Elevator Music from Hell

Last time, we saw Edmund Burke’s claim that it was unjust to punish a man for a name to which he happens to be attached, or, rather, which happens to be attached to him. “It is not very just,” he says, to exact vengeance on a person because of his natural ancestors; so much the more unjust is it to do so because of his predecessors in some kind of “corporation,” a group to which one happens to belong. One might have thought that a moment’s reflection shows this clearly enough. One might have thought that civil society frowns on blood-feuds for a reason, and on gang warfare for…well, for even more of that reason.

Lest anyone try to “yeahbutwhatabout” him, Burke makes quite clear what he means: his point applies not only to “corporate bodies” like the clergy, but to nations as well–to the body politic. Again, a moment’s reflection is sufficient to show why this prohibition of generational vengeance is basic. If it were to be denied its place, we would be left with a gruesome reductio of claim and counterclaim, vendetta and its shrieking echo, the antiphonal chorus of the whole human race–theme and variation–playing on repeat all the way back to Adam. This is not only logically possible, but necessary, and Burke illustrates it via the example of French and English history. The elevator music from hell has a long tradition, and its composers have a long memory.

But this is not what “corporate bodies” are for. But enough–Burke can speak for himself.

Corporate bodies are immortal for the good of the members, but not for their punishment. Nations themselves are such corporations. As well might we in England think of waging inexpiable war upon all Frenchmen for the evils which they have brought upon us in the several periods of our mutual hostilities. You might, on your part, think yourselves justified in falling upon all Englishmen on account of the unparalleled calamities brought upon the people of France by the unjust invasions of our Henrys and our Edwards. Indeed, we should be mutually justified in this exterminatory war upon each other, full as much as you are in the unprovoked persecution of your present countrymen, on account of the conduct of men of the same name in other times.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Unfortunately, human beings, despite these salutary reminders for those looking for a usable past, frequently draw the wrong lessons from history, and go in the opposite direction, that of the “mutually justified…exterminatory war upon each other” that Burke warns against. The sickness of historical consciousness will be the subject of the third and final post in this series.


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