I am reading The Great Debate; Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the birth of right and left by Yuval Levin (2014). It's a pleasant read, and substantial too!

However, Levin writes something very surprising about Burke. He notes "Burke's insistence that the core of the regime must not be questioned or open to inspection ..."

This sounds totalitarian, and contrasts with my understanding of Burke. Yet Levin is elsewhere nothing if not balanced. So is that a fair depiction of Burke's position? Did Burke somewhere write anything like that?

  • Hey close-voters, how is a question about whether a particular philosopher held a particular view worth of closing? Jun 20 '15 at 18:33
  • @ChristopherE I'm not presently voting on this, but I can't grasp wha tthe question is per se. If it's clear to you, could you edit it to make it clearer for the rest of us?
    – virmaior
    Jun 21 '15 at 2:33
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    @virmaior Sure -- see if it makes more sense now. Jun 21 '15 at 14:14
  • Might be interested in this discussion of the book: econtalk.org/archives/2014/05/yuval_levin_on.html Jun 22 '15 at 16:59
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    Not prepared for a full answer, but from what little I know about Burke he seemed to be in favor of the regime as that which would safeguard liberties... therefore, he was not in favor of totalitarianism, but was in favor of maintaining traditional institutions. Also to note, there is a difference between questioning the "core of the regime" and questioning all aspects of the regime - the claim is that Burke would be ok with the former but reject the later. Jun 22 '15 at 17:16

You write:

However, Levin writes something very surprising about Burke. He notes "Burke's insistence that the core of the regime must not be questioned or open to inspection ...

Earlier in the book, Levin writes:

While prescriptive regimes should enjoy some immunity from such prosecution on the basis of their proven success, novel revolutionary regimes should expect to be scrutinised.

Taking into account the section of Levin's book before the one you quote from, I think Levin's point is that it is easy to stir up discontent with current institutions by pointing out apparent flaws. However, what appears to be a flaw in an institution may serve some reasonable purpose that you don't understand, although you could understand it if you did the appropriate investigation. By contrast, all there is to a proposed reform is what somebody has written about it, so you can and should criticise it. In any case, Levin provides references for all his claims and you can read Burke's collected works and look up the quotes to see if he misrepresented them:



I think its a reasonable question; first consider that Burke was writing during the French Revolution and he was arguing for maintaining the traditional order, and in 18th Century Aristocratic Europe this would mean retaining the sovereign as soveriegn; but this does not mean (as one of the commenters have pointed out) that aspects of the order cannot be subject to reform - Burke, for example supported Catholic Emancipation.

Hannah Arendt, is a philosopher of politics, and she analysed regimes that are typically called Totalitarian - the Nazi and Stalinist regime in her book Totalitarianism; she takes a genealogical approach through history to analyse the phenomenon; however she doesn't attempt to analyse the notion of soveriengty; but in fact, according to the SEP (and in contrast to 18th C Europe):

Modern liberal constitutions do not acknowledge a bearer of sovereign authority, and modern legal and constitutional theory has often tried to dispense with the concept.

they go on to say:

But Schmitt argues, in Political Theology, that such attempts to get rid of sovereignty cannot be successful.


Schmitt is right to appeal to Hobbes's dictum that it is authority and not truth that makes the law.

It is this dictum from Hobbes (in Leviathan) that also informs Burkes view of sovereignty; (Hobbes distinguishes between two forms of soveriegnty de jure and de facto, the first is characterised by the Social Contract, and the second by the right to levy taxes, raise a military and enforce ideology - which in his day was religous (these come apart in a situation of contestation)).

It is this that informs Schmitts famous (in places)

sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception

The Italian philosopher, Agamben who is influenced by Arendt, takes this as a starting point in his book The State of Exception; he considers that the sovereign is a liminal figure; that lies both within and without the juridicial order; and he (ie Agamben) who appears to question sovereignty in is in fact not: he is questioning the linkage between that of sovereign order and the juridical one; which in his considered view had suffered a certain erosion through an expansion of soveriegnty - through an expansion of the 'exception'; which is why he prefaced the book with the quotation:

'Quare siletis juristae in munere vestro'

Why are you jurists silent about that which concerns you.

As he was choosing not to be silent in forming a sustained and considered critique.



If 'totalitarianism' is used in its current sense, so that a totalitarian regime is one that totally controls every aspect of its citizens' lives, there is no significant sense in which Edmund Burke (1729-97) was a totalitarian in his political thinking. There are issues, too, about whether a 20th-century concept such as 'totalitarianism' is anachronistic when applied to an 18th-century thinker; but I set these aside. Historical finesse aside, I understand the question.

Burke as communitarian - not totalitarian

Burke was in modern terms a communitarian, in his case by 'appealing [to] the idea of the national community ... and [protesting] the lunacy of a world without order, custom, and tradition'. (Douglas Archibald, 'Edmund Burke and the Conservative Imagination', Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr, Vol. 10 (1995), pp. 127-147 : 141.)

There is precious little custom or tradition in a totalitarian regime, which thrives on the radical change or abolition of any institution or practice that does not fit its ideology. For convenience I'll use the formula of 'traditions and institutions' from now on.

Burke as defender of common law rights

Burke believed in the civil or common law rights of English citizens, a tradition which the state should not abrogate and override. This was precisely his case against the British government in relation to its American colonies, for whose rights against the King and the British parliament he stood resolutely. The American colonists were being denied in America the rights they would have enjoyed in Great Britain. To Burke this was totally wrong. The British government was trying to control too much of the colonists' lives, while denying them the institutional right of representation. This is hardly the attitude of a totalitarian thinker.

Burke, conservatism & open politics

Burke also believed that a coherent politics depends on traditions and institutions which make up a common culture. We may disagree with this - I think I would - but there is nothing in this view that blocks scrutiny and change. Burke holds that if a coherent politics depends on shared and entrenched traditions and institutions, those traditions and institutions must to a large extent be taken for granted but they are not sacrosanct. Any amount of change can be accommodated as long as it does not dissolve the common culture. About the permissibility and necessity of change he is explicit :

A state without the means of some change is without the means of Its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve : Reflections on the Revolution in France : https://archive.org/stream/reflectionsonthe005907mbp/reflectionsonthe005907mbp_djvu.txt.

Burke was wary of change since he believed that traditions and institutions store up the wisdom and value of the ages. We've just seen that he recognised the vital need for change at certain junctures but his sense was that traditions and (effective) institutions take time and care to build up and entrench, but are easily destroyed. Before we make changes we need to be sure that the valuable is not lost for the mere sake of the new. This is classic conservatism.

I can't read in this any idea that 'the core of the regime must not be questioned or open to inspection'. Burke saw no reason to question the common law rights of English citizens and of the principle of representation that accompanied them. That's rather a different matter from saying that they must not be questioned. And for Burke they were quite properly open to inspection - he himself inspected and explicitly defended them.

Burke as Natural Law theorist

On an endnote, some commentators see in Burke's writings traces of a Natural Law tradition, often missed because of his polemic against natural rights with which Natural Law is often confused. The issue is a tricky one. I will settle for saying that to the extent to which Burke did subscribe to a Natural Law tradition, which defines a moral standard superior to any state, government or regime, he is not a totalitarian since a totalitarian state recognises no standard or authority higher than itself. On Burke and Natural Law, see P.J. Stanlis, Edmund Burke and the natural law, University of Michigan Press, 1965.

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