Burke – a British and Irish Deist
by Gwydion M. Williams
Edmund Burke was a Whig, though everyone remembers him as a Tory. He was a supporter of the American Revolution, but known chiefly as an opponent of the revolution in France. And yet Burke was a highly effective politician, despite having only the very briefest period of direct political power. It’s a pity that he has been taken up by Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, who is the exact opposite. A man who has wasted numerous chances to do something good and useful in the world, and without even upholding any particular point of principle. Dr Cruise O’Brien writing a biography of Edmund Burke is rather like Mother Teresa of Calcutta writing a biography of Germaine Greer.
In trying to work out who Burke actually was, it is first necessary to completely disregard what Cruise O’Brien says about him. Instead, look at what the man himself said. And also to remember that, given the times he lived in, certain things would have had to be left unsaid.
At the level of formal and public belief, Burke was a member of the Church of England. He was also a strong supporter of Catholic emancipation. Both his friends and his enemies have speculated that he might have been a secret Catholic. But the corrupt and demoralised Catholic Church of his day would have offered very little to a man of his calibre. It is also well know that there were many 18th century thinkers who believed in God, but saw all established religion including all existing varieties of Christianity as basically superstitious and untrue. From this viewpoint – normally called Deism – there was no Christian truth to uphold, and therefore no error that should be persecuted. Some Deists saw established religion as an absolute obstacle to enlightenment. But many others preferred to uphold forms that they did not really believe in, simply because there was no knowing what might happen if established religion were to lose its grip on the popular mind. Even if Christianity were an historic error, it could be considered a useful error.
I am as sure as I can be that Burke lived and died a Deist, and a supporter of artificial order against unpredictable chaos. I am as sure as I can be, in the absence of a direct statement of unfaith by the man himself. Given that any open rejection of ‘Gospel truth’ would have utterly destroyed Burke’s role in public life, I am not surprised that he never actually said any such thing. The silences are eloquent. The silences about Jesus and the Gospels indicate that Burke did not attach much importance to Christian doctrines as such. He says a great deal about religions matters. But I have been unable to find anywhere where he says that Christian doctrines are true.
From all that I have read of his writings, Burke does not attach any particular significance to the life or mission of Jesus, or to any of the other great names of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As an educated man, he knew of the covert criticisms of the Bible that were circulating among the ruling elite, and he never made any attempt to argue that these criticisms were wrong. On the other hand, he does talk a great deal about God, and utterly condemned Atheism. So I assume that Burke was basically a Deist, a believer in a God that none of the existing religions had properly understood.
Consider the following: ‘The most horrid and cruel blow that can be offered to civil society is through atheism. Do not promote diversity; when you have it, bear it; have as many sorts of religion you find in your country; there is reasonable worship in them all. The others, the infidels, are outlaws of the constitution, not of this country, but of the human race. They are never, never to be supported, never to be tolerated. Under the systematic attacks of these people, I see some of the props of good government already begin to fail; I see propagated principles which will not leave to religion even a toleration…
‘Even the man who does not hold revelation, yet who wishes that it were proved to him, who observes a pious silence with regard to it, such a man, though not a Christian, is governed by religious principles. Let him be tolerated in this country. Let it but be a serious religion, natural or revealed, take what you can get. Cherish, blow up the slightest spark: one day it may be a pure and holy flame. By this proceedings you form an alliance offensive and defensive against those great ministers of darkness in the world who are endeavouring to shake all the works of God established in order and beauty…’ (Speech on the Relief of Protestant Dissenters, 1773.)
One might wish for a fuller statement of Burke’s philosophy, but it does not seem to exist. It is reasonable to believe that Burke is giving a covert statement of his own position when he speaks of ‘the man who does not hold revelation, yet who wishes that it were proved to him, who observes a pious silence with regard to it’. One might also wonder why he assumes that atheists can have no moral or ethical principles? Or why he ignores the damage done by sincere fanatics who were willing to use any form of trickery or cruelty to establish what they suppose to be the truth? But Burke maintained a judicious silence about the core of his belief.
Burke was an Irishman of a sort that was not quite extinct in 1916, though they have since been forgotten about. He saw no contradiction between being Irish and being British. The United Kingdom as a political entity did not come into existence until after his death, but there was no particularly meaningful government in Ireland itself. Only a corrupt parliament with limited powers, exclusively Protestant, dominated by an aristocracy that had little desire to make common cause with other inhabitants of the island of Ireland. Meaningful politics occurred in London, and was mostly made at Westminster. And this had been the case for several generations before Burke.
