Victor Nuovo: Burke on the Social Contract
Editor’s note: This is the 12th in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
As a conservative, Burke believed the civil state is necessary to human welfare. It is an existential necessity. He allowed for no prior state of nature in which, even hypothetically, human animals might exist let alone flourish. Nor did he allow for any independent standpoint of reason from which free persons might enter into fundamental agreements.
Instead, he supposed that the authority of every state derives from an ancient and enduring authority, something like “an ancient of days,” which, by its very god-like nature should evoke from us feelings of reverence and gratitude.
On the other hand, he also acknowledged that all states are imperfect and all governments corrupt. And he insisted that we must not ignore these faults, but, in the light of our fundamental dependence, we ought to address them cautiously, deferentially and with all due respect as one would the faults of a parent “with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”
This attitude seems to contradict the theory of a social contract, according to which civil society, its laws and government are fashioned and remade by groups of rational persons, who are citizens by choice and on whose consent the legitimacy of their government and the validity of its laws depend. Yet Burke is quick to affirm that “society is indeed a social contract.”
All this suggests that he thought very differently about it than Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau.
Indeed, he did. For Burke, there is an original contract, not made in time but before time. That contract is cosmic in its scope for it comprehends the universe and everything in it from start to finish. He conceived of it as framing an association of the living and the dead and the yet unborn, including God—the unseen framer—who created all and rules over all.
Furthermore, Burke imagined the divine creation of the world as “a great primeval contract” that established a universal “eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact, sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each in their appointed place.”
This is not naturalism, but a sort of supernaturalism that encompasses the nature of things, a “natural supernaturalism.” Burke’s idea is reminiscent of the biblical notion of a divine covenant, whereby God, having created the world, promises to maintain the natural order of things so long as he receives proper respect from his creatures and so long as they know their place and are careful to remain in it.
It is from this essential connection of all things with each other and their maker that Burke supposed the law of nations and the moral law derive. St. Paul’s dictum — “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” — is the perfect summary of his belief in the nature of things. In this connection, it should come as no surprise that Burke was a supporter of a Christian religious establishment as part of the political order.
This belief is the reason for Burke’s conservatism and the basis of all his reasoning about politics and political engagement.
I am inclined to think that something like this is at the root of political conservatism generally, although, I am also sure that many conservatives would be uncomfortable with Burke’s political theology. Yet I think that all would, or should, admit that they are deferential to authority and resistant to its overthrow. Moreover, while they may be willing reformers of established institutions, they look to some higher and more certain authority than abstract principle as a sure basis for its renewal.
If this belief in a fixed order of things as the basis of all authority is fundamental to conservatism, what would be its liberal counterpart?
In the previous essay, I wrote of Burke’s naturalism and referred to his description of the process of “following nature,” which he characterizes as “wisdom without reflection.” I characterized this method as experimental. Yet for Burke, human experiment in political engagements is only apparent or superficial, for the wisdom of nature was, in his opinion, only our untutored way of representing the divine providential government of all things. We poor humans may believe that it is our will, wit and wisdom that determine the course of things, but, in reality, it is God — who is unseen and undetected — who determines all things.
In Burke’s view, it is all a cosmic puppet show.
Contrary to this outlook, there is at the root of liberal political thinking an unfettered and undirected naturalism whose roots are found not in theism, but in the bare nature of things. That includes our existence as frail and fallible creatures who have evolved over time and have become existentially dependent on things that contribute to our survival: fire, clothing, shelter, community and civil societies, laws, and a multitude of conventions — all human inventions or discoveries and whose serviceability is tested over a long duration of time.
In this thinking, it is experiment, trial and error, which account for the political order of things, along with the varying conditions under which these political experiments are tried. From this point of view, humanity fashions its fate and bears responsibility for it. Of all the social contract theorists, only Hobbes came near to understanding this and after him, perhaps Diderot.
In sum, I believe that conservatives are committed to a settled order of nature infused with value of which time honored social and political institutions are proper expressions and which they seek to conserve. They have confidence in the durability and rightness of this order, whether grounded in natural right or divine justice.
Liberals, on the other hand, are motivated by an abstract notion of right that is timely and opportune and are willing to change the order of things to fit their principle.
Here, I should note, there is a division among liberals — some regard these principles as eternal and unchanging, while others view them as only the successful outcomes of political experiments. All agree that they are discoverable by reason.
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