Big Ideas?

George Weigel recently posted an essay about the current presidential campaign on the blog of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Its entitled: Campaign 2012: Burke vs. Hobbes? Its a good thing he put a question mark at the end of the title. Although Weigel wants to make big claims about a conflict of worldviews implicit in the election, the sketch he gives us ought to raise a big question mark. Heres his grandiose introduction: [T]he 2012 race for the White House is something more, something more profoundsomething with deeper historical roots in modernitys wrestling with political power and how that power contributes to the common good. This is a contest, to take symbolic reference points, between Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797).OK, Ill bite. How is it a contrast between Hobbes and Burke?

Hobbes tried to drive religious conviction out of the modern public square, while Burke fashioned a vision of political modernity that drew in part on the rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages.

So by this analogy President Obama is driving religious conviction out of the public square? This is curious. What about his consistent support for and work with faith-based initiatives? What about his frequent references to the importance of his own (Christian) faith in forming him for service to our country? Conversely, the Republican party is the party of rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages? Weigel goes on to state:

In a Hobbesian world, the only actors of consequence are the state and the individual. In a Burkean world, the institutions of civil societyfamily, religious congregation, voluntary association, business, trade union, and so forthmediate between the individual and the state, and the just state takes care to provide an appropriate legal framework in which those civil-society institutions can flourish.

So Governor Romney is a champion of trade unions? And Barack Obama, the dyed-in-the-wool community organizer, has no regard for the role that voluntary associations and so forth play in civil society? This is getting curiouser and curiouser.Weigel pulls back a bit at the end, saying the issue here is one of tendencies, orientations, visions of possibility. Yet he concludes that 2012 really is shaping up as a contest between Hobbes and Burke.Color me unconvinced. But, after all, what do I know about Hobbes and Burke? Steven Millies, of the University of South Carolina Aiken, on the other hand, is an expert on Burke. And he has commented on Weigels essay at his blog. Interestingly, he doesnt think Weigel has got Burke right at all.

For Weigel, Burke's praise for mediating social institutions like churches distinguishes him from Thomas Hobbes, who envisioned a powerful state that "monopolizes power for the sake of protecting individuals," and whose vision of human relationships went no farther than "contracts and legal relationships, period."That is true about Hobbes, and Weigel is quick to condemn contracts as a political metaphor. But he fails to read a little further into the Reflections on the Revolution in France, where Burke allows that, "Society is indeed a contract," but no mere ordinary contract. Instead, "the state ought... to be looked on with other reverence.... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection." In its most sacred sense, because "the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."This is not the contract that Hobbes had in mind. But it is "a contract." As "a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world," it must sound better to Weigel. But there is none of Weigel's dismissiveness about the state in Burke's description.George F. Will has spent four decades writing newspaper columns, but he has a doctoral degree in political philosophy from Princeton. In 1982, he wrote that, "It is perhaps marvelous that people who preach disdain for government can consider themselves the intellectual descendents of Burke, the author of a celebration of the state. But surely it is peculiar--worse, it is larcenous--for people to expropriate the name 'conservative' while remaining utterly unsympathetic to the central tenet of the greatest modern conservative."What was Burke's "central tenet?" Only that portion I quoted above, the partnership "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those to be born." Though churches and other social institutions play a vital role for Burke, they do not maintain that partnership. That is the role of the state.The long Christian political tradition that pre-dates Hobbes and Burke agrees. Both Christianity and the classical political tradition that influenced it saw political authority as that which makes life good and good life possible. That is a Catholic idea older than anything Weigel has mentioned. But it is not only a Catholic idea. Indeed, the idea of good kingship that inspired Hobbes to hope for a Leviathan only could have come from the historical influence of Roman Emperors and English kings. Burke had those same historical influences, by the way. That enables us to say--with distinguished scholars of Burke's work--that the affinity for subsidiarity didn't reach Burke by way of "the rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages." It came down from Aristotle and Cicero.

Pretty devastating. You can read the whole thing here. I must admit, after reading Millies, I was unable to take Weigels argument seriously on its own terms. And, in a certain sense, its too bad. There ought to be discussion of big ideas as the United States prepares for an important election. But this isnt one of them.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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