To the Editors:
Alan Ryan’s interesting review of Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment NYR, July 5, 2001 contains two passing slurs on Edmund Burke reflecting an all too common modern misconception, which really should be remedied:
Before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burke accounted himself something of a disciple of Smith; once battle was joined, he backed tradition against reason, the ancien régime against the Enlightenment. Some of the contemporary diatribes against globalization are the direct inheritors of Burke….
Burke might descant on the virtues of “prejudice,” and prefer superstitious reverence to the cool and cheerful acceptance of the need for sensible government; but Smith had no use for prejudice and superstition in any form.
Burke never “backed tradition against reason”; he charged the French revolutionists with having abandoned reason. For him, “reason” or “rational” meant advocating, doing, or admiring any action or measure because it had at least a fair chance of accomplishing something useful or averting something harmful. This meant basing it on causes in human nature, universal or locally conditioned, the effects of which are known by experience. He thought—with reason—that the French were ignoring the likely results of forgetting human nature.
Burke thought that tradition, and such prejudices as men’s respect for the morality, society, laws, authority, and religion with which they have grown up, are useful when those traditions or prejudices have a reason—that is, when they turn out to do more good than harm. They keep society stable, without tyrannical coercion, and while, at times, impeding needed reforms, they do not preclude them. That the slave trade was traditional was no argument for continuing anything so demonstrably and viciously harmful. Burke proposed, sometimes successfully, many more reforms than did any other MP. And if ancien régime means what he called the system of palace intrigue at Versailles, he had no wish to see it restored; he vainly urged the émigré princes to promise not its resuscitation but a monarchy limited by law (Burke’s rock-bottom idea of liberty).
There is no “superstition” in Burke’s regard for tradition. It is just that he, like his friend Hume, was acutely aware of the limits and fallibility of human reason, which always had to be based on incomplete knowledge, and he therefore thought it reasonable to build on whatever experience showed had worked pretty well, unreasonable to tear it all down to enact an untried theory.
Smith makes exactly this point in perhaps the last thing he wrote, evidently worried about even the earliest tendencies of the French Revolution. A public-spirited fellow feeling for the real distresses of others may, he wrote, be taken over by a “spirit of system,” whose leaders
often propose…to new-model the constitution, and to alter, in some of its most essential parts, that system of government under which the subjects of a great empire have enjoyed, perhaps, peace, security and even glory during the course of several centuries together. The great body of the party are commonly intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system, of which they have no experience, but which has been represented to them in the most dazzling colours in which the advocacy of their leaders could paint it.
The leaders, who may, originally, “have meant nothing but their own aggrandizement,” become fanatical “dupes” of their own rhetoric, then find they cannot compromise, even if they secretly want to, and end attaining nothing, not even the amelioration of those distresses a little moderation could have achieved. Like Burke, Smith is remembering the Puritan revolution that ended, via Cromwell, in the restoration of Charles II. What he wrote could well be a preface to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Smith and Burke were not only lifelong friends; they thought alike. Modern conservatives and their opponents who don’t see this just don’t know how to read Burke’s admittedly one-sided rhetoric without looking for hints of the other side. Burke opposed theoretically based revolution; he would have been horrified at Russian communism and its defenders. But that is irrelevant to such a step-by-step development as globalization, based on practical trial and error, not theory.
George C. McElroy
After reading Alan Ryan’s review of Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment, I am baffled. On the one hand most of what Ryan attributes to Emma Rothschild as an original interpretation of Adam Smith’s thought was already well known to me though I have no title to claim as an Adam Smith scholar. In fact the prejudice according to which Smith was a champion of laissez faire was proved wrong by Jacob Viner in 1927, in a celebrated article reprinted in 1966. (See Adam Smith, 1776–1926: Lectures to Commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Publication of ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ Chicago, 1928; reprint New York, 1966, pp. 116–155.) Later on, particularly after the Glasgow Edition of the works and correspondence of Adam Smith, a number of important studies, which I imagine are familiar to Alan Ryan, made clear how more subtle and complex the thought of Smith was than the way in which previously it had been too often presented. We did not need Emma Rothschild to understand that.
