Focus On Causes, Not On Pretexts

The great Irish statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke wrote a seminal essay of political theory in 1790 entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France.  His purpose was to attack the intellectual underpinnings of the revolution and show, by reasoned argument, that the French revolutionaries were engaged in the height of folly by consciously turning their backs on the past.  The long essay was cast in the form of a “letter” to an unnamed “gentleman in Paris,” and stretched to nearly 360 pages.

Among many of Burke’s perceptive points, he hammered home the fact that, by abandoning the old religion, the revolutionaries were unleashing the brutish side of human nature.  Burke had brilliant rhetorical gifts; his arguments (which are not always consistent) often persuade by sheer eloquence alone.  At one point he tells us,

But the age of chivalry is gone.  That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

Burke distrusts the individual man in the street, believing him to be unfit to pass judgment on the wisdom of hundreds of years of inherited culture and tradition.  (Contrast this to the present day, where every fool believes himself qualified to critique and reject the inherited wisdom of millenia).  He believed that no ordered society could be possible if, as he later said, the “practice of all moral duties, and the foundations of society, rested upon having their reasons made clear and demonstrative to every individual.”  In this he was correct; but Burke carried his argument beyond this.  He believed that, when seeking the lessons of history, we must  clearly distinguish causes from pretexts.  In this passage he explains what he means by this:

We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history.  On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness.  In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.  It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving, dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury.  History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake up the public with the same

“Troublous storms that toss

The private state, and render life unsweet.”[1]

These vices are the causes of these storms.  Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, right of men, are the pretexts.  The pretexts are always ground in some specious appearance of a real good.  You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition, by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply?  If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human beast.  As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judge and captains.

You would no more cure the evil resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils.  You might change the names.  The things in some shape must remain.  A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation.  Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not the occasional organs by which they act and the transitory modes in which they appear.  Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice.

Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief.  Wickedness is a little more inventive.  Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by.  The very same vice assumes a new body.  The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigour of a juvenile activity.  It walks abroad, it continues its ravages, whilst you are gibbeting the carcass, or demolishing the tomb.

You are terrifying yourselves with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of robbers.  It is thus with all those, who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under colour of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps is worse.

We should work to distinguish what are the root causes of problems, from what may only be the surface manifestations of the problem.  Otherwise, we are only chasing shadows and chimeras.  The serious political problems of our own day have not been addressed by those currently holding the highest offices. They have instead contented themselves with arranging, and re-arranging, the various trivialities of the republic’s window dressing.  It is an elaborate pantomime where such people pirouette around the issue, pretending to do work, while they actually do nothing.  They lack the moral courage to deal with the true sources of the ailment.


[1]  Edmund Spencer, The Faerie Queene, II.7


Read more about the lessons of history in my new book Sallust:  The Conspiracy Of Catiline And The War Of Jugurtha