Mecosta, Michigan, May 2002
On May 10–12, 2002, the Edmund Burke Society of America hosted the first in its proposed series of annual academic conferences, “Fresh Perspectives on Burke Studies in Higher Education.”
A distinguished group of Burke scholars joined the Society’s committee and other invited guests at the Russell Kirk Center in Mecosta, Michigan, to discuss the latest research on Edmund Burke’s thought, and to mark the contribution of the Society’s Honorary Chairman, Dr. Peter J. Stanlis, to Burke studies.
The conference also provided an opportunity for participants to advise the Edmund Burke Society on how it might use its own facilities, particularly its recently launched website, to encourage the further development of Burke studies in higher education in America and Great Britain, and to foster stronger Anglo-American ties in Burke studies.
Mr. Gary Chamberlin, Chairman of the Edmund Burke Society, Great Britain, was present at the conference as a guest of the Society.
The program opened on Friday evening with a formal reception and dinner, at which the Society’s president, Dr. Joseph Pappin III, spoke briefly about the work and origins of the Edmund Burke Society of America.
Mansfield Address: ‘Burke’s Conservatism’
After dinner, Dr. Harvey Mansfield, William R. Kenan Jr.Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of the seminal study Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke (Chicago, 1965), delivered our opening address, “Burke’s Conservatism,” in which he took a glance back at the debt Burke scholarship owes to the work of Peter J. Stanlis and Leo Strauss, and then turned to consider the areas of contemporary political dialogue in which Burke’s thought is likely to retain its vibrancy and relevance.
Lock Address: ‘Edmund Burke’s Religion’
On Saturday morning, the conference reconvened in the Kirk Library, where Dr. F. P. Lock, author of the highly-acclaimed biography Edmund Burke: 1730–1784 (Oxford, 1998), and professor of English at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, spoke on “Edmund Burke’s Religion.” Dr. Lock stressed that Burke left no systematic or authoritative exposition of his religious beliefs or opinions, although numerous references scattered through Burke’s letters, writings, and speeches attest the importance he attached to religion. As a result, there are still considerably diverging opinions among Burke scholars on this vital aspect of his thought—from an acceptance of his professed loyalty to the Established Church to the opinion that he was a crypto-Catholic. Dr. Lock then tackled this problem of interpretation by exploring three questions: What was Burke’s philosophy of religion (if it existed at all)? What principles did Burke apply to the religious questions that surfaced during his political career? What were Burke’s personal religious beliefs?
With regard to the first, the speaker drew evidence particularly from Burke’s early writings, and from his attitude to the religions of India, to suggest that Burke’s belief in Providence enabled him to accept a considerable degree of religious pluralism without compromising his belief in Christianity. With regard to political issues, which mainly concerned the privileged status of the Established Church, Dr. Lock argued that the genuineness of Burke’s religious convictions was attested by his willingness to speak and vote against his usual associates. Finally, in the matter of personal faith (for which the evidence is the scantiest), the speaker concluded that his philosophy and politics both attest his belief that no religion is free from an admixture of the merely human and that there is more than one way of “doing the work of God.”
Bromwich Address: ‘Burke and the Argument from Human Nature’
After lunch, Dr. David Bromwich, Housum Professor of English at Yale University and editor of the most imaginative anthology of Burke’s works to appear in years—On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (Yale, 2000)—spoke on “Burke and the Argument from Human Nature.” Starting with an examination of Burke’s understanding of the danger posed by those individuals who not only renounce fear of God but give up the fear of men, Dr. Bromwich explored the relationship between fear and Burke’s treatment of our primordial fascination with “the sublime.” He then explained Burke’s belief that an attachment to human nature is vital in the humanizing of social man.
Drawing upon Burke’s portrayal of Warren Hastings as a betrayer of human nature, and quoting directly from Hastings’s own defenses of his military policies in India in the early 1770s, he showed how Burke understood the foundation of sociability and political cohesion to lie in a true sense of “natural piety,” through which vital duties are not considered as exclusively the results of conscious choice, but carry an authority rooted in practice and prescription. In this sense, Dr. Bromwich’s argument stressed more heavily than has generally been thecase the perceived similarities between Burke and David Hume, and, at the same time, called into question the rigidity of some natural law interpretations of Burke’s thought.
Future Directions for the Society
The third scheduled session of the day was a roundtable discussion on the future direction of the work of the Society. The group strongly supported the Society’s commitment to attracting a membership well beyond the academic community, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of the Society’s media resources (the newsletter, Internet, and a proposed, annual scholarly journal) to Burke-related research in higher education. They supported the principle of a “federated” structure for the Society, comprising local reading groups, drawing from a central website, with one annual conference to maintain a national profile. The meeting also encouraged the maintenance of strong relations between the societies in America and Great Britain.
The Blackstone engraving presented to Dr. Stanlis
The formal conference program closed Saturday evening with a dinner in honor of Dr. Peter Stanlis. Appreciations of Dr. Stanlis’s work were offered by Mr. Jeffrey Nelson, secretary and treasurer of the Society, and the president, Dr. Joseph Pappin. Dr. Stanlis was presented with an engraving of Sir William Blackstone and responded with a short speech of thanks and encouragement to the new pioneers of Burke scholarship.
The Edmund Burke Society of America is very grateful to all the participants for their advice and support, and wishes to express its gratitude for the foresight and generous financial backing of our sponsors, the Earhart Foundation, and the Marguerite Eyer Wilbur Foundation.
It also extends its warm thanks to the staff and fellows of the Russell Kirk Center, and particularly to the Center’s president, Annette Kirk, through whose generous hospitality the conference was conducted in the most congenial of surroundings.