A Vindication of Natural Society
A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind is a work by Edmund Burke published in 1756. It is a satire of Lord Bolingbroke's deism. Burke confronted Bolingbroke not in the sphere of religion but civil society and government, arguing that his arguments against revealed religion could apply to all institutions. So close to Bolingbroke's style was the work, that Burke's ironic intention was missed by some readers, leading Burke in his preface to the second edition (1757) to make plain that it was a satire. Nonetheless, this work was considered by William Godwin to be the first literary expression of philosophical anarchism.
Most historians believe "Vindication" was intended as satire, others disagree; e.g. Murray Rothbard argues that Burke wrote the Vindication in earnest but later wished to disavow it for political reasons. Many passages can be taken either as Swiftian irony or as Burke's realization of the danger such controversial opinions may have on his career:
- "Far am I from proposing in the least to reflect on our most wise Form of Government; no more than I would in the freer Parts of my philosophical Writings, mean to object to the Piety, Truth, and Perfection of our most excellent Church."
- "A Man is allowed sufficient Freedom of Thought, provided he knows how to chuse his Subject properly. You may criticise freely upon the Chinese Constitution, and observe with as much Severity as you please upon the Absurd Tricks, or destructive Bigotry of the Bonzees. But the Scene is changed as you come homeward, and Atheism or Treason may be the Names given in Britain, to what would be Reason and Truth if asserted of China."
The preface presents the occasion of the essay as a riposte to the philosophy of Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (died 1751), whose Collected Works and Letters had been published by David Mallet in 5 volumes in 1754. A new preface was written by Burke after his authorship was discovered. In this apologetic preface, he wrote that Vindication was inspired by "seeing every Mode of Religion attacked in a lively Manner, and the Foundation of every Virtue, and of all Government, sapped with great Art and much Ingenuity" in Lord Bolingbroke's collected Works. This author's design has been to show
- "without the Exertion of any considerable Forces, the same Engines which were employed for the Destruction of Religion, might be employed with equal Success for the Subversion of Government; and that specious Arguments might be used against those Things which they, who doubt of every thing else, will never permit to be questioned."
The author contrasts Natural Society with Political Society beginning with a distrust of the Mind, which "every Day invents some new artificial Rule to guide that Nature which if left to itself were the best and surest Guide." He proposes to set out to identify those "unalterable Relations which Providence has ordained that every thing should bear to every other. These Relations, which are Truth itself, the Foundation of Virtue, and consequently, the only Measures of Happiness."
- "The Fabrick of Superstition has in this our Age and Nation received much ruder Shocks than it had ever felt before; and through the Chinks and Breaches of our Prison, we see such Glimmerings of Light, and feel such refreshing Airs of Liberty, as daily raise our Ardor for more. The Miseries derived to Mankind from Superstition, under the Name of Religion, and of ecclesiastical Tyranny under the Name of Church Government, have been clearly and usefully exposed."
In a swift survey of history, he finds nothing but "Tumults, Rebellions, Massacres, Assassinations, Proscriptions, and a Series of Horror" and remarks that "All Empires have been cemented in Blood" as the casualties mount in the millions, with cruelties perfected by technology.
Contrasted with natural Liberty and natural Religion, the author sets three general forms of government, which he describes with the same emphatic detail as used in the Satires of Juvenal: Despotism, the simplest and most universal, where "unbounded Power proceeds Step by Step, until it has eradicated every laudable Principle"; Aristocracy, which is scarcely better, as "a Genoese, or a Venetian Republick, is a concealed Despotism"; and giddy Democracy, where the common people are "intoxicated with the Flatteries of their Orators":
- "Republicks have many Things in the Spirit of absolute Monarchy, but none more than this; a shining Merit is ever hated or suspected in a popular Assembly, as well as in a Court."
Having employed fulminating rhetoric to dispense with the artificial Political Societies— "after so fair an Examen, wherein nothing has been exaggerated; no Fact produced which cannot be proved"—the author, it might be expected, will turn to his idea of Natural Society for contrast. Instead, he turns his critical eye upon the Mixed government, which combines monarchy, aristocracy and a tempered democracy, the form of politics this essay's British readers would immediately identify as their own. His satirist's view takes it all in, painting once again in broad strokes the dilemmas of the law courts or the dissatisfactions of wealth, and closes— without actually having vindicated natural society at all.
Embedded in the whirl of extravagant invective, Burke is able, like all writers of Menippean satire, to express some subversive criticism:
- "You may criticise freely upon the Chinese Constitution, and observe with as much Severity as you please upon the Absurd Tricks, or destructive Bigotry of the Bonzees. But the Scene is changed as you come homeward, and Atheism or Treason may be the Names given in Britain, to what would be Reason and Truth if asserted of China."
Notes and cited references
- Godwin attributed the first anarchist writing to Edmund Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society. "Most of the above arguments may be found much more at large in Burke's Vindication of Natural Society; a treatise in which the evils of the existing political institutions are displayed with incomparable force of reasoning and lustre of eloquence…" – footnote, Ch. 2 Political Justice by William Godwin.
- Rothbard, Murray. "Edmund Burke, Anarchist". Archived from the original on 12 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-14.
- Sobran, Joseph, Anarchism, Reason, and History: "Oddly enough, the great conservative Edmund Burke began his career with an anarchist tract, arguing that the state was naturally and historically destructive of human society, life, and liberty. Later he explained that he’d intended his argument ironically, but many have doubted this. His argument for anarchy was too powerful, passionate, and cogent to be a joke. Later, as a professional politician, Burke seems to have come to terms with the state, believing that no matter how bloody its origins, it could be tamed and civilized, as in Europe, by “the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.” But even as he wrote, the old order he loved was already breaking down. "
- On-line text
- (Edmund Burke), A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind (Liberty Fund, 1982) ISBN 0-86597-009-2.
- A Note on Burke's Vindication of Natural Society. Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (1):114-118
- John C. Weston, Jr. (1958). The Ironic Purpose of Burke's Vindication Vindicated. Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (3):435-441
- Frank N. Pagano (1985). Burke's View of the Evils of Political Theory: Or, "A Vindication of Natural Society". Polity 17 (3):446-462