Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Little better than flies of a summer"

Burke or Paine? Of which Enlightenment are we heirs? The quotation in the heading accurately describes what Burke would think of men who agree with Paine. David Brooks on a dissertation by Yuval Levin in which he distinguishes between two Enlightenments, exemplified by Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke:
.... As Levin shows, Paine believed that societies exist in an “eternal now.” That something has existed for ages tells us nothing about its value. The past is dead and the living should use their powers of analysis to sweep away existing arrangements when necessary, and begin the world anew. He even suggested that laws should expire after 30 years so each new generation could begin again. ....

Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.

Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.

If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch. .... [more]
Looking around online for sites about Edmund Burke, I came across this quotation, unrelated to the above, but I liked it: "Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair."

Op-Ed Columnist - Two Theories of Change - NYTimes.com