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Rights and the Heart: Emotions and Rights Claims in the Political Theory of Edmund Burke

  • Lauren Hall

Edmund Burke's emphasis on emotional phenomena is often seen as a rejection of reason. The relationship between reason and the emotions in Burke's work is paralleled by the relationships between the individual and society and between rights and duties. Emotions support duties because they bind us to social life and a particular social location. Burke filters rights claims through our emotional attachment to specific circumstances, thus creating social rights of man in contrast to the individualistic, abstract rights of men of the social contract theorists. Prejudice is presented as an example of a Burkean filter for rights that moderates rights claims by binding individuals to society. Thus, Burke sees reason and emotion as interconnected phenomena that support the balancing of the claims of both individual and the community.

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1 See Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950) for his treatment of Burke's approach to reason.

2 See Canavan, Francis P., The Political Reason of Edmund Burke (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1960), 296, for a critique of Stephen's, Morley's, and Laski's interpretations of Burke's practical politics.

3 See Stanlis, Peter, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1958).

4 Kilcup, Rodney, “Reason and the Basis of Morality in Edmund Burke,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 17, no. 3 (1979): 271–84; Burke's Historicism,” Journal of Modern History 49 (1977): 394410.

5 See Kramnick, Isaac, “The Left and Edmund Burke,” Political Theory 11, no. 2 (1983): 189214, for a review of this ideological split. Kramnick, however, fails to connect this split to the differing attitudes of each side toward emotion and reason. He also attributes an inherent misology to conservative thought, a claim that is incompatible with the work of scholars such as Canavan and Stanlis.

6 For an excellent discussion of Burke's rejection of ideology, see Lakoff, Sanford, “Tocqueville, Burke, and the Origin of Liberal Conservatism,” Review of Politics 60, no. 3 (1998): 435–64, though Lakoff does not link his argument to Burke's use of the emotions.

7 See Boyd, Richard, “‘The Unsteady and Precarious Contribution of Individuals’: Edmund Burke's Defense of Civil Society,” Review of Politics 61, no. 3 (1999): 465–91, for a discussion of the potential conflict between individual and community in Burke's thought.

8 While the emotional aspect of prudence may not be at first apparent, I will argue later that prudence, owing to its situational emphasis, requires emotional attachments to time and place that limit mere rational policymaking.

9 Frisch, Morton, “Burke on Theory,” Cambridge Journal 7 (1954): 292–97.

10 Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 311.

11 Ibid., 312.

12 For a defense of Burke against Strauss's accusations of misology, see Mansfield, Harvey, “Burke's Conservatism,” in Imaginative Whig, ed. Crowe, Ian (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 5970. For an extended discussion of Strauss's treatment of Burke, see Lenzner, Steven, “Strauss's Three Burkes: The Problem of Edmund Burke in Natural Right and History,” Political Theory 19, no. 3 (1991): 364–90.

13 O' Gorman, Frank, Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 12.

14 Canavan, Francis, “Edmund Burke's Conception of the Role of Reason in Politics,” Journal of Politics 21, no. 1 (1959): 6079, and Canavan, Francis, The Political Reason of Edmund Burke (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1960).

15 Canavan, “Role of Reason.”

16 Ibid., 62, 70, and Canavan, Political Reason.

17 Canavan, “Role of Reason,” 71.

18 Ibid., 75.

19 Kirk, Russell, “Burke and the Philosophy of Prescription,” Journal of the History of Ideas 14, no. 3 (1953): 365–80.

20 Pappin, Joseph III, “Edmund Burke's Progeny: Recent Scholarship on Burke's Political Philosophy,” Political Science Reviewer 35 (2006): 1065.

21 Kirk, “Burke and the Philosophy of Prescription,” 369.

22 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 314–15.

