Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1483

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),...

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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 and unjust to those they govern. “All writers on the science of policy are agreed . . . that all governments must frequently infringe the rules of justice to support themselves; that truth must give way to dissimulation; honesty to convenience; and humanity itself to the reigning interest.” Why, he wonders, should Machiavelli be so detested for merely unveiling the mechanisms of government? The oppression of rulers can everywhere be seen in the dungeons, whips, chains, racks, and gibbets which they need to support themselves. “What sort of protection is this of the general right,” the Noble Writer asks in mock triumph, “that is maintained by infringing the rights of particulars? What sort of justice is this, which is enforced by breaches of its own laws?” Burke contrives to give the Noble Writer a strong emotional argument in words that were even quoted against him. Underlying the irony, however, is the quiet conviction that man is not essentially good and that some kind of government is necessary to regulate human affairs.

The Noble Writer then divides governments into three kinds, despotism, aristocracy, and democracy, and he gives a historical sketch of each. Despotism is the simplest and most general kind. In such a system power is usually given to the weakest and most foolish. The life and welfare of all are given over to the whim of one man, such as Nero, who had a learned scholar put to death because he did not like his face. Even the sincere and virtuous despot is corrupted by servile ministers who serve their own selfish ends. Under this system the greater part of the people are considered as cattle, and, having lost all pride and dignity, they soon become no better. Such a government is actually worse than anarchy (Burke actually thought that anarchy was the worst possible civil order), yet the greater part of mankind throughout history has groaned under despotism.

Aristocracy has arisen whenever a society, finding the rule of one man intolerable, entrusts the public welfare to a group of leaders. Burke ironically presents the oversimplified assumptions about human nature implicit in this view: “They hoped it would be impossible that such a number [of aristocrats] could ever join in any design against the general good; and they promised themselves a great deal of security and happiness from the united counsels of so many able and experienced persons.” The Noble Writer finds, however, that aristocracy differs little from despotism in practice. Once in power, the aristocrats use every means possible to maintain their position. In one important respect aristocracy is worse than despotism: one ruler can be overthrown and may be succeeded by a better one, but an aristocracy clings tenaciously to its body of traditions. In actuality, Burke valued the force of tradition as a bulwark against anarchy.

The third type of government, democracy, imposes the tyranny of the majority. The ignorance and fickleness of a popular assembly leads to the same kind of abuses as those of despotism and aristocracy. Although Athens has been much admired for its democracy, it was “a city of wise men, in which a minister could not exercise his functions; a warlike people, amongst whom a general did not dare either to gain or lose a battle; a learned nation, in which a philosopher could not venture on a free inquiry.” The mixed society, the union of regal, aristocratic, and popular power, is equally insupportable. At this point Burke has his Noble Writer come dangerously close to attacking the foundations of eighteenth-century English society. The mixed society is represented as torn with strife over rights and powers, and as dominated by factions more interested in partisan advantage than in the general welfare.

The Noble Writer returns to a humanitarian appeal in his discussion of the rich and the poor. To him it is obvious that the whole function of the poor is to provide idleness and luxury for the rich. “In a state of nature,” he says, with a simplicity that Burke intended to be ridiculous, “it is an invariable law, that a man’s acquisitions are in proportion to his labors. In a state of artificial society, it is a law as constant and as invariable, that those who labor most enjoy the fewest things; and that those who labor not at all have the greatest number of enjoyments.” The Noble Writer is eloquent, however, in describing the horrible life of the poor. The worker in the mine and factory is little more than a slave; the rich, on the other hand, corrupt themselves with lives of idleness.

Burke’s mock indictment of society is thus complete: it slaughters and enslaves and corrupts. In answer to these genuine criticisms, however, Burke attributes to his Noble Writer only a naive and dangerous sentimentality, hopelessly out of touch with man’s true nature. The Noble Writer argues from lofty first principles; Burke consistently appealed for a practical, flexible, and conservative wisdom. A VINDICATION OF NATURAL SOCIETY prophetically reveals the intellectual and moral debate in which Burke struggled all his life.

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