Edmund Burke’s first important publication, A VINDICATION OF NATURAL SOCIETY, subtitled A VIEW OF THE MISERIES AND EVILS ARISING TO MANKIND FROM EVERY SPECIES OF CIVIL SOCIETY, IN A LETTER TO LORD-——, BY A LATE NOBLE WRITER, satirically attacked the views of Lord Bolingbroke (the late Noble Writer), whose philosophical works had been published posthumously in 1754. By adopting Bolingbroke’s manner, Burke hoped to give a tone of irony and satire to his own opinions on society. So well did he succeed in imitating his model’s polished style, however, that A VINDICATION OF NATURAL SOCIETY was generally received as Bolingbroke’s own, even by such critics as Chesterfield and Warburton.
Burke’s central point was to show that Bolingbroke’s arguments in favor of natural against revealed religion were equally applicable in favor of natural as against artificial society. Two years before A VINDICATION OF NATURAL SOCIETY appeared, Rousseau had in fact developed the thesis that a simple society close to nature was morally superior to the refined society of Europe. Burke understood the revolutionary nature of this doctrine and its threat to the established order, and he consistently maintained that any society was preferable to the hypothetical “state of nature.” To prove that he understood the implications of his opponents’ arguments better than they themselves did, he assumed their position with massive irony: “In vain you tell me that artificial government is good, but that I fall out only with the abuse. The thing! the thing itself is the abuse!” His irony is so cleverly disguised that J.B. Bury commented, “A VINDICATION . . . worked out in detail a historical picture of the evils of civilization which is far more telling than Rousseau’s generalities.”
Burke begins by distinguishing between a natural society and the political society which came into being when man, observing the advantages of the family union, assumed that larger unions would be beneficial as well. Because the society so created was artificial, man was forced to invent laws. By stating the case so baldly, Burke hoped to ridicule Bolingbroke’s straightforward rationalism. He puts a major part of the blame for social corruption on religious institutions in a covert attempt to identify Bolingbroke’s deism with an attack on the social order: “Civil government borrows a strength from ecclesiastical; and artificial laws receive a sanction from artificial revelations. The ideas of religion and government are closely connected; and whilst we receive government as a thing necessary . . . we shall in spite of us draw in . . . an artificial religion of some kind or other.” Although Burke’s Noble Writer disavows any attack on English society, the sweeping nature of his generalizations obviously implicates him.
The state, the Noble Writer goes on, can be viewed in two different lights, in its external relationship to other states, and in its internal relationship to the governed. He finds that a description of the honorable conduct between nations would not fill ten pages, but their record of war and treachery is beyond human accounting. With deliberately exaggerated concern in proving his point, Burke devotes about one-sixth of his essay to the history of war. He caps his summary with the estimate that the number of men slaughtered in battle was seventy times the five hundred million then inhabiting the earth. The Noble Writer concludes that “. . . political society is justly chargeable with much the greatest part of this destruction of the species.” In this passage Burke’s irony attains a subtle level of complexity. Thoughtful men could hardly deny the general truth that Burke seemingly offered to his opposition. Burke’s irony is perhaps intended to demonstrate that such righteousness is easy, and that his own views were based upon principle, and not upon a justification of the status quo.
The Noble Writer finds that governments are no less cruel...
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