At the very end of February, I reached my 75th year. When I drew my first breath, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin still polluted the Earth with their presence, Winston Churchill was prime minister of Great Britain and Franklin Delano Roosevelt resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A great deal of history has transpired since then and I came to the shocking realization that to this point, I have lived for more than one-third of the existence of the United States of America.
Recently, I have found myself thinking more and more about my own mortality. I have become accustomed to thinking about the clock — as in, how much time have I got left? Long past are the days when I consciously and unconsciously thought that there was plenty of time left to do what I wanted to do and to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. I am now constantly aware that every moment is a tick off the finite number of moments left to me. Strangely enough, however, I do not view this realization as depressing or morbid. Instead, it engenders a constant awareness of the sweetness of every breath, the value of every friendship and how incomparably precious to me are my esteemed wife, my son, my daughter-in-law and my extraordinary grandsons.
During these cogitations, I have come to realize that my life has for many years been governed by a set of guiding principles of which I have only recently become consciously aware. Anyone who knows me even moderately well knows that I stand in absolute awe of Edmund Burke, who is widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism. I certainly don’t mean to leave the impression that throughout the years I have sat in my chair in deep philosophical contemplation, nor do I wish to imply that I have studied political philosophy, deeply or otherwise. But there are certain precepts that are basic to the way that I view the world and I have come to realize that they are coincident with the ethos to which Burke subscribed.
The foundation of Burke’s philosophy is a respect for those who went before us. He was not a slave to tradition, but for Burke those who argue for throwing over custom and tradition have a substantial burden of proving that overwhelming change is desirable and worthwhile. Burke was seared by the barbarity of the French Revolution and he argued that the ensuing chaos was the result of ignoring the wisdom and tradition of generations. He was no proponent of the status quo (as a member of Parliament, he argued in favor of the American experiment), but he was ever mindful that a society without civil discourse and respect for tradition is a society that will quickly sink into chaos.
Which brings me to Burke’s relevance to today’s U.S. If ever we required Burke’s guiding philosophy, it is now.
It appears that the respect that the young should pay to the elderly has all but disappeared. Cable television “news” programs (whether morning, afternoon or evening) consist primarily of panels of downy-faced young boys and girls, recent college graduates in their first jobs, who are identified as “political strategists.” One must naturally ask oneself: “What kind of experience could these children have gleaned to make their political strategizing anything more than drooling?” I remember Wall Street in the 80s. Hundreds of 20-somethings were running around doing trades and spouting their wisdom concerning the structure of markets. These geniuses acquired BMWs, Fifth Avenue co-op apartments and homes in the Hamptons. They were convinced that they were brilliant and they convinced their contemporaries that they had “The Secret.”
I remember being conscious of the fact that these young hotshots were not old enough to have experienced the second half of an economic cycle. Sure enough, the cycle that anyone with any experience knew was coming finally came and those fresh-faced young geniuses who thought that they had all the answers were forced to divest themselves of their fast cars, club memberships and beach houses and move back to their parents’ basements in Staten Island. Meanwhile, the graybeards on Wall Street had a certain bizarre and mordant satisfaction that the world had turned as they knew that it would and basic truths remained basic truths.
What was missing in the young hotshots was a basic humility, an understanding that they didn’t have all the answers; that a study of history might have stood them in good stead and that the past, tradition and accepted wisdom might have saved them from ignominious embarrassment and loss. There is an unfailing arrogance and unattractiveness in most of those who want to engender paradigm shifts. And Burke knew what would be the outcome of these tectonic cultural and societal shifts that were not gradually absorbed into the lifestream of commerce and culture in an organic process rather than through radical transformation.
Cut to today’s college campuses. There are too many blissfully ignorant and self-absorbed little Robespierres, convinced of their own moral and intellectual superiority, who have somehow managed to gain control of the conversation and silence large groups on campus. If we learn the lessons of Burke, we can gain the strength to stand up against these forces that know far less than they think they know.
A few weeks ago I was present at a talk given by South Carolina State Senator Chip Campsen. Sen. Campsen is one of those rare public men who discusses politics on a philosophical level and has a coherent set of principles against which he measures the issues that face us. He spoke cogently about applying Burke to today’s problems. He quoted a passage from Burke’s “Reflections on the. Revolution in France” that resonated with me. He sees today’s citizens as “temporary possessors” who are not mindful of what they have received from their forebears, nor of what is due to those who will follow them. Thus, they waste their inheritance by “destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation.”
Here is the crux of it all. Burke says “[i]n changing the state as often and as much and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other.” As a result, the chain of each generation perfecting and building on the achievements of previous generations would cease and our occupancy of this planet would become meaningless. In Burke’s incredibly plangent phrase: “Men would become little better than the flies of a summer”: here today, gone tomorrow, having left nothing of value.
Campsen gave a great example: If, instead of following its mother, a young turkey (called a “poult” for you pedants) struck out on its own, it would not survive. Knowing nothing, it needs to follow its mother to learn to search for food and understand the techniques for protecting itself. If the poult steps out on its own, rather than remaining under its mother’s tutelage absorbing the wisdom and knowledge that the elder turkey had learned in turn from its own mother, it would not last a day. It would be destroyed through its own inexperience and ignorance. That, in a nutshell, is what is happening today on college campuses. Students, faculties and administrators ignore the wisdom of their forebears and blindly strike out against our cultural heritage and civilization.
The great Russell Kirk, brilliant expositor of all things Burke (and, in my opinion, the greatest proponent of political conservatism in the 20th century) put forth “six canons of conservative thought” in his work The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot:
1) Belief in a greater power (call it G-d, if you will) who has ordered the universe according to a body of natural law, enforced by individual conscience.
2) Affection for the variety and mystery of human existence — a sense that life is worth living,
3) Conviction that civilized society requires order and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, dictators take over.
4) Property rights and individual liberty being ineluctably linked; one is impossible without the presence of the other.
5) Distrust of “sophisters, calculators and economists” who would reorder society based upon theories and abstract designs, without due deference to the order of things before their tinkering began. Custom and usage are a check upon a lust for power.
6) Appreciation for the fact that change may not be good just because it is change: Society must continually evolve and alter, but according to Burke, a statesman’s chief virtue is prudence.
These, then, are the principles that I now realize have guided my life. I set out early to try to accomplish something based upon the principles of society and, as it turned out, as expounded by Edmund Burke — to leave behind something that mattered. When it comes down to it, for my entire life I have sought to become something more than just another “fly of a summer.”
Shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal in all of our lives?
Originally published in the Charleston Mercury.