I raised a point in the “Defining Conservatism” section that I feel I need to return to and readdress: What if Edmund Burke, the grandfather of so-called prescriptive conservatism, was a reactionary? Certainly he was responding to events that transpired, and wrote in an increasingly worried tone about their potential affects. If Burke was a victim of, as Kirk calls it, “the loathsome plague called reaction,” is all prescriptive conservatism built on a lie?234
It is certainly possible. Russell Kirk might argue that Burke offers a reasoned reaction to the French Revolution- a reaction certainly but one intended to counter the radicalism brewing across the channel, not add to it. Burke does seem to fit into Rossiter’s mold of reactionary, looking to the past for answers and seeking some manner of a return to it, but that is only a surface level interpretation of Burke. On a deeper level his love for the past lies not in what it offers as a setting but more so how it informs the present. This perspective implies someone who is reactive, if not a true reactionary. Still, the interpretation of Burke as reactionary is strong, supported by a string of scholarship as long as that supporting him as a prescriptive, chief among them Isaac Kramnick’s study The Rage of Edmund Burke.235A recent study from scholar of conservatism Corey Robin, entitled The Reactionary Mind, proposed a counter to Kirk’s The Conservative Mind- and by extension this thesis. Robin argued that Burke was indeed the foundational thinker in modern conservation, but that that foundation was one of reaction, not prescription.236 He draws Burke’s ancestors as Calhoun and Kirk as well, but adds Sarah Palin, Ayn Rand, and George W. Bush to the lineage.237 Kirk and Robin find themselves fundamentally opposed to one another.
Still, I believe accommodation is possible. In fact, it’s possible that my thesis and Robin’s run parallel to one another. Everything depends on the interpretation of Burke. Indeed my subtitle of section on Burke- “The Common Denominator”- could have two meanings, with both types of conservatives- prescriptive and reactionary- drawing their inspiration from him. These two divergent paths- Robin’s and mine- begin at the same place, but build off different interpretations of their ancestor. This controversy should inspire curious readers to reexamine Burke, as to understand him is to understand conservatism. If nothing else, this dichotomy stresses the importance of creating an original interpretation of the seminal documents in political theory.
B.What’s wrong with fear?
One of mistakes in my interpretation likely comes from my potential mistreatment of the idea of “fear.” While central to the ideology of Burke, Kirk, and Rossiter, it is easy to dismiss their fear as the subconscious dominating the conscious. However, this could not be further from the truth. One of Burke’s greatest beliefs, echoed to a lesser extent by Kirk, is that emotions and the “non-rational” are in fact supremely important to how we interact with the world. Fear in this context is thus not only justified but instructive- in the same way that pain is weakness leaving the body, fear is the collective knowledge of the ancients informing your perceptions. Put most simply, prescriptive conservatives would say that fear is a good thing and should be cherished.
In conclusion, it is clear that there is a rich tradition of prescriptive conservative political theory. From Edmund Burke, the grandfather of prescription who looked to the structures and wisdom of the past for reassurance in the wake of the French Revolution, to New Conservatives like Russell Kirk and Clinton Rossiter who looked to Burke and other historical figures for guidance in navigating politics in the post-war era, prescription has been a strong influence throughout the history of conservatism. At the core of prescription is an underlying fear- fear of change, understood more specifically as the fear of the unknown, fear of the loss of tradition, and the fear of chaos. This fear is not irrational but instead suprarational, the manifestation of the wisdom of all time. Building from Burke, this fear runs deeply throughout Kirk and bubbles directly to the surface in Rossiter. By understanding this fear, one can understand both the arguments of prescriptive conservatism and its proponents throughout history.
Still, why does prescriptive conservatism matter? When Kirk speaks of his brand of conservatism being "routed, but not conquered," he could just as easily be speaking of prescription today instead of in 1978.238 In a contemporary political climate dominated by reaction, prescriptive conservatism is almost gone, but should not be forgotten. Conservatives in the United States find their choices in the Presidential primary to be wanting: either the poster child of standpattism Ted Cruz or the ultimate reactionary Donald Trump. Today, more than ever before, the right needs to turn to prescription to find their way again and bring balance to conservatism.
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1 Isaac Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
2 George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America Since 1945 (New York, Basic Books, 1976).
3 Gerald J. Russello, Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007).
4 Judith N. Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenbaum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 21.
5 Glen D. Wilson, “A Dynamic Theory of Conservatism,” in The Psychology of Conservatism, ed. Glen D. Wilson (New York: Academic Press Inc., 1973), 265.
6 Nash, 445.
7 Russell Kirk, “Enlivening the Conservative Mind,” The Intercollegiate Review Vol. 21 (1986), 28.
8 Paul Gottfried and Thomas Flemming, The Conservative Moment (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988), 70.
9 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution. (London: Dodsley, 1790). Accessed as an eBook through Google Books. 11.
10 R.R. Fennessy, Burke, Paine and The Rights of Man (Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963), 3
12 Thomas Phillip Schofield, “Conservative Political Thought in Britain in Response to the French Revolution,” The Historical Journal Vol. 29 No. 3 (Sep. 1986), 602
16 Dixon Wecter, “The Missing Years in Edmund Burke’s Biography,” PMLA, Vol. 53 No.4 (Dec. 1938): 1102
19 Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1. Retrieved 5/2/2014 from the World Wide Web: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/796
20 Jeff Spinner, “Constructing Communities: Edmund Burke on Revolution,” Polity Vol. 23 No. 3 (Spring 1991), 396
22 John Turner, “Burke, Paine, and the Nature of Language” The Yearbook of English Studies 19, The French Revolution in English Literature and Art Special Number (1989), 45
23 Lauren Hall, “Rights and the Heart: Emotions and Rights Claims in the Political Philosophy of Edmund Burke,” The Review of Politics 73 (2011), 612
24 Mike Goode, “The Man of Feeling History: The Erotics of Historicism in “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” ELH Vol. 74, No. 4 (Winter 2007), 831
25 Vernon Bogdanor, “Conservatism Psychoanalyzed: A review of The Rage of Edmund Burke,” The Yale Law Journal Vol. 87 No. 5 (April, 1978), 1083
27 Don Herzog, “Puzzling through Burke,” Political Theory 19.3 (1993), 336
29Reflections, 7, 325, 90.
30 Joseph L. Pappin, The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke (New York: Fordam, 1993)
31 Pappin, 1; Peter J. Stanlis, “Review of The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke by Joseph L. Pappin,” The Review of Metaphysics 49.3 (1996), 672
35 Tom Furniss, “Burke, Paine, and the Language of Assignats” Yearbook of English Studies 19, The French Revolution in English Literature and Art Special Number (1989), 54
43 Ibid, 113.
44 Ibid, 134.
45 Ibid, 135.
47 Ibid, 206.
48 Ibid, 211.
49 Ibid, 220.
53 Richard Boyd, “’The Unsteady and Precarious Contribution of Individuals’: Edmund Burke’s Defense of Civil Society,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 61 No. 3 (Summer, 1999), 475
60Ibid, 63, 72.
67Ibid, 11, 145.
70Ibid, 344; Ibid, 247.
81 Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America (New York: Knopf, 1962), 222
82 Clinton Rossiter, “Review: The Conservative Mind”, The American Political Science Review 47.3 (1953), p. 868; Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (South Bend, Indiana: Gateway, 1978), 11.