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Sunday, November 18, 2007

How to be a left conservative in one easy lesson

In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Man, she makes the following shrewd hit at Burke:

There appears to be such a mixture of real sensibility and fondly cherished romance in your composition that the present crisis carries you out of yourself; and since you could not be one of the grand movers, the next best thing that dazzled your imagination was to be a conspicuous opposer.

Wollstonecraft was echoing the suspicion that dogged Burke throughout his career – that he was an Irishman who valued cleverness over sound thinking, celebrity over sense. One of Wollstonecraft’s polemical moves is to crucify Burke’s Reflections on his early essay on the Sublime – an essay that moves from paradox to paradox. Her strategy makes for a few strange paradoxes itself, since basically she portrays Burke as a fashionable sentimentalist – a man of a certain kind of womanly cast – while she herself represents manly reason.

The Burkean paradox in the essay on the sublime out of which his system springs is to separate pain and pleasure as distinct qualities unconnected by the continuum of sensation by which they were defined by people like Hartley – and, in general, in the sensationalist tradition:

Pain and pleasure are simple ideas, incapable of definition. People are not liable to be mistaken in their feelings, but they are very frequently wrong in the names they give them, and in their reasonings about them. Many are of the opinion, that pain arises necessarily from the removal of some pleasure; as they think pleasure does from the ceasing or diminution of some pain. For my part, I am rather inclined to imagine, that pain and pleasure, in their most simple and natural manner of affecting, are each of a positive nature, and by no means necessarily dependent on each other for their existence. The human mind is often, and I think it is for the most part, in a state neither of pain nor pleasure, which I call a state of indifference. When I am carried from this state into a state of actual pleasure, it does not appear necessary that I should pass through the medium of any sort of pain. If in such a state of indifference, or ease, or tranquillity, or call it what you please, you were to be suddenly entertained with a concert of music; or suppose some object of a fine shape, and bright, lively colours, to be presented before you; or imagine your smell is gratified with the fragrance of a rose; or if without any previous thirst you were to drink of some pleasant kind of wine, or to taste of some sweetmeat without being hungry; in all the several senses, of hearing, smelling and tasting, you undoubtedly find a pleasure; yet if I inquire into the state of your mind previous to these gratifications, you will hardly tell me that they found you in any kind of pain; or, having satisfied these several senses with their several pleasures, will you say that any pain has succeeded, though the pleasure is absolutely over? Suppose on the other hand, a man in the same state of indifference, to receive a violent blow, or to drink of some bitter potion, or to have his ears wounded with some harsh and grating sound; here is no removal of pleasure; and yet here is felt in every sense which is affected, a pain very distinguishable. It may be said, perhaps, that the pain in these cases had its rise from the removal of the pleasure which the man enjoyed before, though that pleasure was of so low a degree as to be perceived only by the removal. But this seems to me a subtilty that is not discoverable in nature. For if, previous to the pain, I do not feel any actual pleasure, I have no reason to judge that any such thing exists; since pleasure is only pleasure as it is felt. The same may be said of pain, and with equal reason. I can never persuade myself that pleasure and pain are mere relations, which can only exist as they are contrasted; but I think I can discern clearly that there are positive pains and pleasures, which do not at all depend upon each other.

Such a view of pain and pleasure cannot, obviously, submit to calculus – on the contrary, it not only rejects the utilitarian calculus, but the whole idea of founding societies on ‘indexes of happiness’ in which pain and pleasure, quantified, can be matched against each other. In Burke’s view, it is simply impossible to even speak of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, since this mistakes the essence of happiness. This is what is behind the most famous passage in the Reflections on the Revolution in France:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in — glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.

