Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Uses of History

Many thinkers have studied history and concluded that, from its lessons, a series of reforms for government or for society should be undertaken. Edmund Burke concluded from his study of history, however, that the chief lesson to be learned is that such reforms are often wrong-headed and should not be taken: the lesson of history is that sweeping reforms don't work.

Historian David Bromwich, teaching at both Princeton and Yale, puts it this way:

Burke adopts the premise that history is an adequate weapon of criticism. However, he does so in order to question the practicability of just those large-scale reforms which had been relied upon as a clear effect of historical research. History ... is the repository of all the existing evidence of our nature, the record of how our moral and cognitive life came to be what it is. Yet history, Burke sees, may also challenge the notion that, by the exercise of theoretical reason, we can actually perfect human nature.


Instead of sweeping reform, Burke suggests that the lesson of history is that we need to preserve our habits, customs, and traditions: without them, we are lost. He departs from other writers in not relying so much on the concept of natural law, and instead relying on our inherited social structures, which could not be deduced from natural law. He does not pretend or imagine that our civilization is perfect - on the contrary, he is keenly aware of injustices, and pleads, for example, that the British should treat their Indian subjects more humanely. But Burke sees that sweeping reforms usually collapse, or go awry, and end up with the very opposite of their intended goals: the French Revolution, seeking freedom, ended up placing its people under a dictatorship harsher than the Bourbon absolutists. The move toward justice and freedom, according to Burke, is a slow, cautious, and organic growth based on tradition, not rejecting it. Bromwich notes that Burke's writing

contains the following nonpopulist statement of republican prudence: "The people have no interest in disorder. When they do wrong, it is their error, and not their crime." What can this observation be supposed to say about human nature in general? The first sentence does not quite assert that the people have an interest in order. One might even read a Hobbesian moral into the two sentences together: those who wield power, like those who suffer it, need some limitation upon the restless desire" that produces disorder; but only the prudent organization of political life will bring that. Burke would then be urging a tolerant remedy for natural errors. Yet there is also a suggestion that such organization is difficult to attain; that, once achieved, it starts to earn respect from the mere fact of duration; and that, becoming a part of what the people have an interest in, it will grow obscurely attached to their self-interest.


Habits and customs give stability to human societies: without them, there would be chaos and insecurity. Traditions are not valuable because they are old; they are valuable because they help people.

In his way of thinking, historically sanctioned practices are to be cherished for something apart from themselves. The value they represent, and in the name of which he defends them, is order.


This enable Burke, in opposition to liberals, to embrace various cultures and viewpoints. Living and writing in England and Ireland in the 1700's, he saw value in the supposedly "primitive" cultures of Britain's colonies:

For Burke, any history, any set of inherited practices (that of the village culture in India, for example, which Warren Hastings and his "Jacobins" of the East India Company were destroying) will very likely be acceptable, so long as it has issued in order. This, as distinct from pastness or power or success, is his final point of reference. But he makes one restriction on the understanding of order itself. An order of the sort familiar in Europe is appreciable only to the extent that it permits modification through.


A little background: Burke was involved in proceedings against the leaders of the East India Company. He saw that their treatment of the Indians was not respectful of their traditions, and was cruel to the point of criminal.

Burke's concept of tradition was not opposed to change; in fact, he saw it as the road to change, because another lesson of history is that traditions and cultures continually change. Burke asked only that we make the type of changes which history shows to be successful - changes as the organic outgrowth of our traditions, rather than defiant attacks on them.