There is a prominent aspect of the thought of Edmund Burke that political theorists and others have had great difficulty understanding and that has made even his admirers underestimate his philosophical importance. At the core of the difficulty is how Burke relates an emphasis on concrete historical circumstances and tradition to the ancient idea of a universal norm for life and politics. A wide variety of terms have been used over the centuries to speak about different aspects of this higher norm or reality--"the Good," "the Beyond," "the transcendent," "the eternal," "God," "the Ground of Being," "universal values," "the Universal," "natural right," "the good, the true, and the beautiful," to mention just a few. One may use "universality" or "the universal" for short. Of the many thinkers who have had difficulty making sense of Burke's historical consciousness the most celebrated in recent decades has been Leo Strauss. His extended criticism of Burke in Natural Right and History is familiar to most political theorists. For Strauss, Burke is a pioneer of "historicism," a powerful modern philosophical current that Strauss considers highly destructive. According to historicists, he writes, "all human thought is historical and hence unable ever to grasp anything eternal." In their preoccupation with historical particularity and circumstance historicists dissolve the ancient notion of an enduring higher good for man and politics. According to Strauss, historicism aggravates a crisis of natural right. (1)
What is distinctive, original, and important about Burke's view of history and universality and that has caused so much misunderstanding can be brought out by juxtaposing Burke's thought with Strauss's anti-historicism and criticism of Burke. We may place alongside each other Burke's most famous statement of his view of history and higher values, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and the book in which Strauss presents his criticism of Burke, Natural Right and History. (2)
Burke reconstitutes ancient idea of universality.
True universality not ahistorical.
Strauss is certainly right that Burke attaches more importance to the role of history and tradition than previous thinkers. It does not follow that he is rejecting the belief in an enduring higher good. It can be argued that he does the very opposite, that he reaffirms and deepens this notion and that Strauss misunderstands his argument and does not even grant it a real hearing. Burke's respect for tradition and the emphasis that he places on historical circumstance are due to his reconstituting, not abandoning, the ancient idea of universality. He is a pioneer in recognizing that universality and historical particularity are not, as previously thought, mutually incompatible and repellent but, rather, are potentially implicated in each other, potentially aspects of one and the same higher reality. Searching for universal values, we should not, according to Burke, look to "metaphysical abstraction" but to concrete, historically formed, experiential manifestations of value. (3) It is in historical particulars that human beings encounter the universal--in their highest achievements and in the traditions that these have engendered, in religion, politics, the arts, philosophy manners, and elsewhere. It is in and through these concrete particulars that human beings come to know and are drawn more deeply into the higher reality. Though a political and literary figure rather than a professional philosopher, Burke precedes the German idealists in discovering what would become known as the "concrete universal." The higher reality is for Burke not merely "beyond" man's historical existence but in history. It discloses its own special dignity and authority in historical experience at its best. Leo Strauss regards Burke as an "historicist," and so he is, but not, as Strauss asserts, in the sense that he abandons "natural right" in favor of historical relativism. Burke draws attention to a previously poorly understood possibility, the potential union of universality and particularity. Implicit in Burke's respect for historically evolved beliefs, what he calls "prejudice," and in his emphasis on circumstance and historical complexity is that true universality is not something ahistorical, disembodied, distant, and abstract. It shows itself in the historical concrete. That human history is full of mediocrity and outright depravity means that goodness, truth, and beauty must always be gained in struggle against opposing forces, but it is in and through that struggle that man discovers more of what makes life worth living. Human existence at its best is for Burke revelatory of life's higher purpose. Here and there societies emerge that are unusually charged with higher values. Wherever the universal acquires concrete form humanity establishes contact, however faint and tenuous, with the Eternal. One might say, interpreting Burke, that, to this extent, Eternity is not merely in the future but has already started. History manifests the Eternal, though incompletely and in chronic tension with everything that counteracts it in the world. This view of the potential union of universality and history does not do away with the need for terms like "the beyond" or "transcendence," because the magnetic higher power has but a partial and fragile foothold in the historical world, forever threatened as it is by opposing forces. (4)
The Universal Beyond
It may be useful to sketch the ancient philosophical disposition regarding higher values that Burke questions and that makes it difficult for Leo Strauss and others to understand him. That tendency is to look for life's meaning beyond the experiential sphere known to human beings. A kind of disdain has often attached to ordinary life in its concrete particulars. These particulars have been assumed to be inherently separate from a sphere beyond this world, indeed, to be positively detrimental to the realization of life's ultimate meaning. Plato is paradigmatic. Goodness, truth, and beauty are not really in the concrete specifics where we may think that we encounter them. Phenomena so described are a mere reflection of something more profound and intense that does not itself belong to the shadowy, transitory world of experiential particulars. Goodness, truth, and beauty are transcendent forms. They are universal and changeless. The task of human beings, or of those capable of it, is to extract themselves as far as possible from the flux of multiplicity and particularity. The latter, "the Many," are the source of disorder and meaninglessness. They are opposed by "the One," which is the source of all order and meaning. Life becomes what it should be in proportion as the Many yield to the unifying, elevating power of the One.
One reason why it seems plausible to look for meaning beyond the experiential world of particulars immediately suggests itself. Ordinary life is full of indignities, ugliness, perversities, and suffering as well as mere mediocrity and dullness. An existence truly worth having must surely be free of such pollution or dilution. Goodness, truth, and beauty must in this grossly imperfect world appear only in flimsy, muted, reflected form. These phenomenal reflections of universality point to something much finer, more intense, elevated, and rewarding.
Plausible as this way of thinking may seem, it comes up against a major complication, which is that higher values are known to human beings only in some specific concrete form: in particular spiritual experiences or moral acts, in particular insights, or in particular aesthetic visions. But the philosophers have desired something purer and more rarified. On the basis of particular experiences they have relied on abstract rationality and romantic imagination to project into the void a purported Universality that is uncontaminated by concrete experience.
Normative reality disconnected from particularity.
The notion of a self-subsisting normative reality disconnected from and unaffected by particularity has had great influence in moral philosophy, including political philosophy. Many of those who accept the notion that politics is subject to a moral imperative conceive of the standard as wholly independent of the circumstances of time and place. Plato emphasizes the contrast between justice and the ways of all particular societies. Justice is understood to be always and everywhere the same.
Why this compulsion to conceive of the standard as bearing little or no resemblance to the opportunities offered by actual politics and human life generally? The latter are characterized by the moral, cultural, intellectual, economic, and geographical circumstances of time and place. Life is full of twists and turns and of human wickedness, ignorance, and bewilderment. Should not a standard for human life be such that it takes into account what might be possible? Should the standard not be relevant in the sense that it is attuned to real life and guides human beings to attainable goals? Should it not inspire the person to act for good even in discouraging circumstances? But instead of taking their bearings with reference to actual historical situations, many philosophers have sought what is normative in a world beyond all changeability, particularity, diversity, evil, and confusion. They have conjured up a static and reified universality. Plato says of the true philosopher, who alone can discern the ultimate good, that "His eyes are turned to contemplate fixed and immutable realities, a realm where there is no injustice done or suffered, but all is reason and order." (5)
The Platonic standard is, thus, very distant and different from the here and the now. It is bound to distract the person from actual life and from what might actually be possible in the present situation. So sharply does the standard contrast with the variable, complex, imperfect, cloudy world of concrete...