A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good: Essays in Honor of Francis Canavan, (eds.) Kenneth L. Grasso and Robert P. Hunt, (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2002).

Fr. Francis Canavan, S.J., has made a deep impact upon Burke studies in the years since 1957, when his significant essay on “Edmund Burke’s College Study of Philosophy” appeared in Notes and Queries. His three books on Burke, The Political Reason of Edmund Burke (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1960), Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence, (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1987), and The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought, (New York, Fordham University Press, 1995), deserve much wider recognition than they have received, particularly in Great Britain.

As the introduction to this collection of essays makes clear, Canavan’s perspective on Burke’s thought, and on wider issues of political science, is directed by his fundamental belief that politics is, inescapably, infused with moral judgment, or, in his own words, that “underlying every system of government there is some predominant conception of the nature of man and the meaning of human existence.” This may remind us strikingly of Burke’s words, in a letter to Dr. William Markham in 1772, that, “The principles of true politicks are those of morality enlarged. . . .”

Canavan has written on topics much wider than Burke’s thought, including constitutional law and Catholic education, and the essays in A Moral Enterprise reflect that breadth effectively. The first three essays, however, by Peter Stanlis, F. P. Lock and Joseph Pappin III, are all on Burke, and their position emphasizes the significance of that field of study in Canavan’s academic career. In turn, the editors are of the opinion that “Canavan’s writings on Burke might be said to focus on the restoration of Burke to his rightful place in the pantheon of Christian political thinkers.”

Restricting the comments here to those three essays on Burke, each is eminently worth reading, and each distinct from the other two in style and perspective. Stanlis’s essay, “Edmund Burke and British Views of the American Revolution: A Conflict over Rights of Sovereignty,” also appears in the 1997 volume The Enduring Edmund Burke, but it repays re-reading in its attention to the less studied writings of Burke on the American colonial conflict. After exploring ways in which the conflict in America affected Burke’s deployment of the concept of “sovereignty,” Stanlis concludes with Burke’s intriguing, but evidently undeveloped, idea of a “federal union” between Britain and the American colonies, a term he used in his second speech on conciliation, in 1775.

The essays by F. P. Lock and Joseph Pappin III both present, in different degrees of explicitness, surveys of the ways in which Burke’s concept of rights challenges the contemporary, “liberal,” understanding of that term. “Burke differs from the ‘liberal’ tradition,” Lock explains, “not in rejecting rights, but in what he recognizes as a right.” Essentially, Burke’s understanding of a right is not an abstract one, but is grievance rooted and situation specific, which, far from rendering that understanding time-bound, makes it “unexpectedly relevant to the problem of ‘human rights’ in today’s world.” Here, the author is thinking of the problems that arise when universal human rights are conflated with Western social democratic values and then applied outside the Western tradition, often at the expense of culturally diverse civilizations such as Moslem ones.

Lock juxtaposes Burke’s “real rights of man” with the French revolutionary Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen to show how both point to a minimalist construction of the role of the state. The latter, however, achieves this by something of a sleight of hand—by considering the Déclaration as a statement of the people, and thereby hiding government power behind the authority of this nebulous, abstract concept of popular sovereignty. Consequently, no theoretical security existed to prevent the seizure of the property of a private individual by the people/government. In light of this, Burke’s emphasis on private property, even at the expense of the “right” of universal franchise, might appear as the more effective restraint upon governmental power. At the same time, a stress upon individual property rights, it could be argued, would engender stronger communal ties among citizens, while the abstract sovereignty of the people tends to greater atomization of society. The tendency to atomization leads Lock to stress Burke’s “reciprocity of rights and duties,” and to comment that “Burke . . . follows the Aristotelian tradition of attributing to the state a moral purpose.”

This Aristotelian connection forms a more central aspect of Joseph Pappin’s essay, “Edmund Burke on Tradition and Human Progress: Ordered Liberty and the Politics of Change.” Burke, says Pappin, relied upon Aristotle’s distinction between “being-in-act and being-in-potency” to achieve the “union of permanence and change” that underpins his political thought. This union was not possible for the Jacobins, with their adulterated metaphysics, and the difference—between types of metaphysics, Pappin stresses, not between metaphysics and pragmatism—is what provides the key for understanding Burke’s rejection of “rights” as enshrined in documents such as the Déclaration.

This review is from Reflections, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2003), and was first published accompanying Vol. 43, No. 1 of The University Bookman.