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  • Writer's pictureJosh Lewis

Providential Progress – Part 5 (The Burkean School of History)

“To be relevant to our times, history must not be controlled by our times,” warns Thomas Sowell, “Its integrity as a record of the past is what allows us to draw lessons from it.” As we saw in Part 4, we do not approach history with a completely open mind, judiciously evaluating each data point we encounter with absolute objectivity. As fallible humans we are reliant upon philosophical interpretations of the historical record to make sense of “history”.

This does not mean we can’t approach history honestly. But it does mean an honest approach of history will incorporate at least some understanding of our historical “lens” so that we are not guilty of “controlling” history to squeeze out of it our preconceived notion of how the world works.

To that end, Russell Kirk wrote that there are four predominant schools of historical thought that shape how we approach history and what we believe history provides us. In Part 4 we discussed three of these schools at length:

  • The nihilist school, which holds that history has no meaning.

  • The cyclical school, which believes history shows inescapable cycles of growth, maturity, decadence, and downfall.

  • The progressive school, which looks to history as a force for good that is forever advancing humanity towards an eventual terrestrial utopia.

None of these schools are compatible with a conservative mindset.

The Burkean School of History

Kirk describes the final school as the transcendentalist school of history. But he isn’t particularly sold on that term as he expresses concerns it may become confused with the transcendentalist movement promulgated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other nineteenth century thinkers. He goes on to change the name to the Christian school of history as what follows in his essay is a largely Biblical-based understanding. I believe that term worked for Kirk’s purposes, but it may confuse matters here as this final school is compatible with, though not exclusive to, Christianity.

“Transcendence is not a preserve of revealed religion,” insists Leo Strauss, “In a very important sense it was implied in the original meaning of political philosophy as the quest for the natural or best political order.” In that same spirit, and at the risk of sounding a little on the nose, let’s call this fourth school the Burkean school of history. In Burke’s own words:

“In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons…and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving, dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury.”

Here Burke hints at the uses, and misuses, of this “great volume”. We can derive wisdom from history that benefits humanity, or we can weaponize history for ideological pursuits or to stir up old grievances. “To look at history as a matter of taking sides is to turn the human failing of bias, which mars what we do to a greater or lesser extent, into a principle that is to permeate—and pollute—our whole endeavor,” Sowell further cautions. “It is an all-or-nothing argument, that if we cannot completely eliminate bias, then we should give it free rein, perhaps even congratulating ourselves for having admitted our biases.” History ought to sharpen us and challenge our biases. It is not a weapon to enforce our biases on others.

“History, Burke suggests, is…a process of clarification through experience, and political change is among its constant features,” suggests Yuval Levin. What history reveals comes by pragmatic practice, not by developing the perfect theory. To employ history to bolster our fidelity to a political cause or ideological theory is to get the process exactly backwards. History is meant to challenge and sharpen our politics; it is not a tool to be manipulated to our political likings. To the extent history can even be thought of as a tool it’s certainly not of our own making, nor is it entirely in our ability to comprehend.

The Burkean school is chastened by the belief that the truths presented to us by history are clouded by human fallibility. History comes to us as ancient scrolls, written in an extinct language of which we only have a limited understanding. No one among us speaks this language fluently, and we are reduced to fragmented interpretations to make sense of the dark meanings contained in the scrolls. The truth in the scroll is there, but our ability to interpret what is written is limited. “History is a reality,” explains Kirk, “but a veiled reality, of which our knowledge always is imperfect and upon which our mundane designs can operate only slightly. History is our tool only in the sense that we employ our knowledge of history to bring ourselves to an understanding and realization, so far as we may, of the principles of private and public order.”

Summarizing the Burkean School

Kirk’s explanation reiterates Burke’s historical understanding: 1) history reveals truth, 2) the truth revealed is not fully comprehensible, 3) as such, history is a tool that aids our feeble efforts at grasping truth and nothing beyond this, and 4) these truths can be applied to our private and political spheres in a continual process of experimentation, examination, and critical analysis that may sharpen our politics but never fully justify our political ideology.

To this we might add a fifth element: the Burkean school of history views history as a record of God’s Providence at work in the world. This is the most explicitly religious element of the Burkean school. To use an admittedly groan-worthy dad joke: the word “history” comes from the words “His story”. Cliché though this may be, it does capture the central idea of the Burkean school. If history is to be understood as God’s Providence (a concept we covered at length in Part 3) then it would certainly follow that it is a tool not of our own making and our understanding is limited because we cannot comprehend the fullness of God’s work.

Now, laying aside the theistic elements of the Burkean school of history, I don’t want to imply that the other three schools discussed in Part 4 are at complete odds with the other elements here. Surely adherents of these schools would not deny history contains truth or that humanity might profit by seeking out these truths and applying them to the political order. To better understand how the other schools differ from the Burkean school, let’s take a look at how they understand the future.

