What is the Burkean way?


Carl T. Bogus writes on Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk to underscore that to be a conservative is to always be more concerned with a whole community of persons than with individual concerns:

What is the Burkean way? Those who have read only Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France—his brilliant jeremiad against the convulsive overthrow of the French monarchy—often think of Burke as an implacable defender of institutions and tradition. But that can be misleading. Burke was, in fact, a reformer, though of a particular kind. He believed that society was a complex organism that evolved to its present condition for reasons that were not always evident. Burke believed that changes are often desirable—and a constant process of improvement essential—but those changes should be made carefully, with respect for tradition and a concern for unintended consequences. “We must all obey the great law of change,” he wrote. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.” …

“Conservatism,” Russell Kirk wrote, “never is more admirable than when it accepts change that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of the general condition; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish that principle.”

At the most fundamental level, Burke was a communitarian. It is institutions—governmental, professional, religious, educational, and otherwise—that compose the fabric of society. Each of these institutions has classes of people who devote their careers to preserving and improving them: jurists serve the law, scholars their disciplines and universities, clerics their church, and so on. All citizens, in fact, are engaged in a sacred intergenerational compact. “Society,” Burke said, “becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” …

Kirk wrote: “True conservatism … rises at the antipodes from individualism. Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit.”