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Emotion and Conservatism: Edmund Burke vs. Jordan Peterson

Edmund Burke by James Northcote

“Similar to Peterson’s argument that happiness is not the sole purpose of life, Burke claims that the ‘pain’ the sublime instills in us is extremely helpful.”

Introduction

One of the more frequent contemporary claims made by conservatives is that, in contrast to their left-wing opponents, they take the world as it truly “is” rather than as their emotions dictate it should be. Perhaps the most artful expression of this sentiment is Ben Shapiro’s slam against progressives that “facts don’t care about care about your feelings,” which has become something of an unofficial koan to followers of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. Putting aside the questionable nature of this claim (does any political movement claim not to care about how the world “is”?), I also think it does a considerable disservice to the rich history of conservative thinking on the nature of emotions. Indeed, a closer look at what Roger Scruton calls “the great tradition” demonstrates that it is full of figures who frequently castigated the Left for its uncaring rationalism and indifference to the concrete and affective experiences of the individuals they professed to care for. As I discussed elsewhere at Merion West, I think the claim that conservatives take the world as it “is” while progressives interpret it through the lens of feelings misrepresents the major dispute. Following Russell Kirk, I think instead the key difference is that it is, in fact, progressives who ask whether and what something “is,” while historically conservatives have asked what something “means.”

Two thinkers who implicitly recognize this are Edmund Burke and Jordan Peterson. Burke is often held up at the father of Anglo-American conservatism, and Jordan Peterson is a self-described classical liberal who, as I argued elsewhere, is perhaps best understood as a defender of “ordered liberty.” Both of these figures made a name for themselves criticizing the radicals of their day, though I would contend Burke was more skilled and even-handed in this respect than Peterson. Curiously, both authors emphasize emotion and affective attachment as central to their outlook on both life and politics. In particular, they place a central importance on fear as a key emotion for understanding both their sense of cosmological and theological grandeur, and they exhibit reticence in embracing radical solutions in the world of politics. I will compare both of their positions in this essay before concluding with the problems which arise from emphasizing fear as the primary political emotion.

Edmund Burke on the Sublime

Edmund Burke is a difficult figure to summarize in large part because his work deliberately avoided systematicity. In contrast to the “abstract” reasoning of Rousseau and later the Utilitarian rationalists, he was always keen to emphasize that human beings are emotional creatures who have to be understood historically and contextually. This meant recognizing the importance of the unconscious but extremely important background traditions and affective practices, many of which cannot be fully explicated through reason, which nevertheless govern a great deal of our actions. These background traditions and affective practices provide us with a sense of meaning—and therefore an orientation—that a purely rationalistic outlook cannot. Indeed, he goes so far as to dismiss proto-evolutionary and mechanistic attempts to reduce our understanding of these traditions and practices to scientific explanation:

“I am afraid it is a practice much too common in inquiries of this nature to attribute the cause of feelings, which merely arise from mechanical structures of our bodies or from the natural frame and constitution of our minds, to certain conclusions of the reasoning faculty on the objects presented to us; for I should imagine that the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed.”

By contrast, Burke emphasizes that the most profound inclinations we have are often not fully explicable to our reason. This demonstrates why we must show tremendous humility towards existence, recognizing its deep meaning while refraining from the Luciferian ambition to control it entirely.

Part of this is because he believed these mechanistic interpretations contributed to an insidious conceit: that we could use reason to fully explain the world in terms of causal determinism, and, in turn, develop political institutions which prompted individuals to act in a rigorously predictable manner. For Burkean conservatives, this was the ambition, albeit formulated differently, of both Rousseau and the Utilitarians. Rousseau believed that the private reason and will of individuals can be subordinated to the demands of the “general will,” which can never err, while Utilitarianism argued that since all human action could be explained as a calculus concerning future pleasure and pain, it could, in turn, be organized predictably through application of the correct incentives and disincentives.

By contrast, Burke emphasizes that the most profound inclinations we have are often not fully explicable to our reason. This demonstrates why we must show tremendous humility towards existence, recognizing its deep meaning while refraining from the Luciferian ambition to control it entirely. Burke’s insight comes through most clearly in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, which remained his most significant foray into metaphysical theorizing. In the Enquiry, Burke goes out of his way to stress that one of the most powerful encounters we can have is with the “sublime.” Sublime objects and concepts are those which inspire and terrorize us with their power and immensity.  

In a striking passage, Burke claims that the sublime fills us with astonishment, “and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” Similar to Peterson’s argument that happiness is not the sole purpose of life, Burke claims that the “pain” the sublime instills in us is extremely helpful. Conceiving of sublime objects and concepts—including infinity and God—paradoxically help us through revealing the finitude of our reason and the projects we generate from it. However, it is also a terrifying thing, and constant exposure to it can be quite dangerous. Not coincidentally, Burke frequently invokes Milton’s Lucifer as a finite but immensely talented figure who aspired to the status of the true sublime—God.

Later in the Enquiry Burke admits that we often cannot truly grasp sublime objects and concepts, but he emphasizes that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Clear ideas are “small” ideas, though Burke later goes on to emphasize that this is not intended as a negative characterization. Small ideas and things are “beautiful,” since their delicacy and grace demonstrate that they “flatter” us through “compliance” to our expectations. Birds, flowers, the love of a stable marriage are all “small” and “beautiful” things since we know them well and experience aesthetic pleasure in their constancy and the control they embody.  

