Edmund Burke on Manners
by Ian Crowe
It took Edmund Burke a very little time to decide that French Revolutionary philosophy posed a massive threat to civilization and social stability throughout Europe. By the end of his life, eight years after the storming of the Bastille, his fears of Jacobin contagion had led him to ask for a secret grave, removed from his family sepulchre and hidden from those-the English Jacobins-who would plunder the lead from tombs for bullets to assassinate the living. In 1796 he wrote: “…out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination, and subdued the fortitude of man.” He demanded nothing short of a war of extermination against this “armed doctrine.”
It is somewhat surprising, then, to find that this enormous threat brought out Burke’s most urgent defense of an aspect of civilization as trivial as “manners.” Of course, the very fact that we consider manners “trivial” was all part of the problem from the start, as far as Burke was concerned, and he felt driven to state his case unambiguously in his First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796): “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend.” How can this apparent inversion of common sense be justified?
Manners are clearly not the same as laws. They are generally unwritten (unless we are talking about ritual), and they lack the regular, codified sanctions that support institutes and decrees. However, they have a similar function: in our small social communities and informal relationships they lay down expectations of behavior that facilitate the smooth-running and therefore expedite the purpose of these various bodies from the nuclear family to the shopping mall. These very circumstances which make sense of our manners mean that they cannot be constituted and implemented like laws and they should not; but we commit a serious mistake if we allow the institutionalized power of the latter to diminish our respect for the former. It is the very superficial weakness of manners that actually constitutes their crucial importance in our lives.
There are two further points of definition to note here. First, Burke points out, manners are always with us and, in their nature, they are quickly adaptable to changing circumstances in a way that written laws can never be, however firm or enthusiastic the backing for those laws might be. The very strength of manners lies in the fact that they are unwritten: they work “by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.” Secondly, and consequentially, they are in all respects prior to laws in our consciousness and understanding. They precede the rational in their operation: they inform and prepare us: before there is any possibility of consent or contract to “legitimise” our relationships, they instruct us in and incline us towards our duties and responsibilities. We can see that they are nurtured by, and that they themselves reinforce, those very associations to which we are committed by circumstances that exist before and above any voluntary contract of mutual self-interest. The “origin of all relations, and consequently the first element of all duties” is marriage, and the family, of course, the first of all such associations.
Burke wishes us to understand that pre-contractual associations are not primitive forms of living to be superseded by an enlightened, social man when the time comes. They are the schools of behavior and values without which man will never become properly enlightened, and in the absence of which more “advanced” contractual agreements will flounder. They are supremely more important sources of education than the most liberal courses in citizenship, and it is manners that teach us their value and authority. They have a further, most important function, too. Manners preserve the vibrancy of local associations by drawing us-almost instinctively- into the uncalculated exercise of responsibilities, by engendering a respect for our surroundings and our neighbors, and by giving us all some practical, local experience in the trusteeship of authority. In so doing, manners inform us of the proper scope of the powers to be granted to the state, and protect our inherited liberties and our possessions from the largely well-meaning but increasingly insistent encroachments of central government.
They can achieve this vital purpose only because they derive their shape from the moral values that underpin society, and that are rooted in our as social beings. “According to their quality,” Burke argues, “they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.” These values have been imposed from above, by government education or propaganda, and essential that manners are left free reveal them in the wisdom of succeeding generations, in the form of customs, traditions, religious tenets, and the of ordinary people as they go about their common and daily business. They must not become subject to manipulation by the state, nor must they be confounded with laws, because if this happens they will become unable to fulfill that purpose of restraining the potential abuse of power by our governors. Manners are the prerogative of our own pre-contractual associations, the family and the community, which the state should serve, and which should guard jealously as guarantees our diversity and independence.
“Statesmen,” Burke warns, “ought know the different department of things; what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate.” If Jacobins of 1789 could not acknowledge the legitimacy of codes of behavior which arose from sources beyond their Enlightenment they were at least sharp enough to recognize the potential that manners and vibrant local associations posed to the realization of their revolutionary, rationalist aims. What these revolutionaries did, then, was to wage relentless war on manners, preferring to substitute (what they indeed have thought were new manners) officially sanctioned codes of behavior by which government might smooth the implementation of law. In this they inverted the proper order of things.
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