Under the Stuart dynasty, it was natural for those Irishmen who were interested in the larger world outside to think in the context of the ‘three kingdoms’. The Stuart dynasty had remote Irish roots, roots that counted for a lot in the Gaelic scheme of things. When James the Sixth of Scotland inherited Ireland along with England, the Gaelic Irish saw him as a legitimate ruler in a way that previous English queens and kings had not been. Ireland had been awarded to the Anglo-Norman Plantagenets rulers by the Pope. But for the Irishmen of the 17th century, a small amount of royal Irish blood counted for much more than a hundred foreign bishops.
From 1603 to the early 19th century, Irish politics was seen exclusively as a regional politics within the much larger framework of the British Isles. Even the revolt of the United Irishmen had far more to do with America and France than with anything before or since. Ireland had the same sort of politics that has flourished in the Principality of Wales ever since the Welsh-connected Tudors seized the English throne, giving great opportunities to men like Dr Dee and the Cecils, and in more recent times Lloyd George. Something similar has flourished in Scotland from the Stuart dynastic inheritance of England and Ireland.
Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was an episode in the Third English Civil War, which was in fact a civil war throughout the whole of the British Isles. In the First Civil War, the English Parliament had allied itself with the Scottish Presbyterians in order to beat King Charles the First, whose earlier quarrels with the Scots had done so much to start the whole conflict. In the Second Civil War, King Charles won over the Scots by promising to impose Presbyterianism on England. This project failed when Cromwell defeated the Scots at Preston, occupied Scotland and had King Charles executed. The Third Civil War was fought on much the same lines, except that Charles the Second substituted for his father. And Ireland, still loyal to the Stuart, was unavoidably drawn into the conflict. Oddly enough, had Cromwell been defeated by the mostly-Catholic forces in Ireland, the long term result could quite possibly have been Presbyterian domination of the whole of both Great Britain and Ireland.
The crisis that culminated in Anglo-Scottish Revolution of 1688 and the Battle of the Boyne were the last serious military contribution by Ireland to the civil conflicts in the Three Kingdoms. They were on the losing side, and they stayed lost. When the Jacobites rose in 1715 and 1745, Ireland did nothing. It was a society that had lost its political coherence, just as Wales had ceased to function politically at an earlier period.
From a modern viewpoint, one must wonder why Ireland never tried to break away during the various uprisings and civil wars. During the English Civil War, why couldn’t the Irish have set up their own King and declared themselves neutral in English and Scottish conflicts? The modern mind finds it impossible to understand how such an opportunity was missed. The simple answer is that there were no modern minds in 17th century Ireland. The hereditary right of the Stuart dynasty was never seriously questioned.
It is of course possible that Cromwell would still have tried to conquer a neutral and an independent Ireland. No one can tell how an alternate history might have turned out. But the way things actually were, Cromwell had to move rapidly to crush his enemies in Ireland, if he were to have any hope of defeating the overall Presbyterian – Royalist alliance.
If one could rewrite history, one might wish that Ireland and the Scottish Highlands could have been separated under the Stuarts, while Lowland Scotland and England would have been ruled by William of Orange and then the Hanoverians. Such a set-up would have well suited the natural inclination of both sides. But no such solution was ever likely. When Stuart rulers landed in Ireland or Highland Scotland, it was always with a view to retaking England and the Scottish Lowlands, lands that had rejected them. Both the repression of Roman Catholics and the destruction of the Highland clan system were as much defensive measures as exercises of imperial power. One of the two rival systems had to go. And the English and the Lowland Scots were determined that it was not going to be them.
In the 18th century, the British state upheld two rather different forms of Protestantism as absolute truths – truth depending somewhat on geography. The official religion of the British Isles was Presbyterianism in Scotland and Anglicanism for England, Wales and Ireland. There were also Dissenters with less rights than Anglicans, and a considerable survival of Roman Catholics, especially in Ireland and Wales. Welsh Catholicism only really started to decline when it was challenged by Welsh-speaking Dissenter sects. I’ve heard that something similar almost happened in Ireland, leaving a residuum of Gaelic-speaking Protestants in the West of Ireland. But I do not know the details.
All of that was official religious belief. The Enlightenment was an unofficial abolition of Christianity among the upper classes in Western Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike. Voltaire actually learned a lot of his skepticism from English sources, having being forced into exile from France after a quarrel with a French aristocrat. He publicised this disbelief among the French oligarchy, and it became pretty much the standard view of the ‘top people’, barely concealed from the rest of society. Even if the Enlightened aristocrats still considered themselves Christian, it was an unrecognisably new Christianity, deeply changed to put it in harmony with Enlightenment values. But in France, certainly, Christianity ceased to be treated as a serious matter among the oligarchy.
