Responding to a Burkean Objection

Over on I responded to an objection that Yoram Hazony brought against a Josias essay of mine on the common good. My response is largely based on a longer paper, which will be appearing soon here, but here is my thread (automatically derived from twitter by wordpress magic, excuse the formatting):

My thanks to Yoram Hazony for this clear articulation of a Burkean objection to my account of the common good. It gives me an opportunity of clarifying my position.

Incidentally, Roger Scruton brought up a similar objection in responding to a letter in First Things:

The objection is that my understanding of the political common good is too abstract, too far removed from actual political communities and their habits and traditions…

…and that it reduces the complexity of human life to a single principle…

…and that the imposition of such an abstract and reductionist understanding of the good from on high would have (and actually did have when tried by Jacobins, communists, and liberals) a disastrous effect.

I think that Burke (and therefore also Hazony and Scruton), are pointing to a real problem with a certain kind of politics, but that their characterization of that problem in terms of "abstraction" and "reduction" is not precise enough.

I think the real key to understanding the problem with modern politics (whether Jacobin, communist, or liberal) is the distinction between prudence (phronesis) and art (techne).

On the Aristotelian understanding, art is skill in *making*. The goodness of art is determined by the goodness of the product. A good shoemaker is someone who makes good shoes. An artist is concerned with the product of his activity, as something separable from himself.

This means that a person can be a good artist, but a bad person.

Prudence, on the other hand is concerned with human *doing* rather than making. Deeds are the kind of activity that are judged good or bad in themselves, rather than on account of a product separable from them.

A person who does good deeds simply is a good person. To habitually do things with courage and moderation and justice and liberality is to be a good person. And the most important characteristic of such a person is prudence, which is the virtue that guides all the rest.

Now, Socrates had spoken of politics as an art. As the arts of medicine and gymnastics are to the body, Socrates argues, so politics is to the soul.

Politics consists of legislation, which lays down what is healthy for souls (just as gymnastics does for the body), and justice which heals sick souls (just as medicine heals sick bodies).

Aristotle at times seems to be agreeing with Socrates, but in Ethics 6, he argues that in fact it is better to understand prudence not as an art, but as a prudence.

And this makes a lot of sense. Politics is not concerned with some "product" apart from the activity of human life, but rather with a life lived in common, human actions done together.

The politician is like a doctor who cures himself. He himself is part of the political community whom he is leading to happiness through legislation and the jurisprudence. Politics is concerned with the virtuous activity in which the politician participates.

It is therefore, impossible to be a good politician and a bad person.

How does all this relate to Hazony's objection? Well, the problem that he rightly sees in modern politics can be understood as stemming from the modern reinterpretation of politics as art *rather than* prudence.

The great revolution in political thought that began with Machiavelli, and that was continued by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et al., can be seen in part as just such a reinterpretation.

Machiavelli still uses the traditional language of “virtue” in talking about politics, but it is clear that he really thinks of politics as an art. As Charles McCoy puts it:

In other words, politics is no longer considered a virtue of the human being, which makes both ruler and subjects good, rather it is a kind of technology of power that is indifferent to ends.

In Hobbes and Locke the Machiavellian transformation of politics is completed by the theory of the social contract. Human society itself is no longer considered natural, a community of virtuous life in which human persons reach their natural end…

…rather, human society is now considered an artificial device, a technology made by human beings in order to assist them in pursuing their own private goods.

And this is in part what Burke criticized in the Jacobins: "I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases."

But in my understanding, politics is prudence. The idea of peace that Hazony thinks I discuss too abstractly, can be considered in the abstract, but it can only be realized through virtuous action.

The political common good consists in relations (peace) and in virtuous actions (happiness), and both depend on the qualities of persons (the virtues).

That is why the main goal of political leadership is the fostering of virtue.

But fostering virtue means leading both oneself and others to realize human excellence. And this happens through habits of the heart as well as of the mind.

Therefore, the traditions and customs of particular people cannot be ignored. One must work with the grain of what is best in particular traditions, and slowly combat what is bad in them in order to change habits.

While there is something universal about human virtue (murder is unjust not only in one place, but in all, and fleeing one’s station in battle out of fear is cowardice in all places).

Nevertheless there will be diverse concrete ways of realizing virtue in different places. Distributive justice, for example, will depend in part on the customary distinctions between social roles etc.

There is, in other words a difference between an artistic/technical reduction of politics to a single plan (Jacobinism), and a prudential/sapiential leading back of different kinds of human excellence to peace/happiness as the a first principle.

Originally tweeted by Pater Edmund (@sancrucensis) on April 18, 2021.


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