What History Tells Us About the Future

As we saw in Part 4, the progressive school sees history as relentlessly advancing to some ultimate, deterministic end. As such, it is easily compatible with a multitude of Leftist ideologies (and some ideologies on the Right) that prescribe certain policies or attitudes to bring about a “progress”. The progressive school has faith in a predetermined future and looks to history as evidence for their faith. To be fair, those who hold religious convictions may also possess faith in some predestined future. But the key distinction here is that the progressive school holds that this inevitable future will take place on this material earth, not in some intangible afterlife. Thus, the progressive school is optimistic about the future.

The cyclical school is fatalistic about the future for it holds that humanity is forever trapped in cycles of growth and decay with no end in sight. The nihilistic school is apathetic about the future as there is no reason to believe the future will be any better or worse than the past or present. In both cases, the cyclical and nihilistic schools do not show that humanity bears much responsibility or even has the ability to impact the future.

The Burkean school, in contrast, is neither optimistic, fatalistic, nor apathetic about the future. Rather, the Burkean school is hopeful about the future. Hope and optimism are often confused as interchangeable, but they are, in fact, quite different. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, optimism “is the belief that things are going to get better.” Whereas hope, “is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue; hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.”

Where the progressive school finds reasons to be optimistic about the future by studying history, the Burkean school is persuaded that history shows a brighter future is possible, and certainly worth striving towards, but is not guaranteed nor entirely in our control in this present reality. As Kirk further elaborates on Burkes’ views:

“History, for Burke, was the gradual revelation of a Supreme design—often shadowy and subtle to our eyes, but quite resistless, wholly just. Burke stops far short of Hegel’s mystical determinism, for his adherence to the doctrine of free will tells him that it is not arbitrary, unreasoning will, not material force or racial destiny, which make history, but rather human character and conduct. God makes history through the medium of human souls. It may become impious to resist the grand design, when once its character is irrefutably manifested; but a full comprehension of God’s ends we are rarely vouchsafed.”

History Encourages Hope, Humility, Courage, and Selflessness

Thus, the Burkean school of history encourages a humble and hopeful approach. Humble in that we are not in control or even capable of full comprehension as we are but the vessels of a Supreme design. Hopeful in that we have faith in God’s Providence for humanity and that whatever happens in this life, it is ultimately working towards God’s greater purposes. Burke recognized that the same God who promised to make a great nation out of Abraham’s seed also allowed that nation to dwell in captivity in the land of Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. Hope, therefore, does not mean we are dismayed when life does not bring us good health and great prosperity. But it does mean we have the right—and duty—to work towards those things. Kirk continues:

“History is the record of human existence under God, meaningful only so far as it reflects and explains and illustrates the order in the soul and in society which emanates from divine purpose. The aim of history, in the eyes of this school, is not antiquarian, nor yet programmatic: that purpose is to reveal to existing men and societies the true nature of being…History is not law, in the sense of fixed fate, foreknowledge absolute; nor does it have ‘meaning’ in the sense of providing a Grand Design for immanent improvement. A study of history reveals the general principles to which men and societies, in all ages, are subject; but it cannot confer upon the scholar a prophetic afflatus; it cannot describe the wave of the future.”

What, then, does the Burkean school advise we do if it offers us no assurance in a political program? If the hope offered by this school rests in the faith that we are created by a good God who has destined good things for the human race but who has also given us free wills and a material world of moral consequences, then the implication would be that we ought to strive to create the best conditions possible whereby change may occur for the better. By searching out and laboring to live within the moral order God has created for humanity, we will greatly increase the potential for a strong and vibrant society. And if that does not happen—if natural disasters or pandemics or warfare or any number of other calamities seemingly outside of our control devastate our lives—we are still invited to participate in God’s grand design for humanity in the faith that even our sufferings and loses are consecrated in something greater than ourselves.

And because of this, the Burkean school requires a great deal of courage and selflessness to look beyond the progressive promise of a terrestrial paradise or the cyclical or nihilistic schools which require nothing of their adherents. History, to the Burkean school, becomes a source of comfort, instruction, and admonition for those with the moral maturity to hold this view. “We are products of our national history,” writes Sir Roger Scruton, “and to the extent that we find in the past the traces of a spirit that presently moves us, to that extent are we rightly moved, and to that extent are we heartened by our community with the men and women who have gone before.” History is there for our encouragement to walk the path of virtue.

This series is on the conservative’s understanding of change and progress. Understanding how the conservative views history helps us anchor notions of change and progress in a better context. In Part 6 we will examine how these ideas can be put into practice.

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