For Burke, civil society seems like such a “beautiful” idea as it embodies regularity and tradition in contrast to the horror provoked by the sublime return to an often uncaring and immensely large world, which is ready to swallow us whole. Again, this is not meant to be dismissive, since for Burke smallness was in no way a bad thing. In contrast to the immense schemes of his rationalistic opponents, he always was ready to emphasize that seemingly slight individuals and ideas actually provide much of the order and stable meaning we need in life. The sublime provides a sense of cosmic meaning for those who are willing to carefully tread the speculative stairs toward pure understanding of the infinite cosmos, but, for most of us, this is too challenging and frightening. We need to return to the beauty of civil society and its finite (but comforting) traditions and affective practices. In it, the “contract” between the living and the dead can provide a sense of continuity in human life, which the immensity of the sublime always seeks to snuff out like a dying candle.

Jordan Peterson, Order, and Chaos

Peterson is not generally a political thinker, though he has obviously said a great deal about contemporary politics. However, the foundational binary in his work—between Order and Chaos—obviously has important consequences for his interpretation of politics. As he puts in Maps of Meaning:

Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory. Chaos is what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines. It’s the foreigner, the stranger, the member of another gang, the rustle in the brushes in the night-time, the monster under the bed, the hidden anger of your mother, and the sickness of your childChaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayedIt’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth, where the dragon and the gold it guards eternally co-exist. Chaos is where we are when we don’t know where we are, and what we are doing when we don’t know what we are doing. It is, in short, all those things and situations we neither know nor understand….Order, by contrast, is explored territory. That’s the hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old hierarchy of place, position and authority.

That’s the structure of society. It’s the structure provided by biology, too — particularly insofar as you are adapted, as you are, to the structure of society. Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country. It’s the warm, secure living-room where the fireplace glows and the children play. It’s the flag of the nation. It’s the value of the currency. Order is the floor beneath your feet, and your plan for the day. It’s the greatness of tradition, the rows of desks in a school classroom, the trains that leave on time, the calendar, and the clock. Order is the public façade we’re called upon to wear, the politeness of a gathering of civilized strangers, and the thin ice on which we all skate. Order is the place where the behavior of the world matches our expectations and our desires; the place where all things turn out the way want them toBut order is sometimes tyranny and stultification, as well, when the demand for certainty and uniformity and purity becomes too one-sided.”

Interestingly, while Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life both emphasize that Order and Chaos must play an equal role in our life, both of them emphasize the fear that is invariably associated with Chaos over that associated with tyrannical Order. Indeed, the subtitle to the second book, “An Antidote to Chaos,” is highly indicatory. I think it is not too much of a stretch to argue that for Peterson, Chaos is analogous to the Burkean sublime. It is a concept which is impossible to fully grasp rationally, eternal and “without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas.” It demonstrates our fundamental finitude in the world and the ultimately contingency of all of our ideas. This obviously has political consequences, since if the idea of this tradition or that particular form of civil society is contingent rather than necessary, then there is no reason we cannot abandon the tradition or remake the civil society.

Similarly, I think that Order plays a similar role to that of the “beautiful” in Burke. It is the “explored territory,” which is compliant and flattering to our reasoned expectations.  Unlike Burke in the Enquiry, in Maps of Meaning Peterson goes on to explicitly conflate the aestheticized category of “order” with aspects of civil society—from the “greatness” of tradition to the somewhat hokey “flag of the nation.” While conceding that these can become tyrannical, Peterson is very Burkean in stressing that the terrors of a sublime return to chaotic nature are real and consistently prioritize this concern over claims by progressives that we inhabit a quasi-tyrannical, or at least unfair, “patriarchy,” “class-based society, etc.” This obviously has concrete political consequences, since it means we should privilege maintaining an imperfect but established—and often beautiful—order over the fearful risks associated with changing the system with the utopian goal of producing a fairer and more equal society.

Conclusion

Burke and Peterson both have a curious relationship to their categories of the sublime and Chaos respectively. While both stress that experiencing and being moved by them is essential to a full human life, they continuously emphasize that the destabilizing “horror” they provoke is so overpowering that it must be compensated for by a return to tradition and affective practices which are “warm” and “secure.” Too much emotional experience with the sublime (and the chaotic) reveals the finitude of all of our plans and may incline individuals either to cynical apathy on the one hand or to the (often left-wing) totalitarian desire to establish complete dominance of an insecure world.

I think that this is too unbalanced an approach, one which over-emphasizes the dangers of disorder over the creative and romantic possibilities offered by realizing the world can be recreated along more just lines. This, in turn, is reflected in the one-sided theological position taken by both authors, one which stresses God’s role as a stabilizing and worldly force rather than one which radically calls us to action. Indeed, both authors seem to understate the radical qualities of Christianity in particular, forgetting Christ’s role as a revolutionary figure who ended the “old” law to bring a new one which transcended the “human, all too human” specters of the “flag of the nation,” and so on. I hope to elaborate on this in a future essay, so I will just leave this here: with respect to Ian Shapiro, one person’s beautiful and stable “order” is another person’s hegemonic ideology. While it may be the case that destabilizing this brings risk, I find it unacceptable that we would allow real and pervasive injustices to persist because it is more important to emphasize fear than creative possibility.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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Evan
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Evan

Great article, I really enjoyed your comparison of Burke and Peterson. However, I do take some exception to your conclusion: “I think that this is too unbalanced an approach, one which over-emphasizes the dangers of disorder over the creative and romantic possibilities offered by realizing the world can be recreated along more just lines.” I think Peterson’s conceptualization of chaos and order is by definition balanced in that he says society can pathologically tilt too far towards the right or the left; and that currently, in post modern times, the balance is too far towards chaos. His solution is not… Read more »