The English and Scotch oligarchies did not reject Christianity in such a blatant way as their French equivalents. Party politics and electioneering kept the rulers of Britain in touch with the people. It gave them a much deeper social control than the privileged French courtiers of Versailles, and it also made them well aware of what it was that needed controlling. Roman Catholics and devout Anglicans tended to be attached to the Tory Party. Dissenters and Protestant radicals were almost always supporters of the Whigs. The oligarchs controlling those parties made use of popular opinions in what were essentially faction fights between people who had much the same beliefs. In the process, the rival politicians at the heart of the Whig and Tory parties gained a passably good idea of the dangerous forces that existed in the country at large, just waiting to be unleashed by any piece of foolishness.
Unlike their counterparts in France, the British oligarchy took good care to keep up a facade of belief. People like David Hume spoke publicly of what much of the ruling class believed privately. But they were very much an exception. The outward forms of a state based on conventional Christianity were maintained by people who by and large did not take such things very seriously. And the battle between Whig and Tory was kept within reasonable bounds. Indeed, the most common pattern after the accession of George III was coalition between moderate Tories and one of the Whig factions. The other Whig factions would form the official opposition, while scheming to get into power in their turn.
It was in this context that Edmund Burke entered politics.
Burke was an Irish Protestant with a Catholic mother and Catholic sisters. This must have been an example of the very civilised system that the Irish had worked out to ease the problems of marriages across the religious divide. Boys would be raised in the religion of their father, and girls in the religion of their mother, ensuring rough equality and keeping family battles to a decent minimum. This civilised system was something that the Catholic Church did not tolerate elsewhere, and which was to be forbidden by the hierarchy during the long crisis over Irish Home Rule, worsening an already bitter communal divide. In the modern world, the Catholic hierarchy demands and enforces a total submission by the non-Catholic partner in any such love-match – total control over the children, at the very least, and preferably also conversion. Exceptions can be made when they are politically expedient – there would have been no problem about a dispensation had Prince Charles chosen to marry a Catholic princess and make her the mother of the future head of the Church of England. But for ordinary mortals, a grossly unequal arrangement is imposed, on pain of exclusion from the community and the loss of the right to participate in religious rites.
In Burke’s day, the hierarchy had no such power. Indeed, it seemed very much on its last legs. The Vatican had been forced by nominally Catholic princes to suppress the Jesuits, and to generally subordinate itself to Enlightenment values. The Jesuits may have boasted ‘give us the child and we will answer for the man’. But the reality was that they produced people like Diderot and Voltaire, well-educated skeptics who knew everything that the Church had to say and were contemptuous of it. Anyone literate enough to read the best authors of Greek and Roman paganism had access to a totally different set of ideas, ideas with much more coherence than the theological mishmash of mediaeval theology. The various Pagan – Christian blends were unconvincing to those who were aware of the real thing. And the monarchs of the enlightenment had forced the Pope to suppress the Jesuits in 1773. They were only revived in 1814, as a reactionary force to serve the post-Napoleonic ‘new world order’.
The 18th century oligarchy in Britain, France and most other parts of Western Europe had secured a solid basis of power for themselves. In large measure they had infiltrated the church, so that Bishops were generally much more concerned with subverting and curbing Christianity than with defending it. Outward forms were maintained, but there was a general expectation that the enlightened oligarchy would gradually cure the mass of the population of their superstition and traditional habits of thought.
What no one seems to have considered before the French Revolution was whether an enlightened population would be happy with the continuing power and privilege of the oligarchy.
* * *
Burke was an Enlightener. His Essay on the Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, written when he was still in his late 20s, was an interesting expansion of the basis world-view. And as such, it was admired by people like Kant and Diderot. More interesting, though less admired and less well known, was Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society. It was both a parody and a logical extension of the Deism and rationalism of Lord Bolingbrook.
(Bolingbrook was a Tory, a supporter of the Church of England, a notorious libertine. In politics he was an over-clever and unsuccessful schemer who he had alternated between support for the Hanoverians and support for the Old Pretender. He was all in all a thoroughly fascinating figure. But space does not permit me to say any more about him here.)
Bolingbrook had argued for ‘natural religion’ – a religion of reason stripped of the superstitious impediments of Christianity. Burke pointed out that you could extend exactly the same arguments to politics.
‘Show me an absurdity in religion, and I will undertake to show you a hundred for one in political laws and institutions. If you say that natural religion is a sufficient guide without the foreign aid of revelation, on what principle should political laws become necessary?… Will you follow truth but to a certain point?
‘If, after all, you … plead the necessity of political institutions, weak and wicked as they are, I can argue with equal, perhaps superior, force, concerning the necessity of artificial religion; and every step you advance in your argument, you add a strength to mine. So that if we are resolved to submit our reason and our liberty to civil usurpation, we have nothing to do but to conform as quietly as we can to the vulgar notions which are connected with this, and take up the theology of the vulgar as well as their politics.’ (Edmund Burke: Selected writings and speeches. Page 63. Anchor Books, New York 1963. Emphasis added)
The necessity of artificial religion was a principle that Burke adhered to throughout his career. He had in effect looked at the foundations of his world, and found that they were not solid at all. The ‘Age of Reason’ was actually an ‘Age of Rationalisation’, with people twisting both logic and facts to reach the conclusion that best suited them. Looked at objectively, Reason might take you almost anywhere. And Burke knew it, long before the possibilities of Free Reasoning were so spectacularly demonstrated in the French Revolution.