23 Kirk, “Burke and the Philosophy of Prescription,” 375.

25 See Lenzner, “Strauss's Three Burkes” for a critique of Strauss's interpretation of Burke.

26 Corbett, Mary Jean, “Public Affections and Familial Politics: Burke, Edgeworth, and the ‘Common Naturalization’ of Great Britain,” ELH 61, no. 4 (1994): 877–97. Corbett is right that Burke's use of the emotions tends to be gendered, but her reduction of his political teaching to the purely sexual or domestic is unsupported by the evidence; other authors who attempt to deal with Burke's use of emotions within the context of gender also fall into this kind of unsupported oversimplification (see Goode, below).

27 Goode, Mike, “The Man of Feeling History: The Erotics of Historicism in Reflections on the Revolution in France,” ELH 74, no. 4 (2007): 829–57. While Goode's argument goes well beyond the evidence in Burke's writings, his discussion of the role of feeling in jurisprudence is nicely done and thought-provoking. Still, he overemphasizes the sexual component of Burke's thought and underestimates the stability of Burkean nature.

28 Kramnick, Isaac, The Rage of Edmund Burke (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 23.

29 O'Brien, Conor Cruise, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Elizabeth Lamber's critical review of O'Brien's work covers a broad range of problems (South Atlantic Review 58, no. 3 [1991]: 118–21).

30 Womersley, David, “The Role of Friendship in the Political Thought of Edmund Burke,” in Love and Friendship: Rethinking Politics and Affection in Modern Times, ed. Velasquez, Eduardo (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), 263–94.

31 Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). See Pappin, “Edmund Burke's Progeny,” for an excellent review of Mehta's work.

32 Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, 21–22.

33 Ibid., 42.

34 White, Stephen K., Edmund Burke: Modernity, Politics, and Aesthetics (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002).

35 Deane, Seamus, Foreign Affections (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 25.

36 Freeman, Michael, Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 2930.

37 Pappin, “Edmund Burke's Progeny,” 43.

38 White, Edmund Burke.

39 See Chapman, Gerald W., Practical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967) for a similar argument.

40 See Canavan, “Role of Reason”; Mansfield, “Burke's Conservatism”; and Stanlis, Natural Law, for discussions of prudence in Burke's thought.

41 Burke, Edmund, “Speech on American Taxation,” in Select Works of Edmund Burke, ed. Canavan, Francis, 4 vols. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999), 1:215.

42 Edmund Burke, “Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament,” in Select Works, 4:21.

43 Edmund Burke, “On the Overtures of Peace,” in Select Works, 3:105.

44 Herzog, Donald, “Puzzling through Burke,” Political Theory 19, no. 3 (1991): 336–63.

45 Burke, Edmund, “Hastings Trial, 7 May 1789,” in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 16 vols. (London: Rivington, 1826–27), 14:22.

46 Burke, Edmund, “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” in Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Ritchie, Daniel (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992), 91.

48 Burke, Edmund, Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967).

49 Wood, Neal, “The Aesthetic Dimension of Burke's Political Thought,” Journal of British Studies 4, no. 1 (1964): 4164.

50 See White's discussion of how “the passions bind society together at difference levels” (Edmund Burke, 42–43).

51 Burke, PESB, 38.

52 Ibid., 41.

53 White, Edmund Burke, 43.

54 Burke, PESB, 173.

55 Ibid., 46.

56 Ibid., 49.

59 Ibid., 45.

60 White links our second nature to our emotions, arguing that it is “the sharing of particularities” that provides the “soil” for our social affections (Edmund Burke, 47).

61 Burke, PESB, 24.

62 Ibid., 175, emphasis added.

63 Ibid., 24.

64 Ibid., 53, emphasis added.

65 For an example of the older understanding of Burke's view of the emotions, see Dixon Wecter's discussion (“Burke's Theory Concerning Words, Images, and Emotion,” PMLA 55, no. 1 [1940]: 167–81). He argues that “Burke's weakness of turgid, extravagant language” is the “practice of an imaginative Celt who believed from his youth that the purpose of rhetoric was the address to feelings rather than to clarity” (181). Wecter clearly fails to address Burke's political works, nor does he understand how his aesthetic works might fit into Burke's larger project.

