If politics is a science, then it is a kind of geology. As J.W. Burrow puts it, ‘the common law is not a creation of heroic judges but the slow, anonymous sedimentation of immemorial custom; the constitution is no gift but the continuous self-defining public activity of the nation.’ Burke is a sedimentalist, just as he is, in a non-pejorative sense, a sentimentalist. The sentiments of the people, himself included, are political facts accreted over time, which cannot be ignored or easily overridden in the interests of abstract principles, however desirable. The thought experiment so beloved of philosophers from Hobbes and Locke to John Rawls, of men in the state of nature coming together to conclude a social contract, would have seemed to Burke a sophistical fantasy. Burke foreshadows the 19th century in seeing everything – law, morality, solidarity – as historically evolved, the outcome of experience rather than design.
Thursday, August 07, 2014
At the LRB, Ferdinand Mount on David Bromwich's Edmund Burke (subscription only):