Having achieved this understanding, Burke devoted the rest of his life to seeking the moderate reform and improvement of a system that he knew to be artificial. Unlike Rousseau and his followers, he seriously doubted if ‘natural’ systems of religion or politics would automatically spring into existence if the artificial forms were ever to break down. Forms that seemed natural to a privileged aristocrat or a tidy-minded lawyer turned out to seem highly unnatural to a peasant or an ambitious artillery officer. Once long-standing habits were disturbed, almost anything might happen.
‘The body and substance of every religion I regard much more than any of the forms and dogmas of the particular sects. Its fall would leave a great void, which nothing else, of which I can form any distinct idea, might fill. I respect the Catholic hierarchy and the Presbyterian republic; but I know that the hope or the fear of establishing either of them is, in these kingdoms equally chimerical, even if I preferred one or the other of them to the Establishment, which certainly I do not.’ (Ibid, p 271, letter of 1793 on the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Emphasis added.)
Burke wrote at a time when a ‘great void’ had already opened with the revolution in France, and utterly new political forms were just beginning to fill it. But his view was perfectly consistent with his earlier notions. He was perhaps the one man in Europe who was not surprised by the strange unfolding of the French Revolution.
Both in politics and religion, Burke supported forms that he knew to be artificial. He did this because he considered them to be useful, better than anything that would spring up after their downfall. It is doubtful if he attached any particular importance to Christianity as such. Certainly, he was able to recognise the merits of Islam ‘To name a Mahomedan government is to name a government by law. It is a law enforced by stronger sanction than any law that can bind a Christian sovereign. Their law is believed to be given by God; and it has the double sanction of law and religion, with which the prince is no more authorised to dispense than any one else. ‘ He said this as part of his condemnation of Warren Hastings, the great but tyrannical British governor-general of India. Also as a rejection of the whole hypocritical self-serving notion that the non-Christian world was lawless, and thus fair game for plunder.
Burke was a Deist who chose to operate as a Church-of-England Christian. There is rally nothing in his writing to suggest that he considered Christianity any closer to the truth than any of the alternative religions that human history had given rise to. But he knew that Deism, if followed logically, might lead to almost anything, including total chaos.
‘The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of Nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties…’ (Ibid, p 538.)
Whereas Established Christianity was at least a fairly fixed and definite creed, Deism or the belief in a Supreme Being untrammelled by revelation was a risky business. Robespierre tried to create an Established Deism with himself as High Priest. But his notions of a ‘rational religion’ had no obvious advantage over anyone else’s, except that he had for a short time the power to impose his ideas. He tried to fill the void that Burke had seen opening up, and instead it swallowed him. No stability was achieved until Napoleon chose to reestablish Catholicism as the officially favoured creed.
I have no idea of what Burke would have made of all this, had he lived to see it. He outlived Robespierre, but Napoleon was only just beginning to earn his reputation at the time of Burke’s death in 1797. It is perfectly possible that had he lived a few years longer, he would once again have surprised everyone by supporting peace with Napoleon. Burke was never a reactionary. And he might well have been clever enough to realise that a restoration of the pre-revolutionary order would be bound to fail. Whereas the modernised Napoleonic system might have proved stable without any of the subsequent rounds of revolution and war. Who knows?
In any case, Burke died when he did, at a time when all Europe was in flux. He left behind him a set of political habits that were followed by Pitt’s Whig / Tory coalition. But he left behind no coherent political philosophy – how could he, when the foundations of his thought could not be made public? There is a large element of blarney in most of Burke’s public statements. He treated established forms as if they were natural, even though he knew that they were artificial. He did this because he could find no definite guide as to what really was natural, let alone a method to convince the mass of the population of any deeper truth that he might come up with. He had a feeling that certain changes would be good and others bad, but neither he nor anyone else could prove that these feelings were either right or wrong. But to teach such thinking to the mass of the population would be a recipe for disasters. Even teaching it to the oligarchs would be dangerous. So he chose instead to operate as a practical politician, doing what he could for what he believed to be right.
Burke’s approach also gave plenty of scope for the Established Church to reinterpret Christianity so as to bring it into line with Enlightenment values. This is pretty much what has happened over the centuries to the Church of England. The traditionalists are quite correct to say that innovations like women priests are flatly against the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. But when it comes to the crunch, how many people actually care? If it seems true and useful, why not try it?