Burke, of course, was writing before Smith’s economics had been joined to Bentham’s utilitarianism. The ‘delightful’ vision of the Queen refers us back to the essay on the sublime once again:

It is most certain that every species of satisfaction or pleasure, how different soever in its manner of affecting, is of a positive nature in the mind of him who feels it. The affection is undoubtedly positive; but the cause may be, as in this case it certainly is, a sort of Privation. And it is very reasonable that we should distinguish by some term two things so distinct in nature, as a pleasure that is such simply, and without any relation, from that pleasure which cannot exist without a relation, and that too a relation to pain. Very extraordinary it would be, if these affections, so distinguishable in their causes, so different in their effects, should be confounded with each other, because vulgar use has ranged them under the same general title. Whenever I have occasion to speak of this species of relative pleasure, I call it Delight …”

Now, there is a sense in which this passage can be overemphasized. In the Great Transformation, Burke does not figure as an opponent of capitalism. He was, in fact, one of Smith’s partisans. It was quite in keeping with Burke’s principles that his loyalty would be at once to an enlightened system that restrained the government from granting monopolies and a feudal political order that largely depended on an ideological monopoly. What interests me, here, is the tension between, on the one side, the advent of an economic system which would profit the upper class for which Burke stood as an advocate, and, on the other side, the gross attitudinal changes that would subvert the legitimacy of the ancien regime order. Burke’s notions about pleasure and pain aren’t mere whims, even if they so appeared to Mary Wollstonecraft, but are fundamental to a philosophical anthropology which reacted against capitalism and socialism (considered to be of the same order), gradually gathering around itself a certain systemeticity, one of gestures and not logic (for it never fully lost its suspicion of systems), with a defense of irreducible human and social qualities that became anti-humanistic insofar as these qualities did not match up with the universal qualities projected by economics, physics, and psychology. This was the great contradiction that tugged at European societies up until 1945 – and when I say tugged, I might add bombed, battled, battered, slaughtered, imprisoned, colonized, and exhausted itself. The pessimism that I mean to hastily trace from Leopardi up to the conservative revolutionaries in Germany arose within this contentious space. Frankenstein’s creature is a casualty of this tension – the new man who comes into the world entirely without the unbought grace of life, though endowed with an irrepressible Lockean potential.


P.M.Lawrence said...

"...an economic system which would profit the upper class..."

I think we've been here before, in the related area of colonial dynamics. It wasn't a monolithic upper class in the UK, remember? The new economic order was of benefit to commercial interests and those able to tap into them, merchants, industrialists, large landowners who could be names at Lloyd's and the like - the Whigs, including the Whig Grandees. The Tories, however - lesser landowners like the "knights of the shires", university colleges, such bishops who were not swept up in the false consciousness that was all gas and gaiters, and the like - these had little to gain and much to lose, and often knew it. You can trace this in such things as the Stephensons carrying out railway surveys surreptitiously to avoid the attention of hostile landowners, and the efforts of the universities to keep railway links at bay (Oxford was more successful in this than Cambridge; the other place managed to deflect the main line via Abingdon and so was only connected late with a branch line, where Cambridge only managed to keep the station a long way out of town - though it was still practical to walk that far, as I recall; hence the story of one Don asking another what had become of their lost youth and receiving the reply "I don't know about yours, but mine caught the three o'clock down train").

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, You know, the left conservatives never gained much of a foothold in Britain - save for the odd Belloc or two. Liberal cultcha accomplished the remarkable feat of bringing together Burke (or Coleridge) and the French revolution - a miracle wrought by John Stuart Mill. Interestingly, the first appearance of pessimism in english, according to the OED, comes from Coleridge.
By the way, there's an excellent book I'd recommend to you: Ben Wilson's "The making of Victorian values : decency and dissent in Britain, 1789-1837." You might already have read it, but if you haven't - it has pretty cool chapters on the 'national disease' of hypochondria, the society for the suppression of vice - the kind of reformers that give reform a bad name - and the gradual social prohibitions that closed in upon the good old English - yes, the examples are culled from England - custom of bathing - or, to put it in more logical Americanese, swimming - in the nude.

Anonymous said...

"the left conservatives never gained much of a foothold in Britain" - that's probably because of what conservative means in British usage. It has no ideological basis, rather being defined pragmatically. It only appears that way by exclusion from other ideologies, the way oil and water appear to be two different liquids that only associate with themselves but it is actually an artefact of water only associating with itself and excluding oil. Anyhow, think of Viscount Falkland's formulation "when it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change" to get the spirit of British conservatism. If you bring something with an ideological content to that, like "left", it may work but only in a fellow travelling way; "left conservative" is intrinsically based on ideas, so it is a contradiction in terms unless you are following a usage in which "conservative" can be ideologically based. P.M.Lawrence (BTW, I can't put my details in any more, so this will have to be anonymous).