Saturday, September 02, 2006

Jeffrey Hart

Let us try to cut to the core of Burke’s thought. I first tried this in a Columbia graduate seminar taught by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. I offered this: “Most of the things we do are done by habit. If you tried to tie your shoes every morning by reason, you would never get out of the house. Try playing a violin by reason.” Barzun accepted this and raised me. “Burke,” he said, “wants his morning newspaper delivered on time.” In other words, social institutions are the habits of society. They make society work.

But suppose serious change becomes necessary. For Burke, you don’t judge change necessary by appealing to abstractions, to pamphleteers and journalists. You appeal to the man of experience, the statesman. In the Reflections, the statesman is Lord Somers, who knew the institutions of England and knew in 1688 that James II had to go. That kind of knowledge cannot be taught but only absorbed from experience.

—Jeffrey Hart, Contribution to a symposium on What is Left? What is Right? Does it Matter?, The American Conservative, August 28, 2006.