consequent personal possession : a theory which makes the individual and all the individual virtues of small account, and desires to emphasise rather the vague qualities of a State.
It would dissolve thrift, and self-control, and the personal honour which keeps a contract sacred, and replace them by a State reserve, by State control, and by a State system, releasing men from the burden of private rectitude. It is a theory which is absolutely certain to find stronger and stronger support as our economic system develops, unless it is met by an unflinching adherence to those older political principles which have strength left in them to shape the economic system itself. Though it will be dealt with later in this essay, it is worthy of consideration for a moment in these introductory sentences, because it forms so admirable an example of those clear hypotheses that frequently succeed in transforming the politics of a nation.

But though this clause is common to all definitions of Liberalism, there is another idea upon which it is dependent.

Don't laugh - it's Hilaire Belloc

There ran through the Liberal projects a corresponding definition of the citizen as a political unit. And it was a definition of what should be much more than of what was an ideal far more than an assertion of existing fact. But every attempt to make the actual citizen approach more nearly to that ideal, every attempt which might make his material and, above all, his moral conditions suited to such a development, every political movement which was likely to produce that ideal by the mere fact of presupposing it, was befriended and ultimately adopted by the Liberal party.

The citizen whom they saw as the best possible foundation upon which a free State could rest was one whose economic and political independence was not, indeed, irresponsible. He was to be answerable, but answerable not to individual men so much as to the general conditions of the nation around him. He was to be an individual possessor and producer of wealth. He was to exercise that faculty of self-restraint which is, even in the narrow field of mere economic science, the basis of all accumulation and of all sufficient material happiness. He was, again, to be so self-respecting a member of a society which depended upon his consent (and which only demanded his obedience on condition that he helped to frame the law), that he might be counted upon not to give his vote upon a general issue for purposes lower than those of the common good.

Hilaire Belloc: 'The Liberal Tradition', from 'Essays in Liberalism' (1897)
The answer to the Jacobins is not to be found in Burke, who is only a make-do in disaster, but rather in the pure and moral natural rights of Milton or else the idealistic scepticism (or do I mean 'sceptical idealism'?) of Liberal Victoriana.

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