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Popper on Burke

Popper does a great job of presenting opposing views fairly, with ample quoting, and generous interpretations. Popper writes very clearly, and he makes sure to explain the opposing views as clearly as possible. That often means writing them more clearly than their proponents ever did. Popper frequently uses more words to explain an opposing view than he does to criticize it. I can't think of anyone else who is comparable; this is one of of the wonderful things about reading Popper.

That's why I was very surprised to find one case where Popper provided a single, hard-to-read quote, and gave an ungenerous and unreasonable interpretation. Unfortunately, Popper does this to one of my favorite authors: Burke.

Quotes are from The Open Society and Its Enemies p112-113. Popper starts by lumping Burke together with Aristotle even though their statements are quite different. Here's Aristotle:
To take care of virtue is the business of a state
And here is what Burke said[1]:
[the state is] to be looked upon with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature
Note that it says "other reverence" not just "reverence". This is because Popper left out important context. Popper goes on to paint Burke as a worshipper of the State. But Burke was actually saying the State deserves more reverence than a temporary agreement for trading coffee or calico. That's where the word "other" comes from.

Now, the main thing Popper says is that Burke and Aristotle are demanding that the State be worshipped, and be in charge of morality. Aristotle says very clearly that virtue is in the domain of the State, but Burke does not. Burke says the State is more important than "things subservient...". What things is he talking about? Trade of coffee for one. Burke goes on to explain that the State is a longterm partnership to achieve longterm ends. The main theme is to get liberty and prevent chaos. Those are exactly the things Popper thinks it proper that a State do. But Popper takes Burke to mean something else:
In other words, the state is said to be something higher or nobler than an association with rational ends; it is an object of worship.
That is not what Burke said, at all. His ends are rational and he did not ask for worship. My guess is that Popper is being harsh because Burke used one religious word ("reverence") despite the fact that Burke was only demanding more reverence than trade contracts. Popper goes on to accuse Burke of wanting to legislate morality:
it is a demand that the realm of legality ... should be increased at the expense of the realm of morality proper ... [at the expense of] our own moral decisions ... [at the expense of] our conscience.
That is what Aristotle demanded, but it's not even close to what Burke said. Nor is it consistent with Burke's record, e.g. his asking the State to be more lenient with Catholics. Popper then expands on his favored view (he calls it "protectionist"), which he is opposing to the Burke/Aristotle view:
from the protectionist point of view, the existing democratic states, though far from perfect, represent a very considerable achievement in social engineering of the right kind. Many forms of crime, of attack on the rights of human individuals by other individuals, have been practically suppressed or very considerably reduced, and courts of law administer justice fairly successfully in difficult conflicts of interest.
I can't imagine Burke disagreeing with this!

[1] Popper gave no citation, but I found it, here's the full paragraph:

SOCIETY is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure "” but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule, because this necessity itself is a part, too, of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force; but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.

Elliot Temple on October 26, 2008

Comments (1)

Comment on Popper and Burke

Another place where Popper discusses Burke is in "Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition" in _Conjectures and Refutations_.

I posted some notes here:

I thought there was a similarity between Burke and Popper worth exploring.

I like Burke, as well.

Matt Dioguardi

Anonymous at 9:10 PM on November 2, 2008 | #1639

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)