66 Womersley, “Role of Friendship,” 269.

67 Burke also believes that the emotions provide us with access to knowledge that may be, for the moment at least, inaccessible to unaided reason. See Burke, PESB, 38.

68 Edmund Burke, “On the Proposals for Peace,” in Select Works, 3:218.

69 See Womersley's excellent discussion of Burke's criticism of British treatment of the American colonists, in particular, the way the English policies alienated American affections (“Role of Friendship,” 270–71).

70 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in Select Works, 2:123. Burke does acknowledge the importance of our country being objectively worthy of our love: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely” (172).

71 Burke, Reflections, 123.

72 Frederick Whelan points out that “tradition was not always authoritative for Burke,” and that reason and the moral sense could and should question unjust prejudices or habits (Whelan, , Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996], 271). See discussion below of the understanding “ratifying” the passions.

73 See the discussion in Canavan, “Role of Reason,” 73.

74 Edmund Burke, “Hastings Trial, 16 February 1799,” in Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 13:155–56.

75 Canavan, “Role of Reason,” 69.

76 Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, 42.

77 Burke, Reflections, 176.

78 Ibid., 150.

79 Ibid., 151.

80 Ibid., 154.

81 Edmund Burke, “Speech in Reply,” in Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 12:164.

82 Burke, Reflections, 157.

83 Pappin makes a similar point when he argues, “Burke emphasizes our duties and obligations to society against the dominance of will” (“Edmund Burke's Progeny,” 119).

84 Burke, Reflections, 157.

85 Burke, “On the Proposals for Peace,” in Select Works, 3:217.

86 Burke, Reflections, 153.

87 Pappin, “Edmund Burke's Progeny,” 123.

88 Pappin goes on to argue that the restraint provided by government “serves a moral purpose and conforms to our nature as rational, social beings. Burke warns that unrestrained passions ‘forge our fetters’ and become a disease to social and political order” (ibid., 126). Pappin's account tends to ignore the different kinds of passions Burke discusses, and more importantly, it ignores the foundational role social emotions play in rooting the individual to society.

89 Burke, Reflections, 181.

90 White, Edmund Burke, 62.

91 Burke, Reflections, 70.

92 Ibid., 68.

94 Ibid., 70.

95 Ibid., 76.

96 White, Edmund Burke, 62.

97 Burke, Reflections, 84.

98 Ibid., 182.

99 Ibid., 149.

100 Ibid., 170–71, emphasis added.

101 See Mansfield's argument that “practice presupposes an attachment to one's country … whereas theory is detached and neutral” (“Burke's Conservatism,” 68).

102 “Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all. Metaphysicks cannot live without definition; but prudence is careful how she defines” (“Appeal from New to Old Whigs,” 91).

103 Though Burke emphasizes the importance of objective standards as well: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely” (Reflections, 68).

104 Deane argues that when attachment to country is combined with injustice, the sentiments are perverted and our “natural benevolence is soured” (Foreign Affections, 23–24).

105 Burke, Reflections, 171–72.

106 Burke, Edmund, “To the Earl Fitzwilliam,” in Select Works, 3:373.

107 Burke, Reflections, 275.

108 Strauss makes this argument while discussing prudence: “Furthermore, practice presupposes attachment to a particular or, more precisely, to ‘one's own’ (one's country, one's people, one's religious group, and the like), whereas theory is detached” (Natural Right and History, 309).

109 Burke, “On the Overtures of Peace,” in Select Works, 3:132.

110 Burke, Reflections, 122.

111 Ibid.

112 Ibid., 150.

113 Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Ritchie, 169.

114 Burke, Reflections, 152.

115 Burke, Edmund, “On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies,” in Select Works, 1:278.

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