On the other hand Ryan’s review contains some assertions which should not pass unchallenged. I will limit myself to the following three. First, he writes that “it was from Condorcet that Constant learned the distinction between ‘the liberty of the ancients’ and ‘the liberty of the moderns’ for which he is remembered.” In fact the idea circulated all through the eighteenth century. An Italian scholar, Luciano Guerci (a pupil of Franco Venturi), published in 1979 a well-documented essay, Libertà degli antichi e libertà dei moderni: Sparta, Atene e i ‘philosophes’ nella Francia del Settecento, in which he did show how complex the background of Constant’s idea was apart from Condorcet.
In addition to that, Constant’s lecture of 1819 reflected more recent experiences, namely the Jacobin lesson and Sismondi’s work, as Biancamaria Fontana properly pointed out in her edition of Constant’s Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 15–21).
Second, Ryan writes: “Although he was a convinced agnostic, Tocqueville even argued that egalitarian democracies needed the warmth of the Catholic faith.” But the question of Tocqueville’s religious feelings is not that simple: see, for instance, Doris S. Goldstein’s Trial of Faith: Religion and Politics in Tocqueville’s Thought (New York, 1975). More recently a well-known student of Tocqueville’s life and thought, Luis Diez del Corral (El pensamiento político de Tocqueville: Formación intelectual y ambiente histórico, Madrid, 1989) argued very convincingly that in spite of any doubt Tocqueville is likely to have remained to the end faithful to the religion of his forefathers. Diez del Corral’s contention was mostly based on his careful analysis of the relationship between Tocqueville and Pascal.
Third, I find unacceptable the way in which Ryan presents Edmund Burke. If Ryan does not want to take into any account the results of the most recent scholarship concerning Burke, among which the beautiful biography by Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody, he should at least recognize the high consideration given to Burke’s thought by people like Constant, Tocqueville, Gladstone, Lord Acton (I trust there is no need for specific references, which I could easily produce). Were all these people, among others, staunch reactionaries? To define Burke, sic et simpliciter, a supporter of “the ancien régime against the Enlightenment,” as Ryan does following the resentful prejudice of the same type of detractors he blames with regard to Smith and Condorcet, is a gross oversimplification which amounts to a travesty.
Scuola Normale Superiore
Alan Ryan replies:
Professor McElroy makes a familiar case, and one that I would myself make against anyone who thought that Burke was merely given to high-flown defenses of superstition. I am, also, not inhospitable to the thought that one could underpin the Reflections with a coolly Humean defense of the utility of habits of deference and the like. Indeed, I have argued as much for thirty years. But, I think the Burke of Letter to a Noble Lord and Letter on a Regicide Peace is not so easily rescued; the sentiments Burke brings to his hatred of the French Revolution are in their essence religious rather than sociological. I do not mean this as a criticism, only as a description of where on the intellectual spectrum they are to be situated.
Professor Vivarelli is right to point out that many people have drawn attention to the complexities of Adam Smith’s ideas—both to a tension between the emphasis on sympathy in Theory of the Moral Sentiments and the emphasis on self-interest in The Wealth of Nations and a tension between Smith’s defense of the system of natural liberty in The Wealth of Nations and his sympathy with older, republican ideals in the lectures that remained unpublished during his lifetime. Emma Rothschild is doing something different. I do not think I can make that clearer than I have done already.
As to Condorcet and Constant, it is true that Constant might have picked up the distinction between ancient and modern liberty from other sources running all the way back to Montesquieu—perhaps even to Hobbes—and its importance was certainly reinforced by recent experience, as in a more convoluted fashion for Hegel. Ms. Rothschild’s point, however, was that no matter who might have taught Constant the distinction, it was in fact Condorcet.
Much the same point might be made about Tocqueville. Tocqueville might have remained personally attached to Catholicism as an institution out of family loyalty, even after he had himself become an agnostic; the more interesting point is that he recommended Catholicism to the American democracy as a religion suited to democratic societies.
As to Burke, the point is not that one cannot supply a rational underpinning to Burke’s hostility to the French Revolution, rather that Burke himself became less and less interested in doing so. I am not a reactionary and I admire Burke a good deal; but from 1790 onward, Burke strikes me as a man possessed—and not by the sociology of skeptical Whiggism.