“Attending Only to the Shell and Husk of History”

At long last, I’m making good on my promise to finish off the Burke series. In the first two posts, we looked at the problems–and they are legion–caused by revolutionary “justice” reformers, content to raze civil society as a result of the delusional and infantile fantasy that they can bring heaven to earth, and therefore–sword in hand–cannot rest until they have built Jerusalem, staining with blood and envy every green and pleasant land.

At the end of the last post, I suggested that the reason for such unrealistic and enthusiastic fever dreams was “the sickness of historical consciousness,” that is, a preternatural ability to look at history, mark one’s real or imagined oppression, and decide to fix the past by destroying the present, and to wager both on an uncertain future–history, in other words, as catechesis in resentment.

The problem goes back at least to Rousseau, or rather to the Marquis d’Argenson, whom Rousseau quotes to the following effect in a footnote in the second chapter of Book 1 of The Social Contract: “Learned inquiries into public right are often only the history of past abuses.” Actually, I misspoke in my correction, as the problem really does go to Rousseau himself. For, whereas d’Argenson draws the conclusion that “troubling to study [such abuses] too deeply is a profitless infatuation,” Rousseau draws the conclusion that that d’Argenson’s observation vitiates any possibility of “establishing right by fact,” and claims that no method “could be more favorable to tyrants.” From there it is a short hop, skip, and jump to seeing oppression and victimization everywhere that reality does not conform to the ideal, which is to say, everywhere.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke, too, notes the obvious fact that history is full of injustice, but points out that the kind of lesson Rousseau takes from it is not only silly, but destructive, because the causes and their susceptibility to remediation are misdiagnosed. He puts it like this:

We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in Church and State, and supplying the means of keeping alive or reviving dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same

“troublous storms that toss
The private state, and render life unsweet.”

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the Gospel,—no interpreters of law, no general officers, no public councils. You might change the names: the things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names,—to the causes of evil, which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice. Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts, and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigor of a juvenile activity. It walks abroad, it continues its ravages, whilst you are gibbeting the carcass or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourselves with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of robbers. It is thus with all those who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under color of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.

It is evident that Burke is far more perceptive than Rousseau and his modern Jacobin heirs. For he makes a distinction of paramount importance between the causes of civil injustice and unrest and their pretexts. The pretexts have impressive-sounding names: “liberties” and “rights” and so on. But they mask something much baser.

It is convenient that they do so. If the cause of civil strife is vice and appetite, there is an unsettling corollary: the problem isn’t just “them,” which is what all revolutionaries think by definition. It’s the rich; the powerful; the “man.” It is a comforting bedtime story to tell oneself. But if Burke is right (and he is), no such dodges are permitted and we have to face the fact that reality will never conform to the ideal, because the causes of evil in the world are impervious to political means: they lie in the human heart. Not just “theirs,” but yours, too. For that reason, we should not be surprised when ascendant revolutionaries prove just as evil as the tyrants they claimed to overthrow. Such it has ever been, and such it shall always be.

History, Burke says, should make us aware of the story human weakness–and it should therefore make us aware of our own weakness, lest we destroy the world in our attempt to save it. But fixers, the great warriors of the immanent heavenly kingdom, do not think this way, and so they add to the pile of human misery while insisting that you believe that society is redeemed, or might be–tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Nathaniel Hawthorne knew the same thing, and said so in his great anti-revolutionary parable, “Earth’s Holocaust.”

After the crowd has burned and destroyed everything they believe causes the ills of life, some men who like the less respectable side of life are in despair. They wonder what will become of them now that all the good times have gone. They might as well just kill themselves now, they think. But a “dark-complexioned personage,” whose “eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire,” reassures them.

“[B]e not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes, though they had burned the earth itself to a cinder.”

“And what may that be?” eagerly demanded the last murderer.

“What but the human heart itself?” said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. “And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery—the same old shapes or worse ones—which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!”

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